This month’s recipe highlights the culinary spice cinnamon. In traditional American cooking and baking it’s right at the core of the canonical “sweet spices”, along with nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, and modern cooks take its availability for granted. But there’s rather more to the story.
For starters, when you buy cinnamon for cooking, you might be getting either of two related, but botanically distinct spices: true cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, or cassia, Cinnamonum cassia. (Recipes in medieval European manuscripts, interestingly enough, treat them as distinct ingredients.) Both have been in use at least since the Egyptians employed them in embalming. In the ancient world, cassia was probably mostly traded from China. But from the 16th to the 18th century, control of Ceylon for its cinnamon crop (along with others of the Spice Islands) was at issue in bloody trade wars between Portugal, the Netherlands, and England.
Our recipe comes from The Keene Cook Book (No. 2): A Collection of Recipes Tried and Approved by the Ladies of The First Congregational Society, Keene, N.H.,1898. Typically for a charity cookbook, The Ladies had pretty clear ideas about what their readers should be doing with themselves, as this dedicatory page shows
Also typical was the practice of using humorous rhymed epigraphs to begin chapters, such as this one for the Cake chapter.
It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that cookies, as we know them, begin to come into their own. The American term cookie is descended from the Dutch koekje, “little cake”, and in 17th, 18th and 19th century cookbooks recipes for cookies (or biscuits, in British cookbooks) generally appear grouped together with cakes, large and small, under names such as seed cakes, jumbles, kisses, wafers, ginger nuts, hard gingerbread, “mackeroons,” etc.
The original recipe comments that they’re are “Very nice with ice cream.” They’re also a nice thing to serve alongside fresh fruit, as it comes into season – strawberries, early blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, even gooseberries or a conserve of currents, if the Farmers Market happens to have them.
Here’s the modern interpretation
1 ¼ cups butter
2 ½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 ¼ cup buttermilk
5 cups flour
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon
Cinnamon sugar topping
¾ cup sugar
This makes about 100 1 ½” cookies
Mix the cinnamon and sugar for the topping and set aside
Preheat oven to 350°
Cream butter and sugar until light
Beat in eggs one at a time, until very light and fluffy
Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and beat briefly
Mix the soda and cinnamon into the flour
Mix the flour and the buttermilk into the bowl in several additions, beginning and ending with the flour
Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and mix briefly
Drop by teaspoonfuls on a greased or papered cookie sheet, about 1 ½” apart
Sprinkle each cookie with about 1/8 tsp of cinnamon sugar
Bake 5 minutes, turn the pans in the oven, and bake another 5 minutes, until set.
The result is quite mild by modern standards. For something with a bit more zing, it’s safe to increase the cinnamon by a half, or even double it. You can also put 1/4 or even 3/8 tsp of the cinnamon sugar on the top
Spices: Exotic Flavors and Medicines. Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, UCLA
Botanic Spice Index (scroll down to Order Laurales, Family Lauraceae)
Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, by Andrew Dalby
Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner.