Everybody loves cookies.
The only problem is picking a favorite, which can be a very personal decision.
The cookie that tops the list of one person may be at the bottom of another person's list.
Many factors contribute to a cookie's lovability. Sometimes it's the story behind the cookie that makes it special. At a recent cookie contest held for the benefit of the United Way at the University at Buffalo, Poor Man's Cookies, which had a long and interesting history, were a big winner.
The recipe for Poor Man's Cookies was developed from a well-known cake recipe, not surprisingly called Poor Man's Cake.
"This cake was popular during World War II," explained Mary-Camille Schwindler of UB's Records and Registration Department.
Somewhat unbelievably, the recipe calls for Miracle Whip salad dressing, which stands in for butter and eggs. In the 1940s, eggs and butter were sometimes hard to find.
"A lot of people get turned off when they see that. They think the cookie will be too tangy," says Sarita Schwindler, Mary-Camille Schwindler's niece, who also had a hand in baking the cookies. "But it's been my favorite since I was a little girl."
"The recipe was given to me by Sarita's mother, Helen Schwindler of Olean," said Mary-Camille Schwindler. "It was developed by her Aunt Betty, who simply added extra flour to the cake recipe and came up with cookies."
No wonder the cookies have remained family favorites through the years.
Sometimes, more technical factors are involved in choosing a favorite cookie. "The intensity of flavor is what makes a good cookie," says Liz Kolken of the Quaker Bonnet, who has baked many cookies in her day.
"I hate a vague cookie," Kolken says. "If it's a chocolate cookie, it's got to be really chocolatey. If it's a peanut butter cookie, it's got to be really peanut buttery. I don't care if a cookie is hard or soft, it should taste the way it should."
Margot Glick, of Buffalo, believes "cookies should be soothing and taste so good that you can enjoy them even with 1 percent milk."
Glick is a fan of frosted cookies. "If you have a big problem, a nice frosted cookie will solve it," she says. Not to mention oatmeal cookies. "I like big gushy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. When you eat them you think it's healthy and then you are comforted right away."
Reine Hauser, who helped run the UB cookie contest last week, likes a cookie "with a fairly complex flavor. And I like cookies that are made with natural ingredients.
"Butter is always better than margarine," she adds.
We consulted Nancy Baggett to put this cookie thing in perspective. Baggett, of Ellicott City, Md., is the author of a new 395-page collection called "The All American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin, $35).
"What makes a great cookie?" she muses. "First, it has to have a distinctive texture.
"It can be chewy/gooey or crispy/crunchy but the texture is as important a component as the flavor. And flavor and aroma are really inseparable, by the way."
Baggett agrees with Kolken that "flavor has to be distinctive. If it is a lemon cookie, for instance, it has to be really puckery."
And then there's appearance. "Even ugly cookies need to have some kind of charm. Every cookie needs to look attractive in its own way."
And, Baggett says, it doesn't take much to make a cookie look good. "Sometimes I just make a cone out of parchment paper and pipe some fine lines of icing on a cookie," she says. "You can always sprinkle them with confectioners' sugar.
"If you're doing macaroons, you can just put an almond in the center. If you're doing pecan sandies, you can put a pecan on top.
"That does more than just make a cookie look good," Baggett adds. It tells people what is in the cookie - useful for those who have strong likes and dislikes or serious allergies.
"I worked for a time with Roland Mesnier, who is the executive pastry chef at the White House. He's been there since the Carter administration," the author says. "And he taught me that if you're going to decorate a cookie, that decoration should say something.
"It shouldn't mislead you. If you put a piece of lemon peel on the top of the cookie, it better have a lemon flavor, for instance."
True enough, but sometimes you can overanalyze a subject, too. When we asked Baggett the name of her favorite cookie, it was a little like asking a mother to name her favorite child.
"My favorite cookie? It depends on what kind of a mood I'm in," she said.
"There's a Cranberry White Chocolate Cookie in the book that I like very much because it combines fresh and dry cranberries as well as white chocolate. It is a complex of wonderful flavors and texture.
"But then I like a totally different cookie, too. One that rings the bells of my childhood. There's a recipe in the book called Nana's Date Rocks and the recipe comes from my grandmother. The name comes from the fact that they look like little boulders.
"Every time I bake these wonderful homespun cookies, the distinctive aroma of cinnamon and cloves takes me back to the pleasant times I spent with my grandmother in her kitchen."
And that, when you come right down to it, may be the real reason we often prefer one cookie over another.
We simply like a cookie that makes us feel good.
Bake some favorites
Here are some recipes to start your search for a favorite cookie:
POOR MAN'S COOKIES
2 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
4 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup salad dressing (like Miracle Whip)
1 to 1 1/4 cup water (depending on thickness of batter)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt together. Combine salad dressing, water and vanilla and add to the dry ingredients. Mix well. (This is not a thick dough.)
Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about four dozen.
ICED CRANBERRY WHITE CHOCOLATE DROP COOKIES
1 2/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1 large egg
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups dried sweetened cranberries
1 1/2 cups white chocolate morsels
1/2 cup cranberries, chopped
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease several baking sheets or coat with non-stick spray.
In medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter until lightened. Add the brown sugar and orange zest and beat until well blended, about 2 minutes more.
Add the egg and vanilla and beat until very light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes more. Beat or stir in the flour mixture until evenly incorporated. Stir in the pecans, dried cranberries, white chocolate and chopped cranberries until evenly incorporated.
Drop the dough onto baking sheets by heaping tablespoons, spacing about 2 3/4 -inches apart.
Bake the cookies one sheet at at time in the upper third of the oven for 8 to 11 minutes or until lightly tinged with brown all over and just firm when pressed in the centers. Reverse the sheet from front to back halfway through baking to ensure even browning. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack and let stand until cookies firm up slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, remove the cookies to wire racks.
For the icing (if using): Stir together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and 2 to 4 teaspoons water to yield a slightly runny icing.
Set the wire racks with the cookies over waxed paper to catch the drips. Using a spoon, immediately drizzle the icing back and forth over the warm cookies until lightly decorated. Let stand until completely cooled and the icing sets, at least an hour.
Store in an airtight container. Makes 35 to 40 cookies.
NANA'S DATE ROCKS
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons flour
1 generous teaspoon cinnamon
1 generous teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups coarsely chopped pitted dates
About 3 tablespoons flour for coating
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease several baking sheets or coat with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat together the sugar and butter until very well blended and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla and beat until very well blended. Beat or stir in the flour mixture until evenly incorporated. Fold in the dates until evenly incorporated. Let the dough stand for 5 to 10 minutes, or until firmed up slightly.
Shape portions of the dough into 1 1/4 -inch balls with lightly greased hands. Dust your hands with flour and roll each ball in your hands until lightly coated with flour. Place on baking sheets spacing about 2 1/2 inches apart.
Bake the cookies one sheet at a time in the upper third of the oven for 10 to 14 minutes or until tinged with brown all over and just barely firm when pressed in the centers. Reverse the sheet from front to back halfway through baking to ensure even browning. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack and let stand until the cookies firm up slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to wire racks. Let stand until completely cooled. Let the cookies mellow in an airtight container for at least 6 hours and preferably overnight before serving. Makes about 30 cookies.