Plate of winter-themed cookies.

What is the Difference Between a Cookie and a Biscuit?

The answer to that is Dutch colonization. What?! We’ll come back to that. First, let’s talk dessert.

What Americans call cookies, most of the rest of the English-speaking world calls biscuits. What Americans call biscuits, which translates more or less to “buns” in British, are not, by culinary definition, biscuits. Of course, by culinary definition, many biscuits of the cookie variety are also not biscuits, but that is a conundrum for another day.

Technical definitions

The technical culinary definition biscuit is “twice baked.” And the word biscuit stems from the Latin words meaning “twice baked”. You can see the connection, yes?

But languages are living things, and word meanings shift, and once geographically separated by, say, a very large, inhospitable ocean, they can drift in different directions. So what the British mean by “biscuit” and what Americans mean by “biscuit” also drifted apart. British biscuits are fairly crisp and crumbly, and American biscuits are now fairly soft and squishy. And not a dessert.

The Dutch

OK, that makes sense for the drift, but not for the addition of the word “cookie”. Wasn’t North America colonized primarily by the British? What do the Dutch have to do with this etymological puzzle? For anyone who grew up in New York State, the answer may be floating more or less quickly to the surface.

New York was, from a European perspective, originally called New Netherland (singular – no “s”). The Dutch colonized up the Hudson River and out the Mohawk River and down the Delaware River, and established settlements along each, which they populated with settlers.

The Koekje

The Dutch settlers brought their baked-goods-skills with them, along, no doubt, with disease, death, and all the other things colonists bring with them. But the baked-goods-skills were good.

So good, in fact, that the cranky head of the Dutch government tried to forbid the selling of nummy Dutch baked goods to the various Native Americans whose lands they had rather shamelessly taken over. This did not fly with either the bakers or the Native Americans.

One of the items at the center of this kerfuffle was the “koekje”. What is a koekje? The direct translation would be “small cake”, with “koek” being a non-small cake.

Both the Dutch and the various Native Americans in the area, having good taste, really liked koekjes, and the brisk trade in koekjes continued.

New York

As New Netherland fell to the English and became New York, the Dutch settlers and their koekjes didn’t actually leave. The colonists from England agreed with everyone else that koekjes were very nummy.

Having a disproportional influence on the formation of American English due to population numbers, trade hubs, and the early publishing industry, New Yorkers spread the word (and recipes) about koekjes.

Cookies

And because Americans like to think we have more logical spelling for things, the spelling got Americanized to “cookies,” which is pretty close to how you pronounce “koekjes.”

South Africans, I am told, also enjoy cookies, since they, too, were once part of the Dutch colonial empire, and with the cultural omnipresence of the United States, the cookie is slowly infiltrating the rest of the English-speaking world as well. OK, cookies were already there, but they had been lumped into the “biscuit” category, and now other English-speakers, including the British, occasionally slip and refer to the whole category “cookies”.

Why does this matter?

I am currently researching a series of historical novels that take place in colonial New York, and since I love both history and cookies, this seemed like an important place to start.

More on koekjes and other yummy stuff!

If you are interested in learning more about Dutch colonial cooking, especially baked-goods, as well as its influences on American cooking and culture, you want to know about the work of the phenomenal Dutch Hudson Valley food historian, Peter Rose.

Her work (no, I did not just mis-gender her) will make you drool and want to eat cookies. I am told by a very lucky fellow historian that her cooking is as good as her writing. Check out her yummy book, History on Our Plate.

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