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A history, with recipes and photos, of the cookie at Gourmet Magazine
on October 3, 2010
As a longtime subscriber to both Gourmet and Bon Appetit, I used to tell people that I liked Gourmet for its savory recipes and Bon Appetit for its sweets. This new compilation of the best cookie recipes, decade by decade, from Gourmet confronted me with the fallacy of that statement. Some of my long-time favorite cookie recipes, including strawberry tart cookies and cranberry pistachio biscotti, can be found here. The best part of this book, however, is not the recipes, as good as they are, but the history behind them. The division of the recipes by decades offers glimpses into trends, subscribers, changing culinary tastes and abilities, and, of course, the focus of the magazine itself.
Interestingly, when the magazine was first published in 1940s and people baked more than they do today, the cookie recipes were much more simple, with tastes that highlighted a few ingredients: butter, nuts, spices. Even in the 1950s, when baking ingredients were more available, the cookies remained somewhat homey and classic, with gingerbread men, lace cookies, and sesame-seed-coated queen's biscuits taking center stage. In the 1960s, however, Gourmet's cookies started taking on a more international note; as the editors note, commercialized air travel and growing national unrest led to more daring recipes. As the book states, "not a single one of the four cookie recipes that appeared in Gourmet in 1963 was of American origin." With this new internationalism came other recipes with more sophisticated lists of ingredients and flavors. By jumping ahead to the 2000s, Gourmet's final decade, one can see how much American tastes have changed: many of the cookies are classics with gourmet twists that make them look more like professionally baked treats than homemade lunch box snacks. Because the book contains a full page photograph of each recipe, it is obvious that later recipes focused as much on aesthetics as taste, while most earlier ones were content with a plain appearance.
Because this book contains recipes exactly as they appeared in the magazine (with some recipe notes for clarification), contemporary bakers may be somewhat taken aback by the format in the earlier decades, as their directions are "remarkably casual, a kind of mysterious shorthand that assumes that each reader is an accomplished cook." While I dispute that these early recipes require any sort of advanced experience, they are definitely written out as though one person is describing the process to another, with ingredients not listed separately but as part of the instructions. (Separate lists of ingredients don't appear until 1982, when recipes were "no longer able to count on the readers' experience.") In some ways, I found the earlier recipes easier to follow because I didn't have to worry about going back and forth between adding sugar and reading how much sugar was called for. The amount was right there in the text.
But how are the recipes themselves? Absolutely wonderful. Not a single one of the recipes I tried missed, although, obviously, some recipes, such as the sparkling lemon sandwich cookies, took more time and effort. From the humble honey refrigerator cookies to the sophisticated coconut macadamia shortbread, these recipes will please contemporary palates.
-- Debbie Lee Wesselmann