MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (11/20/2023) — As the holiday season approaches, bakers across the state are bringing out their cookbooks in search of traditional favorite recipes and potential new desserts that could delight friends, family and neighbors.
Megan Kocher, curator of the Doris Kirschner Cookbook Collection at University of Minnesota Libraries, answers questions about holiday baking traditions, recipe trends, cookbooks and more.
Q: How have cookbooks and holiday baking changed over the years?
Kocher: One of the main changes is the fat source, which evolved from mostly butter and shortening or lard, through a generation that used margarine because of cost and popularity, to now many recipes returning to butter or using alternatives like coconut oil.
Cookbooks themselves have also evolved, from once being all text to the inclusion of photos in the mid-to-late 1900s of very homemade looking items. Now we are seeing Instagram-perfect photos in most cookbooks, a generational difference perhaps but also something allowed by modern technology.
Something that surprised me earlier in my career was the number of holiday baking pamphlets published by gas and electric companies in the 1950s and 60s. I quickly learned these companies had entire home economics departments charged with developing recipes and teaching people to use their new gas or electric stoves and ovens.
Q: Are there any cookie traditions specific to Minnesota?
Kocher: Our most visible cookie traditions in Minnesota are the contests like the annual Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest and the Pillsbury Bake-Off. There are also many immigrant groups in Minnesota that bring traditions to the state. For example, Joulutorttu from Finland; Springerle from Germany; and Potica from Croatia, which is admittedly more of a bread than a cookie, but a holiday staple that fits right in on a cookie tray. I’m excited that we’re starting to see cookbooks from more recent immigrant populations like the Somali and Hmong communities.
Q: What cookbooks do you recommend?
Kocher: This changes all the time, but the three I always come back to for holiday baking are:
- “Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book” (1963 edition). This one is such a classic that reproductions of this edition are still printed today. I go to this book when I want to make the recipes I used to bake with my grandma.
- “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book” (2018). I love this one because every recipe is so unique and creative. I go to this when I need something new and special, and because some of the recipes have now become my classics.
- “100 Cookies: The Baking Book for Every Kitchen” (2020). It’s only a few years old, but this book has become my go-to for cookies. I rely on it for the best version of any cookie recipe – from standards to extra fancy showstoppers.
Q: What is your favorite cookie recipe from the Doris Kirschner Cookbook Collection?
Kocher: This is so dependent on context and mood and so many other factors! One of my favorites that is a good pick for someone like me who can’t make up their mind is the Neapolitan cookies from “100 Cookies.” The mix of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla works really well and they look beautiful. These are also really fun to make with little kids who enjoy pulling off a pinch of each dough color and rolling them up together.
Q: How do the cookbooks and recipes in the U of M’s Doris Kirschner Cookbook Collection reflect and document our history?
Kocher: There is so much you can learn about history from cookbooks — things that don’t even have to do with food! You can look at the impact of technology on cooking and domestic life; influences of immigration and cultural crossover; diet and nutrition trends; changes in what is seen as “pure” and “healthy”; influences of colonialism and industry; and so much about gender roles and expectations. We have a collection of Playboy Gourmet cookbooks from the 1970s that were written for men and they stand in such stark contrast to most other items in the collection that are either implicitly or explicitly targeted at women — everything from the tone and writing to photography is different. The food we eat and the ways we talk about food tell so much about a culture.
Megan Kocher is a Science and Evidence Synthesis Librarian and the curator of the Doris Kirschner Cookbook Collection at University of Minnesota Libraries.
About the University of Minnesota Libraries
The University Libraries is a strategic resource of the Twin Cities campus and also provides integral information system support for the University’s four campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris, and Rochester. Composed of 12 library facilities with collections of more than 8.1 million volumes — and with special collections valued at nearly $1 billion — the Libraries has a history of strength in research collections and a longstanding record of contribution to resource sharing within the state and beyond. Learn more at lib.umn.edu.
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