Early American Christmas Cookies

The history behind American Christmas traditions is an eye opener.  So far, I’ve learned that in Colonial America at least, Christmas celebrations were even punishable if you lived in Puritan New England. Traditions in general varied from colony to colony, depending on who settled there.  They were definitely not the colorful, over the top celebrations of today.  Making merry at Christmas was more of a German phenomenon.  General George Washington took advantage of this fact during the Revolutionary War to surprise the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British.   Washington’s famous Delaware Crossing  took place on Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, and the Continental Army’s win at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, was one of the turning points of the war.

The German-inspired Christmas tree did not become popular in England, let alone America, until after Queen Victoria’s marriage to her German first cousin, Prince Albert in 1840.  Soon after, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in 1843.

When I think of Christmas in America, I think of green, red, gold, and silver decorations, lights, Christmas trees, candy canes, decadent desserts (especially of the chocolate kind!), gingerbread, cheesecake, various pies, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and roast turkey or goose.  Sort of a repeat of Thanksgiving except with a lot of other desserts added to the mix.  What about Christmas back in colonial times or in the decades immediately after?

In what is noted as the first published American cook book (1798), written by Amelia Simmons, there is an entry for a “Christmas Cookey.”

It’s a recipe for a simple cookie, containing one spice, coriander.  This cookie is a far cry from the sugary, buttery, and decadent cookies we have since come up with and are addicted to.  It seems more akin to European cookies in terms of reliance on flavor over buttery sweetness.  My guess is that if you saw this plain-looking cookie in a bakery store window, you wouldn’t think to call it a Christmas cookie!

I think we should give this cookie a shot.  On the Polish Christmas dessert table, for example, most if not all of what is prepared is a continuation of traditions dating back many centuries ago.  To try an American cookie that hails from a recipe that is centuries old would be pretty neat.  I modified the recipe so that it works for today’s kitchen.

After the cookies were baked, I tried something different than just dusting with confectioner’s sugar in order to make the cookies more appealing to the eye.  I brushed them with butter and then dusted with confectioner’s sugar.


My kids tried this cookie on the first day I baked it and enjoyed it, much to my surprise.  The spice was something new for them, but that is what they liked about it, along with the texture.  I stored the cookie in “an earthen pot” as the recipe suggested.  We’ll give it another try on Christmas itself.

Print Recipe
Early American Christmas Cookies
Copyright ©2016 HollyTrail.com
Course Dessert
Cuisine Early American
Servings
4" cookies
Ingredients
For topping:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (melted)
  • confectioner's sugar for dusting
Course Dessert
Cuisine Early American
Servings
4" cookies
Ingredients
For topping:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (melted)
  • confectioner's sugar for dusting
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, mix flour, salt, and coriander spice. Set aside. With an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar together for about 3 minutes.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix baking powder and milk.
  4. At low speed, mix into the butter mixture the flour mixture alternating with the milk mixture until combined.
  5. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until smooth.
  6. Roll dough out until it is about 1 cm thick (or 1/4 to 1/2-inches. Using cookie cutters of your choice, cut into shapes and place on prepared pans. Leave a 1-inch space in between cookies. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until slightly golden brown around the edges.
  7. After removing from the oven, transfer cookies from pans to a wire rack. While cookies are still warm, brush cookie tops with melted butter. Dust with confectioner’s sugar. Repeat after 10 minutes.
  8. Store at room temperature in ceramic container.
Recipe Notes

These coriander-spiced Christmas cookies are based on a recipe from Amelia Simmons' cookbook, American Cookery, published in 1798.  Cookies can be eaten the same day, or can be stored for several weeks in a stoneware container for the flavor to develop.  The original 1798 recipe recommends storing these cookies for 6 months for the best flavor and a softer texture.

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2 Comments

  1. I think I might just get addicted to all your baking! And I love the history lesson…makes me want a new job where I don’t have a two-hour commute so I can bake more!!!

  2. I hear ya! I could bake all day, everyday!! BTW–I’m fascinated by the early cookbooks. How they did what they did with the equipment they had is beyond me. And I love it how half of the instructions are missing–I suppose because it’s presumed that the home cook already knows it all! I tried a couple more of the Early American recipes, but not ready to post. Hope to get back into it soon. . . .
    –Ania

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