One evening not long ago, at a dinner party in New York City, I ended up in the kitchen, nibbling and talking with half a dozen other women. One of them, single and with a burgeoning career in television production--about which she was duly passionate and uncompromising--started talking about her teenage obsession with the TV show "Happy Days." It wasn't the show itself, she said; it was that she'd always wanted to live in that world. "I just wanted a life where Mom was home baking cookies for my brother and me, waiting for Dad to come home from work so we could sit down to dinner and my brother and I could tell them what happened that day at school."
I knew what she meant. From the time I was old enough to read the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips until years later, when I was given reign over things gas and electric, I used to tug at my mother's gabardine blazer the minute she got home from work, begging her to help me make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Even then, I wasn't in it just for the cookies. I was in it for the ambience--for that sweet, mom-in-the-kitchen feeling of a cookie-baking world.
Those rare evenings when my mom caved in were the only times she baked. Unlike many cooks, who claim their mothers as their primary influences, I believe I bake because my mother didn't. Which also may be why I have what an entire generation of women might consider to be an unhealthy idolization of the woman in the apron, mitts on her hands, pulling the cookie sheet out of the oven in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
I began to take responsibility for creating a sweetness of my own in junior high, when I used a simple chocolate chip cookie mix--just add eggs and water--to make cookies for the boy next door and his dad. They seemed so appreciative of my small effort that, like legions of girls baking their way through the 1950s, I got an arguably deluded sense of the power of such things.
When I went away to school to UC Berkeley, my roommates and I had an entire coed dormitory floor literally eating out of our hands. We kept a variety of tubes of ready-made cookie dough in our mini-fridge and would just slice and bake in a toaster oven, occasionally adding broken-up bits of whatever candy bars we got from the vending machine down the hall.
Later, in our own apartment, we'd often come home late and decide that we just had to make cookies, for some highly specific reason--a friend's birthday, pleasing the landlord, thanking a professor. Though we loved giving away the cookies, eventually we had to admit that, after countless nights of going to bed with aching bellies, our enthusiasm was mostly for eating raw dough.
A decade out of college, having racked up myriad mistakes--cookies that flattened into one crisp, overly buttery pancake; cookies that were raw in the middle, burned or suffered from overconfidence (too little measuring)--I like to think I've found myself, or found my cookies.
I now have my secrets: well-whipped butter, high-quality vanilla and ever-so-slight underbaking. And, like any housewife worth her weight in dough, I have my specialties. There are the everything-but-the-kitchen-sinkers that I am most often asked to bake; the small-batch, flourless peanut butter cookies that take only minutes to make from start to finish; and an old-fashioned sugar cookie to which I have added just about every flavor imaginable--anise, grapefruit zest, cardamom, lemon and lime. And I firmly believe that with a head-spinning deep dark chocolate cookie, I have baked my way straight into the hearts of many men.
Delusional or not, I can't think of a more effective way to make a place feel like home than baking in it. So I always keep a pound of unsalted butter and chocolate chips in the freezer. Homemade cookies are the way I show love. That may sound suspect in a post-feminist world, but it's not really about entrancing a man with kitchen prowess. For instance, when I learned that a pregnant friend had undergone amniocentesis, what did I do but pull out two sticks of butter to soften and whip up a quick batch of Lemon Zest of Life Cookies. For the effort involved, for the sweet outcome, for the vulnerability of offering them, cookies are the most heartfelt gift I can give. I have also come to realize that baking cookies for a man too soon can be a dangerous thing.
But that's another story.
The Cookie I am Most Often Asked to Make
Yield: about 60 cookies
11/2 cups flour
11/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mace
11/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon powdered cloves
1 cup butter, softened
11/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon milk
11/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup cornflakes, crushed
3 cups oats
1/2 cup shredded coconut
2 cups high-quality bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped