I have a memory of being at some historic site when I was a kid (it might have been Dundurn Castle) and going into the kitchen area and eating cookies they had made from a nineteenth-century recipe. They were little jam-filled sandwich cookies and they tasted kind of fascinatingly old to me, as if they weren’t just made from a 150-year-old recipe, but had actually travelled through time to reach me and had maybe turned slightly stale in the process. About a year ago I was thinking about this, and considering how easy it is to find old books online, I thought I could try making an antique cookie recipe myself. The ones I especially wanted to try were in an English cookbook from the eighteenth century, but the huge quantities and weird ingredients made me think again. One day though, one day…
Instead I eventually found this recipe for “Thousand Island Cookies” in a 1909 cookbook published by the Ladies’ Aid of the Cobourg Congregational Church (a lot of Victorian cookie recipes were very plain, so I branched out to a later period). What makes them “Thousand Island”? I have no idea. My pet theory is that when they bake up they look like little granite islands – albeit without trees, grass, and million-dollar cottages on them. Here is the original recipe:
I don’t know who Mrs. Turpin was, by the way. This recipe is moderately large, and, in the tradition of old cookbooks, gives virtually no instructions on preparation, assuming that good housewives would know how to make cookies. So here below is an adapted version of the recipe that I used, with a few more directions and some photos. The main differences are that I’ve halved the recipe and substituted nuts for the raisins. But if you’re one of those people, like my sister, who actually prefers raisins to nuts in baking (blasphemy!) you can do whatever you want; you could even put in both. The amount of cloves in this recipe may seem like a lot, but I didn’t find the taste overpowering. Of course if you don’t like cloves you can reduce the amount or replace them with another spice.
One more thing: I have notoriously unscrupulous baking habits. I hardly ever measure anything accurately, I have no problem adding or substituting ingredients, and I use gut feeling to tell when things are done. So this recipe will be less-than-scientific; hopefully if you want to try it, you won’t find this a problem!
Thousand Island Cookies (adapted)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rolled oats
Just under 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. vanilla (I used a generous dash of vanilla sugar)
1/2 cup raisins or chopped nuts
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup of butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 375°F or thereabouts. Mix together the flour, oats, baking soda, spices, raisins/nuts, and salt in a large bowl. I used hazelnuts because that’s what I had on hand.
Next, in a separate bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until no lumps are left and it’s more or less fluffy and smooth. Then, add the milk, egg, and vanilla extract. This mixture will look worse before it looks better. Keep beating the ingredients until the “curdled” look has gone down somewhat, like so:
Then, add the liquid mixture to the flour mixture and gently stir them together. These are drop cookies, so the dough will be quite soft. It it’s too soft, just add more flour, and if it’s too dry, add more milk. The dough looks something like this:
Using two tablespoons (one to spoon the dough and the other to pry it off the spoon), drop uniform-sized lumps of dough an inch or two apart onto a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. I made rather large cookies this time, but you can make them smaller, as Mrs. Turpin suggests. However, these don’t spread out very much, so you don’t have to worry about dealing with frying pan-sized cookies or anything. The photo below shows about half the batch, so this recipe will make about 24 cookies.
I found these took about fifteen minutes to bake. You can tell they’re done when the top is no longer shiny and the bottom is gently browned. They’ll be quite soft when they first come out of the oven, but will quickly firm up as they cool.
These cookies have a light, almost cakey texture and aren’t dense like oatmeal cookies usually are. They’re not very sweet, and if generously-sized, you could probably eat a few of them “as part of a complete breakfast” (if you’re like me and can’t handle big breakfasts). You’ll want to keep them tightly covered so they don’t dry out.
All in all, I gotta say Mrs. Turpin knew her stuff. I’m a fan. Now, if we only knew why they were called Thousand Island Cookies! Of course it brings to mind the on-going mystery of Thousand Island dressing, which has various origin stories. Some people from Syracuse allegedly found the answer and made a documentary about it in 2013. It was shown on WCNY but doesn’t seem to be available online. You can watch a preview of it here but of course it doesn’t tell you the filmmakers’ conclusion.
Maybe the cookies were just given that name to make them sound fancy. Whatever they’re called, they’re pretty good.
All photos are mine (clearly).