Cookies are irresistible. They’re easy to bake, relatively inexpensive to buy, and all too easy to eat. They’re small (usually), sweet, either crisp and crunchy or luxuriously tender and soft, and just indulgent enough. They satisfy sugar cravings without the heft of a piece of cake or a slice of pie.
In effect, cookies are cake — just on a smaller scale. The word itself comes from a Dutch word “koekje,” meaning, well, small cake. Why Dutch? Perhaps the influence of early Dutch settlers in New York and vicinity. In the U.K. and other English-speaking countries beyond our borders, what Americans call cookies are known as biscuits (from the Latin “bis coctis,” cooked twice — think biscotti). In this country, of course, a biscuit is a kind of small, crumbly leavened quick-bread roll — delicious, but not a cookie.
Food historians date the first cookie-like little cakes to seventh-century Persia, not surprising since that was one of the first countries to use sugar widely. It is thought that cookies were originally test cakes of a sort — small pieces of dough would be baked to test oven temperatures in the days before thermometers. Cookie recipes appeared in America as early as 1796.
Many of America’s most popular cookie brands — including Oreos, Fig Newtons, Lorna Doones, Nilla Wafers, and Mallomars — were developed by Nabisco in the late 19th or early 20th century. This bakery powerhouse, originally based in Chicago and later transported to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, was formed in 1898 through a merger of the American Biscuit Company (itself an agglomeration of some 40 independent Midwestern bakeries) and the New York Biscuit Company (formed out of nine East Coast bakeries). The new company was called the National Biscuit Company, abbreviated for decades as N.B.C. before the name Nabisco was adopted in 1941, in part to avoid confusion with the ascendent National Broadcasting Company — NBC — radio network.
However, some other cookie brands — and especially, for some reason, those specializing in chocolate chip cookies — were started on a shoestring by entrepreneurs. Still others were launched by once-competitive bakeries that have since gone out of business or been subsumed by large corporations.
One thing is certain: Cookies are big business in America — the top 10 brands alone accounted for almost $4 billion in sales last year — and, increasingly, internationally as well. And many of them have interesting stories to tell.