It’s July. Time to start your Christmas baking.
I got to thinking about Christmas baking thanks to the musings on American identity by the Historical Cooking Project’s own Alex Ketchum. Inspired by Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery, Ketchum reflects in a recent post about what American food is and what the foods she eats say about her identity.
Simmons’s cookbook has raised questions about identity for me too, but about hers, not my own.
I’m a historian and former pastry chef and I blog about American history through desserts at History’s Just Desserts (http://historysjustdesserts.com/). Last December, I wrote a post, “Mincemeat Pie: ‘Idolatrie in a Crust,’” about Puritan opposition to Christmas.
I planned to follow up on that piece with a post about early Americans who did celebrate Christmas and to include the recipe for Amelia Simmons’s “Christmas Cookey.” I took a first stab at making the recipe -- which is spiced with coriander seed – and it was all right, but not great, not good enough, I felt, to share, and I didn’t have the chance to tweak the recipe in time for Christmas. (The life of a blogger isn’t easy, folks.)
But there was a bigger problem with the recipe. I pulled out Simmons’s cookbook to do my historic Christmas baking a week or two before the holiday. Wrong. Simmons’s instructions say to put the cookies “into an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room” and “they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” With Christmas a week or so away, I didn’t have the time for the cookies to get “finer, softer and better.” No wonder they were only okay.
Below I share Simmons’s recipe so you can bake them now to be ready for Christmas. Last December, I decided to put a few aside to see what age would do to them. Now, I don’t have an earthen pot, dry cellar, or damp room (though I do have a rather nice, partially finished basement) so I put them in a metal tin and stored it in a kitchen cupboard for the last six months. I just tried one (the last time I tried one, to see how things were going, was in March). The cookies are not better. But believe it or not, they are not worse either. The most notable change is that the spice taste is fainter.
If you have an earthenware container you can spare for half a year, you might try this little experiment. The more breathable material probably makes a difference. Pray tell us how the cookies fare.
But what, you’re wondering, does this have to do with Amelia Simmons’s identity? Little is known about Simmons. When was she born? Where did she die? Where had she lived during her life and why did she need to support herself by publishing a book?
It seems to me that her Christmas cookie recipe is a clue. She published her cookbook in Hartford, Connecticut, but if she were a New Englander with Puritan roots – as we might assume by the place of publication – she would have been unlikely to celebrate Christmas. Into the 1800s, many New Englanders remained fiercely, even violently, opposed to the holiday, with its pagan origins. That she included the recipe makes me wonder about her background.
Was Simmons a newcomer to New England, or even – is it possible? – to the United States? Was she Anglican or did she have German ancestry? Any of those situations would help make sense of the cookie recipe’s inclusion.
So, American Cookery leaves me puzzled about Simmons’s identity. Is the story of defining American food in the new United States even more interesting than we think?
In the meantime, while we wait for someone to crack the mystery of Simmons’s identity, you can get to work on your Christmas baking.
Simmon’s recipe for a Christmas Cookey
“To three pound flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve three tea spoonfuls of pearl ash in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarters of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty 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 six months old.”
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.
Amanda Moniz is the Assistant Director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association. She also teaches historic cooking classes and has written about food history for the Washington Post, American Food Roots, and NPR’s Kitchen Window.