A home without cookies is like Christmas without close family. Something important is happening but a crucial part is missing.
Back when I grew up, it was common to name pastries after politicians. For the life of me, I could not, and still cannot, figure out why anyone would name something sweet, buttery and comforting after a politician.
Ideology aside, I had my fill of Jan Smutsies (named after Jan Smuts, South African Prime Minister 1919 – 1924 and 1939-1948) and Hertzoggies (named after Barry Hetzog, South African Prime Minister 1924-1939). My all-time favourite from that time, however, had nothing to do with politics whatsoever – handtertjies. Nothing but soft flaky pastry filled with apricot jam and folded over to resemble a half-moon. These were a special treat all throughout my student years, something comforting to take the edge of the dreary hours of studying.
Most likely the name “cookie” comes from the Dutch word “koekje” meaning “little cake”. Dutch immigrants brought these little baked confectionaries to the USA, hence the Americans preference for calling them “cookies”. Given the strong Dutch influence in early South African cuisine, it is also likely that the Afrikaans “koekie” has the same origins.
The English, however, calls a “cookie” a “biscuit”, most likely because the Dutch never colonialized them. Biscuit, from the Middle English word “bisquite”, means “twice-baked” referring to the process of first baking the cookie, then drying it out in a low oven. To complete the confusion: what the Americans today call a “biscuit” is a small leavened bread, something the English would call a “scone”.
At its core, a cookie consists of only three ingredients: sugar, fat and flour. If mixed in a ratio of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour the mixture produces the most simple of cookies – shortbread. From this base, the world is the cookie-maker’s proverbial oyster.
Cookies are distinguished by their different flavour and textural profiles and the various methods by which they are prepared, which also determine their final appearance.
Different flavour and textural profiles are created by the addition of:
- Nuts such as hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios. These could be chopped and added to the dough, or ground finely and used as part of the dough mixture, or simply sprinkled over the top of the cookie prior to baking.
- Dried fruits such as raisins and cranberries that are commonly incorporated into the dough.
- Spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, nutmeg and aniseed that are added to the dough.
- Extracts made from plants or nuts such as vanilla, oranges, roses and almonds.
- Using flavoured fats such as butter (salted or unsalted) or animal fats such as lard or rendered suet, or vegetable shortening.
- Using different types of sugars such either on their own or in combination. Dark sugars, molasses, agave nectar, liquid glucose and honey are all popular choices and all provide different flavours and degrees of sweetness.
The form and shape of cookies is often the product of how cookie is prepared. The following are common methods of making and shaping cookies:
- Bar cookies such as brownies formed by pouring or pressing the dough into a tray-pan. The individual cookies are cut after baking.
- Drop cookies, such as chocolate-chip cookies, are made by dropping soft dough onto the baking tray using a spoon or similar device. These cookies spread and flatten during baking.
- Filled cookies are made by spreading a fruit or other filling onto the cookie dough before it is rolled and baked.
- Molded cookies are made from a stiffer dough that is molded into balls or cookie shapes by hand before baking.
- No-bake cookies are made by mixing ready-to-eat ingredients before shaping them and then letting them harden or set, usually by cooling them.
- Pressed cookies require a soft dough that is extruded from a cookie press into decorative shapes before baking.
- Refrigerator cookies are made from a stiff dough that is refrigerated to stiffen the dough even more, before it is sliced into individual disks and baked.
- Rolled cookies are made when a stiff dough is rolled out and cut into various shapes using molds or cookie cutters.
- Sandwich cookies are two cookies assembled as a sandwich with a sweet filling.
Adding eggs and baking powder to cookies alter their texture. Eggs add richness and makes for a firmer crumb making the cookie chewier due to its coagulation properties. Cookies that contain a lot of sugar and butter will melt down and run and as a result should be placed further apart on the baking tray. The use of granulated sugar ensures more crispness and the use of bread flour (instead of cake flour) ensures more gluten making for a chewier cookie.
I found this week’s recipe in the Momofuku Milk Bar’s recipe book. I really Christina Tosi’s approach to baking: in the book she offers ten “mother recipes” from which she build’s everything else. Her cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow cookies are to die for. They are rich, not too sweet, crumbly and chewy at the same time. I love the Cornflake crumble that goes into these cookies. I make more than what is needed, store it in the fridge and stuff my face with some, every time I open the fridge.
Beware, these cookies run when baked, and if you, like me, have a very small oven and small baking trays, bake only a few at a time and place them far apart. To help them keep their shape, place them in the refrigerator for a few hours. Alternatively, if they run and join joyfully as mine had done, entertain no sad thought, just cut them into squares after baking. It makes no difference to the taste.