By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
If there were ever a time of year you could call “cookie time,” it would be right about now. We have Hanukkah and Christmas going on this week and New Year's Eve next. Those delectable handheld sweets are served on all occasions. They come in every flavor, shape and color, depending upon what you are celebrating. Cookies are easy to transport to a party or office, give away as gifts, eat while you’re on the run, appease little kids with when they want a treat, and on and on and on. Versatile, shareable, decorative, and delicious.
I always assumed cookies were an American invention because they are so very popular here. However, little did I know that they trace back to seventh century Persia, when cookies were actually a test run for cakes. They would bake a small amount to check on the flavor before baking a big cake.
For centuries, cookies had a low moisture content, which extended their shelf life, making them a very portable snack. Now we see cookies that are gooey in the center made with lots of butter. They don’t stay fresh as long but give me a moist chocolate chip cookie any day over a dry biscuit.
According to this wonderful article written about the history of cookies, “Sugar spread to Persia and then to the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Muslim invasion of Spain, then the Crusades and the developing spice trade, the cooking techniques and ingredients of Arabia spread into Northern Europe.” Cookies took off from there and eventually spread to America.
As Americans became more mobile with the advent of the railroad, ingredients from different regions spread to kitchens near and far. Oranges, coconuts, and nuts from the South and West, for example, could travel all over.
I love how cookie recipes change hands from friend to friend or go down through the generations of a family. Sometimes they’re clipped out of magazines, gleaned from the Internet, or plucked out of cookbooks. It doesn’t matter how you came across the recipes that become part of your recipe library; it’s comforting to the baker and the recipients to revisit those tried-and-true delicacies.
Some people might say it wouldn’t be a holiday if we didn’t have grandma’s gingerbread cookies. In my case, my mother’s mother made poppyseed cookies from Russia. She never measured and none of us took notes so that legacy has been lost. I’ll have to attempt to re-create them someday.
An old-fashioned fun holiday tradition is to do a cookie exchange with your co-workers, neighbors, or family. Say you have five participants. Everyone makes five dozen of their favorite cookie. Then, at the exchange, you get one dozen of everyone else’s cookies. Thus, you leave with five dozen but five different varieties. Also, exchange the recipes so you have more ideas for your cookie selections. Give it a go!
When I owned Bonnie’s Patisserie and Bonnie’s Kitchen in suburban Detroit from 1980-2009, we sold lots of cookies, mostly large homestyle varieties: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter being the best sellers. I never really wholesaled my products–we were too small an operation to do such large volume.
That is, until one day in early August of 2008, when I got a call from the organizers of the PGA Golf Championship, inviting me to meet with the food director at Oakland Hills Country Club where the tournament would be played the following week. This club was walking distance to my store so it was very convenient. When I entered their office the director casually asked if we could supply 26,000 cookies for all of the spectators. I casually responded, “Sure. No problem.” I was dying inside! How were we going to produce that many?
I ordered more butter, eggs, flour, sugar, and chocolate chips than I ever thought possible. I had to hire extra staff and enlist family members to help. The pastry chefs made the dough, we had people weighing out the cookies, panning them up, baking them off, boxing them, and delivering. The NBC local news crew even came out to film us in action. It was a great experience. Was it profitable? In and of itself it was; however, because we were so close to the golf tournament, traffic was rerouted for four days and our driveway was partially blocked. We had so few customers that week that the cookie sale also had to make up for our losses.
My recipe today has great flavor and versatility to fit any occasion. I obtained this recipe from a woman whom I met when we were both teaching cooking classes back in 1979 in Berkeley, Calif. She was Italian and this recipe was from her Nona. What is unusual about the dough is that she sieved a hard-boiled egg yolk into the pastry, which makes for a more tender cookie. She taught me to roll out the dough to create “window” cookies: the bottom half is solid, spread with jam, and the top half has a cut-out to allow the jam to “peak” through the window.
You will need to use a holiday cookie cutter of your choice. If you use a star, for example, have a small star cutter for the window. If you have a fluted round cookie, use a small fluted round cutter. You can exchange the toppings (sprinkles, jimmies, confectioners’ sugar, icing) and swap jams (raspberry, apricot, blueberry ) to suit your liking. Most of all, have fun with the possibilities and let us know here at The Insider what fabulous cookies you created for your holiday festivities.
From my warm delicious kitchen to yours, have a healthy, joyful holiday season!
Nona’s Italian Shortbread Cookies
Yield: 18-24 2" window cookies
6 oz. butter, room temperature
1/2 c. + 2 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/4 c. flour
1 sieved hard-cooked egg yolk
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 raw egg yolk
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. vanilla
preserves of your choice: raspberry, strawberry, apricot, blueberry
toppings of your choice: sugar sprinkles, jimmies, colored icing, confectioners’ sugar dusting
1 egg white
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour, sieved egg yolk, and lemon zest. Combine until just blended. Scramble together the raw yolk, lemon juice, and vanilla. Add to the dough. Mix until just incorporated. Form into a patty and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°. Line 2-3 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, as it is easier to work with a smaller amount. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to about 1/8” thickness. Using the cutter of your choice, cut an even number of each shape. Using a smaller cutter, cut out the center of half of the cookies. Place on the cookie sheets.
Brush the egg white on the top cookies (the ones with the window). Decorate with sugar sprinkles or jimmies. If you are using colored icing or confectioners’ sugar, decorate them after they are fully cooked. Bake cookies for 11-12 minutes or until firm. Cool completely.
Assembly: Spread the jam of your choice on the bottoms of the cookies, leaving the slightest margin to the edge so the preserves don’t squeeze out. Place the decorated tops on the bottoms. If using colored icing or confectioners’ sugar, decorate the tops before securing to the bottoms.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.