Time Traveling With Christmas Cookies

How two queens, a king, a duke, few monks made the otherwise stowable nosh a celebrated part of seasons’ greeting.

By Madhulika Dash; Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru and JW Marriott

They may not hold the pride of a Christmas table today, but cookies remain the most delightful of things about season’s greetings – both as these beautiful, almost cute little treats and an indulgence that begins quite early in the day and lasts the entire year, or winters if you were a Medieval era lady.

In fact, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel), “of all the functional food developed in Middle Age Europe (even ancient), cookies remained the finest food of sustenance. It married the convenience of a versatile dough – you could add anything to the basic dough of eggs, flour and butter – and you would have food that can be stowed away for a long, long time. Little wonder than that cookies became not only a popular gifting item but also part of the winter solstice celebrations – and in later years for Christmas.”

Concurs seasoned pastry Chef Avijit Ghosh, who calls cookies one of the oldest examples of “sustainability in the West.” One has to remember, says Chef Ghosh, “that back then winters – the snow-capped, bone chilling one, wasn’t just a season of no harvest and no produce, it was a month for which the whole idea of preserving was developed. One had to eat richer – by which I mean spices, nuts, sweeter fruits, alcohol and all things hard to find and expensive too -to stay warmer (and alive). Cookies then came as the perfect solution. These palm-sized noshes could be made in huge batches, they allowed for the even spread of whatever little that could be preserved or brought for winters with the bonus of having varieties and longer shelf life.”

As a homemaker- developed and mastered tool, adds Chef Dewan, “cookies soon developed into a format that allowed people to have these jars full of goodies made for showcasing not only their housekeeping skills but also treats that appealed to all ages. They were the western version of our traditional ladoos that could be both for nourishment as well as pleasure.”

The popularity of cookies – which continued to evolve from the Middle Ages into the 1900-mid and even led to the innovation of biscuits – led not only to their wide range but also made them an excellent diplomatic tool used by royalty and an effective timeline of history. After all, cookies like cakes were often the representation of not just the king but the state as well – and to some extent, say the chefs of how the world was moving at the time.

An excellent example of this, says Chef Mandar Madav (Executive Chef, Conrad Centennial Singapore Hotel) is the ginger cookies. “Initially made for ceremonial purposes in ancient Rome & Egypt and as ruse to keep the cold at bay quickly turned into a celebration of the warm sweetness of ginger once the spice reached England by the 11 century from India, and the biscuit crumbs were replaced with flour to elevate the ginger flavour. However, this crusaders favourite got the royal makeover under one of the most powerful women in history - Queen Elizabeth I. It is said that the queen not only ordered the first iteration of the gingerbread man by putting the faces of her courtiers on the cookie but would also present visiting dignitaries with one with their faces on it as a gift.”

What began as a witty ruse to stamp her supremacy over men of the court led to the beginning of the long-standing tradition of Christmas – the making of gingerbread man and gingerbread house.

It was in her court, continues Chef Mandar, “that simple gingerbread cookies took on more lavish forms as spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and anise along with sweeteners like brown sugar, molasses, light or dark corn syrup, or honey were added to the simple recipe to create a variety of gingerbread that ranged from the thin, crisp cookies like snaps to Polish pierniczki, Czech pernik, Russian pryaniki, Croatian licitars, Scandinavian pepparkakor, and Dutch speculaas that were cut into hearts or other fanciful shapes.”

Another cookie that developed along the time was the Spritz Cookies in Germany. The cookie which earned its moniker from the very act of 'spritzen' which means 'to squirt' travelled well and became a part of the American culture around the same time when cookbook authors like Thomas Dawson were developing easy recipe for a small square short-cookie that was enriched with egg yolks and spices, baked on a parchment paper.

Such was the burst of the cookie culture, now ingrained into Christmas celebrations, the by the beginning of 18 th century, British bakers were not only proficient in baking a variety of cookies, but were taking it to other parts of the world – and bringing in foreign influences as well like from peppery papparkakor from Sweden, lemony krumkake from Norway, almond-flavored letterbanket from Holland, lebkuchen from Germany and everything else in between.

Not to be left behind other kingdoms too began walking into the cookie mania – which ranged from creating stunning baked goods to reviving ancient favourites, much like we do today, says Chef Dewan, who found the story of Lebkuchen rather interesting

Continues the seasoned culinary whiz, “Also called honey cakes, Lebkuchen were the German equivalent of the Gingerbread cookies invented during the 13th century by monks in Franconia, Germany, and today, Nuremburg (a city in that region) is the most popular exporter of lebkuchen. The cookie made a celebratory connection in 1487, when Emperor Friedrich III gave the city's 4,000 children these cookies bearing his image to celebrate winters.”

Yet another royal to popularise cookies was the Duke of Lorraine. History has it that the Duke served King Louis XV his home-made madeleine on a visit. The king loved them and brought them home to his wife, Marie Leszczyńska, who turned it a favourite of the teatime table – and eventually Christmas.

Fascinatingly, the credit of cookies rise to the festivity tables also goes to the convent. Monks played a plum role in not only creating some of the popular cookies of our time like the Amish Sugar Cookies, a recipe perfected by the Moravians, Protestant settlers from Germany in 1700s but also make it a part of the rituals, which many believe was adopted from the ancient tradition, where cookies were chosen as the easy to distribute option.

By 1790s, cookies were a well-established nosh loved by both by the masses and the affluent, and became a keen subject of many early cookbooks with detailed chapters dedicated to this one-time preservative option like when celebrated American cookbook author, Amelia Simmons added a recipe for what she called as Christmas Cookery with a caveat: “the cookies might be hard and dry initially and should be placed in an earthenware pot or cellar for a few months before consumption.”

It was however the longest reigning Monarch, Queen Victoria who finally created the well known Christmas Cookie box by bringing in cookies from around the world including the Maamoul into her tables – first as a teatime accompaniment and eventually as part of the Christmas Hamper and the feast.