A Culinary History

. December 1, 2014.

If there’s a month for baking, December takes the cake. Besides fruitcake, Santa Lucia buns, and sweet buttery fruit breads like panettone and stollen, December has a rich legacy of Christmas cookies. But here’s something slightly more unusual: New Year’s cookies.

Versions of this cookie are common in 19th century cookbooks, sometimes called “New-Year Cakes” The taste is reminiscent of traditional Swiss Springerli, and in New England they add a lemon glaze. What stands out in all these is the distinctive flavor of caraway seeds.

 Caraway was a popular flavoring for sweet dishes long before Europeans knew of vanilla, which was originally derived from the seedpod of a new world orchid. It’s typical that  holiday recipes are retained longer, or change more slowly, than other kinds of foods – they become inviolate because they’re associated with tradition. Even if they have no religious significance, over the years they become the taste of the holiday.

 This month’s recipe is an interpretation from Mrs. Elizabeth Fries Ellet’s 1872 New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy and Practical Housekeeper : Adapted to All Classes of Society and Comprising Subjects Connected With The Interests Of Every Family: one of many fascinating “whole house” books, including 19th century Domestic, Household or Family ‘Cylclopedias (or Cyclopaedias) in the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive.

Here’s the original

NEW-YEAR’S COOKIES

Weigh out a pound of sugar, three-quarters of a pound of butter-stir them to a cream, then add three beaten eggs, a grated nutmeg, two table-spoonfuls of caraway seed, and a pint of flour. Dissolve a teaspoonful of *saleratus in a teacup of milk, strain and mix it with half a teacup of cider, and stir it into the cookies–then add flour to make them sufficiently stiff to roll out. Bake them as soon as cut into cakes, in a quick oven till a light brown.

 *Salreratus was a crude and early form of chemical leavening, one step along the way from potash to our modern baking soda and powder. Recipes typically called for it to be mixed with something acid: vinegar, sour milk, or even molasses. That’s the job the hard cider does in this recipe. But, our modern baking soda doesn’t require activation, and it dissolves completely, so there’s no need for the straining step.

New Year's Cookies Ingredients

Here’s a modern interpretation. To experience something more like the original, use the full 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds.        

1 stick of butter

2/3c sugar

1 large egg

1-2 tsp whole caraway seeds

3/8 tsp nutmeg

2/3c flour

1 tsp baking soda

8 tsp milk

4 tsp hard cider

2c more flour

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy 

Add the egg and beat until light and fluffy, then scrape the bowl. Mix the 2/3c of flour with the spices and baking soda, add to the egg/butter mixture and beat briefly till smooth. Add milk
and cider to dough and mix in. Scrape the
bottom and sidews of the bowl add the 2 c
of flour and mix just until uniform.
Roll out ~ 1/8 inches thick on a lightly floured board and cut, Bake on a greased cookie sheet ~15 minutes until light brown.

Author Bio:

 JJ Jacobson is Outreach Librarian and Curator, American Culinary History Collection, at the Special Collections Library of the University of Michigan Library, where she works with the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive. 

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