Cookie Quest

Whether from a top-notch bakery or made on your own, cookies can satisfy and bring back memories

"Next to dogs, cookies are a man's best friend. They fill in the little chinks in the day when one is hungry for something sweet and rewarding. Neat and tidy, cookies can be eaten without plates forks, or napkins; they can be enjoyed when you are seated quietly by a window or they can be taken on a stroll; they appease one's appetite when traveling, and with a little milk they can induce sleep on a restless night. But to perform its duty properly, a cookie must be first-rate..." -- Marion Cunningham, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

"I admire the thinly rolled kinds, but am lazy about them, perhaps because of my innate lack of interest in the national nibble." -- M.F.K. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork

"Mmmmmmmmm.......COOKIES!" -- Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

I'm usually not a big cookie fan unless I find myself in front of the display cases at Ilse's (on Dodge), Lutz's (on Pima), La Baguette (on Prince) and ... well, you get the idea. It's not that I'm quite as dismissive about them as my hero, MFK, seemed to be, but we weren't raised in a cookie-crazed household. There was a period of time I got consumed in the toll-house chocolate-chip cookie madness going around, but my heart was never truly in it. Certainly not enough to produce the kind of excellence our friend Noah achieves when he deigns to make and share HIS chocolate-chip wonders.

Cunningham has it correct when she says a cookie has to be first-rate to work its magic, and that's why I cave at any of the above-mentioned bakeries. Ilse's, just around the corner from home, has long been a favorite. The second ex- was a crazy man for her Princess Torte, a marzipan-encased palace of cake and whipped cream, jam and love. It took two people to carry in the one she made for the last birthday he celebrated here. Fortunately, she also offers a miniature four-bite version these days--which has turned out to be a favorite of Andrew's. It's a smallish world, after all. Ilse's cookies have made a fan of me, and I am particularly fond of her jam-filled varieties--peach, raspberry, apricot. And she's now offering sugar-free delicacies, which I have to confess are quite tasty. More on that subject below.

It had been about six months since I'd dropped in to Lutz's for something to cheer me up after my third plumbing-related visit of the morning to the next-door helpful Ace hardware store. It was chocolatey, chewy and chunky with macadamia nuts. A couple of weeks ago, after lunch next door at Alice's, I stopped in for another round, this time picking a Chinese almond cookie. Big, soft and subtly sweet, it was exactly right.

La Baguette is the bakery attached to Ghini's, or Ghini's is attached to it. Whatever, it seems the perfect relationship. Very civilized and European. Breakfast at Ghini's is always a treat and a celebration of what REALLY can be done with eggs if you have your wits about you. And La Baguette is a superb showcase of bakeables. If you have done a good job and cleaned your plate, you won't have room for one of its "Death by Chocolate" cakes or the ever-so-portable crème brulees. But you may have a little space left for an oversized cookie--Andrew and I got one each of the chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal raisin. And if you think those choices are prosaic, you need to remind yourself how good simple can be.

What with the rainy weather and cold and memories and all, I got a hankering a couple of weekends back to make the one cookie Mother did make on and off. Her Christmas cactus was blooming right on cue, and I always enjoy going through her carefully noted recipes tucked in the pages of her mother's 1944 edition of The Searchlight Recipe Book. And there it was, Helen Bernstein's Ice Box Cookies. And, in large type and underscored heavily, "My very favorite". Helen was one of Mother's closest friends and partners in crime as auxilians at Tucson Medical Center. It's an easy recipe, and I remember those crisp, nutty wafers that melted in your mouth. I, however, failed miserably at recreating that experience. Oh, the cookies were good, but they were thickish, shortbreadlike things. Let me know if you're more successful.

Helen Bernstein's Ice Box Cookies

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups melted margarine or butter
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups flour (measure before sifting)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (sifted with flour)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 generous cup chopped pecans or almonds
Mix all ingredients well and pack in a loaf tin lined with wax paper. Refrigerate overnight; slice very thin and bake for three to four minutes at 400 degrees on a greased cookie sheet.

I had far more success with another of her recipes I don't remember ever having as a child: Oatmeal Drop Cookies. Actually, I made two batches--one according to her recipe, and the second substituting Splenda for sugar and organic whole-wheat flour for the enriched white stuff. The batch using the original ingredients were more uniform in shape and a little more chewy. But the healthier version was tastier and more interesting.

Oatmeal Drop Cookies

  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar (Splenda)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup dark molasses
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 3/4 cup flour (whole wheat)
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix shortening, sugar and molasses. Stir dry ingredients together. Blend. Stir in oats, nuts, raisins and coconut. Drop dough by rounded spoonfuls two inches apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake eight to 10 minutes.

Hey ... if you've got some recipe ideas with "healthy" adaptations, I'd love to see them.

I have received a boatload of mail in response to my recent column on burgers. Some asked how I could possibly not mention their favorite places--but that's why they are THEIR favorite places and not my own. Many agreed with my picks or thanked me for turning them on to The Home Plate. I'm not sure the folks at The Home Plate were so happy, but good business is good business. One e-mailer took me soundly to task for the smoke, the noise and the close-knit crowd there--all things I mentioned in the piece. But she never said anything about the burgers. Oh, well ... I'm always open to more suggestions.

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