The last week of September hit like a bag of bricks slipping out of an unsecured pickup bed onto the windshield of an unsuspecting car in traffic. Babies clamored in the womb. The dead made themselves known. Unremarkable but reliable sources of income were lost. A gray cloud lowered itself down onto the plain, moistening everything. The temperature dropped from reasonable early autumn levels straight into the depths of the high forties/ low fifties Fahrenheit.
The apartment was immediately transformed into a frosty den, somehow holding a cold deeper and more settled than that contained in the high-opacity mist outside. With no space heaters and no budget for them, there’s only one heat source to turn to: the oven.
Not powerful enough to effectively warm much of the apartment, cranking up the oven at least makes the kitchen a fairly bearable place to exist. It’s also easier to justify excessive oven use if you’re actually baking something. The snickerdoodle is the perfect cookie for this moment. A simple combination of ingredients that are probably in the cupboard, the end result is a cookie that contains inherent heat and a flavor that seems somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
The age-old question lingers, however: what the hell is a snickerdoodle? Or at least: why do we call this cinnamon-sugar cookie by that name? In moments like these, we can all be thankful that the people editing the Wikipedia page on snickerdoodles are appropriately citing their sources. These good citizen-editors have pointed to that cornerstone of American kitchens, The Joy of Cooking, as citing “snickerdoodle” as a probable bastardization of the German “Schneckennudel,” an older and not very similar desert that resembles a snail. There’s also some argument that it could be Dutch in origin or derives from a New England penchant for giving things nonsense names. The page also has sections that list the variety of products that have been branded “snickerdoodle flavor,” as nothing classically American can exist without having the meaning stomped out of it by brands eager to capitalize on the feelings associated with it.
Rote theories of snickerdoodle etymology further complicate themselves when you dip into the discussion section of the page and find that no one is certain about any of this and a variety of theories and claims abound. Like so many things, all you have to do is start to pull on competing strands of etymology, origin, and cultural claims only to find that nothing certain remains.
I dug through a few old church cookbooks—the source for recipes among the older generations of my family—to see when the snickerdoodle recipes started to appear in Iowa. I couldn’t find any mention of it pre-WWII, but an undated recipe appears in a centennial collection of recipes for a rural Iowan church of recipes.
One cookie that seems like a likely precursor to the snickerdoodle that I found in some of the older cookbooks was the Amish sugar cookie. The similarity in the creation of the cookies is undeniable, the difference being the all-important cinnamon addition.
I know of the snickerdoodle’s existence from my mother, who would also bake them in cold in dreary weather. I used this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, though I substituted lemon for the cream of tartar, which kept the egg whites under control as well as anything. Paige, one of most intuitively skilled cooks I personally know, suggested the addition of ground ginger to the cinnamon-sugar mixture, which was perfect. I added a little ground ginger and cinnamon into the dough itself. It didn’t seem right to confine the cookie itself to being a simple sugar cookie while the coating got to have all the fun. The result was a slightly risen cookie that was dense but not dry, providing the needed comfort.
For the most part, the world is uncontrollable, in many ways deeply unfair, at turns uncomfortable, unpredictable, and capable of inflicting great pain. The ability to perform this simple alchemy and forge a morsel of something unassuming yet impressive—still warming long after the oven’s heat has faded in a miserably cold apartment on a Sunday afternoon—is some kind of consolation.