In the United States, cookies are described as thin, sweet, and usually, small cakes. A cookie by definition is described as a small, usually flat, crisp cake made from sweetened dough. It is a small hand-held, flour-based sweet cake, either crisp or soft. Cookies are known by different words in different countries. For example, what we call cookies here in America, they are called biscuits in England or Australia, while in Spain they are known as galletas. Germans call them keks (or everyday varieties) or Plätzchen at Christmas-time. Italians have different names for different varieties, like amaretti and biscotti. The word ‘cookies’comes from the Dutch work “koekje”, which means a small cake. “Biscuit” comes from Latin, meaning “twice-baked”.
In the history of the culinary arts, the cookie was created to test cakes. Bakers used a small amount of cake batter to test the oven temperature. Cookie-style cakes (or the earliest cookies) are thought to date back to the 7th century A.D. in Persia. They were on of the earliest countries to incorporate sugar into luxurious cakes and pastries in large and small versions. By the end of the 14th century, you could buy small wafers from street vendors in Paris, and cookie recipes were included in many recipe books.
As explorers ranged the globe, biscuits known as ‘hardtack’ were popular as a food for travel, because they stayed fresh for long periods of time and they were the perfect portable traveling food. A ship’s biscuit (a hard, iron-like cracker) was popular for sea-farers because it would keep for many months (even for years under the right conditions.)
By the 17th and 18th century, baking became a recognized profession, managed by Guilds and professional associations. For one to enter the baking profession, they had to complete a lengthy apprenticeship and work their way through the ranks, from apprentice to journeyman and through to a master baker. The Guilds provided a way for the authorities to regulate the quality and amount of good baked.
As technology advanced with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the baking industry also increased its abilities. A wide range of sweet and savory biscuits were created for commercial consumption. Despite the ever increasing varieties or biscuits and cookies available, the essential ingredients remained the same, which included soft wheat flour (containing less protein than the flour they used to make bread), sugar and fats (butter or oil).
The first cookies were brought to the United States by the English, Scotch and Dutch immigrants. Cookies like the simple butter cookies and shortbread cookies are examples of those influences. In the South, the colonial housewife served cookies which were simply known as tea cakes. They were often simple versions flavored with nothing more than butter and perhaps a little rose water. The early American cookbooks at that time did not list cookies in a section of their own, but cookies were included at the end of the cake chapter and were called Jumbles, Plunkets or Cry Babies. The first cookbook authored by and American and published in the United States in 1796 called “American Cookery” or “The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables and the Best Modes of Making Puff-Pasties, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves and All Kinds of Cakes” by Amelia Simmons included two recipes for cookies, one simply called ‘Cookies’ and the other called “Christmas Cookey”.
Expansion in travel helped the creation of many different varieties of cookies. The railroad’s expansion in the 1800’s provided access to many places where new types of ingredients could be obtained. For example, from the South, coconuts were now available as a product to include in a variety of baking, or oranges from the West. Development in industrial made foods also added products that could be incorporated into the making of cookies. For instance, Kellogg Brothers invented cereals that could be added in to make different types of cookies. Electric refrigerators developed in the industrial age brought forth the opportunity to make ice-box cookies. Today there hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cookie recipes in United States cookbooks, with many, many cookie varieties.