We recreated 1,300 year old cookies. This is how it went
For the cookie version, it is important to use a fairly standard sugar cookie dough with a relatively high fat content and relatively low liquid content, so that it does not swell and spill out a lot. The only leaven is the egg. It is also very important to cool before forming, and again before baking. You can then cut thin slices and roll them to the appropriate thickness for baking. It’s hard to tell given how long they’ve aged, but I think it’s likely the lines on these cookies were highlighted by brushing butter and spices onto the rolled up surface before forming the piles. . I chose cinnamon with a little cardamom, and it’s a nice, familiar and warm sugar cookie flavor. To make the triangular, I knocked the chilled dough cylinder on the counter a few times to flatten the sides before slicing.
The top center cookie took a bit more experimentation. The British Museum notes that it is made of three loops of dough, and while it’s hard for me to say for sure without seeing the other side of it, I think it actually represents a single, long string of dough tied in half a knot on each side. To get the right size, you needed a tapered rope over two feet long, and for it to hold up the dough had to be quite low in sugar and with a lot more flour than the usual sugar cookie.
Again, there is no leaven other than a little egg, because I didn’t want it to warp. I also brushed it with cream and egg white and baked at a relatively high temperature to seal that smooth surface you can see in the original. The final dough turned out to be pretty close to an Italian anise cookie that I made many years ago, so I flavored it that way. It’s not very sweet, something like a cross between a chewy pretzel and a scone. It’s so beautifully shaped that I think it was probably done by grabbing the rope with both hands in the right places and turning it a certain way to tie the knot with inward force. Physics can do perfect circles and twists a lot faster and reliably than the way I did. (If you doubt that this is possible, I invite you to watch expert noodle makers at work!) Interestingly, I’m pretty sure this one is displayed upside down in the museum photo. Whoops!
The cookie in the middle at the bottom is my favorite. Museum notes say it’s not clear if it’s molded or piped, but I’m pretty confident it was piped; it would be almost impossible for a molded cookie to maintain its shape by coming out of the mold with such thin strips. I used the sugar cookie dough from the millefiori cookie above, but added some cream and let it warm up a bit so that it was soft enough to drive. This is similar to what you would use to create spritz cookies. I’m by no means an expert flute player, but with a simple star piping bag and a little practice, I got something pretty close to the original.
Looking back, I wonder if the original could have had a little leaven, or maybe a little more egg in volume. It just seems to be a little bloated compared to mine.
There is no scientific analysis to determine what exactly is in the depression in the cookies on the lower left and right, but the consensus is kind of fruit or jam. If you’ve ever baked cookies with fingerprints, congratulations! You reproduced a 7th century artifact with me. The one on the right appears to have the back of a knife stuck all the way around, like you might with a pie crust today. I used the sugar cookie dough and filled mine with apricot jam – and it was delicious. I think the original could have contained fewer eggs, however. Looks like it held its shape during baking almost exactly as shortbread could.
The old version of the one on the left is just beautiful. The museum refers to the notation for making the petals, but this one reminds me so much of a wooden ma’amoul mold in my possession that I think it must have been cast in the same way.
Ma’amoul cookies are a delicious semolina cookie filled with dates or nuts made for Eid celebrations. However, the jam pie has a filled depression rather than a closed filling. So, I tried the sugar cookie dough and I was not satisfied. It has spread and lost the detail. Instead, given the similarity in color and texture, I made something you would never do for a traditional ma’amoul and floured the mold so I could try the knotted cookie dough. . It worked much better. I think if the mold had been carved more deeply it would have given a very similar result. The old one seems to have a real piece of fruit as well as some jam residue, so I deepened the well with a teaspoon and filled it with a piece of dried plum (yes, a prune!) And d ‘apricot icing. It looked a lot like a scone with jam. They are very solid, not too sweet and so beautiful. I’ll keep these breakfast gems in mind the next time I need to bring cookies to a brunch night.
This project was so much fun and a great way to practice different techniques. It wasn’t as hard as I feared at first, as there are so many great food science credentials available. I’ll never know how close I got to the elders, but I’m not going to let that stop me eating them.