Many people claim they don’t have time to bake. As a mom, teacher and writer, I get it. We are busy. But I argue there’s always time to bake cookies. In fact, I have freshly baked cookies almost every day.
Sure, you could just buy them. There are plenty of tempting, ready-to-eat bakery cookies out there. But let’s face it, these are often too sweet, too big and, well, too professional. They don’t taste homemade. You can, as a co-worker recently said, always tell the difference.
That’s why after work, after all the extracurricular drop-offs and pickups, after my quick what-can-I-throw-together weeknight dinner, I often manage a few hot-from-the-oven cookies. I even bake during the mad dash to get us all out of the house in the morning.
The payoff? A midmorning moment of cookie bliss. Need a couple of dozen treats for snack time tomorrow? No problem: I can turn out real homemade cookies in less than 15 minutes. It would take longer (and cost more) to drive to the bakery and back.
The back story
I am no pastry chef. That said, I’ve been baking cookies for longer than I’d like to admit. It all started with my dad’s favorite oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. These were crisp and lacy around the edges, with a distinct chew (coconut flakes), and the recipe made a mountain of them. They were the alpha cookie of my childhood, and I made them several times a year.
As I grew up, I realized there were other cookies, and — gasp — many are better. I experimented. A lot. Drop cookies. Bar cookies. Cut-outs.
I bought a cookie press, too many cookie cutters and fancy sprinkles. I baked different types of sugar cookies; different styles of oatmeal-raisin; all kinds of chocolate chips.
Sure, I had a pretty significant cupcake phase for a while and an extended lemon period (another story), but I am a cookie person at heart. Maybe now more than ever.
True, cookies lack the wow factor of a frosted (or at least glazed or sugared) knife-and-fork dessert, but that’s part of their appeal. They are accommodating and blessedly straightforward.
They win for versatility, as there are countless variations for different cookie preferences. With a tweak, a crispy cookie can go cakey. Or crumbly. Or in-between. Not only that, but a single recipe can make dozens of cookies.
Plus, cookies are portable. Try tossing those cupcakes in a bag.
But what about that time issue?
In 2008, The New York Times exposed the key to the consummate chocolate chip cookie: a long chill before baking. A number of master bakers in New York confessed to stashing dough in the fridge for a minimum of 12 hours. Some recommended 36 hours.
Even the Toll House cookie recipe (not the one currently on the bag, but the original recipe developed by Ruth Graves Wakefield at the Toll House Inn in the 1930s) instructed bakers to refrigerate the dough overnight.
Supposedly this long pause gives the eggs a chance to soak up all the deliciousness of the other ingredients, and this leads to a richer, more uniform finished product. When I came across this story back in 2008, I thought it sounded crazy.
Who would go to the trouble of mixing up a batch of cookies and let the dough just sit for a day and a half? Who has the willpower? For that matter, would my cookie dough be safe — from my kids — in the fridge? I clipped the Times story, but I never did it.
Late last year I came across something similar: another chocolate chip cookie recipe that politely offered up the option of freezing the cookies and baking later. Now, I had heard of freezing dough, letting it come to room temperature, and then dropping or rolling and cutting as usual, but I had never heard of popping pre-formed cookies — rock frozen —straight into the oven.
I decided to give it a try.
I baked half the batch right after I mixed it up, and I scooped out the other half of the dough into little balls, placed them in rows on a small tray, and slid them in the freezer. When they firmed up, I put them in freezer bags.
A few days later I baked six cookies straight from the freezer. Angels sang. It was a game-changer. My chocolate chip cookie technique will never go back to what it was.
These cookies held their shape better, were soft and puffed in the middle, and turned a glorious golden brown around the edges. Even the chips seemed to taste better.
Now, I know a lot has to do with the recipe itself. But the from-frozen batch was far superior than the cookies I baked straightaway. Really. They were akin to something from a bakery — only with the soul of homemade.
I ran with the idea. I made this chocolate chip cookie recipe several times, and I discovered that it is strangely empowering to be able to have freshly baked homemade cookies on impulse. I found myself indulgently baking as few as three at a time. Because I could.
Secondary bonus: Stale isn’t an issue anymore. Yes, you can have too many cookies. In the old days, back when I would bake the whole batch at once, inevitably some cookies would end up, days into their existence, uneaten and unwanted. We never have sad, undesirable cookies anymore because we bake to order.
Eventually I tried out freezing other cookie recipes: chewy oatmeal-raisin, rich-and-buttery pecan sandies, super gingery ginger cookies, and lemon-laced sugar cookies. All, I discovered, can all be mixed, prepped, frozen and baked on a whim. In a preheated oven, it’s usually 12 to 15 minutes.
I have since taken to buying extra butter and mixing up a couple of different batches of cookies on the occasional Sunday afternoon. Cookies, by their nature, require little more than butter, eggs, flour, sugar and flavorings, so even the time-challenged can manage this in less than an hour. Yes, it really doesn’t take a lot of time to transform nondescript ingredients into mood-altering cookies. And the mixing, shaping and baking is always more rewarding than buying.
And three cookies in the oven smell just as good as three dozen.
Bottom line, with a little foresight, you can have fresh, warm-from-the-oven homemade cookie amazingness whenever you want. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.
Find the time.
Connie McCabe is a former editor for Saveur magazine. She lives in Kansas City and she has recently written about Latin grilling and potatoes for The Star’s Food section.
The Chocolate Chip Cookie
I am forever grateful to Phyllis Grant, a California mom and writer, who has renewed my faith in the classic — but often predictable and boring — chocolate chip cookie. I’ve never met her, but she posted this recipe on the blog Food 52 late last year, and my cookie rotation hasn’t been the same since.
Makes about 3 dozen large cookies
2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup regular semisweet chocolate chips (regular size, not mini)
1 cup large bittersweet chocolate chips (such as Ghiradelli’s)
1 1/2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup light or dark brown sugar, packed tightly
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Sift flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
Mix together both types of chocolate chips and chopped nuts. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugars in a standing mixer with a paddle attachment until well-mixed and light (at least 3 minutes). Scrape down the sides then add 1 egg. Mix for 5 seconds. Add the second egg and mix for 5 seconds. Scrape down sides and add vanilla. Mix another 5 seconds. Scrape down the sides.
Add the sifted flour mixture in 4 batches, stopping before adding the last batch. For the first three additions, be sure to mix at low speed. You just want to combine the ingredients. Scrape down the sides between additions. Turn off the mixer and add the last bit of flour with the chocolate chips by hand. Do not overmix!
Resist the urge to bake right away! Using a small ice-cream scoop or a tablespoon, portion out cookie dough onto a sheet pan and place in the freezer. Once they are firm, store them in a ziptop freezer bag. (These cookies are better baked directly from the freezer.)
To bake from frozen, just place cookies on parchment paper on cookie sheets and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 12-15 minutes. The cookies, because they are frozen, will stay thick and chewy in the middle while they crisp up around the edges. Do not overbake. Cool on baking rack.
Per cookie: 190 calories (53 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 26 milligrams cholesterol, 20 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 72 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Lemon Sugar Cookies
This has long been my go-to recipe for decorative cut-out cookies. By all means, if you have time to roll and cut these into fancy shapes, do it, but they also work frozen in a log and sliced. My favorite is to simply sprinkle them with raw or turbinado sugar (it is coarser than regular sugar and maintains its crunch) before baking. My kids like Jackson Pollock-inspired drizzles of a lemon or chocolate glaze. Just don’t use too much. The subtle lemon flavor in the cookies is overshadowed with too much richness on top. Unbelievable flavor from humble beginnings.
Makes about 3 dozen
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
Finely chopped zest of 1 lemon
Turbinado (natural) sugar, for finishing
Whisk together the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a standing mixer with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy, at least 3 minutes. Add egg, vanilla and lemon zest and mix until well blended.
With the mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture to the butter mixture. Mix gently until blended.
Turn dough out onto a work surface and divide into two equal portions. Dust hands with a little flour, and shape dough into logs. Wrap in waxed paper, then put into a freezer bag. Can be frozen up to 3 months.
When ready to bake, remove one log and thaw slightly at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Slice dough (I use a chef’s knife) about 1/3 inch thick and arrange on parchment paper on cookie sheet. Sprinkle with sugar (if using), and bake until golden around the edges, about 13 minutes. Cool on a cooling rack and drizzle with lemon and/or chocolate glaze.
Lemon glaze: Mix together 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1 cup confectioners’ sugar. Add 1/2 tablespoon butter and finely chopped zest of 1 lemon. Microwave on high for 20 seconds. Whisk until smooth. Use a spoon to drizzle over cookies.
Chocolate glaze: Combine 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips, 3 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon light corn syrup on top of a double boiler. Stir over boiling water until chips are melted and mixture is smooth. Add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. Use a spoon to drizzle over cookies.
Per cookie: 105 calories (45 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 20 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 33 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Ginger Molasses Cookies
I will never turn down a ginger cookie, but my favorites are spicy and chewy. As for the molasses, dark (“full flavor”) works best. Light molasses can be too sweet (and cookies won’t darken up) and blackstrap molasses is too bitter.
Makes 3 dozen
2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup finely diced candied ginger
Turbinado (natural) sugar, to roll cookies in
Combine flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice, salt and ground cloves in a bowl and mix well.
Beat butter and sugar in a standing mixer until light and fluffy, at least 3 minutes. Add egg, molasses and vanilla. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger. Refrigerate 1 hour.
Shape dough into balls (about the size of pingpong balls). Arrange on parchment paper and freeze. Once firm, place in a freezer bag.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Take dough out of freezer and allow to thaw slightly, about 10 minutes. Roll balls in sugar and arrange about 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. Flatten slightly. Bake until cookies spread and are crackly on top, about 15 minutes. Remove and cool on a cookie rack.
Per cookie: 96 calories (39 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 105 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Don’t be fooled! These cookies may be ridiculously easy — the hardest part of the process is shaping the relatively crumbly dough into balls — but they are big on pecan richness.
Makes 21/2 dozen
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Lightly toast pecans in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, shaking frequently to be sure they do not burn. Let cool.
Cream the butter and the sugars in a standing mixer until smooth — they don’t have to be light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla and salt. Add the flour and pecans and stir to form a stiff dough.
Scoop using a level spoon. Roll into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in flour. Freeze until firm, then place in a freezer bag.
When you are ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place cookies on parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake just until edges are golden. Do not overbake! About 17 minutes from frozen.
Per cookie: 131 calories (60 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 55 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.