home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

biscuits and cookies

10 december 2019

People abroad are fairly clear what Americans mean when they say "cookie." But visitors can be perplexed at the American "biscuit." American biscuits are lardy, scone-like things eaten with butter or slathered with peppery bechamel sauce called "gravy." Worse yet, an American biscuit is not "cooked twice," as its etymology implies. Really good American biscuits should be handled lightly and barely baked at all.

Italian biscotti live up to their name best. They look like fossilized slices of bread, thanks to being baked as loaves, sliced on the bias, and rebaked till they are good and dry. But many other kinds of biscuits and cookies are interchangeable. Hence the logic of treating the two together, as Anastasia Edwards does in her volume for Reaktion's Edible series.

The origins of biscuits are lost in time, but Edwards notes that they can't very well predate bread itself. Biscuits are either twice-baked bread, or a dense malleable dough, perhaps "shortened" with fats, leavened, or perhaps lightened, with eggs. (American cookies make liberal use of baking soda and powder, but yeast is usually not a biscuit/cookie ingredient.) Sweet biscuits share some etymology and genealogy with ship's biscuit and soldiers' hardtack, and thus with crackers – and, it occurs to me, with matzoh, unmentioned in Edwards' book. But matzoh, in culinary terms, serves a breadlike function. Except when chocolate-coated, when matzoh comes pretty close to a cookie. Communion wafers, which are typologically related to matzoh, are the plainest form of a common European cookie, sometimes eaten flat, sometimes rolled, sometimes elaborated into waffles or pizzelles. I do not think that chocolate-covered communion wafers exist.

To qualify as a biscuit/cookie, a modern sweet baked good must be small, eaten out of hand, a snack food more than a dessert. On this we can agree with Edwards. Her survey of the biscuits and cookies of the world is western-centric, because biscuits have not made great inroads in Asia. Except as an imported tradition, I think. Asian markets in Texas sell lots of colorful tins of rolled wafers and Danish butter cookies, many of them baked in Indonesia. Edwards notes the dominant place Oreos, in a wide range of specially-developed flavors, hold in the Chinese market and imagination.

Biscuits proper hold sway from the Middle East to the Atlantic. Islamic countries feature many sweets, some of them distinctly biscuitlike. In Greece, paximadia, very like biscotti, have been a favorite for centuries. German, Dutch, and Scandinavian biscuit traditions are old and continue to flourish; but it took British and French industries to turn artisanal biscuit-baking into mass-produced commodity.

Many traditional biscuits have survived unchanged for a long time now, not just as generic styles but as perpetual brand names. Edwards charts the rise of the French company LU, who began in Nantes in the 1840s, importing British biscuits. LU hit on the Petit Beurre and its madly delicious chocolate cousin, the Petit Écolier – the latter designed after an ad campaign for Petit Beurre, making it a sort of meta-brand. Leibniz biscuits are nearly as old; Oreos are relative newcomers, just a tad over 100. Ladurée macarons, almondy and in a rainbow of colors, have been around for a while but only recently seem to have made a world conquest.

Oreos, being American, are technically cookies. But in form and texture they are certainly very close to some European biscuits. "Cookie" as a word comes from Dutch, and was imported to the Eastern US as a concept by early Dutch immigrants. I think of American cookies as being cakier and softer than European biscuits, though of course there are all kinds of exceptions. There's a distinct line, for instance, between home-baked chocolate-chip cookies, soft and gooey, and mass-produced ones, sandy and stiff. They're almost different food groups.

But ginger snaps feature transatlantically. Vanilla wafers, that staple American food, are identical to many a European biscuit. Europeans make many a jammy or creamy sandwich biscuit. Edwards points out that even to list the most popular cookies in the world, with no comment at all, would take her far past her allotted 110 pages or so.

Edwards includes a cookie glossary, though, with some iconic types, and of course some recipes as well. I have been remiss lately in making the Reaktion Edible recipes, and Biscuits and Cookies will not break my string. The heritage recipes are daunting, and the modern ones exotic. My basic cookie now is a lemon-flavored drop-sugar, soft like all the best American recipes, dusted with sugar and nutmeg. I am too old to learn new cookie tricks.

Edwards, Anastasia. Biscuits and Cookies: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2019.