Writing Our History in Cookies

Cookies come in so many shapes and sizes, there's no way anybody could keep track of all the possible recipes. Still, Martha Teichner knows some people who have tried:

There's a cookie from each of the 68 years Gourmet Magazine existed.

From 2007, Trios: "This was special because there's three different jams and we attached them together, so you would have three different tastes in one cookie," said executive chef Sara Moulton.

And then there are lemon glitter cookies. "These were on the cover in 2008," Moulton said.

To Check Out Our Cookie Recipes See Below

Out just in time for the holiday baking season, "The Gourmet Cookie Book" is like our history in cookies.

"You can really see how recipe writing evolved over the years," said Moulton. "You look at the first one, the Cajun macaroons."

The United States was about to enter World War II when the Cajun macaroons appeared in 1941. Recipes were written out in paragraph form then - no easy-to-follow lists of ingredients.

And then there was wartime rationing: "Sugar rationing - we have a honey cookie that's in the book in that decade because of the whole sugar rationing, the idea being that was a better alternative because you can't get sugar," said Moulton.

"So you use honey instead?" asked Teichner.

"You do. And also, you'll notice in the first decade, there aren't a lot of cookies. When we did talk about them, it was sort of like, 'Make cookies for our men overseas and here's a nice selection.'"

Conde Nast closed the magazine in the fall of 2009, but Gourmet lives on in everything from the cookie book to iPhone apps, which tap into an archive that is truly a chronicle, decade by decade, of America's changing tastes and moods.

"You get a sense of where people are traveling," Moulton explained. "First it was France, and then Italy becomes very big. And then you see a lot of the other European countries creeping into the cookies."

Chocolate cookies don't make an appearance until 1950.

"In the beginning you don't really see much chocolate," Moulton said. "But by the '80s and the '90s, wow, there is so much chocolate! And not just old fashioned chocolate - designer chocolate, you know? It's amazing how it revved up."

Did it ever! From maybe one cookie recipe a year in Gourmet, by the 1980s it was a dozen or more.

In 1993, December's magazine became the cookie issue.

By that time the recipes had become a lot more elaborate.

"I think what's happened in this country for a whole bunch of reasons, including celebrity chefs and TV, is that people know more about food," Moulton said. "They have access to more ingredients, and they want more excitement. So a good old-fashioned butter cookie, although it brings back memories of mom and grandmom, maybe some people are like, 'Nah, not enough for me. I need more.' And this would be more, because it's got all the spices in it and it's got the interesting ingredients."

These are pains d'epices, named after a holiday spiced bread from France. They're glazed with grand marnier and dusted with edible gold. And they have a telling back story about cookies and our times . . .

It began in February 2009 when food stylist Paul Grimes presented his ideas for what would have been that year's cookie issue.

"What I was envisioning was dotting it with candied orange peel and that would be the gem-like quality," Grimes said.

Gemlike, for a reason: with the economy in terrible shape, Gourmet wanted to offer readers a little edible opulence. The theme of the issue was to have been jewels.

The pains d'epices made it past the concept stage to the test kitchen.

Editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl and her senior staff liked them: "I'll be making those," she said.

Creative director Richard Ferretti oversaw the transformation of the cookies from the test kitchen into what for all the world looked like lavish priceless jewelry.

Like magic, they were cookies no more . . . camouflaged in razzle dazzle, sumptuous to behold.

Teichner said it was as if the cookies were playing dress up. "They are," said Ferretti. "They're being dressed up. The cookies have gone to another place. They're, like, at a party."

In tough times, delicious make-believe created - Gourmet's editors knew - out of practically nothing..

"You're dealing with butter, basically - butter, sugar, flour. It's not expensive stuff," said editor Kemp Minifie. "You can have some fun. And we all need some fun right now."

Go ahead. Because, after all, 'tis the season.

(Houghton Mifflin)

From "The Gourmet Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin):

Crescent Cheese Cookies
Souvaroffs (Butter Cookies With Jam)
Mocha Cookies