“American Cookie” by Anne Byrn, Rodale Books, $24, 312 pages, paperback
Anne Byrn, author of the best-selling “Cake Mix Doctor” series, takes readers on a wonderful nostalgic look at America’s favorite family cookies, little cakes, candies, bars and brownies in her latest baking book, “American Cookie.”
Like her earlier — and terrific — “American Cake” cookbook, Byrn mixes the historical background of each tasty recipe in “American Cookie” with clear, concise instructions and numerous full-color photographs.
In the introduction, Byrn calls America’s beloved little treats “fascinating morsels of history” that “tell a big story” and are “as suitable to bake today as they were generations ago.”
She offers cookie-baking tips, discusses the key ingredients and the right pan for the job, and looks at how cookie names have changed. She also lists when some of America’s favorites were first created. For example, the Oreo has been around since 1912 and was a copy of the earlier Hydrox cookie from Sunshine Biscuits.
Recipes are divided into six chapters, beginning with Grandma Hartman’s Molasses Cookies in the section called "Drop Cookies Past & Present" and ending with Albany Olicooks (Doughnuts) in the section "Candy, Fried Cakes & culinary Artistry." In between are delicious recipes for shaped and rolled cookies, wafers, icebox cookies, brownies and tea cakes.
Louisiana treats are well-represented and include Ursuline Anise Cookies, Creole Stage Planks, Ella Brennan’s Pralines and New Orleans Beignets.
The cookbook’s cover features a childhood favorite of mine — the peanut butter cookie with its crosshatch pattern that the school lunch ladies occasionally baked and that my mom sometimes let me help make.
About it Byrn writes: “Making something as simply delicious as the peanut butter cookie didn’t happen overnight. While peanut butter was invented in the 1890s and George Washington Carver spent the 1920s extolling the benefits of both peanuts and peanut butter, it took hard times — the war years and the Depression — for peanut butter to gain the spotlight as a source of protein and B vitamins. What was childhood without a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? And what was school lunch with peanut butter cookies?
“As farmers faced financial ruin due to price collapses on their commodities in the 1930s, as parents were out of work and their children hungry, the U.S. government stepped in to help through the federally supported lunch program. Not only did the government purchase surplus crops from farmers and feed children a hot meal, but they also employed thousands of women to cook in the lunchrooms. And to bake recipes such as peanut butter cookies.
"These cookies were perfect for the lunch program because they used lower-cost vegetable shortening instead of butter. They could be baked in bulk. And they could be stored at room temperature. They became a staple at public school lunchrooms as well as private. When the Chicago Tribune profiled the cafeteria manager of the Catholic Marquette Park School in 1961, they found a favorite peanut butter cookie recipe being baked for 1,300 girls by Sister Mary Trinita."
The recipe Byrn supplies is the one from 1961.
"And while today peanut allergies prevent many cafeterias from baking peanut butter cookies," she writes, "you can bake a taste of the past with this recipe.”
“American Cookie” belongs in the cookbook library of every home baker who loves cookies.