I have a new favorite Christmas cookie, a sweet little biscuit flavored with lemon and caraway seeds and finished with a lemon glaze. Even better, the recipe takes us way back to the very beginning of American cooking. In fact, it has its roots in the first cookbook ever published here.
The First Christmas “Cookey
Amelia Simmons, who described herself in the book as “An American Orphan,” published that first American cookbook in 1796. Her publisher was Hudson & Goodwin of Hartford, CT, though a second edition of the book was published that same year in Albany. American Cookery
(subtitle: “or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life”)
recipes for all manner of British-style foods, but it has just two cookie recipes,
one called “Cookies,” as well as the following:
Another Christmas Cookey“To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter, and one and a half pound sugar, dissolve one tea spoonful 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 slice you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho’ hard and dry at first, if put in an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” (page 46)
Pearl ash, incidentally, was potassium Carbonate, a bitter-tasting precursor to baking soda.
Simmons’s cookie was made with coriander, not caraway, but both of those spices were common in British and American cooking at the time. According to the Oxford Companion to Food
, sugar biscuits flavored with rosewater, aniseed, or caraway seeds, called jumbles, were also popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Jumping ahead to 1845, here’s another Christmas cookie recipe, published in Mrs. E. A. Howland’s book, New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (
thanks to The Food History Timeline
for these references):
Christmas Cookies “Take one pound and a half of flour, three quarters of a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter, half a cup of milk, and two spoonfuls of caraway seeds; melt the butter before you put it in. It is rather difficult to knead, but it can be done. Roll it out and cut it in hearts and diamonds, and bake it on buttered tins.” (page 29)
Here in the 21st century, I’ve been paging through Yankee
‘s archives, and I’ve found several recipes for caraway cookies. Realizing I had come across the descendents of the
original American Christmas cookie, I tried a recipe from our December, 1947 issue. The cookies were delicious, but a little plain, so I made some adjustments, adding the lemon glaze and dialing down the amount of flour. Now I think they’re perfect: fragrant, buttery, and just sweet enough. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
Recipe for Lemon-Glazed Caraway Christmas Cookies
Yield: 3 to 4 dozen cookies, depending on size
For the cookies:
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
- 1 teaspoon lemon extract
- 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the counter
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons caraway seeds, plus more for sprinkling
For the glaze:
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1. Pour sugar into the bowl of a standing mixer (or, if using a hand-held mixer, pour it in a large mixing bowl). Add the eggs and beat until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the butter in a slow drizzle, beating as you go. Add the lemon extract and beat to combine.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the 3 1/4 cups flour, baking soda, and salt. Add this mixture to the wet ingredients and beat just until evenly combined. Divide the dough into two equal portions, wrap completely in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
3. Preheat oven to 350° and set two racks to the middle positions in your oven. Line two cookie (baking) sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats and set aside.
4. Dust the counter with flour and roll out the first portion of dough until it is a bit less than 1/4 inch thick. As you roll, periodically lift the dough off the counter and turn it to keep it from sticking. When the dough reaches the desired thickness, sprinkle it all over with 1 tablespoons of caraway seeds, then gently press them into the dough using the rolling pin.
5. Use cookie cutters to cut the dough into your desired shapes, then arrange them on the prepared baking sheets with space in between. Bake until cookies are golden around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through the baking time. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.
6. While the first batch of cookies is baking, repeat steps 4 and 5 with the remaining batch of dough. When all the cookies are done and slightly cooled, make the glaze: Drizzle 3 tablespoons of lemon juice into to the confectioners’ sugar and stir with a fork until the mixture forms a smooth glaze. You want it to have the consistency of honey. Add an additional tablespoon of lemon juice if needed. Set each wire rack over a sheet of wax paper and drizzle each cookie with a teaspoonful of the glaze. Use the back of the spoon to spread the glaze over the cookie. Sprinkle each cookie with just a few additional caraway seeds. The cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week. They also freeze well.