America’s First Christmas Cookies from 1796 – Albany NY

The first Christmas cookie recipe printed in America appear in Amelia Simmons “American Cookery”. The cookbook was 1st printed in Hartford in 1796, but the second and more complete edition was printed 6 months later in Albany by the Webster Brothers, located at the corner of State and N. Pearl (the Citizens Banks is there today.) All evidence points to Amelia being a Hudson Valley (and maybe even Albany) girl.

Before 1796 what we know as cookie were called jumbles, biscuits (they still are in England today), wigs /whigs (from wedges) or wafers. But cookie comes from the Dutch word “koekje” (small cake) used in the New Netherlands to describe morsels of wonderfulness.

There’s evidence that the term “cookie “was used colloquially in speech in Albany (the Court Minutes of the 1650s describe Beverwyck bakers making cookies for trade with local Indians) for hundreds of years, but even bakeries in Albany (the most Dutch of all New Netherlands cities) were still referring to jumbles and biscuits and small cakes, not cookies, in their newspaper ads in the 1850s. It’s not until after the Civil War that the term “cookie” starts popping up in cookbooks and bakery ads with frequency, possibly because it was a term used by soldiers from New York who dominated the battlefields during the War. (NY furnished 450,000 troops – more than any other Union state.)

Amelia’s 1796 Christmas Cookie Recipe:
“To three pounds of four, sprinkle a teacup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter, and one and a half pound of sugar, dissolve one teaspoonful of pearlash in a tea cup of milk, knead all well together , roll three-quarters of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shapr or size you please. Bake slowly fifteen or 20 minutes; tho’ hard and dry at first, if put into an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when 6 months old.”

Better after 6 months?? After being in the damp? (Perhaps something is lost in translation.)

In any event, here’s a modern adaptation of the Amelia’s Christmas Cookie Recipe in much smaller quantity.

(Recipe from Amanda Moniz, the Assistant Director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, as it appeared in the Historical Cooking Project Blog, July 2014.)

1 pound (about 3¾ cups) all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1½ tablespoons ground coriander (or more)
6 ounces (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
½ pound (1 cup) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup whole milk (more as needed)

Preheat the oven to 300°F.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Combine flour, salt, and ground coriander in a food processor. Pulse a couple times.
Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Combine baking powder and milk. Add to the dough mixture and stir, adding more milk if it seems too dry. Press the dough together into two balls.
Put each ball on plastic wrap, flatten into a disk, and chill for a couple hours.
Roll the dough to the thinness you want (about 1/8 inch is good) and cut out in any shape you want.
Bake, rotating the baking sheets about halfway through baking, until lightly browned around the edges, about 10 minutes.

And here’s a video from Jas Townsend & Son taking a whack at the original recipe, under somewhat original conditions of the 18th century.

Copyright 2021 Julie O‘Connor

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