Las Masitas de Mamá – My mother’s cookies

Las Masitas de Mamá – My mother’s cookies

Cookies – something to make and have on hand when company came, something to “rustle up” for visitors. Every household in America in my mother’s generation probably had their own very special cookie recipe. It was a tradition that mother took with her to Argentina. Our house was the only one in our barrio which consistently had home-made masitas. 

That is what we called them, masitas, from the word masa – dough. They were “little bits of dough”. Oh, there were other words for them, galletitas, for instance. Galletas, pure and simple were more like crackers, but, now, galletitas, were like masitas, sweet treats to have with our merienda or snack. There was another name for cookies, bizcochos. Generally those were what you bought at the store, some sort of twice baked cookie that kept a long time in its package. But mother’s cookies were always fresh, home-made, here today and gone tomorrow when she would bake yet another batch.

I married into a cookie making household and immediately after meeting Myrtle I could tell the difference in cookie making philosophies. Whereas my mother’s cookie making was consistent but rather haphazard, Myrtle seemed to have a set repertory. It was in her house that I learned of Toll House cookies, and she made them to perfection, always adding the pecans which she picked out herself from the bounty of pecan trees in her back yard. Then there were the peanut butter cookies, with the characteristic criss-cross on top made with the tines of a fork. At Christmas there were fruitcake cookies, mincemeat, and Russian tea cakes. At her house Jack and I, after an exhausting afternoon waterskiing didn’t simply eat cookies, we ate a batch of cookies that had been planned out in advance with a specific trip to the grocery store to get the necessary ingredients.

I remember Myrtle’s stories about hoarding sugar and butter during the war to make her Christmas cookies.  But, the years during World War II were short-lived in comparison to my growing up years in Argentina.  Baking supplies were often hard to come by.  Months would go by when granulated white sugar or good flour was not available, Eggs were problematic because of little refrigeration and temperamental chickens. It was never, with mother, a matter of going to the store for a dozen eggs or a pound of sugar. So, mother’s baking was more or less celebratory and enterprising. If mother made a mayonnaise, she would have extra egg whites, so “to use them up”, she would bake macaroons. Or, conversely, if she baked an angel cake, she would end up with enough egg yolks to make a good batch of sugar cookies. Pecans, so readily available in the South where mother had grown up, were non-existent in Argentina. Nueces was synonymous with walnuts. I don’t remember ever having any other type of nut. 

Cookies – that is what we call what we love to snack on, pack in our lunches, swap at office parties, and bake up a storm at Christmas and not masitas, galletitas, or bizcocho as I grew up calling them. We have to thank the Dutch for the term “cookie”. It was they who brought their little cakes, which they called Koeptje, to America when they settled New Amsterdam. And, just as New Amsterdam became “New York”, the Dutch koeptje became the “cookie”. So, we have little bits of dough, masitas, and little cakes, cookies, but why do the British call them biscuits?

There is evidence that long before the Romans set out by foot and in ships to conquer, ancient civilizations had discovered the wonderful keeping quality of little cakes which were put back in the oven to dry out completely. But, the name that the Romans gave to what they packed in their knapsack to sustain them on their journey is more or less how we still refer to them today. The Romans called their little cakes bis coctus.  

Bis, a word I was very familiar with as a child, means once over, again, once removed. How do I know that? Because great-grandfather and great-grandmother in Spanish are bisabuelo, and bisabuela. A great-grandson is a bisnieto, and so forth. And, another thing, what people yelled at a concert when they really liked it wasn’t “Encore!” it as always Bis, bis! which of course meant “sing it again!”. So, the little bis coctus cakes the Romans took with them were cakes which were cooked, and then cooked again. 

They carried them to France, and there the French called them bis-cuit, cuit being the past particle of to cook, cuire. So, when the French crossed over to England with THEIR twice cooked little cakes not only did they take the little cakes but they also took a big chunk of the words which are now in our English dictionary and it is thus that we don’t sit down to tea and twice cooked or twice baked little cakes but to tea and biscuits. 

While some Romans were taking their victuals and marching to France, others went forth, with the same pack lunch, to Spain. For some reason there the bis coctus was corrupted into bizcochos. But, the concept of describing the little cakes precisely was well accepted back in Rome’s back yard, Italy, where they are, to this day, called biscotto or biscotti if there is more than one, cotto being the past particle of cooked.

Somehow knowing the etymology of terms used to describe what I have been baking frantically to create this collection makes it all worth while. But, it doesn’t stop with the etymology of of the word biscuit. In Argentina we called a cookie that was obviously baked twice bizcocho. But, that is not so in all Spanish-speaking countries. In some countries cakes and tarts are called bizcochos and cookies bizcochuelos. But what about galletitas? What was that all about? A galet is a rock, round and smooth, which covers the beach in Brittany and Normandy. From that shape, comes the name for a Galet, or a buckwheat cake which is popularly eaten on the 6th of January in celebration of the Three Magi. And galette, are smaller little cakes … a name which was borrowed and converted to galletitas in Spanish.

Ok, this is where I get to paraphrase Shakespere’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and say that whatever the name it goes by – cookie, biscuit, masita, bizcocho, or galletita, they are great to munch on and fun to make.

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