Did you all survive Thanksgiving? We had the best time in our new place, with old friends who trekked all the way up here so that I could make them various carb casseroles and fill them with wine. Then we slept in and ate pie for breakfast. It was the best. And later this week, we’ll get our tree, after which we will reward our hard work by making mulled wine, eating Jet’s pizza and watching Hallmark movies for the rest of the night. We may also eat a salad, because geez, our diets are really screwed up by holiday eating and my pants are already starting to object.
Until I full-on can’t fit into my pants anymore, we’re talking cookies! If you’ve stepped foot on Instagram today, you’ve probably noticed that today is #nationalcookieday. Obviously, December is peak cookie-making time, not only in the United States, but around the world. Obviously, sweets have been making an appearance at special events since early times, but how did the cookie become synonymous with Christmas?
Europeans have been making cookies around Christmas since at least the 1500s. It was also around this time that gingerbread, as a sweetened form of cake, gained popularity in Britain. Gingerbread was not yet considered a Christmas tradition, but was instead used in various instances of “wooing,” with gingerbread men even being used by Queen Elizabeth I as a gift to dignitaries.
Gingerbread cookies have been made for almost that long, employing some variation of sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, all spices that were brought back to Europe during and after the Crusades. And while gingerbread didn’t become associated with Christmas-time in Britain until the reign of Queen Victoria, gingerbread-type cookies called speculaas have been made in the Netherlands and Belgium since at least the 1600s. The cookies are often large and imprinted with a cookie press, depicting a variety of scenes. It is even rumored that woodcarvers could design their own cookie mold, portraying their profession, and give it to the woman they hoped to marry. There is no definite proof of the name’s history, but it’s said that it may come from the Latin word “speculum,” which means “mirror,” because of the mirror image imprint that a cookie stamp would leave behind. Another theory is that the name is taken from the Dutch word for spice, “specerij.”
Speculaas/Speculoos, to Americans, might mean the delicious cookie butter you can buy at Trader Joe’s. However, in the Low Countries, speculaas is most often made to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated in early December by Western Christians, and in mid-December by Eastern Christians. St. Nicholas Day celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek saint who was said to have secretly given gifts and performed miracles. On St. Nicholas Day eve, children set shoes (instead of stockings) out by the door, hoping that Nicholas might leave a small present inside their shoe for them to find the next day.
And while making cookies around Christmas has been happening in Europe for centuries, the Dutch are credited with bringing the “Christmas cookie” to the United States. This Dutch tradition probably arrived first in what is today New York state’s Dutchess County-area. The English word “cookie” is also of Dutch origin. Koekjes were tiny “cakes” made when cooks used a small amount of batter to test their ovens before baking cake.
We in America do not only owe our Christmas cookie traditions to the Dutch, but our Santa Claus himself. Santa Claus’ name is derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas. It is said that Santa Claus may have become an American tradition during the Revolutionary War when, more than 100 years after their ancestors arrived from the Netherlands, colonists in New York were attempting to dissociate themselves from their British enemies and embrace their Dutch heritage.
Even speculaas butter, the Trader Joe’s cookie butter that we all love–which I was sure was an American invention–actually has roots in the Netherlands and Belgium. Workers in those countries were known to make a speculaas “sandwich” of the cookies and butter. By mid-day, the butter would have softened the cookie to a spreadable amalgam.
Makes 10-12 large cookies, or 20-24 large cookies. This recipe is an adaptation of one from the New York Times.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp orange zest
2-3 tbsp milk, whole
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until smooth.
Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and coriander.
Finally, stir in the almond extract, orange zest, and milk. The mixture should hold when pinched together. If it doesn’t, add one tablespoon of milk at a time until it does.
Form the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least two hours, or up to overnight.
After refrigerated, roll the dough out on a floured surface to 1/8-inch thick.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Cut out shapes using cooking cutters or stamps, placing the cutouts onto cookie sheets. Continue to roll out the remaining dough until you have used all of it.
Bake cookies for 20 minutes, rotating once halfway through cooking. Allow to cool for five minutes on the cookie sheet before removing to cooling rack.
If you’re not into crisp cookies (like me), you might not love these cookies. Though I am considering making them again, just to turn them into an icebox cake. But the history of these cookies is the most interesting part, like most of what I write about here. These old recipes have mostly become well-worn American ideas, but it is exciting (at least to me!) to dig up their stories and show how our traditions in the United States have been shaped over the centuries. Happy National Cookie Day, y’all!