A Brief History of Cookies

Written 03 Aug, 2011 by Alan Lopez 0

Cookies were first made after sugar became available as a baking ingredient about 1400 years ago.(1) They were an enhancement to grain and water based breads made as early as 10,000 years ago. Persian bakers added sugar to bread recipes to create sweet cakes that baked in a clay oven fueled by dry wood fires. Because it was hard to estimate baking temperatures in that kind of oven, small amounts of cake batter, placed inside at intervals, determined the best time to start cooking the full-sized cakes. Eventually, those small "test" cakes became a delicacy in their own right, and today we know them as cookies, the Dutch word for "little cake."

The earliest cookie recipes made use of sweet cake ingredients such as flour, sugar, butter, spice and nuts. Baked twice to make a crisp biscotti cookie; they kept well for a long time. Dried fruit embellishments such as raisins and dates made these treats quite nourishing, and they soon ended up as a staple for sailors, nomadic traders, and soldiers. Today, these same ingredients, used in a centuries-old biscotti recipe, (2) can inspire families and motivate kids to meet goals through success-oriented activities such as cookie dough fundraising projects. Otis Spunkmeyer Butter Sugar Cookie dough makes a fast and easy starter for hand-shaped and cutter-shaped cookies that make a great family project.

While you wait for your history-making cookies to bake, you can entertain the kids by sharing stories about different types of cookies from around the world, exploring how cookies have changed in each place over the centuries. After cakes became widespread in Persia they caught the eye of soldiers in the armies of Alexander the Great, and were soon brought back with them to Greece. From there, the idea of making small cakes into cookies spread to India, Asia, Africa and the rest of Europe. By the end of the 16th century, individual "fine cake" cookie recipes began making their way into the bread section of nationally representative cookbooks. Early explorers from Spain and France were instrumental to introducing cookies to South America, and pioneers from the Netherlands, Scotland and England made sure that cookie recipes became a part of North American colonial history.

When more exotic cookie ingredients, such as flaked coconut and chocolate, became available through international trade, the range of cookie types quickly expanded. In addition, with new recipes came novel ways for shaping cookies into fanciful and remarkable designs. One unique style we are all familiar with is the fortune cookie. Contrary to popular belief, this cookie actually originated in Japan, and it is often made by combining those same ancient ingredients in a slightly different way. For your next culinary adventure with the kids, you may want to visit the makefortunecookies.com site for simple instructions and printable fortunes. Another site that can take you through a world of food history ishttp://www.foodtimeline.org/index.html, with more specific resource links and detailed information in their section about cookies at http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcookies.html.

Familiarize your kids with the history of cookie stamps, molds and cutters used to decorate cookies from the time they were first invented. Carved into ceramics and wood, or fashioned from metal, they often carried family, clan or country emblems handed down through generations. Many examples still exist as collectible antiques, and illustrated designs are searchable online. You can reproduce those patterns, or invent your own, by crafting clay or rubber stamps to press on your cookie dough. Simple, iconic shapes are popular, such as a thistle outline to represent Scotland, or a family name carved into an heirloom cookie press.

Cookies are so beloved in modern history that most home cooks include them in their repertoire. More than half of the cookies baked at home are chocolate chip cookies. The chocolate chip cookie was invented in 1930 at the Toll House Inn by Ruth Graves Wakefield, resulted when she chopped a semi-sweet chocolate bar into small bits and added it to a traditional colonial butter drop cookie recipe. As a result, the chocolate chip cookie became regionally famous and later renowned throughout the country. In 1997, Massachusetts designated it as the state cookie.

To add some online fun to your children's historical cookie learning experiences, take a visit to sites on the internet that combine virtual cookie cutting and baking with math and time management skills. Young kids will enjoy imprinting cookie cutter shapes at http://www.addictinggames.com/puzzle-games/cookiecuttertwisted.jsp. Older children who like time management games can try their hand at virtual cookie making at http://www.gamesgames.com/game/Saras-Cooking-Class-Sugar-Cookies.html. They can also bake the full cookie recipe included with the game in your own kitchen. Teaching kids to love math and fractions is much easier with a game that explores how to divide a limited amount of cookies between a number of friends athttp://www.teacherlink.org/content/math/interactive/flash/kidsandcookies/kidcookie.php.

Whatever path you take to research historical and cultural timelines to inspire your cookie dough fundraising project, each journey can become a shared adventure for you and your children. Find out about crops domesticated for use as ancient cookie ingredients, how technology evolved to bake these delicacies, and where a particular region's cookie knowledge spread to another. Like the inventiveness displayed in each region that adapted cookies to their own tastes and cooking techniques, you and your children can also leave your own unique and indelible impression on cookies of the future.


(1) Cookies and Crackers, Time/Life Books, 1982, page 5.

(2) Pellegrino Artusi, The Art of Eating Well, Random House, 1996.

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