The American classic peanut butter cookie came to us via George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama who promoted the humble peanut as a replacement crop for cotton in the south. Carver wanted to teach farmers in the deep south to grow alternative crops to cotton both as a food source and as economic protection against the failing cotton crops. Not only was the soil depleted from decades of cotton plantings but the boll weevil had destroyed the cotton industry by 1920. Farmers needed new crops, new ideas for farming, and a market eager to but their goods.
It seems that Carver had taken a lesson from the Jell-O marketing marathon that began in 1904. If you want your audience to buy your product then you need to tell them how to use it and how it will improve their lives. Jell-O flooded the market with recipes in free booklets and in magazine ads. Carver likewise published recipes and instructions on how to use the crops he was encouraging southern farmers to grow. In 1916 he published How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption. Peanut cookies were included in this publication. These cookies called for crushed or chopped peanuts as an ingredient not peanut butter. Peanut butter was not successfully marketed until the early 1920s. The first known peanut butter cookie recipe was published in 1922.
The earliest peanut butter cookies were rolled thin and cut into shapes like holiday sugar cookies or dropped and made into balls. The first reference to the now expected criss-cross marks created by the tines of a fork was published in the Schenectady Gazette on July 1, 1932. The Peanut Butter Cookie recipe said "Shape into balls and after placing them on the cookie sheet, press each one down with a fork, first one way and then the other, so they look like squares on waffles."
The 1933 edition of Pillsbury's Balanced Recipes also instructed the baker to press the cookies using fork tines. This is likely advised due to the density of the cookie dough. The cookie bakes with a better texture when it is flattened with the tines of a fork or a cookie shovel (spatula).
Besides that, Mom always dipped the tines of a fork in flour and then criss-cross hatched each peanut butter cookie. If Mom did it then it is the way it ought to be done. Mothers know best.
This classic recipe comes from Meta Givens 1949 classic The Modern Family Cookbook. My Mom's copy of this book falls open to the peanut butter cookie recipe. I made no changes; it is a part of childhood that should not be changed.
Peanut Butter Cookies
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 whole eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Sift the flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a medium sized bowl. Set aside.
Beat the butter in a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add sugars and cream until blended but not fluffy. Beat in eggs, peanut butter, and vanilla extract. Mix thoroughly.
Add flour mixture and beat just until combined. Use a mixing spoon to mix in the last streaks of flour.
Divide dough into 4 disks and wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours for easier handling.
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 375°.
Working with one disk of cookie dough at a time, roll chilled dough into 1 inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on parchment paper or silicon mat lined cookie sheets. Press each cookie ball with the tines of a fork dipped in flour. First press one way end then press crosswise to create the familiar cross-hatch design.
Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 10 -12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned, rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking. Set the baking sheet on wire racks for 2-3 minutes before gently lifting cookies off pan and onto wire racks to continue cooling.
Let baking sheets cool completely before repeating the process with the remaining dough.
Yield: 7 dozen cookies