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Nothing says “home” like the smell of freshly-baked cookies. But in my household there is a bit of a battle going on over the proper consistency of a top-notch cookie. My American tendencies want soft cookies with gooey bits in them. The European half of the household prefers crunchy cookies with no gooey bits. We’ll each eat the other’s preference, but the definition of cookie tends to differ.
This made me curious about traditional cookies from around the world, and so to the research, which led to some very unusual variations. All of them are grounded in the basic essence of cookie-ness: 1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour. This definition will distinguish from bars and brownies and other cookie cousins, but which do not qualify. Cooking longer, or using less fat, or spreading cookie dough more thinly, results in crispy, European-style cookies. Lots of fat and thick dough clumps, just slight under-cooked, yields the American version. But what about other countries?
This Scottish specialty is all about the butter: it has no other flavoring, so it really tastes of buttery goodness. But, in shortbreads there’s a lot of butter. In one recipe, a whole pound of butter went into the mix with just a cup of sugar and four cups of flour.
A sort of gingerbread cookie, translated as “peppernut,” found throughout the northern coast of continental Europe are eaten on the feast of Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, in December. They are nut-sized and can be eaten in handfuls, just like popping peanuts. Their version of the gingerbread/speculaas mix includes molasses, honey, anise, cloves and mace, as well as the speculaas ingredients.
This Swedish recipe for gingerbread is baked for Advent. And if you’ve got enough person-shaped pepparkakor, you can set them up inside a pepparkakshus, a gingerbread house!
American Black and White Cookie
So iconic that there’s a whole Seinfeld episode about them, this soft cookie is iced half with vanilla icing, half with chocolate. They developed in the Little Germany neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, and in Germany they are called Amerikaner.
Mexican Wedding Cakes
Traditional wedding celebration munchies, these little domes of goodness, dusted in powdered white sugar (rolled through it twice, for double the fun), have hits of pecans and vanilla.
Iranian Naan Berenji
Persian Naan Berenji rice cookies are flavored with rose water, and are baked for New Year’s celebrations, served ideally with a nice cup of tea.
One of the most exotic in this list are the Mbatata, traditional cookies made from sweet potato. The sweetness comes not from sugar, but those sweet potatoes.
Made every Easter, these twisty cookies look like miniature loaves of bread. But beware, traditional recipes call for baking ammonia as the rising agent. This is not quite as suspicious as it sounds, but you may prefer to err on the safe side, and use baking soda instead.
Austrian Linzer Kekse
Linzer Kekse is what my European family thinks of, when they think of cookies. Cinnamon and almonds and egg yolk with a jam filling. They are traditionally made with a flat cookie bottom and a ring cookie on top, sandwiching a raspberry jam so that it shows through the open center of the ring. As the name suggests, the cookies come from Linz (also known for its Linzer Torte), and the almond-enriched dough is what distinguishes these baked goods.
When I lived in Florence, my favorite snack was a big bag of these cookies. Cantucci are sometimes called by the general term biscotti (which means any biscuit or cookie, but actually translating as “twice-cooked”). They are packed with almonds and baked. The fact that they are baked twice, bis-cotti, results in their hardness: more baking, a harder cookie. Sometimes Cantucci are so hard that they are only really good when dunked in a beverage (Vin Santo being the preferred dunking target).
Served at Serbian celebrations, these cookies are like Austrian linzer cookies, but constructed like a sandwich around apricot jam.
Van Stapele Koekmakerij's Cookie in Amsterdam
The best cookie I’ve ever eaten was from Van Stapele Koekmakerij in Amsterdam. A tiny enclave off a narrow alley, this bakery does not mess around. They offer a single thing, quite possibly the world’s best cookie, and that’s it. The cookie is a giant, ooey-gooey dark chocolate monster studded in white chocolate chunks and with a melty white chocolate core. Eating one is an almost spiritual experience. But this is not a traditional Dutch cookie, it’s an international hybrid at the top of its game.
So while it’s good to learn each local variation, and who would complain about a bout of cookie taste-testing, what’s important is that the baker has put love and thought into their product. And preferably made it soft and ooey-gooey with melty chocolate chips.