January 17

Controversial Cookies

“They don’t understand cookies.” — Sue Bailey 1995

In 1995 I met Sue Bailey, a legendary baker who lived on the street where Bill grew up. Sue baked every day and was generous with her sweets, famously donating 40 fully decorated gingerbread houses to Meals on Wheels every Christmas. She never married but lived in her parents large Victorian home complete with a “widow’s walk” in Pittsburgh. While we were caring for my mother-in-law in the last years of her life, Sue would bring weekly bags of cookies, bars and cake over for my mother-in-law and us. There were sour-cream cookies, Madeleines, lace cookies, blondies, chiffon cakes, mini pound cakes, chocolate chip cookies, nut rolls, and pretty much every combination of sugar, butter, flour and eggs you can imagine. It was a good thing that Bill and I were biking 20 miles a day at the time.

Sue was a very pleasant person but had strong opinions about baked goods. Once over tea she shook her head in dismay at the 5″ under-baked, gummy cookies that she had seen being sold at Au Bon Pain. “That’s not a cookie! They don’t understand cookies,” she said with disapproval. I then mentioned those enormous “Happy Birthday!” cookies sold in grocery stores. The look on her face was one of defeat. Later Bill and I laughed about the truth of Sue’s comment about who understood cookies and who didn’t. “They don’t understand cookies” has become shorthand in our marriage for things that have been taken in an undesirable direction. We are aware that some people love those enormous cookies and that’s their choice. We’re just not fans.

People have strong opinions about cookies. I like mine small and chewy with great texture and flavor, more akin to a small Japanese sweet to eat with tea than something to snack on in large quantities. A sugar cookie is pretty much not worth the calories in my book. If I have to do an hour of spin class to work off a couple of cookies, they better really be worth it. Bill believes, “It needs to be hearty.” Today I’m baking Cowboy Cookies, which are a favorite of the adults in the house. Cowboy Cookies are essentially oatmeal cookies with chopped pecans, dried cranberries and dark chocolate chips added. “That’s too healthy to be a cookie,” claims Sophie who prefers more sweetness and less nutrition. If we took out the oatmeal and added chopped Heath bars, then we’d be in her neighborhood, cookie-wise. To her, the whole point of a cookie is for it to be decadent. I don’t want candy in my cookies.

I don’t know if my Cowboy Cookies would pass muster with Sue Bailey’s purist approach to baking but she’d at least be glad I’m baking from scratch.