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Traditional Holiday Cookies
by: padre art
Traditional holiday cookies vary according to geography, historical traditions, religious strictures and availability of ingredients. Your family-favorite might seem exotic at a celebration half-a-world away.
Christmas comes to mind first when thinking of a celebration found almost anywhere on the planet, but in America the sweet biscuit is officially celebrated 10 months of each year.
You can find a complete year of festivities that celebrate cookies by scrolling to the bottom of this page.
Christmas Cookie, Biscuit, Cake or Cracker
Evidence has shown that our prehistoric ancestors were cooking a paste of grain and water on hot rocks 10,000 years ago. Like some modern holiday cookies these ancient cakes might even have been sweetened with honey.
In most English speaking countries the descendants of those finger-foods are called biscuits. In the United States there were early Dutch colonists that called their little cakes, 'koekje'. The informal version, 'koekie', eventually became the root form of the Early American term 'cookey'.
The terminology can get confusing with the Scottish 'cookie' being a simple bun, the British 'biscuit' is like the American cookie and in the U.S. the 'biscuit' is much like a scone. What ever country you travel to it is likely they will have a favorite name for their holiday cookies;
- Australia - biscuits
- Germany - keks
- Italy - amaretti
- Spain - galletas
The word biscuit is derived from the Latin term for 'twice baked', bis coctum. The twice-baked biscuits of the Roman were not unlike the unleavened biscuits that archeologists have found at a 6,000 year old site in Switzerland.
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Early Holiday Cookie Recipes
Spices, sugar and other ingredients along with different cooking techniques were introduced into the Mediterranean area of Europe from Arabia and the Orient no later than the 8th century AD. By the 1300's there were holiday cookie recipes using these exotic ingredients appearing in cookbooks and they rapidly spread throughout Europe.
Springerle - The anise flavoring of these round or rectangular cookies enhances the basic dough of this Christmas cookie made with flour, eggs and sugar. This holiday cookie recipe is traced to the Pagan Germans celebrating the midwinter festival, Julfest. The original animal sacrifice that occurred eventually became the symbolic sacrifice of wafers with animal designs stamped on them.
Pagan images and Christmas cookies with religiuos symbols were stamped on the Springerle dough using carved molds and rolling pins. This practice developed into the medieval German tradition of fancy and elaborate Christmas cookies that were often used as decorations.
Pizzelle - Another stamped cookie, the Pizzelle are thought to be made from the oldest holiday cookie recipe in Italy. The elaborate designs are stamped with metal molds that are often treasured family heirlooms passed along with their cookie recipe. These decorative Christmas cookies were originally used to festoon branches that were carried through the streets during the Festival of the Snakes, honoring the god Apollo.
Ladyfingers - This is one of those cookie recipes that has changed very little in a thousand years. Traced to the House of Savoy in medieval France, the Ladyfingers cookie recipe spread to the royal houses across Europe as a wedding gift from the offspring of Bertha Savoy to their regal spouses.
Macaroon - There are so many flavor variations to the macaroon that just about all they have in common is the crisp crust and soft interior. The coconut macaroon cookie recipes produce the most familiar flavor of this holiday cookie in America, but you can find chocolate, coffee or just about any spice flavor in these macaroon holiday cookies.
'Amaretti' is an Italian macaroon that is flavored with bitter almonds. It was created by Francesco Moriodo who was the pastry chef to the House of Savoy c.1650.
Biscochitos - This holiday cookie is made from a pie or pastry dough. The Biscochitos cookie recipe was brought to medieval Spain from Arabia then, in the 1500's, Spanish explorers brought these holiday cookies to Mexico and the rest of the New World. Though commonly found at the table during any festival they are often listed with other Christmas cookie recipes.
Rugelach - This is another cookie recipe with Persian roots that was introduced to Europe in medieval times. Rugelach is made with sour cream, fruits, nuts, jam and spice. Known as Kifli in Yugoslavia and called Kipfel by the Germans these cookies recipes become a happy tradition wherever they roam. This holiday cookie recipe was brought to the U.S. by immigrants from Hungary and nearby countries.
Langue de Chat - Flat and thin holiday cookies that are traditionally served with sweet treats, from desserts to sweet wines. The name translates as 'cat's tongue', suggested by the rounded ends of these cookies. Langue de chat are related to other shaped sweet biscuits like gemels and other holiday cookies related to Mexican Wedding Cakes/Russian Tea Cakes.
Bannocks, Oatcakes and Oatmeal Cookies
Bannocks are the ultimate holiday cookies. Different types of bannocks wwere baked for each Celtic festival, for marriages and births. There was even a special teething bannock baked for growing infants.
These oatcakes were made from oatmeal, salt, fat and water; then fried on a griddle to form a staple in the diet of the people living in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales during the Middle Ages.
Two exceptions to the usual bannocks cookie recipe are the sweet tea cakes, Pithcaithly Bannock and Selkirk Bannock, which are special holiday cookies.
Scottish Shortbread is the offspring of the sweet Bannocks. Although now made with wheat flour the first shortbread cookie recipes called for fine oatmeal. The Shetland and the Orkney Islands produce an appetizing variation of this holiday cookie called Bride’s Bonn that is made with a pinch of caraway seed.
The Scottish Shortbread, one of the oldest Christmas cookie recipes, became popular at New Year celebrations. This holiday cookie is baked in a large round with the edge pinched all around to represent the rays of the sun.
When made from those earliest shortbread cookie recipes calling for oatmeal instead of flour, the Scottish Shortbread was certainly the first oatmeal cookie. Adding raisins, spices and even nuts became a natural next step.
Explorers and immigrants from the British Isles brought these first cookie recipes to America in the 1600's.
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The First American
Christmas Cookie Recipes
The first American born author to publish a cookbook in the United States was Amelia Simmons. The cookbook came out in time for the colonists to enjoy her 'Christmas Cookey' recipe for the 1796 Yuletide;
To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter and one and half pound sugar,
Dissolve one tea spoonful of pearlath in a cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please,
Bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes;
Tho’ hard and dry at first, if put in an earthen pot and dry cellar or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.
They did not need preservatives but they did need to plan ahead if they wanted some Christmas cookies.
Nazareth Sugar Cookies - Nazareth, Pennsylvania was settled, c. 1750, by Lutheran immigrants from Germany. Their sugar cookie recipe is baked in the shape of Pennsylvania’s state symbol, the Keystone. There is a legislative battle going on in the state that pits this home grown holiday cookie against the chocolate chip cookie upstart. There is more on this in the chocolate chip cookie section.
When Martha Washington wrote her, "Booke of Cookery", she included a an interesting variation on the sugar cookie recipe by adding rosewater and butter washed in rosewater:
To Make Sugar Cakes
Take 3 ale quarts of fine flower & put to it a pound of sugar, beaten and seared.
4 yolks of eggs, strayned through a fine cloth with 12 or 13 spoonfulls of good thick cream & 5 or 6 spoonfulls of rosewater.
A pound & a quarter of butter, washt in rosewater & broaken cold in bits. Knead all these ingredients well together.
After, let ly a while, covered well, to rise. Then roule them out & cut them with a glass, & put them on plates (a little buttered) in an oven gently heat.
All these kinde of things are best when ye sugar & flower are dryed in an oven before you use ym.
Brownies - The first known brownie recipe was published in the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalog. The famous 1906 edition of Fannie Farmers work carried the first bar cookie recipes published in a cookbook. These holiday cookies are called 'tray bakes' by the British.
Peanut Butter Cookies - The brilliant scientist, George Washington Carver, provided three peanut cookie recipes in his 1916 research bulletin, "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption". His cookie recipes called for chopped peanuts as opposed to peanut butter. The peanut butter cookie recipe that has created a bit of mystery and tradition is found in "Balanced Recipes" by the Director of the Pillsbury Cooking Service, Mary Ellis Ames. The edition, published in 1933, was the first to direct the cook to roll enough dough for a cookie into a ball and to flatten the cookie dough with the tines of a fork.
People have been debating the reasoning ever since. Aside from the fact that the peanut butter cookie dough will not flatten out like the cookies do in other drop cookie recipes, the favored suggestion implies that the broken ridges give a crunchier crust to this holiday cookie.
Toll House Crunch Cookies - The very first chocolate chip cookie recipe was created in 1937 by Ruth Graves Wakefield. Ruth ran a restaurant situated in an old Massachusetts toll house built in 1709. She also made the desserts that the Toll House Restaurant became famous for.
Her most popular dessert was the Toll House Crunch Cookie which had broken bits from bars of cooking chocolate. This original chocolate chip cookie recipe was published in a Boston newspaper and went viral (for that era).
Americans have a passion for holiday cookies that has been demonstrated by local, state and federal legislatures. The chocolate chip cookie was happily adopted as the official cookie of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1997 when it was proposed by a class of local third graders.
Not so welcome was the 1996 suggestion, by a fourth grade class this time, that Pennsylvania claim the chocolate chip cookie as their own. The relative newcomer was up against an opponent that had been around for over 200 years, the Nazareth Sugar Cookie. This cookie recipe was a regional tradition and carries a lot of support to become the official state cookie. The battle rages on to this day.
Commercial Holiday Cookies
There are several cookie recipes that are commercially produced yet have become part of the American social fabric;
Fig Newtons - Originally called 'The Newton' when introduced in 1891 by the National Biscuit Company. The company got their cookie recipe right the first time and they have not changed the taste in over 100 years. Even the size and shapeof the cookie remain the same. This enduring cookie recipe is honored on January 16th, National Fig Newton Day (see below).
Fortune Cookies - It was early in the last century that Makota Hagiwara used a rice cookie recipe, 'tsjiura sembei', to make holiday cookies to wrap thank you notes in. His invention was a hit at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition held in San Francisco in 1915. These cookies are celebrated on July 20th, Fortune Cookie Day (see below).
This cookie recipe has actually aided a popular revolt and helped a dynasty to rise in China. Secret messages were placed inside a popular holiday cookie, called Moon Cakes, made of lotus nut paste. The creation of the Ming dynasty was coordinated by distributing the Moon Cakes throughout the occupied cities.
Animal Crackers - Imported from England in the 19th century these holiday cookies, known as fancy baked goods, were called 'Animals'. At the Centennial Exposition of 1886, held in Philadelphia, they were sold as Zoologicals, Animals and Menageries.
They became 'Barnum's Animals' in 1902, when they were sold as Christmas cookies, then the name changed to the familiar 'Barnum's Animal Crackers' in 1948.April 18th is officially National Animal Cracker Day (see below).
Christopher Morley the American humorist, poet, playwright and editor expressed the fond childhood memories of comfort foods with his poem, "Animal Crackers":
Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,
That is the best of suppers I think;
When I'm grownup and can have what I please
I think I shall always insist upon these.
What do YOU choose when you're offered a treat?
When Mother says, "What would you like best to eat?"
Is it waffles and syrup, or cinnamon toast?
It's cocoa and animals that I love most!
The kitchens the coziest place that I know;
The kettle is singing, the stove is aglow,
And there in the twilight, how jolly to see
The cocoa and animals waiting for me.
Daddy and Mother dine later in state,
With Mary to cook for them, Susan to wait;
But they don't have nearly as much fun as I
Who eat in the kitchen with Nurse standing by;
And Daddy once said he would like to be me
Having cocoa and animals once more for tea!
Find recipes for great holiday cookies like Easy Peanut Butter Cookies.
Here are the dates of the year-long love affair Americans have with holiday cookies.
12 - National Marzipan Day
16 - National Fig Newton Day
22 - National Blonde Brownie Day
8 - National Molasses Bar Day
18 - National Lacy Oatmeal Cookie Day
*The first week is National Chocolate Chip Cookie Week*
9 - National Chinese Almond Cookie Day
18 - National Animal Cracker Day
2 - National Chocolate Macaroon Day
5 - National Gingerbread Day
12 - National Peanut Butter Cookie Day
23 - National Pecan Sandy Day
3 - National Chocolate Wafer Day
5 - Graham Cracker Day
9 - National Sugar Cookie Day
20 - Fortune Cookie Day
*National Brownies At Brunch Month*
4 - National Chocolate Chip Day
10 - National S'Mores Day
*National Biscuit Month*
21 - National Pecan Cookie Day
*National Cookie Month*
*The first week is Cookie Cutter Week*
4 - National Cookie Day
8 - Brownie Day
18 - Bake Cookies Day
25 - Christmas Cookie Day