January 15, 2014

Memorable Treats: Historical Cookie Recipes

by Zoe Ann Stoltz, Research Historian

Old recipes can evoke profound personal memories but also serve as important primary sources for historians—showing changes in culture, technology, and attitudes towards health.

Earlier this year we lost my mom. As the holiday season began, I received a frantic call from Dad. He voiced concern that we would not be able to bake Mom’s traditional Christmas foods—including these cookies. Fortunately, I had received the recipe several years earlier. Following Christmas Eve dinner, Dad grabbed several cookies and sat back in his recliner to enjoy them, closing his eyes after every bite. I can only imagine the memories behind his quiet smile—all because of a cookie!

This is an old German homesteader’s recipe that has been passed down in my family. I recall my grandmother making them. They were stored in a two-gallon crock with apple slices, as the cookies had to be “ripened,” or softened, after baking.

Mrs. R. M. Craven, c.1898-1900. PAC 941-627
Grandma’s Anise Cookies (Pfeffernüsse Cookies)
1 1/2 c. honey
2 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. shortening
2/3 c. cold, strong coffee
3 eggs
1/4 generous t. anise oil
1/2 t. each: nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and baking powder
1/4 t. finely ground pepper
1 1/5 t. soda
5-6 c. flour

Heat honey, brown sugar and shortening until melted. Cool, then add coffee, beaten eggs, and  anise. Mix well, then mix in dry ingredients. Dough will be sticky and soft. Refrigerate for several hours until dough can be handled. Roll into small balls, place on greased cookie sheets and flatten a little. Bake at 375 degrees for 8-9 minutes. Do not brown too deeply. Roll in powdered sugar and store for several days or weeks before serving. The cookies harden as they cool but in time will "ripen" into soft, spicy cakes.

From the Society's collection of 500 historical cookbooks, here's a 1902 recipe for sugar cookies.*

One Egg, 1 Cup sugar, half cup butter, not quite half cup sour cream, about half teaspoon soda, flavor with nutmeg. Mix soft. —Mrs. Tabor

Early cookbooks often provided little in the way of instruction, assuming the cook's baking skills were already well-established. If you'd like to give this recipe a try, here are more detailed instructions:

Cream the sugar and butter. Add beaten egg and sour cream and mix until well blended. Add soda, 1 ¾ cups flour, and half a teaspoon of nutmeg. Drop from spoon onto greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 9 minutes. (You may need 1/4 cup flour more, depending on the consistency of your dough.)

*SOURCE: Daily Bread: Compiled from Tested Recipes of the Ladies of Fergus County Montana, by the “Home Workers” Society of the First Presbyterian Church of Lewistown, 1902, p.109.