Photo of ingredients used in baking, laid out on a counter. A wooden rolling pin and a roll of parchment, along with a few sheafs of wheat are on the left of the image, while a small mound of flour is next to 2 heart-shaped cookie cutters in the center. Four eggs are nearby, as well as walnuts and stick cinnamon.

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Delicious History

The best way to combat chilly temperatures just might be warm, freshly baked cookies. Between winter weather and the many holidays this month, it’s hard not to declare this time of year one long, delicious Cookie Season. And would that be such a bad thing?

Cookies are fanciful holiday gifts, comfort foods, after-school snacks, and breakfast-on-the-run (don’t judge). And the traditions around baking and giving these sugar-y treats are just as diverse. Whether participating in an office cookie exchange, gathering family and friends for “Cookie Day” baking, gifting that special teacher their favorite dozen, teaching children and grandchildren how to make the secret family chocolate chip cookie recipe, or creating cookie masterpieces just for yourself—cookies enjoy a long history and a special place in our hearts (and stomachs).


To celebrate the season, I’d like to tempt you with some sweet recipes from the past, including ones pulled from our History Colorado collections and the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection. They speak to times of ingredient shortages and rising food costs—something that resonates today—as well as times of plenty. And while this compilation is a mere glimpse into a fantastic cookie world, the recipes included here were undoubtedly created with purpose and love and represent decades of Colorado traditions.

Image of Christmas cookies laid out on a baking sheet. Some of the cookies are decorated with sprinkles or sugar balls, while others are still plain. This image is scanned from a historic newspaper article, and beneath the photo is the title, "Cookies Make Charming Christmas Gifts."
Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection.
Image of an advertisement in a historic newspaper, for ginger biscuits. The headline reads, "U-Need-A-Biscuit" and is promoted at the bottom of the image by the "Phoenix Market, JD McAdams, Proprietor."

Advertising ginger goodness in The Daily Journal (Telluride), January 8, 1910.

Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection.

 

GINGER GOODNESS

Gingery baked goods—perennial delights that have been around a very long time—are a good place for any aspiring baker to start. Whether or not your ginger snaps or gingerbread people are reserved for holiday treats or anytime comforts, there are a plethora of recipes to help you find the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.

Image of a page scanned from a cookbook dating to about 1926. The header at the top of the page reads, "Dr. Tilden's Cook Book" and the recipes listed include 2 recipes for Oatmeal Cookies, and a recipe for New Hampshire Filled Cookies.

Two oatmeal cookie recipes for the choosing from Dr. Tilden’s Practical Cook Book by John Henry Tilden, MD, about 1926.

History Colorado. 641.5 T453p

A CLASSIC TREAT

Some bakers reserve their extra-special recipes for the holidays, while others favor the tried-and-true. I don’t know about your family, but mine always appreciates having a go-to favorite among the more ornately-sprinkled, over-the-top offerings. With its origins dating back centuries as the Scottish Oatcake, the equally practical and delicious Oatmeal Cookie (with its endless combinations of chopped fruit, nuts, sweets, spices, and, yes, even sprinkles!) might just be the tortoise of the cookie races.

Image of a page from a historic cookbook, How We Cook in Colorado. The recipes included on this page are for Fruit Cookies, two recipes for "Doughnuts," Gingerbread Man Cookies, Butterscotch Squares, Walnut and Date Loaf Bars, and Date Bars.

From How We Cook in Colorado, a cookbook compiled by The Women’s Club of Hayden, 1931.

History Colorado. 641.5 W84h

FRUIT OR NUTS? OR BOTH? 

Bakers in the ancient Middle East are thought to be the first to add butter, eggs, fruit, honey, and other delightful additions to the hard savory biscuits people were eating at the time. Eventually these ingredients and cooking methods made their way to various parts of Europe, forever changing the humble cookie. With or without the dairy additions, fruit and nuts have been cookie staples ever since, adding color, texture, and flavor to the baked favorites—not to mention a nutritional boost as well.

UP FOR A CHALLENGE

Historic recipes abound in the collections, and trying them out can be at once curious and fantastic. For those of you brushing up for the “pre-industrial-revolution technical challenge” à la “The Great British Baking Show,” a “quick oven” or to “bake quickly” means to bake in an oven that is preheated to about 375 degrees F, just until golden. (You can find a very handy resource for historic recipe conversions here.)

If, however, you are game for the reality TV-worthy test, try Mrs. R.I. Porter’s cookie recipe below, and let us know how you fare.

Image of a scan of a cookie recipe from a 1930 cookbook. The recipe reads, in full: "Cookies. 4 eggs, 1 cup butter, 2 cups brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cream tartar, 1 teaspoon soda, Flour enough to roll."

From the cookbook of Mrs. R.I. Porter, 1930.

History Colorado. 641.5 P835c
Image of a newspaper article, featuring a recipe and illustration for Christmas cookies.

Palmer Lake-Monument News, 1968.

Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection.

 

FAMILY FAVORITES

The collections are a fantastic resource, whether you are trying to track down a long-lost family favorite like melt-in-your-mouth Mexican biscochitos or crispy anise-flavored Italian pizzelles, looking to brighten your baking repertoire with some traditional Scandinavian cookies, or learning more about thrifty cooks of years gone by.

AND, OF COURSE, CHOCOLATE

Sometimes, you just need chocolate. And this recipe easily checks that box.

 

Image of a recipe scanned from a cookbook in the History Colorado collection.

Another crowd pleaser from Across Colorado: Recipes and Recollections by the Volunteers of the Colorado Historical Society, 1997.

History Colorado, 641.9788 C714ac

GO FOR IT

As I was putting this article together, my daughter was inspired to grab the family cookbook from the shelf (compiled in 1980 by my great aunt Shirley Ann and complete with typed pages and tole painting on the cover, all of which she had done herself) and whip up a batch of Gum Drop Cookies. Without a full-color photograph or precise instructions, it was both a challenge and a fun adventure to create something that didn’t reveal the finished product. Once she let go of “baking the unknown,” she enjoyed the process and declared the cookies as a new favorite, saying: “I mean, how often do you get to have a cookie with actual gum drops in it?”

Image of a cookie recipe scanned from a cookbook. The recipe has been typed and there is a handwritten note on the page, denoting that the recipe came from  "Georgina D. Arthur (she was a good old scout) gave this to Gram. Cateress for Denver Womens Club."

From Great Aunt Shirley’s Our Family Faire, 1980.

Courtesy Lori Bailey

KEEP IT UP

While baking up historic recipes for the holidays (or any other time) may present its challenges, don’t get discouraged if your first attempts fall flat. As bakers know, there are a myriad of factors that can come into play, from egg size and measuring techniques to oven calibration. And baking at altitude can be tricky. 

And still, the efforts are well worth it. By spending time with recipes both handed down and recently discovered, we can make new connections or rekindle old ones with people and places that are important to us, even if we’re not side-by-side in the kitchen.

 

History Colorado’s collection includes fantastic cookbooks of all sorts, including the ones mentioned above. You can explore them for yourself at the Stephen H. Hart Research Center. Many thanks to research service assistant Cody Robinson for assistance in researching this article.

 

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