Part ethnic, part regional, the cookie table at weddings has become a tradition. While more and more brides are including reception cookie tables, there are variations within the genre.
The origins are fuzzy. Both Pittsburgh and Youngstown have staked claims as the home of the cookie table. What does seem evident is that European immigrants began the tradition of serving cookies at weddings. During the Great Depression when sugar was scarce and expensive, it seems that family members would bake small batches of cookies for the reception instead of ordering one large cake. It not only saved money, but preserved family recipes from the Old Country.
Even as the economy improved, and families could afford cakes again, the cookie tradition stuck. It also seemed to stay in the working class communities with strong ethnic roots: Greek, Italian, Czech, Russian. This includes eastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, upstate New York and northern New Jersey.
Christine Thomas, owner of Christine's Cake Creations and Catering, estimates between 30 and 40 percent of brides ordering cakes also order cookies. She says that it's become a part of many weddings, but is definitely a fixture for families with strong ethnic backgrounds. She, in fact, has helped families set up cookie tables with family-made cookies as a courtesy.
Some of her standard cookie tray and table cookies include cannoli, fudges, traditional chocolate chip, lemon drops, crinkle cookies and Russian tea balls. Small trays have 11 varieties, and the large and extra large trays have up to 17 varieties of cookies of the 40 recipes available.
"The idea of a wedding cookie table was completely foreign to me," said Elizabeth Vdovjak, owner of Centre Market Bakery. She moved to the east from California and to Wheeling from Virginia, both places where cookie tables don't exist.
Fortunately she has been collecting cookie recipes since she was 15 years old, and she notes that customers often combine cookies from her bakery with family-made cookies for the tables. She gets requests especially for chocolate dreams, thumbprints, pecan sandies and small versions of her traditional chocolate chip.
Brides have other options beside the choice of cookies. The tables can be as simple or elaborate as the bride wishes. It is a nice opportunity to use heirloom platters or serving dishes. In this region, the cookie table is usually set up before the wedding reception, sometimes with appetizers and finger foods. This gives guests an opportunity to relax and have a small bite while the bridal party is shooting photos.
In other areas of the country, the cookies are served as dessert with the cake. Individual cookie trays are placed on each table. Families and guests have favorite bakeries, and the business is competitive.
Both Thomas and Vdovjak like the fact that brides have held on to the traditions of the cookie table and using recipes that may have been in the family for generations.
"I think it's lovely," Vdovjak adds.
Here is a recipe (from Allrecipes.com) for standard cookies found on cookie trays and tables no matter what region or cultural background. These staples are known as Russian tea cookies, butterballs, Italian wedding cookies and Mexican wedding cookies.
Ingredients (makes 80 cookies)
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups finely ground almonds
4 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar for rolling
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
2. Cream butter or margarine in a bowl; gradually add confectioners' sugar and salt. Beat until light and fluffy. Add almonds and vanilla. Blend in flour gradually and mix well.
3. Shape into balls (or crescents) using about 1 teaspoon for each cookie. Place on ungreased cookie sheets, and bake for 15-20 min. Do not brown. Cool slightly, then roll in the extra confectioners' sugar.