An Abundance of Cookies

Like a mantra the recipes read: "Cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs…" This is the basis on which the method for cookie making is founded. Like fine little pastries, their ingredients and methods in which they are made are everything. While cooking in general is clearly an art form it can also be a precise science, especially when baking and preparing sweet confections. As with many baked goods, when making cookies the emulsification of the butter, sugar, eggs, and eventually flour is often an exact ratio. And each of the basic ingredients in cookie recipes serves a very definite and distinct function.

Take butter and sugar, for example. Simply said, without these two ingredients there would be no cookies (yikes!). Oh sure, you could replace the butter with another fat, such as shortening or oil, but the cookies would not have the same flavor. And yes there is the possibility of substituting the butter with a fat alternative, such as a fruit purée, but then the outcome would be quite different -- it would not be an equal comparison. My theory is the same with most foods: eat the real thing, just in moderation.

The sugar in cookies adds moisture and flavor as well as sweetness; the type and quantity of sugar used in a recipe will determine the cookie’s flavor and texture. Eggs bind the ingredients with the flour and add richness and also a small amount of leavening action. Speaking of which, cookies are generally leavened with a chemical agent such as baking soda or baking powder, opposed to bread-type products that often contain yeast. And with all baked goods, flour is what makes up their substance; it creates its body so to speak. Utilizing these few ingredients -- along with a little salt -- can produce a seemingly endless variety of cookies. Simply adding any number of flavoring ingredients -- cocoa, chocolate, spices, dried fruit, etc. -- will change the cookie entirely.

Almost as important as the ingredients themselves is the method in which cookies are made, and when doing so the most essential step is the creaming of the butter, sugar and eggs. This is the initial action that pulls all of the ingredients together into an emulsification and forms a homogenous mass; the ingredients become one. Creaming the butter and sugar also incorporates a little air into the dough, which translates to delicateness.

I'm a firm believer that food likes and dislikes are ingrained in your memory and on your palate at an early age (I've read that taste and smell carry a person's strongest memories); thus, cookies have a special place in my heart around the holidays. My love of baked goods was certainly initiated by my mother and grandmother who were both avid and excellent bakers.

As a youth I soon discovered that Christmas not only brought the anticipation of gifts from Santa, but also platters of cookies and kuchen. It seems as if my mother began her cookie production weeks before Christmas (it was probably just a few days) and she stored the cookies in plastic bags within a large metal can, which was off limits until Christmas. Like having a sixth sense, my mother could hear that can open wherever she was in the house -- even if she was in the basement doing laundry.

There are more varieties of these tiny pastries that fall under the heading "cookie" than any other type of baked good, and they have been around for a very long time. Cookies are said to date back thousands of years to ancient Persia, one of the first countries to cultivate and utilize sugar; they were originally designed as a little sweet treat, much like they are today. The English word cookie is derived from the Dutch koekje, meaning “little cakes.”

The origin of gingerbread, in particular, can be traced back to the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans; the ginger was most likely first added to the dough not only for flavor, but also for medicinal and preservation purposes, and quite possibly as a status symbol during times when spices were worth as much as currency. Ditto for gingerbread's first cousin, the German cookie known as pfeffernusse, which translates to "peppernuts" in English.

A much more recent addition to the “cookie repertoire,” and originating closer to home, is the humble chocolate chip cookie. These delectable little morsels were invented by Ruth Wakefield in the 1930s. She ran the Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts and in a supreme moment of inspiration she added chopped chocolate to her butter cookie dough. The rest, as they say, is history.

If you find yourself with an overabundance of cookies (something I personally cannot imagine) store them in plastic bags in the freezer to keep them fresh. Alternately, if the storage is intended for a shorter period of time, store them in plastic bags inside a metal can -- this will make them more accessible to the kids who cannot yet reach the freezer.

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