The earliest cookie-style cakes are thought to date back to 7th-century Persia, one of the first countries to cultivate sugar. Each country has its own word for "cookie." What we know as cookies are called biscuits in England; in Spain they're galletas, Germans call them keks, Italians have their biscotti, and so on. The very first cookie was the drop cookie—a small spoonful of cake batter, baked before the cake so that the cook could judge the oven temperature and the flavor and texture of the batter.
Throughout their history cookies have always played an important role in festive occasions—from christenings and weddings to Easter and Christmas. Whatever the occasion, cookies find a way in, undoubtedly because of their extraordinary diversity. They can be crisp and dainty, big and chewy, filled and frosted, and so it goes.
Most countries have several favorite traditional cookies, for example, the German lebkuchen, the Swedish spritz, the French Madeleine and our own chocolate chip cookies, to name a few. More often than not, they are made with some of the land's most basic and bountiful foods. For instance, oats are popular in Scottish cookies because wheat doesn't grow well in Scotland's climate, and oats have taken over as a major crop. Likewise, because the date palm is prolific in North Africa and many Middle Eastern countries, dates are often used in cookies from those areas.
Cookie cutters come in all sizes and shapes. Use sturdy, sharp-edged cutters and cut cookies close together.
Cookie molds and carved rolling pins are used to create design in some European cookies. Wooden molds, available in specialty shops, come in all sizes and shapes. The dough is pressed into the floured mold and leveled off. The mold is then inverted and tapped sharply on the back to release the molded cookie, for example, when making Scotch shortbread. Special carved rolling pins imprint a design when rolled across and pressed into a sheet of dough. The dough is then cut apart to form individual cookies, as when making German <I>springerle</I>.
Cookie presses (also called cookie "guns") are used to make Swedish spritz and other pressed cookies. They come with a selection of templates in various designs. A soft dough is spooned into the press, then pushed through the template to form a design.
Cookie stamps imprint a design on the dough's surface. A ridged or patterned meat tenderizing mallet will achieve the same effect.
Cookie irons are sometimes used to shape cookies. The rosettes and krumkake, French gaufrettes, Italian pizelle and the Dutch siroop wafel all belong to this category. Rosettes, the deep fried batter cookies, are produced with a rosette iron. The iron is preheated in hot oil, dipped in the cookie batter and plunged back into the oil until the cookies are golden. The other shaped cookies are all made in hinged waffle-type irons.
Pastry bags, used for piping cookies onto baking sheets, are cone-shaped bags with a large opening at one end (for spooning in dough) and a small opening at the other (for a decorative tip). They come in various sizes and are usually made of parchment or easy-to-clean vinyl.
Types of Cookies
Drop cookies. So called because the dough is "dropped" by spoonfuls onto baking sheets. They are generally old-fashioned, simple and homey creations such as oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip. They are probably the easiest of all cookies to make but, in fact, should not be dropped onto the cookie sheet. They should be carefully placed in mounds all the same size and as round and evenly shaped as possible. Try using a small ice cream scoop or two regular spoons, one for picking up the dough and another for pushing it off.
Bar cookies. The most versatile of all—they can be thin and crisp, soft and cakelike or thick and chewy. They can also be layered, such as a bottom layer of shortbread-like pastry, and any number of ingredients lavished over the top, such as coconut, nuts, citrus fillings, chocolate, jams, etc.
Brownies are the ultimate bar cookies and like some bar cookies may still look soft in the center at the end of the baking time but will become firm as they cool. Bar cookies are cooled and usually stored right in the pan. Most are cut after they have cooled—the exception is crisp-style bars, which are cut when warm (before they crisp) to prevent unsightly crumbling.
Hand-formed. Generally rich in butter, hand-formed cookies tend to be fancy, simply because there is so much you can do to the pliable doughs they are made from. Small portions of dough can be hand- formed into balls (like Mexican wedding cookies), crescents, braids, logs, rings, pretzels, etc. and then rolled in sugar or nuts before baking, filled with jam (like thumbprint cookies), flattened with fork tines in a crisscross pattern (like peanut butter cookies), etc. They are often time-consuming to shape, since each morsel of dough must be individually crafted. Some hand-formed cookies are shaped after baking, while they are still warm, such as pirouettes or fortune cookies. Refrigerator cookies are also considered to be hand- formed.
Specialty cookies. These cookies get their distinct, well-defined shapes from special tools. French Madeleines are baked in Madeleine plaques; spicy Dutch speculaas are pressed into carved wooden molds; Swedish spritz cookies are formed into wreaths, ribbons, rosettes and other shapes using a cookie press fitted with a decorative template; German springerle are formed using a special carved rolling pin. The dough is stamped with the design, cut out and then allowed to dry overnight to set the design before the cookies are baked.
Holiday cookies. Holidays are often celebrated with special cookies of their own. The Greek Easter cookies, koulourakia, for example, are one of the traditional foods used to break the Easter fast. Haman's Pockets (also known as Hamantaschen) are the traditional sweets of the festive Jewish holiday, Purim. In addition, as would be expected, the baking and sharing of Christmas cookies is an age-old custom in many countries through the world.
The custom of making colorful cookie houses and rings at holiday time is as widely enjoyed in Germany and Scandinavia as making gingerbread houses in the United States.
Knusperhaus: To form a Knusperhaus, a honey spice dough called lebkuchen is formed into cookies which are pressed onto an iced cardboard house.
Kransekake: Large cookies are layered in tiers to form a cookie ring held together with almond flavored icing and decorated with silver dragees.
Gingerbread House: Gingerbread is cut into pieces to form a house, which is held together with icing and finally decorated with candies.
8 oz. pitted dates
1C orange juice
2C rolled oats
1C unbleached all purpose flour
1C (packed) brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1-1/2 sticks + 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9" square baking pan. Combine the dates and orange juice in a small pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick—about 30 minutes.
Make the crust: In a food processor, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar and baking soda. Add the melted butter and pulse until moist and crumbly.
Press half the oat mixture evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan. Spread the date mixture on top and sprinkle with the remaining oat mixture, pressing it in to form a top crust.
Bake until nicely browned, 40-45 minutes. Let cool completely, then cut into 12 squares.
Makes: 12 bars.
Note: If you would like to turn this bar cookie into a dessert, bake in a 9" round pan as above, cut in wedges and served with sweetened whipped cream.
2-3/4C all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
1/2C walnuts, toasted in a 350F oven for 6 minutes
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1C apricot jam
1 egg, lightly beaten (to glaze)
Dough: In a bowl mix the flour, sugar and salt together. Beat the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy and beat in the vanilla and yolks. Gradually add the flour mixture until just combined. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead gently until the flour is incorporated and the dough is smooth. Halve the dough and form each piece into a disk. Wrap separately in plastic wrap and chill 2 hours.
Filling: In a food processor fitted with a metal blade pulse the walnuts, sugar and cinnamon until the walnuts are finely chopped. Transfer to a small bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one dough disk into a 14" round. Spread half the jam over the dough and sprinkle evenly with half of the walnut mixture. Using a pizza wheel or large knife cut the dough into 16 wedges. Starting at the wide end, roll up each wedge, jelly-roll fashion, ending with a pointed edge of wedge. Make 16 more rugelach in the same manner with the remaining dough and filling.
Arrange the rugelach, pointed edges down, 2" apart on lightly greased cookie sheets, and brush lightly with the egg. Bake in the middle of the oven until crisp and golden, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool.
Makes: 32 rugelach.
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