Bakers Journal

Cookie trends: A traditionally sweet break

November 12, 2021
By Karen Barr

A look at the international history and influences that shape cookies as treats

Biscotti is a popular choice for dunking in coffee or sweet wine. With a long shelf life, it promises to make a great gift for those searching for a last-minute present. Photo by Suliman Chadirji, courtesy Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana.

One of the most famous cookies of all time is the chocolate chip cookie. Back in the 1930s Ruth Wakefield, who operated the Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts, ran out of the nuts she needed to bake cookies for ice cream sandwiches. In a hurry she reached for a block of chocolate and cut it into pieces instead.

It’s not surprising that at Vancouver Best Cookies co-owner Leo Ang names the Traditional Chocolate Chip Cookie as one of the top three selections on the menu. The other two are the Nutella Stuffed and Brigadeiro Chocolate Truffle. 

For those who haven’t heard of Brigadeiros, they are a Brazilian sweet that is like a chocolate truffle, with less prep and zero tempering. “We make our Brigadeiro from scratch by cooking condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter. Once it starts to get thick, we make small chocolate truffle balls and add chocolate sprinkles. Then, we either stuff or top up our cookies with them.”

“Our production process is very simple,” Ang says. “We make cookies the old-fashioned way, by using only real butter, good quality chocolate and pure vanilla essence. We also mix in granulated and brown sugars, along with our unique ratio of eggs and yolks, when making the dough.”

Each cookie is then hand scooped and baked at 350 F for 12 minutes precisely. “Our customers like cookies that are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside,” he explains.

The company also carries a line of gluten-free cookies including chocolate chip, shortbread and double chocolate. The Ultimate Gluten Free Healthy Cookie is made with natural peanut butter, whole-grain oats, cinnamon and chopped organic dates. 

Cookies can be bought online in a pack of 12, as a one-time purchase or as a subscription. There are assorted cookie boxes for customers who just can’t decide, or a Flavour of the Month pack to sample the latest creations.

“Most of our clients are people looking for gifts to be delivered to their loved ones, within 40 kilometres of downtown Vancouver,” Leo says. “We also cater to corporate clients who are looking for cookies to give to their clients or employees.”

Corporate orders come from places like the Vancouver General Hospital, the Hallmark Channel, and even the fashion forward like Christian Dior and Kate Spade. 

For tastes that are more traditionally Italian, try Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana, also known as the hipper PGI, in Ottawa’s Little Italy. Pastry chef and co-owner Joe Calabro is known throughout the Capital Region for his biscotti. In Italy, the name “biscotti” refers to any kind of biscuit or cookie collectively, whereas North Americans refer to it as the twice-baked cousin of the cantuccini.

In medieval times, the cantuccini contained almonds but was baked without leavening, butter or oil. This made the cookie extremely hard, yet able to keep for long stretches of time. It is rumoured that Christopher Columbus packed these cookies up for long ocean voyages with his crew.

Calabro says that in home baking, olive oil is often used to make biscotti, but he likes the taste and softness that butter gives the cookie’s crumb. Of all the biscotti varieties at PGI, Calabro says, “vanilla-almond are really the most popular. They are a classic.” Then, he adds, “When you dip biscotti in coffee, they take on a different flavour.” 

Other individual varieties sold include chocolate-almond, chocolate-Nutella, cranberry-pistachio and chocolate-chili. Often customers come into PGI to enjoy a scoop or two of the many varieties of gelato. Biscotti is always an easy upsell, as it adds a bit of crunch.

Smaller-sized biscotti are arranged in packages to take away and include more than a dozen types. Flavours include anise, orange, ginger, caramel, espresso, cranberry and apricot. For nut lovers there’s pistachio, almond, hazelnut, pecan or walnut. 

Amaretti are an Italian creation first made by monks in the 8th century. Unleavened and flourless, these cookies relied on almond paste for an intense nutty taste. When Italian bride Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France, she brought her pastry chefs with her. They experimented by replacing almond paste with ground almonds and the French macaron was born. 

Brigadeiro Chocolate Truffle is one of Vancouver Best Cookies’ top three selections on the menu. Photo courtesy Vancouver Best Cookies

Calabro makes both amaretti and macarons. “I bake the amaretti until crispy, not chewy, and then add an almond on top.”

Calabro streamlined his menu eliminated the breakfast and lunch service this fall, streamlined his menu and brought back the much-loved macaron. Fruit varieties include berry creations like raspberry and strawberry, as well as tropical flavours such as mango and banana. The coffee macarons are also popular, as are the hazelnut and classic vanilla.

Another variation on amaretti is the pasticetti cookie. It is piped into a teardrop with a rosette and topped with a cherry. “I add bitter almond oil to intensify the flavour and food colouring in either red or green. These are cookies for special occasions, especially Italian weddings.”

Florentines are another classic cookie on the menu, but these have a more generous bite. The thicker consistency is in the makeup. “I use four-inch tart shells that I prep with oil and butter. This is important, otherwise the cookies may crack,” he explains.” Then, I scoop the batter in. This way the florentines always come out the same shape and size. I don’t have to cut them.”

The batter contains almonds, butter and milk. Sometimes he will add mixed fruit consisting of lemon and orange peel, as well as cherries. One side of the florentine is always dipped in dark chocolate.

Butter cookies are in the store all year, but are especially popular during the Christmas season, bringing in flavours like vanilla, chocolate, gianduja, pistachio, hazelnut and almond. All are piped and garnished in some way, with sugar or with dark or white chocolate.

Sugar cookies are made using a sublime cookie dough and piped with sweet royal icing, fulfilling childhood dreams and adult nostalgia, decorated with red Canadian maple leaves or spring flowers. Contemporary themes speak to the times we live in, such as heart-emblazed teddy bears wearing face masks. For Christmas look for Santa Claus and Christmas trees.

In the late fall Calabro plans to set up an online store, just in time for Christmas, so Canadians across the country can indulge in his cookie creations.

Cookies provide a sweet treat and a chance to unwind in a quiet moment. So delicious are these sweet bites, that it’s hard to eat only one.

The author dedicates this article to the memory of her late grandfather, Norman Colbourne (1926-2021.) “This one is for you, Gramps!” Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and a Red Seal pastry chef.

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