A Christmas Cookey

Amelia Simmons’ 1796 cookbook American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American to be published in the United States, was also one of the first English-language cookbooks to use the word “cookie.” While British cookbooks used the terms “small cakes” or “biscuits,” in America the word “cookie,” derived from the Dutch word “koekje,” came to be used instead.

Amelia Simmons’ book is also one of the first to call for pearl ash, a leavening agent actually made from ashes. It is also called potash or pottasche and is still used today in German baking; I used some recently to make Lebkuchen, so I had it on hand. I tested this recipe both with pottasche and with the modern substitute of baking powder. The baking powder cookies rose slightly more and were slightly lighter in color than the pottasche cookies; otherwise the taste and texture were similar.

Christmas Cookey (one sixth of original recipe)

  • 8 ounces flour
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • pinch of salt (optional)
  • 2.7 ounces butter
  • 4 ounces sugar
  • 1/2 tsp pottasche (or 2 tsp baking powder)
  • 2-5 tablespoons milk
  1. Mix the ground coriander with the flour.
  2. Rub the butter into the flour mixture, then stir in the sugar.
  3. Dissolve the pottasche in 2 tablespoons of milk, then add it to the flour mixture.
  4. Knead until a dough forms, adding more milk if the mixture is too dry.
  5. Roll out 3/4 of an inch thick and cut in any shape you like.
  6. Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes.
The cookies made with baking powder are at the top and the cookies made with pottasche are at the bottom in this picture. The pottasche cookies came out slightly darker.

Tasting notes:

I absolutely love the coriander in these cookies. Amelia Simmons gives the amounts of both coriander and milk as one teacup; while teacups varied in size during the 18th century just as they do today, I went with an average teacup-sized amount of 6 ounces, or 2 tablespoons in my reduced version of the recipe. This seemed like the right amount of ground coriander but was definitely not enough milk. I ended up having to add an additional 3 tablespoons of milk to form a dough.

I attempted to stamp my cookies with a decorative cookie stamp, since the recipe directs you to “cut or stamp into shape and size you please.” Unfortunately, the stamped design didn’t show up very well on the finished cookies. I did try refrigerating a batch for about an hour after stamping them and the designs held up slightly better on those; still, it seems like these cookies would work best cut in decorative shapes rather than stamped.

At the end of the recipe, Amelia Simmons writes that the cookies, “tho’ hard and dry at first, if put into an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” Much like other historic cookies such as Springerle, it sounds like these cookies are intended to be made ahead and keep for a long time. They are a bit dry when first made, but are still perfectly edible; I’ll have to save a few and try them again in six months to see what happens! If they really are better after six months, then I might have to start doing my Christmas baking in July.

References:

Ayto, John. (2012). Cookie. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simmons, A. (1796). American cookery. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin. https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2015amimp26967/?sp=39&st=image

Stavely, K., & Fitzgerald, K. (2017). United tastes: The making of the first American cookbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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