September 20, 2018
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The Most Pragmatic Cookie
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Since the ’30s, icebox cookies have given busy working people a chance to slice, bake, and serve dessert at a moment’s notice.

In 1931, Irma Rombauer spent half her savings to print a collection of family recipes. She called it Joy of Cooking. The book coincided with two important moments in American history: Refrigerators were starting to make their way into more and more homes, and women increasingly started leaving the home to enter the workforce. The book, filled with practical, do-ahead recipes that wouldn’t cut too much into a home cook’s busy workday, became an instant classic.

While writing my book American Cake, and more recently American Cookie, I was struck by how Depression-era cooks embraced this plan-ahead attitude while creatively using refrigeration. In the 1930s, women entered public school cafeterias as lunch ladies. They opened tea rooms. They became nurses and teachers. And to help these cooks with work-home balance, as well as the rationing tickets that would arrive with World War II, cookbook authors and newspaper food columnists stressed low-cost, quick-fix recipes that would boost the family’s morale. Out of this movement arrived the icebox cookie.

Named after the refrigerator’s predecessor (the icebox), these were cookies you could keep refrigerated, then bake at a moment’s notice—essentially a 1930s version of a Pillsbury slice-and-bake cookie. Home cooks could make the cookie dough before they went to work, roll it in sheets of waxed paper or store it in leftover milk cartons, and place it in the refrigerator until they were home and able to bake. With dough in the icebox, you were ready for friends and family to come calling—or a visit from the local preacher on a Sunday afternoon. Having a quantity of homemade food at the ready was both a welcoming gesture and a source of social capital.

Today, icebox cookies are practical for the same reasons they were during the Depression. They can be made with whatever mix-ins you have on hand, whether it is chopped dates, coconut, or pecans. They can contain brown sugar, cane syrup, or even corn syrup (harkening back to when the prices of white sugar soared too high), sometimes with dates or raisins for a little added sweetness. They can be made with a heavy portion of oats (and low on flour, which was helpful when people were faced with wartime flour rations), resulting in a thin, flat cookie with a lacy texture.

You can make a tiny bit of chocolate stretch across a whole batch of cookies by making German pinwheel cookies. This involves taking half of your sugar cookie dough and adding melted chocolate to it. The chocolate dough is laid on top of the vanilla dough and rolled into a log, wrapped in waxed paper, and chilled. When sliced and baked, these cookies form a beautiful spiral from the two contrasting doughs.

Because pinwheels, along with other icebox cookies, welcome substitutions, you have carte blanche to create your own version. Mix some grated lemon zest, chopped lavender, benne seeds, coffee, or pistachios into the interior dough. Use olive oil instead of butter. The dough actually improves while it rests in the refrigerator as the flour soaks up the liquid and creates a more even-textured cookie, so don’t be afraid to make them a few days ahead of your guests.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate

The kitchen of my youth was filled with chocolate cake, pudding, and brownies, but sadly, it did not include pinwheel cookies. I had to read about these cookies that are most likely German in origin and popularized in the late 1920s. And I had to read about how clever cooks divided their sugar cookie dough in half and added melted chocolate to one half, then laid the chocolate dough on top of the other and rolled them up before slicing into pinwheels. It is this visual spiral that intrigues me about this old recipe and surely has contributed to its popularity through the years. They are especially loved in the Midwest, where author Glenn Andrews recalled her mother making these cookies that, when baked, were so pretty they “seemed downright miraculous to me.” That is the mystique of pinwheel cookies, and yet they’re easier to make than you think. Just follow the recipe below. Or use your favorite sugar cookie dough, divide in half, and add 1 ounce melted unsweetened chocolate to one half. For the best contrast of colors, lay the chocolate dough on top of the white so the white wraps around it. And be careful not to overbake so the white portion stays light. From there, the possibilities are endless—you could substitute spices or grated orange zest or molasses for the chocolate.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Tear off 4 sheets of waxed or parchment paper, each about 15" 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 2-3 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 2-3 hours, or freeze for 1 hour, until firm.
  5. 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" 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.
  6. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. Remove the dough from the freezer, and slice the dough into 1⁄4" rounds. Arrange them 1" to 2" apart on ungreased baking sheets. Place the pan in the oven.
  7. Bake the cookies until they are just firm and begin to brown around the edges, 8-10 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.

Anne Byrn

Anne Byrn is the bestselling author of American Cookie (Rodale Books/Crown Publishing, 2018) American Cake, and the Cake Mix Doctor cookbook series. Formerly a food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of La Varenne École de Cuisine in Paris, Byrn lives with her family in Nashville.

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