It’s been a little gloomy here, what with blood diamonds fueling civil wars, Chicago youth murdered by the hundreds, and bacteria holding my counter tops hostage. How about a few cookies to cheer us up?
Of course, these can’t be conflict-free cookies. Their very batter stirs up psychological disturbances from my past. Behavior was modified and inner children were hugged in the baking of these cookies. Thankfully my friend Tim of Lottie + Doof was there to help me through it.
It all started in 1979 on the first day I met my stepmother. I was three, but just as neurotic as I am at thirty-five. I don’t remember this day at all, but I am told that on the first day we met, we baked cookies. What a classic lure! Just as Hansel and Gretel were lured into the witch’s oven by a gingerbread house, I was lured by chocolate chips. And just as the cannibalistic witch of the fairy tale fattens up children in an iron cage, I was fattened up with cookies!
Actually, knowing three year old me, I probably licked the spoon briefly with a paranoid tongue and ate a single cookie with hesitant bird bites. Life is pretty Disney for my stepmother and me today, but many of our years together were quite Grimm. And so the cookie-lure of my primary years lurks in my psyche.
Flash forward six years to the fourth grade. I was drafted into the Brownies. Yesssss. Finally, I had an in to that exclusive group, that secret society, no doubt shrouded in secret handshakes and hard to crack codes. We would surely meet in a cave somewhere, don our brown sashes, and ceremoniously pin our sisters as we chant in strange tongues.
Really we met in the Kindergarten classroom at my school, and glued a Polaroid photo of ourselves onto a construction paper flower. How lame. There was no secret handshake, nothing secret at all. The overhead fluorescent classroom lights gave off their ordinary glare. Ah but…. on the calendar… a meeting at Lisa Bard’s house! It must be off school grounds where the secret society flourishes. And what happened there? Kids yawned, and moms delivered instructions on how to sell Girl Scout cookies. I dropped out of Brownies immediately.
So here is where I started to associate cookies with The Other. At this time I lived in two different towns, and went to school in a third. It’s a long story that involves divorce, joint custody, and now cookies. Cookies were for the Lisa Bards of the world, the people who host Brownie meetings. Cookies were for suburban bake sales, for sports teams I don’t play on. That doesn’t mean I won’t eat cookies, but I don’t bake them, and I certainly do not sell them.
When we become adolescents, we do a Spice Girls thing in which we have to look like everyone else while simultaneously looking only like ourselves. We’re all scantily clad, but only I am posh and only you are sporty. This extended into my twenties and thirties when it came to domestic tasks. I found that I often lived with a person to whom I assigned: Only you are the baker. Why did I remain so adolescent about this? My sense of efficacy as a domestic person was stymied as the people I lived with became talented cooks and bakers and homemakers. I became skilled at certain domestic tasks- arranging books beautifully on a shelf- but didn’t bother with others. One thing I still have not done, to this day, is baked cookies. My friend Tim, who I have known for eighteen years and at one point lived with for seven, is an incredible baker and blogger of cookies and more. His baking became increasingly enjoyable and intimidating as he racked up recipes and stacked up cookies throughout the years.
If you’re a teenager, you may assign discreet roles to yourself and your peers- you’re the jock, you’re emo, you’re the baker. But if you’re an adult, you may capitalize on your friends’ talents without being concerned with identify formation. You get over your stepmother’s lure and your Brownie disillusionment, and you get in the kitchen and roll up your sleeves. Today I’d like to be an adult, and bake some cookies with my friend.
It turns out that making cookies is both simpler and more complex than I thought. What’s complex is that it is chemistry and requires precision. For example, Tim taught me that when you measure the flour it’s important not to pack it in the measuring cup. You should spoon it in gently, spoonful by spoonful, then use the edge of the spoon to level off the top (just like in chemistry class). It’s also important that each raw cookie is the same size, so that they bake evenly. Unlike with cooking, you can’t get away with being experimental or crude. The simplicity lies in how wonderful it feels to share the cookies once they are done. It’s a pure act. You made this thing out of flour, sugar, butter, butter, butter, and a few more ingredients, you baked it, you handed it to someone, and they became happy. They ate it and smiled and felt better than they felt before you gave the cookie. I find that in my daily life I am constantly trying to make people happy, but it usually requires more layers or more time. Cookie happiness is immediate and pure.
And now, the recipe:
PISTACHIO-CHERRY OATMEAL COOKIES
(Recipe by Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park via One Sweet Cookie by Tracey Zabar)
13 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup honey
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 large eggs
2 2/3 cups bread flour
1 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups pistachios, shelled
3 cups dried sour cherries
fleur de sel, for sprinkling
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and salt. Mix in the honey, vanilla, and olive oil, and cream until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the flour, oats, and baking soda, and mix just until combined. With a silicone spatula, fold in the pistachios and dried cherries. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
(Or a for a while!)
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper.
Using a small scoop, drop the dough onto the prepared pans, and lightly press down each cookie. Sprinkle with the fleur de sel. Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on wire racks.
This recipe makes about 70 small cookies.
Photograph by Tim Mazurek
BAKE SALE REDEUX
Remember the yawning kids at Lisa Bard’s house? The Girl Scout cookies I never sold? The suburban bake sales for sports teams I never played on? This time, I got my chance to sell cookies, my chance to belong. I helped Tim sell cookies along with his friend Sandra of Chicago’s best bakery, Floriole. They had a booth at Dose Market, a year-round market selling local fashion and food. Discriminating foodies chose between eggnog meringues, whole wheat shortbread, earl grey chocolate, and more. Some just bought them all to avoid having to choose. I ate them all, for the purpose of being able to describe them to customers.
Photograph by Tim Mazurek
Cookies, in their simplicity and complexity, mean something new to me now. They mean friendship, generosity, and happiness. They are something I can bake, and so I’ll bake on.
Coming soon: cookies for the neighbors.