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The Humble Cookie

December 12, 2012


Ah the humble cookie. There's a universal understanding that consumption of a cookie requires no shame. Sure, you can down a full bag of potato chips but there's a risk that you'll end up covered in a crude mixture of grease and tears. With cookies, you're allowed, and in some cultures encouraged, to douse yourself in crumbs, mash your Oreos to a pulp and graze the dessert table like a bovine to grass.

Nothing really tops a warm, gooey [insert your favorite cookie here] fresh out of the oven - but where does the humble cookie come from? Why is a small disk of flour, sugar and fat so damn enjoyable? When did this tiny cake become the keystone of holiday tradition? We'll explore here:

Although the exact origin of the cookie is unknown, some of the earliest records date back to Persia (now Iran) during the 7th century BC where cookies were used as test cakes to gauge the temperature of primitive ovens. Fun fact - Persia was one of the first countries to process sugar for consumption. The cookie may have been created as far back as the Neolithic period for farmers to stave off hunger.

As a virtually water-free, portable source of carbohydrates, cookies, or biscuits (originating from the Latin "bis coctus" or "twice-baked"), were necessary sources of nourishment during travel for sailors, warriors and nomads. Back in those days you could probably tile your floor with these suckers, earning them the nickname "hardtacks." Epic biscotti quest anyone?

The biscuit found its way over to Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars and throughout Europe during the Crusades and the Muslim conquest of Spain.  In 14th century Europe, baking became a highly regulated profession and the cookie, a legitimate dessert item. The biscuit transformed into the cookie, originating from the Dutch word "koeptje" or "little cake," in the 17th century during the early English, Scotch and Dutch migration to the Americas.

So, why are cookies so addictive? For that we turn to a little biology and chemistry. In order to create a light, fluffy cake a certain amount of moisture, in the form of water, and leavening, in the form of yeasts or sodas, has to be present.  Water converts to gas at a lower temperature than oils and fats creating tiny, fluffy pockets of air. Yeast cakes contain a single-celled organism that releases gas as a byproduct of sugar consumption, creating rise. (Sugar can also be converted into alcohols - think beer fermentation, but that's another story). Baking soda, when mixed with an acidic ingredient like milk, creates carbon dioxide. Cookies contain a very small proportion of these ingredients, resulting in a denser cake.

So what does that mean to you? Humans are hardwired to find calorie dense, fatty foods the most desirable. Why? Because at one point we actually needed the fuel to forage, hunt and survive. While technology has changed to make our lives easier and more convenient, our brains haven't evolved to meet the lower caloric needs of our body. So, buttery cookies, dripping BACON, crispy, deep fried chicken and the like are still heavenly to our ancient tongues. So why break tradition now?

Speaking of tradition, why are cookies so popular during the holidays? Like buche de noels, fruit cakes and panettones, holiday cookies are deep-rooted in tradition. Historically, sugar was very expensive and was incorporated into dishes destined to mark special occasions, provide offerings to deities and celebrate holidays. In Bavaria and Austria for example, springerle, or anise-flavored biscuits, were offered up to the gods as a sacrifice in place of expensive meats (this just got real serious didn't it?).  

Traditional spiced cookies were created in Germany as lebkuchen and Sweden as pepparkakor, aka ginger snaps (a favorite in the White House),  among others. The cookie cutter came into play back in 2000 BC in the form of wooden or ceramic molds. A more modern version of the gingerbread man cookie cutter was developed for Queen Elizabeth I to both mimic and honor her more-valued guests, this tradition still lives on, eerily accurate in some forms, today. During the advent of the industrial revolution, cookie cutters were mass-produced from tin, creating a cookie cutter style still used to stamp out Christmas trees, dreidels and Santa today.

The tradition of leaving cookies out for Santa originated in Western Germany as a medieval custom. A Christmas tree originally held ornaments made of apples and cookies. Children would take bites from the low-hanging treats bringing about a rumor, for those who were particularly superstitious, that Santa was snacking on the trimmings. Mice had a tendency to munch on the confections leading people to place cookies by the fire instead to ward off the hungry rodents.

Here are some more fun facts about this binge-worthy snack:

  •     The average person eats about 35,000 cookies in their lifetime.
  •     Sugar plums aren't actually made of plums - the Nutcracker is a sham!
  •     The origin of the HTTP cookie, a piece of data harvested from a web site and stored in the user's browser, was borrowed from the term "magic cookie," the name for a packet of data a program receives and sends unchanged.
  •     The first commercially-produced cookie in the US was the Animal Cracker.
  •     The first girl scout recipe was a sugar cookie (grossly outdone by samoas and thin mints in later years).
  •     The idea for fortune cookies was inspired by a practice during the 12th century when Chinese soldiers hid rice paper messages in moon cakes to coordinate defense.
  •     George Washington Carver, who is credited in making loads of, not necessarily developing, peanut butter, created three recipes for peanut butter cookies in his 1916 research bulletin, "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 ways of preparing it." Former President Jimmy Carter had a famous peanut butter cookie recipe.
  •     Chocolate chip cookies were invented at the Toll House Restaurant of Whitman, MA in 1937 after a baker ran out of nuts for her cookies. She substituted them with bakers chocolate. They were an instant hit, naturally.

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