An annual tradition for many – the making of sugar cookies – has become like most things oft repeated, more of an obligation than a treat. Coupled with the fact that many consider the sugar cookie to be nothing more than the uninspired stepbrother of the chocolate chip cookie, we use them more as a vehicle for ingesting buttercream or a creative outlet. Lacking the interest to really make sugar cookies well, but unable to let go of the nostalgia they hold, we continue on like Sisyphus in our eternal struggle.

The Origin of Cookies

Though simple, the sugar cookie has fiercely held on to its place in the culinary world, through ups and downs that would have surely taken a lesser confection out long ago. Dating as far back as the 7th century, the ancient ancestor of the cookie emerged shortly after the commercial cultivation of sugar in Southeast Asia.

Originally cookies were nothing more than a product of unregulated kitchen equipment. It was a common practice when wood ovens were still in use, to bake a small amount of cake batter prior to baking a cake. This allowed the baker to be sure he had achieved the right temperature before placing his whole cake in the oven and potentially ruining it.

Probably the brainchild of some thrifty baker unwilling to continue throwing away “test cakes”, cookies became a category all their own. From those original cakes, a whole world of cookie creations were born: gingerbread, Shrewsbury cakes, and Springerle. Some were heavily spiced, studded with candied fruit, or stuffed with jams. There were hard cookies, and soft cookies, intricately decorated and exotically flavored. Some say that all of these should be considered the forbearers of the sugar cookie. When we look at the details, we see sugar cookies made a distinct way for themselves, not because of these other cookies, but in defiance of them.

You’re Not My Mommy

Some say jumbals (there is a multitude of divergent spellings for this)  were the closest thing our ancestors had to the modern sugar cookie. A simple amalgam, the ingredients of the jumbal were not far off from the sugar cookie, but these jumbals were intricately braided and knotted into designs before being boiled. This made them more akin to a bagel or a pretzel than a cookie, so I discard that theory.

The First “Real” Sugar Cookie

The first real sugar cookie doesn’t emerge until the 1700’s. Created by Dutch settlers in New York, and referred to as a koekje, this was the first cookie to use an alkaline leavener known as “pearl ash”, and was the real catalyst in the creation of today’s modern cookie. But the koekje still had far to go. The introduction of these instant leaveners allowed bakers to leave out the only things that really make cookies good. Completely eliminating eggs, and using scant amounts of butter, these cookies were baked until quite hard and were not very sweet.  In fact, they were pronounced to be better after six months of aging in the cellar. Cookies then were prized for their shelf life and economy over their texture and flavor.

Skimming off the Scum

America’s first cookbook, American Cookery written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796, contains the first written recipe and set of instructions for the sugar cookie. Dubbed simply “Cookies” it is wedged firmly in the center of her chapter on cakes and begins with a command to “skim the scum from off the sugar” before moving on with the recipe. “Sugar scum” was a real and present danger in those days and yet another perfect example of why we should not romanticize the past.

Cookies, It’s What’s for Dinner

Not very tasty, people began to use sugar cookies for purposes other than sustenance. Durable and cheap, sugar cookies started being used as decorations during the Christmas holidays and for a while fell by the wayside as tastier sweets gained prominence. The puritanical notions of the Victorian era breathed new life into the sugar cookie. With spices considered overly exciting, and potentially immoral, the plain sugar cookie took back its place on pantry shelves. Still cheap to make and by the standards of the day considered rather nutritious, it was not unusual to see mothers serve their children cookies for dinner.

As the Victorian mindset began to fade and commercially processed cookies became more prominent, a new interest in making them taste good emerged. By the 1930’s we see a much richer sugar cookie with eggs, more butter, and the new addition of vanilla. Suddenly sugar cookies became desirable and were no longer relegated to the kid’s table.

Butter Out, Death Inducing Hydrogenated Fats In

Success was short lived as the 1950s’ infatuation with hydrogenated fats introduced recipes that pushed butter aside completely in order to feature vegetable shortening. In a cookie that doesn’t have much else going for it besides the butter, and no spices to speak of to mask the artificial flavor lent by shortening, this turn of events was a major blow. Though the cookies made with butter were still around, they now carried the moniker of “butter cookies” and came decorated with almonds on top to further distinguish them from the new “sugar cookie”.

This lasted until the 1980’s when mankind realized how horrible shortening tasted and in a sudden unanimous motion people across the country spit out their sugar cookies. Butter was back and cookies were better than ever! Keep that in mind when looking for a “traditional”, “old-fashioned” sugar cookie recipe to make with your kids, as anything predating the 1980’s will probably be pretty gross.

The Fly in the Ointment

As with anything, there are exceptions to the rule. About the same time, the Dutch were creating their tough and tasteless koekje, Moravians in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, created something called the Nazareth cookie. With plenty of butter and nutmeg, these little gems are the delicious exception to a centuries-long line up of horrible sugar cookies.