The History of the Christmas Cookie

HCG-cookies

When I think of Christmas it doesn’t take long for my mind to settle on cookies.  They were always a favorite thing to make at our house, using handed down recipes from grandmothers and aunts, my mother’s torn out recipes from the Woman’s Day and Family Circle Christmas Cookie editions magazines, and from recipes exchanged from other devout Christmas Cookie makers.  We’d work on them for weeks and weeks and store them snugly in Tupperware containers which we lined up on a long and large bar table in our family den.

Then we’d buy tins decorated with snowflakes and Santa Clauses, reindeer and Holly branches and fill them up with an abundant assortment of home-baked cookies and give them away as Christmas gifts to our teachers, friends, and family. Every year, we’d add a couple of new recipes and a couple of new recipients. Everyone looked forward to getting their tin each year.

By definition, a cookie can be any variety of flour-based sweet cakes, either crisp or soft that are easy to hold in your hand.  The name cookie derived from the Dutch word, koekie, which means small or little cake and each country has its own word for “cookie.” In America, we call our thin, sweet, small cakes, cookies.  But in England and Australia, they’re called biscuits. Spain calls them galletas, while Germans call their little Christmas desserts, keks or Platzchen.  Italy? There they have a couple of different names, including amaretti and biscotti.

But how and where did this American tradition of Christmas cookies begin? The earliest examples of Christmas cookies in the U.S. came from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Between 1871 and 1906, Germany began to export many affordable products to American markets, including a large selection of cookie-cutters. These imported cookies cutters came in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and patterns, including symbols of Christmas (stars, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, gingerbread men, trees, holly leaves, candy canes, and reindeer). Due to the availability of these cookie cutters, recipes began to appear in cookbooks and, well – the rest is history.

These were some of our favorites Christmas cookie recipes:

Springerle – Almost too pretty to eat, these were the Austrian Springerle cookies my grandmother made. After shaping, they usually have a picture or design pressed into the soft dough with specially carved rolling pins or cookie presses. The trick was to get them as white as possible so you could clearly see the imprinted designs. I always thought they looked much prettier than they tasted, at least according to my 10-year-old palate which passed them by for something sweeter and no so hard.

Sugar Cookies – These were so much fun to make as children with all the different cookie cutters and designs and then decorated with frosting and sprinkles.

Candy Cane Cookies – These were our favorites.  Simple sugar cookie recipe, with one half of the dough left plain and the other colored red.  You roll out one log of each and then twine them together to look like a candy cane.

Gingerbread – Cutting out Gingerbread men and women was always a hit.  Decorating them with piped snowy-white frosting dressed them up just right.  We used to make matching dogs to go with the Gingerbreads and oversized snowflakes with big, tin cookie cutters.

Spritz Cookies – Always fun and easy.  Just put it in the tube and spritz away.

Thumbprint Cookies – Round and yummy. Just take a teaspoon of dough, press your thumb in the middle and fill with your favorite jam.

Stained Glass Cookies – Sugar cookies made with melted life savers between two squares. So pretty!

Nut Balls – These were our favorites too – Ground almonds or walnuts in the dough and shaped into little balls or crescents and baked. Once cooled, you roll in confectioner sugar. (You know, because they weren’t sweet enough!)

Chocolate Chip – I don’t think I ever met someone who didn’t like a chocolate chip cookie. Did you?  Best when right out of the oven when soft with warm, melted chocolate.  These always had a hard time making it into the Tupperware containers. We were too busy eating them!

Over the years, as our experience as bakers improved, we’d try harder, more elaborate recipes, that tested and challenged our culinary talents –  but these still remain our favorites, as much for the memories attached to them as the taste.

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