Cookies have an unusual origin: they were invented as a way to test the temperature of an oven, back when ovens were wood-heated and had no thermostats. Dropping a little bit of cake batter into a hot oven would tell a baker if the oven was at the proper temperature for baking a cake. Fittingly, the word “cookie” comes from the Dutch word koekje, meaning “little cake.” Of course, nowadays we enjoy cookies as a unique delicacy, hardly associating them with their larger and fluffier baked cousins.
According to the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, more than 90% of home bakers bake cookies. As a culture very familiar with cookies, we know ’em when we see ’em, right? In researching this article, I’ve learned that cookies are surprisingly difficult to define when you actually get down to it. Some things are very obviously cookies (chocolate chip!), but things get fuzzy near the outer bounds of cookiedom. For example, many resources refer to brownies as a type of “bar cookie,” but an informal poll showed that nobody I know (not necessarily a representative population sample) thinks a brownie is a type of cookie. Meanwhile, opinions were more split on whoopie pies, which have the form of a sandwich cookie (with frosting in the middle of two round layers) but are made from cake batter. Black & white cookies also inhabit the border between cookie and cake; according to Smitten Kitchen, “Back in the day, black & white cookies were actually made by bakeries from their leftover cake batters, with just a little extra flour mixed in so the cookie didn’t spread all over the place.” (http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2008/09/black-and-white-cookies/) Sounds strikingly similar to the original definition of a cookie, doesn’t it?
Even if we all could all agree on what a cookie is, there would exist more types of cookies than I could possibly write about in the space available here. But there are a handful of distinct varieties of cookies we’ll explore, many of which are likely to be familiar to you, though I hope some of them will be new discoveries. Wikipedia identifies nine main categories of cookies; here’s a quick overview of each of them.
These cookies are baked in a pan and then cut into squares or rectangles. Brownies are a major example. Although many people do not consider brownies or other bars to be cookies, but rather a separate category of confection, this category is listed in enough resources I found about cookies that I’m including it here. Brownies are delicious, in any case.
Drop cookies are so named because they are dropped from spoons onto a cookie sheet (or scooped with a spring-loaded scoop as with ice cream). Chocolate chip is a classic example of a drop cookie. An aside: as ubiquitous as the chocolate chip cookie now is (according to King Arthur Flour, 80% of cookies baked at home are chocolate chip), it is relatively new. Ruth Wakefield of The Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, invented them in the 1930s. Before these exploded onto the American cookie scene, molasses cookies were the classic New England cookie, mentioned in print as early as 1830 (King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, p. 85).
Filled cookies consist of a dough that is rolled out, with a filling (often fruit) added before baking. Hamantashen are an example of a filled cookie.
Molded cookies are made from stiff dough and formed by hand. Snickerdoodles can be made this way. Biscotti is another example, which is formed and then cut into its final shape.
Instead of being baked, these cookies are made from a filling and a binder that cools and sets up. Rum balls are a common example.
Pressed cookies are a category of cookie made with a special device called a cookie press or cookie gun that lets you extrude dough through an opening. Sprintzgebäck is a classic cookie made with a press.
Refrigerator or icebox cookies are made from a dough that is then refrigerated to become stiffer, usually in a log shape that is later cut. This is a good way to make pinwheel or checkerboard cookies. The dough is often a buttery sugar cookie-style dough.
Rolled cookies are made from a dough that’s rolled thin and cut with a cookie cutter, such as gingerbread people.
Sandwich cookies are an assembly of two cookies with a filling, like Oreos.
Some consider a whoopie pie to be a type of sandwich cookie, though the batter is more of a cake batter than a cookie dough.
Within any category of cookie, everyone has their favorite type. Some people like thin and crispy chocolate chip cookies, while some prefer chewy, and others prefer fluffy. You might wonder how the various ingredients in a cookie interact to create different textures (and flavors). The blog Handle the Heat published an article comparing chocolate chip cookies made with various tweaks to the recipe, accompanied by a very helpful and widely shared image of all the cookies side-by-side. For the thorough blog post, including many photos, check out www.handletheheat.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-chocolate-chip-cookies/.
Baking Cookies: Some Recipes
Get out your cookie sheets! It’s time for some recipes. If baking isn’t your jam, skip past this section and read on to learn more about cookies you can buy.
Are cookies always sweet? We tend to think of them that way, but there are exceptions. These salt-and-pepper cookies have no sugar at all (The Cookiepedia: Mixing, Baking, and Reinventing the Classics by Stacy Adimando).
- Salt-and-Pepper Cookies
- 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 c. cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 t kosher salt, plus more for topping
- 1 1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper, plus more for topping
- 1 tsp. lemon zest
- 1 egg
Directions: Whir the flour and butter together in a food processor until they form fine crumbs. Add the salt, cracked pepper, and lemon zest and zap again to combine. Add the egg and blend until the dough starts to come together.
Roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Using a round cookie cutter or biscuit cutter to a size of your liking (don’t go any bigger than 1 3/4 inches around), cut out the coins and place them on sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart.
Brush the cookies with a little egg white and sprinkle the cracked peppercorns and salt on top. Go easy on the extra! It’s mostly for decoration—the cookies are plenty flavorful without it.
Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the cookies start to take on a lovely golden color. Let cool.
Want to try your hand at an archaic cookie recipe? See the modern interpretation of the recipe below the original.
Originally from the 1596 cookbook Goode Huswife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson, I found this recipe online at http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CookieHistory.htm, which explains, “This is a square short-cookie enriched with egg yolks and spices, baked on parchment paper.”
“To make Fine Cakes: Take fine flowre and good Damaske water you must have no other liqueur but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of eggs and a good quantity of Suger, and a few cloves, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serve him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a spoonful if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke unto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your oven be well swept and lay them uppon papers and so set them into the oven. Do not burne them if they be three or foure days olde they bee the better.”
- 3 Tbs. butter, softened
- 1/4 heaping cup sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp. hartshorn or baker’s ammonia, dissolved in 1 tsp. of hot water [Lucy’s note: or, try 1/2tsp. baking powder + 1/2 tsp. baking soda]
- 1 Tbs. rosewater
- 1/4 tsp. each salt, cloves and mace
- pinch saffron
- 1 1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Directions: Cream together the butter and sugar until smooth; beat in the egg yolks. Blend in the dissolved hartshorn or ammonia and the rosewater, then the salt and spices. Stir in the flour and work until a ball of dough is formed. Knead gently until smooth, working in more flour if necessary.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a 1/4” thickness. With a floured butter knife, cut the dough into small squares or rectangles. Make decorative vent holes on the cakes by pricking with a fork, then place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake in a preheated 300°F oven for 14-15 minutes until just done. Be sure that they do not brown on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.
There are several categories of cookie icings that you might find useful in your baking, particularly if you’re decorating for a holiday.
Simple Powdered Sugar Icing
This is a great icing option if you will not need to transport or store your cookies. It is the simplest recipe to put together, with the fewest ingredients. However, it does not fully harden. It will partially harden after sitting for some amount of time, but if it touches another cookie or the container it’s in, the icing will smear or become dented.
Powdered Sugar Icing that Hardens
This is how to doctor your powdered sugar icing to get it to harden, and quite effectively. The secret ingredient is a small amount of corn syrup, traditionally—though brown rice syrup has proven an effective substitute in the Co-op’s Production Kitchen. Ratios vary in recipes I’ve seen, anywhere from 1 teaspoon to 2 or more tablespoons of syrup per cup of powdered sugar (in addition to the other liquid in the recipe). I recommend experimenting with different amounts, or sticking to the middle of the range if you are short on time.
Royal icing is a traditional recipe using egg whites to help it harden. If you are concerned about raw egg whites, there are recipes that call for meringue powder or pasteurized egg whites instead. Since royal icing is easier to make into a stiff consistency than powdered sugar icing, you may find that it’s a good choice for detail work.
Fondant is most often seen in wedding cake decorations. It’s the very stiff, very smooth covering that makes wedding cakes look flawless, though many people are not a huge fan of the taste. You can buy pre-made fondant, or you can make it yourself (perhaps for a better flavor). Because it’s so stiff, and gets rolled out in sheets, the process of topping cookies with it is simple: just use a cookie cutter slightly smaller than the one you used for cookies to cut out the same shape. There are multiple ways you can affix the fondant shape to the top of the cookies,but the favorite one I found (from several sources) is simply to have the fondant shapes all cut out and ready to go before your cookies come out of the oven, and immediately place them on top of the still-warm cookies; the heat of the cookie will slightly melt the bottom of the fondant shape, attaching it to the cookie. If you have an enormous number of cookies to do, such that they’ll cool before you finish, you might want to instead try another method, such as brushing the top of each cooled cookie lightly with water, or adding a dab of corn/brown rice syrup to the center of the cookie before placing the fondant shape on top.
Gel paste food coloring works best for icings. Though you can use liquid food coloring, it will thin the icing somewhat and might affect how quickly or effectively it hardens.
Chocolate is always a popular choice for decorating cookies. This can be as simple as melting chocolate and dipping each cookie in it by hand, though some chocolate won’t thin out enough (even when fully melted) to create a thin, even coating. If your chocolate seems thick even after melting, try stirring in a small amount of vegetable oil. The website Dip it in Chocolate has a thorough overview of information about dipping anything in chocolate. Check out the sections “Working with Chocolate” and “Tips and Tricks” at http://www.dipitinchocolate.net/.
If your cookies somehow survive the first thirty minutes after they come out of the oven and you’re looking to store them, here are some tips.
- Cool completely before storing. Otherwise, cookies can become soggy when in a closed container.
- Put a piece of wax or parchment paper between each layer so cookies don’t stick together.
- Keep soft and crispy cookie types separate; storing them together can make the crispy ones soft.
- To keep soft cookies soft, put an apple wedge or slice of sandwich bread in the container. It will transfer its moisture to the cookies.
If you are an avid cookie consumer but not a baker, never fear: I’m also ready to guide you through some excellent Willy Street Co-op cookie options. At our Production Kitchen, we bake a huge number of cookies every day. As you might suspect, some of the most popular types are chocolate chip cookies—which we have in classic, vegan, or gluten-free varieties. Cowgirls are another variation on chocolate chip cookies that are vegan and whole grain, and contain extra special touches like maple syrup, shredded coconut, and oats. There are also some unusual specialty cookies we offer, varying seasonally throughout the year, which may include toffee cookies, rosemary polenta cookies, and gingersnaps. Some popular offerings by other companies on the Co-op shelves include Newman’s Own Organic Newman-O’s and Udi’s cookies.
If you’re looking for more information about baking cookies, the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion is fantastic. It contains a fairly extensive “Getting Started” section with lots of good information on cookie-mixing techniques, how to test for doneness, and equipment recommendations. I’m choosing this as my recommended book not just for the recipes, but for all of the focus on technique.