This is a guest contribution to Illuminations for The Great Rare Books Bake Off, from Alex Challenger, a member of Special Collection’s Reference Assistance Team.
When I began researching recipes for the Great Rare Books Bake-Off, I quickly found that the recipe books from Special Collections assumed that I knew quite a bit more about baking than I actually did. In fact, the older the recipe book, the fewer references to precise measurements and cooking times there were! As this was my first entry, I decided to take the easy route and attempt to make Lemon Snaps from the Great Majestic Range Cookbook (1910) since at least most of the ingredients had measurements I could understand. The recipe, however, still required some improvisation.
(text below) Two small lemons, juice of two and grated rind of one, one teacup of sugar, half a cup of butter, one egg, three teaspoons of milk, half a teaspoonful of soda, the teaspoonful of cream tartar, mix with enough flour to make rather stiff. If lemons are not convenient, simply flavor with lemon extract.
In addition to offering a selection of recipes, this book also contains some advertisements for coal and gas ranges. While the recipes were already a little difficult to decipher, I was, at least, thankful that I did not need to use a coal stove for cooking!
Initially, the only “snaps” I had ever heard of were ginger snaps. However, I realized after some googling, that the word “snap” was first seen in a cooking context in 1805 from the German or Middle Dutch word snappen when means “to seize quickly.” Lemon snaps, I assumed, would have a similar texture to ginger snaps, but with an intense lemony flavor!
To begin, I gathered the ingredients, and consulted a few modern recipes so that I could approximate what the recipe called “a teacup of sugar” and “enough flour to make [the dough] rather stiff.” A teacup was roughly equivalent to a cup and I used just a little less than 2 cups of flour.
I also found that it was useful to consult the “general directions” which gave the order in which ingredients should be combined:
However once I began, it became apparent that I might have to improvise a little more than I thought. I began by zesting both lemons. This recipe called for 2 small lemons but I ended up using the juice of one lemon and the zest of both to make it very lemony but not so bitter (the juice of both lemons would have been almost half a cup of lemon juice!).
I set those aside and combined the butter, sugar, baking soda, and cream of tartar and whipped them together. I added an additional half stick of butter because after combining, I realized that 1 cup of sugar might have been too much. I then added an egg and the lemon zest and juice next.
Then I finished by gradually adding flour until it was a fairly stiff dough. I consulted several different recipes and settled on about 1 ¾ cups of flour.
My next dilemma was how (and long) to bake the cookies. I settled on 350° because I’ve pretty much always baked cookies at this temperature and I rolled the dough into balls and dipped them in sugar after consulting a modern recipe.
I watched them carefully and let them bake for about 14 minutes (checking them every 2 minutes because I had no idea how long to leave them in). The first batch was…a lot more cookie-like than I thought it would be! They were very soft and delicate, although they hardened up as I left them out. The lemon snaps were excellent and had an appearance similar to sugar cookies but were very lemony! The decision to roll them in sugar and add more butter was a good one because the original recipe would have been much too bitter with all the lemon juice it would have used.
Overall, it was a great first try and I found out that I had a bit more intuition when it comes to baking than I thought! Hopefully next time I can try something a little more difficult to make!