Flat, hard wafers of baked dough have basically existed for as long as people had flour, water and hot stones to bake it on. However, cookies as we know them - that is, sweet cookies - first appeared in the middle east in the 7th century, as that is where sugar was first refined. Sugar, and confections made with sugar, then spread west throughout Europe through trade routes etc.
The earliest recipes *I* could find (and read, Middle Persian is not a language I'm familiar with :P) and recognize as "cookies" in the modern sense were English ones from around the turn of the 17th century. Cookies at this time were often called, rather confusingly, "cakes". Sometimes they were called "jambals" or "jumbles" which may have been a transliteration of an earlier Persian word. Interestingly (at least to me) the word "jumble" for cookie came into use before the word "jumble" was used to mean "a mixture of stuff" so it could be that the word originally came from cookies!
The modern American word "cookie" comes from the Dutch "koekje" meaning a little cake, while "biscuit", the word used by most of the rest of the English speaking word, comes from the Latin "bis coquere" meaning "twice cooked". Many early cookies were cooked in a two stage process which included baking gently and then drying in an oven, or boiling and then baking.
Ok, that's enough history and etymology for now. ;) Time for some cookies!
Step 1: The Ingredients
To make Sugar-Cakes or Jambals.
Take two pound of flour, dry it, and season it very fine, then take a pound of loaf sugar, beat it very fine, and searse it, mingle your flour and sugar very well; then take a pound and a half of sweet butter, wash out the salt and break it into bits into the flour and sugar, then take the yolks of four new laid eggs, four or five spoonfuls of sack, and four spoonfuls of cream, beat all these together, put them into the flour, and work it up into paste, make them into what fashion you please, lay them upon papers or plates, and put them into the oven; be careful of them, for a very little thing bakes them.
From: The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, which can be found here at Project Gutenberg.
My modernized version:
1/2 lb of flour
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1 pinch saffron
1/4 lb of sugar
6 oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp sweet sherry
1 tbsp cream
Extra sugar (~1/4-1/2 cup) for decoration
parchment paper for baking
I did use unbleached flour for this recipe, since I was attempting, as usual, to be authentic. As for the sugar, though, I used plain white sugar in the recipe and raw sugar for decoration. If I had more, as well as the time to "pound it very fine", I might have used raw sugar for the whole thing.
"Sack" is pretty hard to find nowadays, so I used sweet sherry, which is pretty close.
I also reduced the whole recipe to 1/4 of the original quantity. It still made 3 dozen cookies, and being that it's just after christmas and we still have a ton of cookies in the house, I'm glad I did!
The spices get a bit more explanation...
Step 2: Take Two Pound of Flour, Dry It, and Season It Very Fine...
I liked this recipe out of the ones I found because it has pretty exact measurements for most of the ingredients, which is fairly rare for early recipes. It did, however, contain the rather vague instruction: "season it very fine" ("it" being the flour). In order to fill in the blanks here, I looked at several other cookie recipes from around that time, mainly from The Accomplisht Cook and The Good Huswifes Jewell (found at Medieval Cookery).
Cloves, nutmeg or mace, saffron and rosewater, as well as rarer and more exotic ingredients like musk and ambergris seemed to be fairly common ingredients for cakes and cookies around that time, and that, along with what I had on hand, was how I came to decide what to use. I did have some rosewater too, but I didn't want to mess with the recipe by adding liquid...
The amounts given in the ingredients step were approximately what I added, and while I found the spice to be quite strong enough in these cookies, it may even be that a cook working in the early modern period would have added even more - they seem to have liked their food to be very strongly seasoned. So adjust your seasoning however you like.
What I actually did:
I put the ground nutmeg and cloves in with the flour and sugar and gave it a stir. I added the butter, broken up into small pieces, and tried to break it up a bit with the spoon.
Step 3: Then Take the Yolks of Four New Laid Eggs...
Basically, all I did was mix the wet ingredients in a bowl. Not all that complicated really, and the end result of this step wasn't terribly appetizing :P
Step 4: Work It Up Into Paste...
Step 5: Make Them Into What Fashion You Please...
I don't, unsurprisingly, have a wood burning oven in my house, so an electric one had to do. As for what temperature to set the oven, I settled on the pretty much standard baking temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Step 6: Be Careful of Them, for a Very Little Thing Bakes Them...
In conclusion: do try this one at home! They're yummy, and an interesting taste of the past. Might be a fun activity for a class learning about the spice trade or something...