The name cookie is derived from the Dutch word koekje. The British call them biscuits, originating from the Latin bis coctum (sounds a bit risky) and translates as “twice baked”. (Not to be confused with “half-baked.”) Food historians seem to agree that cookies, or small cakes, were first used to test the temperature of an oven. A small spoonful of dough was dropped onto a baking sheet and placed in the hearth oven. If it went well, the heat was ready for the whole cake or bread. Bakers and cooks used this method for centuries, usually throwing out the test cake, until they finally realized something was missing.
Alexander the Great’s army took a stark biscuit shape in his many campaigns, gobbling them up as a quick pick-me-up after finding and looting cities in his path, around 327 B.C. As they were adopted by much of Europe, there are numerous documents that refer to what are now our modern cookies (but not Oreos). Fast forward to the 7th century. The Persians (now Iranians) grew sugar and began to create cakes and biscuit-like sweets. The Chinese, always trying to be first at the party, used honey and baked small cakes over an open fire in pots and small ovens. In the 16th century, the almond biscuit was created, sometimes replacing it with abundant nuts. Asian immigrants brought these cookies to the New World, joining our growing list of popular variations.
From the Middle East and the Mediterranean, this newly discovered concoction found its way to Spain during the Crusades, and as the spice trade increased, thanks to explorers like Marco Polo, tasty new versions were developed along with new cooking techniques. Once it arrived in France, we know how French bakers loved pastries and desserts. Biscuits were added to his growing repertoire, and by the end of the 14th century, small filled wafers could be bought on 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 excellent pastry chefs raised the bar with madeleines, macaroons, piroulines, and meringue topping the list.
Cookies (actually, little cookies) became the perfect travel food because they stayed fresh for long periods of time. For centuries, a “ship’s biscuit,” described by some as having an iron-like texture, was aboard any ship leaving port because it could last the entire voyage. (I wish you had strong teeth that would last too.)
It was only natural that early English, Scottish, and Dutch immigrants brought the first cookies to America. Our simple shortbread cookies are a lot like English tea cakes and Scottish shortbread. Colonial housewives prided themselves on their cookies, which were first called “basic cakes.” After all, the British had enjoyed afternoon tea with cookies and cakes for centuries. In early American cookbooks, cookies were relegated to the cake section and 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, the enthusiastic President Thomas Jefferson served up an abundance of cookies and tea cakes to his guests, both at Monticello and at the White House. Although he himself was more of a fan of ice cream and pudding, he enjoyed treating and impressing his guests with a wide variety of sweets. Subsequent presidents counted cookies as their favorite desserts, including Teddy Roosevelt, who loved Fat Rascals (would I make that up?), and James Monroe, who liked cry babies. Despite their unusual names, these two early recipes are basic treacle cookies, with candied fruits, raisins, and nuts. They still exist, we just don’t call them that anymore.
The brownies came about in a rather unusual way. In 1897, the Sears catalogue, Roebuck sold the first brownie mix, introducing Americans to one of their favorite cookie bars. Although most cooks still baked their own treats, they adapted the recipe with variations of nuts and flavorings. The 20th century gave way to whoopie pies, Oreos, snickerdoodles, butter, Toll House, gingersnaps, Fig Newtons, shortbread, and many others. And let’s not forget Girl Scout cookies, an American tradition since 1917, racking up more than $776 million in sales a year.
Americans buy more than $7.2 billion worth of cookies annually, clearly indicating a Cookie Monster nation. According to Best Ever Cookie Collection, here’s how the top brand names compare:
2. Nabisco Chips Ahoy
3. Nabisco Oreo Double Stuff
4. Pepperidge Farm Milan
5. Private Label Chocolate Chip
6. Little Debbie Nut Bar
7. Little Debbie Cream Oatmeal
8. Nabisco Chips Ahoy Chewy
9. Nabisco Nilla Vanilla Wafers
10. Private Label Sandwich Cookies