How much do you need to know? One of our favorite books (coincidentally reviewed elsewhere on the site) is Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food (Canada, UK). He devotes almost a page and a half of small type to the subject (being British, of course, he muddies the subject a bit by calling it a biscuit). But he traces the first recipe for a cookie to the Roman chef Apicius, in which “a thick paste of fine wheat flour was boiled and spread out on a plate. When it had dried and hardened it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper.” Another Roman mixture consisted of flour, water, sugar, and spices, which was cut into pieces and fried.
Davidson speaks of various cookies that evolved and flourished in the Middle Ages, including cracknels, gingerbread, and precursors to meringue cookies. Savoy cookies, with egg white, sugar, and flour, originated in the 1600s in France, and Lisbon biscuits, Naples biscuits, and Spanish biscuits, based on the same ingredients followed. A French crunchy cookie, a crouqant evolved sometime before 1600.
Actually, the British use of the word biscuit is very meaningful, as it comes from the Latin panis biscotus, or “bread twice cooked,” as so many of both sweet and savory biscuits were. Flat, pastry-type short cakes were baked only once, and were certainly produced by the 1500s.
Davidson says cookies based on creaming butter and sugar together probably didn’t come on the scene until the 18th century. A great profusion of cookie recipes occurred in the 19th century, as the price of sugar and flour dropped, and chemical leavening agents, such as baking soda, became available. This led to the development of manufactured cookies. Coating cookies with chocolate became popular only after World War II (is this a great time to be alive, or what?).
Of course, many foods and even complicated dishes predated the first recorded cookbooks, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the origin and history of so many of our foods. In many cases, and cookies may well be one, archaeologists may know more about the origin and evolution of early foods than the cooking world does.