The name cookie is derived from the Dutch word koekje. The British call them biscuits, originating from the Latin bis coctum (sounds a little risque) and translates into “twice baked.” (Not to be confused with “half baked.”) Food historians seem to agree that cookies, or little cakes, were first used to test the temperature of an oven. A small spoonful of batter was dropped onto a baking pan and placed into the hearth oven. If it came out properly, the heat was ready for the whole cake or bread. Bakers and cooks used this method for centuries, usually tossing out the test cake, until they finally figured out they might be missing something.
Alexander the Great’s army took a crude form of cookie on their many campaigns, gobbling them as a quick pick-me-up after trouncing and pillaging cities in their path, around the year 327 BC. As they became embraced by much of Europe, there are numerous documents referring to what is now our modern cookies (but no Oreos). Fast forward to the seventh century. Persians (now Iranians) cultivated sugar and began creating pastries and cookie-type sweets. The Chinese, always trying to be first to the party, used honey and baked small cakes over an open fire in pots and small ovens. In the sixteenth century they created the almond cookie, sometimes substituting abundant walnuts. Asian immigrants brought these cookies to the New World, and they joined our growing list of popular variations.
From the Middle East and the Mediterranean, this newfound concoction found its way into Spain during the Crusades, and as the spice trade increased, thanks to explorers like Marco Polo, new and flavorful versions developed along with new baking techniques. Once it hit France, well, we know how French bakers loved pastries and desserts. Cookies were added to their growing repertoire, and by the end of the 14th century, one could buy small filled wafers throughout the streets of Paris. Recipes began to appear in Renaissance cookbooks. Most were simple creations made with butter or lard, honey or molasses, sometimes adding nuts and raisins. But when it comes to food, simple is not in the French language, so their fine pastry chefs raised the bar with Madeleines, macaroons, piroulines and meringue topping the list.
Biscuits (actually hardtack) became the perfect traveling food, because they stayed fresh for long periods. For centuries, a “ship’s biscuit,” which some described as an iron-like texture, was aboard any ship that left port because it could last for the entire voyage. (Hopefully you had strong teeth that would also last.)
It was only natural that early English, Scottish and Dutch immigrants brought the first cookies to America. Our simple butter cookies strongly resemble English teacakes and Scottish shortbread. Colonial housewives took great pride in their cookies, which were first called “basic cakes.” After all, the Brits had been enjoying afternoon tea with biscuits and cakes for centuries. In the early American cookbooks, cookies were relegated to the cake section and were called Plunkets, Jumbles and Cry Babies. All three were your basic sugar or molasses cookies, but no one seems to know where those names originated. Certainly not to be left out of the mix, foodie president Thomas Jefferson served no shortage of cookies and tea cakes to his guests, both at Monticello and the White House. Although more of an ice cream and pudding fan himself, he enjoyed treating and impressing his guests with a vast array of sweets. Later presidents counted cookies as their favorite desserts, among them Teddy Roosevelt, who loved Fat Rascals (would I make that up?), and James Monroe, who had a yen for Cry Babies. In spite of their unusual names, both of these early recipes are basic molasses drop cookies, with candied fruits, raisins and nuts. They’re still around, we just don’t call them that anymore.
Brownies came about in a rather unusual way. In 1897, the Sears, Roebuck catalog sold the first brownie mix, introducing Americans to one of their favorite bar cookies. Although most cooks still baked their own sweets, they adapted the recipe with variations of nuts and flavorings.The twentieth century gave way to whoopie pies, Oreos, snickerdoodles, butter, Toll House, gingersnaps, Fig Newtons, shortbread, and countless others. And let’s not forget Girl Scout Cookies, an American tradition since 1917, racking up over $776 million in sales annually.
Americans purchase over $7.2 billion worth of cookies annually, which clearly indicates a Cookie Monster nation. According to Best Ever Cookie Collection, here’s how the top commercial brands stack up:
1. Nabisco Oreo
2. Nabisco Chips Ahoy
3. Nabisco Oreo Double Stuff
4. Pepperidge Farm Milano
5. Private Label Chocolate Chip
6. Little Debbie Nutty Bar
7. Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream
8. Nabisco Chips Ahoy Chewy
9. Nabisco Nilla Vanilla Wafers
10. Private Label Sandwich Cookies