We’re the Ladies Behind the Bars, Cookies & Other Sweet Treats
Sweet stuff can have a less than sweet reputation. It can be bad for us, all that sugar and carbohydrates. But who can resist a spongy, cakey, buttery Madeleine cookie dipped in rich dark chocolate, a spicy Aspen cookie with cinnamon, raisins, mace and other flavors reminiscent of Fall, or the best American chocolate chip cookie, a hot circular crisp of butter, flour, sugar and chocolate (sometimes nuts, too) that’s delicious and flavorful.
Though we’ve written together for 30 years and discussed everything under the sun, we never initially shared about our mutual love for cookie baking and eating that stems from our childhoods. In fact, it wasn’t until we started this blog three years ago, that we began tossing around the idea for a blog related to some favorite foods and recipes we create around holiday time. In doing so, we discovered that we each loved to bake cookies and other sweets and for some similar reasons and different ones as well. In fact, our cookie-baking jags have led to each of us being labeled, “cookie ladies.” We accept this moniker with honor and delight.
Here’s the back story to our cookie-making journey. If you read to the end, you’ll get your reward of three of our favorite cookie recipes. And yes, we’ve each also developed a signature recipe or two, which we revert to when we’re not eager to try something new or a fan of ours makes a special request. For Barbara that’s her rugelach, a take-off on her mom’s but with a cream-cheese dough and more jam and crushed pecans; for Margaret it’s either her lemony lemon bars or her very chocolaty decadent chocolate chip cookies.
Barbara contends the cookie making represents an inherited gene. Her mother always baked—as did her mother, and Barbara’s always seemed to have some new sweets in one of her pretty tins, from small chocolate chips to oatmeal cookies and brownies with walnuts, which Barbara’s longest-time friend still waxes nostalgically about. Barbara’s mother, now 99, always placed wax paper between the layers to keep them fresh.
Margaret’s baking chops were finely honed as a child when she and her best friend Leslie would cook in Leslie’s kitchen almost every weekend. The two perfected a range of cookies and cakes that to them at the time were as glorious as a set of jewels.
Despite our different favorites, we loved the process of baking growing up. Baking was a treat that could brighten a gloomy day and it combined the use of science, math, reading and most important, eating. We each had the same process. It began with deciding what we had a taste for, assembling the ingredients, and adding our own twist, perhaps nuts, using browned butter, adding a squeeze of lemon or a dash of cinnamon.
As we got older, the reporter in each of us loved combing through cookbooks such as Dorie Greenspan’s Dorie’s Cookies and more recently scrolling through favorite sites online such as Food52’s and Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen, heading to the grocery store and buying only the best ingredients. Margaret is adamant that anything chocolate be made with Guittard chocolate and the finest European butter. Barbara, who likes to add nuts to her cookies, insists on the best Georgia pecans.
We then might turn up the music or NPR or put on the TV news and get baking. Consuming the treats was easy when we each had a family and spouse at home and kids and their friends coming and going. It became a problem after we each became single years ago. What to do with all these sugar-and-carbohydrate overloads?
Barbara began a tradition of making dozens and dozens of cookies—the rugelach as well as sugar cookies in the shape of hearts and candy canes for all her favorite shopkeepers in her small village come the holidays. She would package them in pretty holiday tins and deliver them with a note—to the postal employees who mail our books, to the librarians who saw her several times a week to take out books for herself or her aging mom, for her favorite wine, kitchen, gift and artists’ supply store owners, who make her feel she is part of a beloved community after only 8 1/2 years there. They seemed to love the personalized, edible treats, and many returned the tins, hoping for more.
Barbara also started making them for a class she attended last year in New York City. After the first time when they were gobbled up, several said some variation of, “You made these from scratch?” It seemed such a foreign concept to them, so she began bringing something weekly. And since the class is soon starting up, she has been looking through books for new cookie recipes. She also tries to always have something in her freezer for when her children, grandchildren and friends visit. Last winter her contractor showed up to make a repair for her furnace in the early morning after a freezing night. She gave him some cookies as a thank-you, and then each time he returned for another repair, he expected more. She’s tried to oblige. And her beau, Mr. Fixup, is among her biggest fans, repeating to her, “I never met a cookie I didn’t like.”
Margaret concurs. After perfecting her cookie baking prowess and sharing the spoils with family, she expanded her repertoire and audience. People started making requests starting with her mother. “I don’t really like cookies, but your chocolate chips are divine.” She’d hint until Margaret would bake a batch. Her kids grew up watching her produce cookie after cookie. And when they moved into their own homes, she continued sifting and stirring, dropping the batter or balls onto parchment and sharing the finished product by sending cookies through the mail. Her eldest son would take them to work and share with his colleagues. One couple with whom Margaret is friendly, often invite her for Sunday night dinner with one requirement: “Don’t forget to bring your chocolate chip cookies for dessert.”
When Margaret started tutoring two elementary school-age boys, she’d bake sugar cookies in shapes, numbers and letters, a tasty lesson that admittedly she used as a bribe to get the kids to focus. Before a fishing field trip for the class of one of the boys she tutored, she found cookie cutters in the shapes of various fish. After whipping up a batch of fish-shaped butter cookies and topping them with royal icing in a range of colors, she passed them out at the end of the field trip saying, “See, everyone today has caught a fish.”
Shortly after, she was doing a reading project with underserved preschool kids. She’d show up many weeks with books in one hand and a batch of freshly-baked shortbread squares dipped in chocolate in the other. It was the teachers who oohed and aahed. “When are you bringing these again?” they cooed. And when she began a mentoring project in the city with high school girls, she brought a plate of chocolate chippers one week as a special treat. The girls asked, “Where did you get these?” Margaret’s answer, “I made them.” She discovered later that most of these girls had not had home baked cookies. Soon bringing cookies to class became the expectation. If she didn’t have a batch of cookies to share, the girls would ask unabashedly, “Hey, Mrs. Crane, where are the cookies this week?”
Barbara’s younger daughter now has become the next generation to pick up the mantle. She always bakes the first letter and number for any family member’s birthday with a special colored icing, sprinkles or other design. She also regularly baked for her former colleagues with whom she worked at a hospital and in a private practice. And we all expect she’ll soon start doing so for her new colleagues at her new office.
The joy from the actual baking, especially when there’s a wonderful new recipe, is contagious. We eagerly share it with each other. And even when we have flops and failures—and yes, we do--we find someone who will imbibe regardless of how the cookies might look or even taste. Barbara was recently disappointed with a chocolate chip recipe in a new otherwise wonderful cookbook. She then tried another and was delighted.
So, in the spirit of sharing from our kitchen to yours, here are three of our favorites to chew on, including Barbara’s daughter’s recipe for sugar cookies:
Aspen Rock Spice Cookies (Thanks Maida Heatter)
From the late cookbook author and dessert maven Maida Heatter
2 ¾ C. flour
1 t. baking soda
½ t. salt
½ lb. or two sticks sweet butter
1 t. of each of these spices, cinnamon, mace, allspice, dry mustard, clove
1 T. instant coffee dissolved in 2 T. boiling water
1 ¾ cup brown sugar
3 eggs beaten well together
1 C. raisins
1 cup crushed or chopped dates
2 cups walnuts or pecans, chopped
1 ½ C. powdered sugar
2 T. soft butter creamed
2 T. light cream or a spec more if needed
1 t. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. In large mixing bowl, beat butter well, add all the spices and then coffee. Add sugar to mixture and beat very well. Add eggs one at a time. Scrape often so all is incorporated. Slowly add flour mixture until blended only. Stir in raisins, dates, nuts. Drop by spoonfuls onto foil or use small ice cream scooper. Bake 15 minutes or until browned. Remove from oven onto racks.
Prepare glaze by mixing glaze ingredients until smooth. Brush glaze onto warm cookies so it melts. Makes between 35 to 40 cookies depending on how large you make them. They freeze well.
Sweet-Tart Lemon Bars
1 C. Butter (melted)
2 C. Flour
1 C. Powdered Sugar
2 C. Sugar
1/4th C. Flour
1 Tsp. Baking Powder
6 T. Lemon Juice
Preheat oven to 350. Combine the butter, flour and powdered sugar. Put into a greased 8X12-inch Pyrex plate or pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Beat the remaining ingredients. Pour onto the top of the first baked mixture and bake again for 30 to 35 minutes, again at 350 degrees. Cool and cut into squares. When cool, sprinkle powdered sugar on top.
Dorie Greenspan's Do-Almost-Anything Vanilla Cookie Dough
1 Pound (454 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature1 1/3 C. (262 grams) sugar
1 Teaspoon fine sea salt
2 Large egg whites, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
4 C. (544 grams) all-purpose flour
Sanding sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
- Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar, and salt together on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and blend in the egg whites, followed by the vanilla. The dough might curdle, but it will smooth out with mixing and the addition of the flour.
- Still working on low speed, add the flour in 3 to 4 additions, beating only until it is almost incorporated each time before adding more; scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times as you work and then continue to mix until the flour has disappeared into the dough.
- The dough is ready to be divided (if needed) and scooped or rolled. See my book for suggestions.
- Or if you'd like to make plain cookies, divide the dough into quarters and shape each piece into a disk. Working with one disk at a time, place the dough between pieces of parchment paper and roll it to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Slide the dough, still between the paper, onto a baking sheet—you can stack the slabs—and freeze for at least 1 hour, or refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
- To bake, position the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds, and heat to 350° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silicone mats.
- Working with one disc at a time, peel away the paper on both sides of the dough and return the dough to one piece of paper. Use a 2-inch-diameter cookie cutter (change the size, knowing that the yield will change with it) to cut out as many cookies as you can and place them on the lined baking sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart. Gather the scraps together, then combine with scraps from the other piece of dough, re-roll, and chill before cutting and baking. If you'd like to sprinkle the cut-outs with sanding sugar, now's the time. Makes about 80 cookies.
- Bake the cookies for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheets from front to back and top to bottom at the 10-minute mark, until they are golden brown around the edges and on the bottom. Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring them to racks to cool completely. If you'd like to ice the cookies, do it when they're completely cool.