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Birth of an American Cookie

America's first cookie recipe begins by telling you to scum the sugar. This gives you some small sense of how far the world has moved since 1796.
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America's first cookie recipe begins by telling you to scum the sugar. This gives you some small sense of how far the world has moved since 1796, when Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook ever written by an American. In our age of processed, over-refined foods, the idea of having to boil your sugar to skim off impurities is totally alien. But that's what Simmons and her contemporaries did, scumming away to ensure clean sugar even when the cone it came from was made from the dregs of a hogshead.

Cookies had been eaten in the colonies from very early on, especially in areas settled by the Dutch; the word is derived from the Dutch koekje, meaning "small cake." But the first printed recipe (and also the first appearance of the English word "cookie") had to wait for Simmons:


One pound sugar boiled slowly in half pint water, scum well and cool, add two teaspoons pearl ash dissolved in milk, then two and a half pounds flour, rub in 4 ounces butter, and two large spoons of finely powdered coriander seed, wet with above; make roles half an inch thick and cut to the shape you please; bake fifteen or twenty minutes in a slack oven--good three weeks.

No eggs. A single stick of butter to two-and-a-half pounds of flour. A cookie that lasts three weeks. This all sounds--let's be honest--completely awful, more like hardtack than pastry.

Still, this was America's First Cookie Recipe. Trying to reproduce an earlier American koekje is pure guesswork, since we have references but no recipes; Simmons's formula lets us taste an old flavor, one that we know people appreciated and worked to make. So however spare the recipe seems now, the idea of making America's First Cookie was interesting enough to recruit my six-year-old soon and send us both to the kitchen.

We had to make adjustments and judgment calls the whole time we were baking. Though we didn't need to skim foaming impurities from our sugar, we still melted ours down with water to keep the proportion of liquid the same, and used a blend of brown and white sugar to approximate an older product. We used two teaspoons of baking powder in place of potash, dissolving it in a best-guess two tablespoons of milk. We "rubbed" butter in by pinches, working each until it vanished.

As we worked, I started getting hopeful; it was all coming together into a recognizable cookie dough. Maybe there was something alchemical at work here, something that would transcend what seemed like major missteps and produce our nation's ubercookie, something to be produced at potlucks for years to come. That? Oh, nothing, just America's First Cookie. Yes, I agree that it is ungodly good.

But no, it was not. Or at least, not really. America's First Cookie was more like a floury shortbread--a shortbread that lacked shortening. The relative lack of fat made it seem very sweet, as though it was intended as a pure carrier for sugar. In a blind tasting I think most would find it dry, and sweet enough that it demanded tea or something equally astringent. Still we liked it, if only because, hey, America's First Cookie. It was a cookie you can imagine enjoying after a long day of casting tankards or dipping candles or scumming sugar.

Having made it, the original recipe reads differently to me. Simmons could have included eggs, or more butter (she had plenty of both in other recipes). Instead, it seems to me, she wrote with an eye towards hospitality, towards sharing something she thought luxurious. There's plenty of sweetness in our cooking today (too much, in fact) now that sugar, and especially corn syrup, are cheap. But the first cookie recipe--the recipe for a dry, sweet cookie, still very much like a little cake--made me think of a time when sweetness wasn't a cheat, or a mask. It was sugar, and in humble households that was special.

Sugar, the recipe says. We have sugar. Have some yourself; here it is.

Amelia Simmons's Cookie
(I cut the original recipe by half)
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
4 cups flour
4 oz butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 Tablespoon milk.
Coriander seed

Simmer sugars in water to dissolve. Dissolve baking powder with milk and mix in, then stir liquid into flour. Cut cold butter into small pieces and mix into dough; working quickly, rub each bit of butter between your fingers until it disappears. Roll out dough on a floured surface to 1/2" thick, cut into whatever shape you want, and sprinkle with coriander seed. Bake in a 325 degree oven until golden, about 15 minutes.