Her streamlined shrimp and grits have changed the way we make seafood brunch. Her classic Southern cornbread has become a regular in our cast iron rotation. And her pot roast? Well, let's just say we're waiting impatiently for cooler weather to come around before we start eating it again on the regular.
Anne Byrn's Southern Kitchen column, Taste of a Place, has generated some of our most popular recipes and stories since last spring. Byrn's voracious appetite for American culinary history has educated all of us on what it is we're really eating when we eat Southern food. And now she's expanded her expertise to one of the most iconic of desserts — the cookie.
Byrn's new cookbook, American Cookie, takes the home baker on a journey through the history of buttered, sugared and chocolate chipped confections. You'll learn about Emily Dickinson's favorite cookies and get the recipe for old-fashioned "wine drops." Everyday classics like oatmeal raisin, peanut butter and lemon bars are also, of course, in abundance, but in addition to well-tested recipes, you'll get the true story behind each and every one of these treats.
We sat down with Byrn to learn a little more about the book, and she was kind enough to share a preview recipe with all of us.
Southern Kitchen: In many ways, this book feels like a natural follow-up to your book, American Cake. What were some new discoveries you made about the history of American baking as you were researching cookies?
Anne Byrn: Once again, I learned that American baking has a fascinating story to tell, and that story reflects the immigrant peoples who brought their cookie recipes to America and created new recipes here. American baking has not only evolved through the centuries, but it has adapted to the people, places, ingredients and equipment available.
If you look at cookies, you can see they are more last-minute and spontaneous than cakes. They don't need a lot of culinary mastery or expensive ingredients — so everyday people would have baked them. Cookies are more forgiving than cakes, so you can make substitutions easily if you don't have ingredients in the house or cannot afford them. Think back on the classic Toll House cookie and its story; [there was no cocoa on hand] so chopped chocolate was used instead. Cookies could be pulled together from ingredients on hand, and one recipe made a lot. Cookies fed people. Especially children. And there is a deep connection to the family cookie jar.
Just as in American Cake, if you look at early cookies recipes you will see the ingredients reflected the era in American baking. The type of fat used is the tip-off. Butter is found in older recipes, lard in rural, margarine in recipes coming from the war years, and vegetable shortening from those recipes of the early 20th century.
SK: Speaking of cake, what really is the difference between cookies and cake? Is it all just size and semantics?
AB: It comes down to texture. Cakes are softer than cookies. Although we know with soft tea cakes and cake-like whoopie pies that the lines can often be blurred. Most cookies are crispy, and this is due to the higher ratio of butter or other fat used in the preparation. The word "cookie" comes from the Dutch, and their cookie of choice was crispy. Cookies became more cake-like in texture and appearance with the invention of baking powder at the end of the 1800s. So pre-20th century, cookies were crispy, and after that, the tea cake-like cookies that we know originated.
SK: What was one of the most surprising recipes you baked? Why?
AB: American Gingersnaps. I wasn't raised on a gingerbread cookie that had no egg in the batter. And that is what makes true gingersnaps really "snap." You drape the dough over the pan, bake, and then slice it into pieces after baking. This is such a resourceful recipe, so true to the time, as there are no scraps from rolling and cutting the dough. Every bit of it is baked and eaten! These cookies are a part of the collection of gingerbread recipes baked here since Colonial America.
SK: This is not scientific by any means, but reading through the book, it seems like there are more ginger based cookies than any other flavor in there. Why do you think we love ginger so much?
AB: Ginger has always been a beloved spice in American baking because it was exotic in flavor and elevated everyday ingredients into something special. By wonderful coincidence, it masked the bitter taste of early leavening agents like pearlash found in gingerbread recipes. And, ginger was known as a stomach settler, and for this reason gingerbread was baked and sold to sailors to take on long sea voyages. It would make sense that gingerbread recipes would trickle down into family recipe boxes, and they are still baked today for holidays. So, ginger is still relevant. It reminds us of our history, and it allows one cookie recipe to bridge the generations.
SK: I was particularly intrigued by your chapter on politics and cookies. What was one of your favorite stories you uncovered for that chapter?
AB: Without a doubt, the Edenton Tea Party Cakes. In the fall of 1774, 52 women gathered in the home of Elizabeth King of Edenton, North Carolina, for a tea party. Or, to be more exact, a tea-less party because the women were protesting the British Tea Act of 1773. They refused to serve British tea, but they served these tea cakes. And this was the first recorded organized political event for women in America.
SK: If there was one, what style of cookie would you say is most emblematic of modern baking today? Why?
AB: Definitely the drop cookie. It's easy to make the dough, refrigerate it, and then bake it later. And in fact, the texture of the cookie improves if you give it some time in the fridge to chill.
SK: I'm not going to let you go without asking: What are your favorite three cookie recipes in the book? Why?
AB: I have too many favorites! As for cookies I would bake any day, they would be the Neiman Marcus $250 Cookie, Ruth Wakefield's Chocolate Chunk Cookies, Sara's Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies and Cousin Irene's Sugar Cookies. As far as favorite cookies I didn't know before this book, and that I plan to bake for Christmas, these are Beatrice's Peppernuts, Grandma Hartman's Molasses Cookies, Forgotten Chocolate Cookies and the Marguerites.
Chocolate Pinwheel Cookies
Makes: 5 to 6 dozen
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 4 1/2 hours
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
Place the soft butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the egg and vanilla and beat just until combined, 30 to 45 seconds.
Stir together the flour and salt in a small bowl. Dump the flour mixture in the bowl with the butter and sugar mixture. Beat on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl once with a rubber spatula, until all the flour is incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.
Chop the chocolate and place in a small glass bowl. Heat in the microwave oven on high power for 1 minute, stirring at intervals, until melted. Let cool.
Tear off four sheets of waxed or parchment paper, each about 15 inches long. Divide the dough in half. Place one half onto one sheet of waxed paper and press with your fingertips into a rectangle. Cover with another sheet of waxed paper and place in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours, or freeze for 1 hour. Pour the melted chocolate into the bowl with the second half of the dough. Beat with the electric mixer on medium speed to combine, 1 minute. Wrap the paper around the chocolate dough and chill 2 to 3 hours, or freeze for 1 hour, until firm.
Remove the plain dough from the refrigerator or freezer, and with floured hands, place the dough onto a floured work surface (or roll it between the sheets of the waxed paper). Roll to 1/4-inch thickness. Carefully place the chocolate dough on top of the white, and roll the doughs up into a jelly roll, beginning with the longer side. Wrap the roll in the waxed paper, and place it in the freezer while you preheat the oven.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the dough from the freezer, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Arrange them 1 to 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake the cookies until they are just firm and begin to brown around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and transfer the cookies immediately to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. Store the cookies in a tightly covered container for up to 1 week.
Recipe reprinted with permission from American Cookie: The Snaps, Drops, Jumples, Tea Cakes, Bars & Brownies That We Have Loved for Generations, copyright 2018 by Anne Byrn. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Photo (Anne Byrn): Ashley Hylbert
Photo (books): Ranji McMillan
Photo (cookies): Tina Rupp