Gingerbread is thought to be one of the first cookies to be associated with the Christmas holiday in Europe. It is sweet, highly spiced and smells like Christmas. The cookie shapes possible are limited only by the baker’s imagination. Gingerbread people, hearts, or other shapes decorated with icing and raisins are traditional on holiday cookie plates. Baked in low pans the dough can be turned into wonderful fairytale gingerbread houses decorated with icing and candies.
Long before ancient holidays and traditions were taken over by the new Christian religion small cakes made ground grains, nuts, fruits, and other ingredients had been part of ancient celebrations in Europe. The small cakes were used in ancient rituals to celebrate the changing of the seasons, good harvests and other special occasions around the year. The ancient Celts also gave us the tradition of serving goose at holidays.
Food historians believe the earliest small cakes were formed room ground grains and water mixed together flattened and dried on hot stones near or over a fire. This produced a portable food that was resistant to mold because the moisture content had been reduced by the heat of the fire. The hard, dry cakes could be soaked in water so they could be eaten. The modern form would be hardtack. I think dunking must be a very old human ritual. Another theory is that cookies were made by cooks to test the temperature of ovens before baking cake batter.
The small cakes of the ancient Europeans were not sweet unless they added fruits and honey. The earliest small cookie like sweet cakes date back to 7th. Century A.D. Persia. Persia was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar. Sugar and spices spread from Asia and the Middle East into Europe with the Muslim invasion of Spain then the soldiers returning from the Crusades and the spice trade from the East. By the 1500s the serving of small sweet cakes or cookies during the Christian holiday had spread to all the European countries.
Early Dutch, English, German and other European immigrants brought their love of cookies and their recipes to the Americas. Cookies were not only eaten during the holidays, they were often hung on Christmas trees. Housewives would serve them through out the year to guests along with tea or coffee.
Early cookies were baked in square or round shapes. Tin smiths and black smiths in the Americas made cookie cutters and cookie molds for housewives. Fancy cutters and molds were imported from German in the 1800s into the early 1900s. An abundance of cookie shapes could be produced from those but the trend for fancy shapes tended to replace the focus on the texture and taste of the cookie dough.
This post was to have included a photo but it seems WordPress decided to “improve”: the tools and I can’t get it to upload. Never had problems with that before.. I’ll add the photo as soon as I figure out the stupid new tool. Some times change isn’t better.
The following recipe comes from “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living” published in the 1940s, probably during WWII. There is no date on the book. Sugar was rationed during the war and using molasses in recipes was once again popular. The recipe makes 18 4 inch high cookies.
Molasses Cookie Dolls
- 2 ¾ cups of all purpose flour
- 3 teaspoons of baking powder
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of ginger
- 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon of cloves
- 2/3 cups of Brer Rabbit molasses
- 1/3 cup of brown sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- ½ cup melted shortening
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Mix molasses with brown sugar, egg and shortening and add dry ingredients to make soft dough. Chill one hour. Roll on floured board and cut with floured cutters. For eyes, nose, mouth and buttons use small raisins. Bake on greased cookie sheet in moderately hot oven (375 degree F.) for about 12 minutes. Makes 18 dolls about 4 inches high. If no cutters are available, flour hands and shape dough into balls for heads and bodies, little rolls for arms and legs. Then flatten the balls and rolls and join by pressing edges of dough together.
Cool on racks before icing.
Mix the dry ingredients together with a fork or whisk.
I use double the amount of spice. The spices used in the recipe are ground.
One inch balls of the dough rolled in sugar and flattened before baking are very good.
Icing and other decorations can be used instead of the raisins called for.
If you have no brown sugar you can use white sugar.