The Origins of Biscuits and Cookies

The history of the biscuit follows that of sugar and it seems that the first biscuits were baked in Persia during the 7th Century BCE. It wasn’t until the Moorish conquest of Spain and the crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries that Arabic cooking practices slowly came to Europe.

The modern biscuit, however, is a French invention, and by the 14th century it was possible to buy little fruit-filled wafers on the streets of paris. The name of these comes from a corruption of the Latin bis cotum (baked twice) which became biscuit in English and biscotti in Italian. Traditionally, such biscuits are hard and dry in texture and they’re know (and commonplace) from recipe books going back at least to the Elizabethan era.

In contrast, cookies are Dutch in origin. The name itself derives from the Dutch word ‘koekje’ (small or round cake) which represents the small pieces of dough that Dutch bakers used to place in their ovens to test the temperature. However, the classic cookie, the ‘cocolate chip cookie’ was only invented in 1937 by Ruth Graves Wakefield (1905-1977), of Whitman, Massachusetts, who ran the Toll House Restaurant. This type of cookie didn’t reach nationwide fame until 1939 when Betty Crocker popularized it in her radio show. Today, however, the chocolate chip cookie is by far the commonest baked and eaten cake in America.

Below you will find a recipe for a classic British biscuit and a classic American cookie so that you can bake these for yourselves and appreciate both the similarities and the differences between these classic baked goods.

Fruit Shrewsbury Biscuits

This is a classic and easy to bake lightly fruited biscuit, ostensibly originating in the Shrewsbury region of England.

125g butter
150g caster sugar2 egg yolks
225g plain flour
freshly-grated zest of 1 lemon
60g currants
sugar to dust

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy then add the egg yolks and beat together to combine.
Stir-in the flour, lemon zest and currants. Mix to a firm dough (add a little water if it’s too stiff) then turn onto a lightly-floured surface and knead lightly. Roll out to about 5mm thick and cut into rounds with a 6cm pastry cutter with fluted edges.

Transfer the pastry rounds onto lightly-greased baking sheets and place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C, baking for about 15 minutes or until the biscuits are firm and only very slightly browned.

Remove from the oven and dust the top with coarse sugar then allow to cool on the baking trays for 10 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is the classic American chocolate chip cookie recipe made with brown and granulated sugars and hearkens back to the 1937 original.

225g unsalted butter
150g granulated sugar
160g light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
320g plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
260g plain chocolate chips
120g walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped (optional)

Cream together the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Mix the eggs together in a bowl then add a little at a time to the butter mix, combining thoroughly after each addition. Now add the vanilla and beat in to combine.

In a separate bowl sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the egg and butter mixture and beat thoroughly until completely incorporated. Add the chocolate chips (and the nuts, if using) about half way through mixing so that they’re evenly distributed through the dough.

The dough should be fairly firm and if you find it too soft then cover and refrigerate for about 30 minutes (this will set the butter and make the dough stiffer). When ready drop about 2 tbsp of the mixture per cookie onto a lightly-greased baking tray, allowing at least 8cm between each cookie for them to spread. Place in an oven pre-heated to 190°C and bake for about 12 minutes, or until golden brown around the edges. Allow the mixture to cool for 10 minutes on the baking tray before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

I hope that you have learnt something about biscuit and cookie baking and that you will now want to know more about these baked goods.