Just What Is a Cookie, Anyway?

Dear Dorie and David,

Thank you both for joining me—I’m really looking forward to mulling over the state of the cookie with such inspiring bakers and writers. It is, of course, cookie season. Most of the food glossies have an elaborate cookie section in their December issues, and with this year’s economic news, I suspect many people will make their holiday gifts rather than buying them. Also, Anita Chu’s sweet little Field Guide to Cookies just came out. Organized by cookie taxonomy, it’s a bit like a bird-identification book. Because the guide is so catholic, including such borderline species as gougères (cheese puffs), baklava, and Algerian almond tarts, it opens up a rather critical question (critical, at least, for those of us devoted to making life sweeter): Just what is a cookie, anyway?

It’s actually quite hard to define a cookie when you get down to it. The adjective “sweet” usually comes to mind, but I was eating a Dutch windmill cookie the other day and was surprised at how savory it was—it could easily have been served with cheese. Chu has a great recipe for TV snacks, which are buttery little almond haystacks livened up with sea salt. Butter is a fairly universal cookie ingredient but not an essential one, either. Macarons and macaroons and meringues and the like are made with little or none of it. In the end, I suppose my definition of a cookie has something to do with portability and with guilty pleasure (although this diet doctor asserts that his high-protein cookies can help you get slim). Dorie and David—what makes a cookie a cookie for you?

A related question: What is it that makes a cookie American? You both spend a lot of time in Paris, so I’m hoping you’ll share your expatriate perspective. When I think of an American cookie, I think chunky—in terms of heft and girth but also chunky with sedimentary matter like chocolate chips, raisins, M&M’s, brickle bits, etc. Our penchant for chunk likely has something to do with the fact that we like to customize—we want our cookies to be ours in some fundamental way. Even people who aren’t all that inventive in the kitchen feel as if they can hot-rod a basic cookie recipe with mix-ins like dried cherries and butterscotch chips. These tweaks often work quite well—my mother-in-law’s chocolate-chip cookies, for example, have Rice Krispies mixed in for a clandestine crunch factor. But sometimes cookies have so many added ingredients that they get a little frenetic. As a rule, I’d say two textured add-ins—plus an optional flavor tweak like orange zest or almond extract—is about all a cookie-eating brain can process.

The size issue is a complicated one. I grew up when “monster cookies” were all the rage—those 9-inch cookies that you could decorate with frosting for someone’s birthday. They were really bar cookies, because they ended up quite cakey. Today’s bakery cookies tend to be 4 or 5 inches across, which is great, in some ways, because they allow a distinct chewy texture to develop at the center of the cookie while the edges stay crisp. On the other hand, many bakery cookies are too big for a single snack. (This problem has become more acute since I became a mother: I hear a lot of “just one cookie” entreaties.) Of course the size issue cuts across industries—here in the states we like big cars, big muscles, big lattes—you name it.

While we’re defining things, I feel I should declare my cookie allegiances, just so you know where I stand. I do love a good chocolate chip cookie—one with a little too much chocolate and preferably no walnuts. I am also fiendish about very spicy hermits and chocolate-truffle cookies—the ones with a cocoa-rich dough and big chunks of dark chocolate inside. I am entirely indifferent to most shortbreads and to ordinary sugar cookies (the crisp kind). I prefer my cookies to have a certain chew to them, unless they are very, very thin. On that note, I am always drawn to recipes for thin nut cookies made with brown sugar, which are almost impossible to find at bakeries. Maida Heatter, one of the great cookie gurus and a Floridian, is an advocate, and so I associate them in my mind with a certain shade of coral lipstick and the click of mahjongg tiles. And, finally, I rarely make very fussy cookies. I frequently resolve to bake sandwiched French macarons or homemade fig newtons, but ultimately I’m too impatient for cookies that have multiple steps. David and Dorie, you’ve probably baked every cookie there is, but which ones do you keep returning to? Are there cookies from your childhood that stir your nostalgia like you-know-who’s madeleines? (Sorry, sorry. I swore I could make it through a cookie discussion without mentioning Proust, but I couldn’t.)