Friday, 28 October 2011

Elephant No. 26: Sugar Cookies

Today I didn't feel like dealing with weird chemical reactions, paint, matches, glue or folding, so I decided to bake instead. I rarely bake except at Christmas, but the alternatives pleased me even less than the idea of making cookies.

Although hard-tack wafers have existed for millennia, cookies appear to have originated in seventh-century Persia, coinciding with the rising use of sugar in the region. Some sources suggest that the first cookies may even have been created by accident. Since bakers habitually placed small amounts of cake batter in an oven to test its temperature, flat mini-cakes were often the result.

Cookies reached Europe via the Muslim conquest of Spain and, by the fourteenth century, they were common within every level of society, from street vendor to royal court. Travel was also becoming more widespread at the time, and cookies, like pies, were commonly taken on journeys. Hearty cookies made with nuts and dried fruit were particularly popular. 

Cookies came to North America with the English in the seventeenth century, although the name koekje—"little cake", later anglicized to "cookie"—arrived with the Dutch. Cookies of the time were usually fairly substantial, and included favourites such as jumbles, gingerbread cookies, and macaroons. The more delicate sugar cookie was not commonly made until the eighteenth century.

For today's elephant, I decided to use my grandmother's sugar cookie recipe, reproduced below. For years, my mother has made Hallowe'en cookies with this recipe, and my sister uses it at Christmas, so it is part of a fairly venerable tradition within my family. Except for me: for some reason, I never make sugar cookies, and I think this is only the third time I've used this recipe.

Ethel's Sugar Cookies
3/4 cup (180 ml) butter
1 cup (240 ml) white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon (45 ml) vanilla
2-1/2 cups (600 ml) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (45 ml) baking powder
1 teaspoon (45 ml) salt (adjust if butter is salted)

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until fluffy again. Add flavouring—I don't really like vanilla anything all that much, so I added 1/4 teaspoon of almond flavouring instead—and stir.

Stir in baking powder and salt until well incorporated, then mix in flour only until a soft dough forms. If you stir the mixture too much after the flour is added, the cookies might end up a little on the tough side. Chill dough for an hour or so. I tend to chill any dough a little less than they say, because I don't like fighting with it when I roll it out.

Preheat oven to 375˚F (190˚C). Roll out dough to about 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) or slightly less. You may need to dust your cutting board and/or rolling pin with a bit of flour if the dough starts to get sticky.

Cut out shapes with your favourite cookie cutters. Sprinkle with decorations, or bake plain and decorate with icing afterwards. Bake 6–8 minutes. Yield: Four dozen 3-inch cookies.

It surprised me to discover that I already had this elephant cookie cutter, although I don't remember where or when I got it.

I decided to decorate the cookies before they went into the oven. I suppose I could have piped on some fancy icing after they were baked, but I thought that might feel a lot like drawing. I much preferred the idea of sugar cookies with sparkly sugar sprinkles.

Of course, I never get anywhere near the number of cookies a recipe says I should. I have no idea why. If it says the recipe makes three dozen, I'll get twenty cookies. If it says it makes two dozen, I'll get fourteen. This one says four dozen; I got eighteen.

Oh well, as long as they taste good and I'm not bringing them to some event which requires a specific number of something. Which, of course, I would probably never agree to do.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have a definite sweet tooth. In addition to a diet of grasses, herbs, hay, leaves and bark, elephants like fruit, with a particular fondness for bananas and watermelon.

They also love sugar cane. In 2007, a newspaper in Thailand reported on a wave of looting along one of the country's major highways. The crime wave was caused by wild elephants living in areas around the highway. Over a period of several weeks, dozens of trucks carrying sugar cane had been broken into while parked along the side of the road. Forest rangers were charged with patrolling the highway for elephants craving a sugar fix, and officials imposed a nighttime curfew to try and bring the looting under control.

A young elephant caught in the act

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

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