That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

I had lost my baking mojo until I realized the missing ingredients: love and care

Photograph by Getty Images

I cut into my first log of frozen cookie dough as a young girl. My mother and I sliced out circles, put them on a baking sheet, and—voila!—10 to 13 minutes later, we had cookies. Then, as a teenager, I branched out. I carefully followed the instructions on the back of the Toll House package of chips and produced my own, fluffier, chocolate-studded winners. Because they were homemade from scratch, they seemed more wholesome.

Baking cookies became a hobby for me; I enjoyed it. New neighbors moving in? I brought them cookies. Hosting get-togethers? Cookies. As I grew older and became a parent, cookies were the perfect addition for playdates, whether we were guests or hosts.

Sometimes I deviated from the classic recipe, using almond milk for a vegan mom I knew, turning things around with white chips and chocolate cookies, breaking up chocolate bars to use as chips. The constant was that my cookies turned out great. You could find me whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies for some impressed fellow moms at a last-minute playdate. No eggs? No problem. I fluffed them up with flax seeds instead, and just the right amount of baking soda had them spreading just a bit and crackling at the top.

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An old proverb tells us that "pride goeth before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall." One day, I was set to pull out a pan of (I imagined) perfect cookies, just before guests arrived. Only when I removed them with my rainbow-colored oven mitts, something had gone horribly wrong. My cookies hadn't spread at all. They weren't browned at the edges. In fact, they looked raw—pale, lumpy—but when I poked at them, they were hard as rocks. Kind of like biscotti, except … well, not.

Our guests were gracious, but I was pissed. What had gone wrong? The next day, I went into the kitchen and baked again as though nothing had happened … as if it had been some sort of aberration that had nothing to do with me. But I got the same result: crappy cookies.

I did research on the web, locating a chart that had every type of cookie (flat, fluffy, chunky) and the ingredients that made it so (brown sugar, extra flour, baking powder). I brought the topic up in conversation with my friends: "Suddenly my cookies are turning out really bad. Discuss." I solicited advice. I was told to turn down the temperature on my oven. To soften the butter, not zap it in the microwave. To buy fresh baking soda (perhaps my old, refrigerated, expired baking soda was the Judas in this situation, the X factor that was doing me in). I tried it all.

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I set out sticks of butter hours ahead of time, I purchased a fresh box of Arm & Hammer, I did 325 degrees instead of 350. Still no change. Actually, there was no change in how I approached the baking at all. I sped through it furiously, focused on the results.

My last resort was self-reflection. Musing upon my baking methods, I had to admit that as I was getting older, I was a little off my game with the ingredients. I guesstimated things like the baking soda. I forgot to add vanilla and then threw it in at the last minute, splashing it over the dough, denying the futility of it. Baking, unlike cooking up a pot of, say, chili, is a bit of a science. You can't add cumin at the last minute to give it some flair. It has to happen in order: cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs and vanilla, have the sifted flour and baking soda on standby, ready to fold in. There is no place for absent-mindedness in making the perfect cookie.

I regrouped. Instead of cramming in some baking between picking up the children and doing laundry, I set aside some "me time." I was careful with the batter, following the instructions, making sure I wasn't leaving anything out, using actual measuring spoons instead of my apparently faulty visual appraisal. I watched them through the glass oven door and starting checking them every minute after five minutes. I saw them spread. When the edges were brown but the tops still wet, I took them out. They'd been baking for nine minutes. My heart was actually beating fast. As they cooled, the cookies dried and took on a crackled consistency, like sun-baked earth. I couldn't wait to try them. Inside, they were slightly gooey, the color of caramel.

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I was back.

So what was it? I've come to the conclusion that there wasn't just one issue bringing my process down—and that nothing was at fault, other than my increasing forgetfulness and perhaps a half a teaspoon of pride. Now when I bake, I do it carefully, bringing love and care into the process. It may sound corny, but my cookies have never tasted better.

Tags: food