I’ve had a huge work deadline for the past few weeks, and my coworkers and I have been working really long hours with very little sleep.
When we work until 2 am, we usually come in later the next day because we have to work until 2 am again, and if we don’t get any sleep at all we risk a psychotic breakdown. However, despite the fact that I am going into work late, I can never seem to sleep in. No matter what time I finally get to go to bed, once the birds start chirping and the sun starts to filter into my window, I am wide awake. I know I am going to suffer later when I am trying to make changes to a document at 1:30 in the morning, but I can’t help it. So, I end up sleep-deprived and cranky at 8 AM after only getting a few hours of sleep, knowing I have to be back in the office in a few hours.
So, I get up and bake cookies. Baking can be better than sleep. On some levels, it’s even more restorative. When I’m baking, space-time continuum is dull background noise, and I lose myself in butter, eggs, and vanilla. The sound of my Kitchenaid mixing dough is soothing zen. The miraculous alchemy of flour, butter, eggs, and vanilla coming together to form something wondrous and sweet and luscious makes the neglected mess of my home, the relentless stampede of my work deadline, and my complete lack of sleep fade away.
Since I usually only have about 2 hours to bake something in order to get back into my office before lunchtime, I am limited in my baking ambitions. Chocolate croissants are out. Chocolate chip cookies are in. My favorite is the chocolate chip cookie recipe I learned at L’Academie. It’s a basic recipe that I alter with some pretty cool variations, such as white chocolate, hazelnut, and dried blueberries; and milk chocolate, dried cherries, and pecans. You can have a lot of fun with a really great basic recipe (thank you, Chef Mark Ramsdell). I also make brown sugar cookies, and basic sugar cookies to which I add chopped crystallized ginger. Cookies that can be mixed and baked in less than an hour, and then cooled while I take a shower and get dressed.
I’ve always had jobs that demand ridiculous hours from me. I was employed in the creative department of advertising agencies through most of my twenties and early-to-mid- thirties. I call those “the lost years” because I spent my life working. I completely lost my youth to Capitol One direct mail packages, Blue Cross and Blue Shield direct mail campaigns, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery store signage, and Ryan Home weekly newspaper advertisements. But I had fun for the most part. No one can say that working in advertising isn’t fun at least some of the time. Where else can you roll out of bed with a hangover, throw on a dirty t-shirt, and go to work looking like a mugshot of a person who hasn’t quite recovered from the previous evening’s binge drinking? Not that I ever did that. I was pretty well-groomed most of the time (unlike a certain art director from Pittsburgh who wore the same vintage bowling shirt every day for an entire month during a certain morose period that preceded a sudden move to Dallas and the loss of his ponytail).
One Sunday night in the 1990’s, I was baking oatmeal raisin cookies. It had been one of the very rare weekends that I didn’t have to work. I was taking the cookies out of the oven at about 10 pm to cool with the intention of taking them into the office the next day, when the phone rang. It was my creative director, Tom. He told me that he had just finished a new creative presentation, and he needed me to come into the office to print and board everything for a client presentation the next morning. “Seriously, Tom, it’s 10 pm and I just made cookies!” I said. “Great,” he replied, “I’m hungry!”
A few months later, I had major, emergency dental surgery due to a neglected, abcessed tooth. An art director buddy of mine literally forced me to go to her dentist, who was a few blocks from our office, after the left side of my face had swelled up so much that I looked like a hampster. Her dentist informed me that my abscess had become, supposedly, “life-threatening” and required that I make a choice between immediate surgery at a dental surgeon a few miles away, or the possibility of imminent death from a brain infection. After leaving the emergency dental surgeon’s office several hours later–sans a left molar–I jammed the prescription for Percocet into my pocket, ignored the dental surgeon’s instructions to go home immediately and stay in bed, went back to the studio, and worked until 4 am on a new business pitch for an insurance company with an ice pack duct-taped to the side of my face. Tom went to the all-night CVS and bought me canned vegetarian vegetable soup so I’d have something to eat when everyone else ordered pizza. He was thoughtful like that.
I went to L’Academie de Cuisine a few years later, after Earle Palmer Brown had been bought and then closed down, and then another agency that I worked for after that also closed due to general suckiness of the agency and bipolar tendencies on the part of the alcoholic owner (not WWA, above, just for the record, which was one of the better agencies for which I have worked). I had the crazy idea that I could do something I loved and not work insane hours for crappy money in an abusive work environment run by 40-year-old adolescent boys who were womanizing, narcissistic, slave drivers. I have since learned a thing or two about the pastry industry, but at the time I blissfully strolled into the school each night for class to the smell of yeast, dough, and vanilla lingering in the air, and immediately felt a harmony that only yeast, dough, and vanilla can bring me. Folding croissant dough, stirring custard in a slow figure 8 until it achieves perfect consistency and gives up its starch to aromatic sweetness, rolling pastry into a perfect circle… it was Zen. Pure Happiness. Peace.
One of these days, I really am going to bake cookies and make chocolate for a living. For now, I just bake for some sanity in the midst of working long, crazy hours in a stressful job. One good thing about working in jobs that demand above-and-beyond dedication and long hours is that you tend to bond with your co-workers more than in 9-5 jobs. I’m still friends with almost every person with whom I have ever pulled an all-nighter. Once you’ve seen someone at his or her worst at 3 am– sobbing hysterically over a color printer that has suddenly ceased functioning, or talking an art director off a ledge when his Mac crashes and he loses an entire campaign — you have a bond that doesn’t go away. There are things that happen in the bowels of the night, in creative departments all over the world in advertising agencies of every stripe, that are best never repeated after the sun comes up. Like Fight Club — “the first rule of pulling an all-nighter at Earle Palmer Brown is, you don’t talk about what happens when you pull an all-nighter at Earle Palmer Brown”. I’ve seen art directors just suddenly disappear (also referred to as “getting a job at a boutique shop in Baltimore”.)
I’ve always baked as a counterbalance to what I do for a living. (One of these days, I’m actually going to make chocolate and cookies for a living, and then I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe design ads for relaxation?) My cookies are my own. I can put dark chocolate or milk chocolate in them. I can decide I’m in the mood for hazelnuts. Or not. I can do what I want, without having to put up with some control freak, creative wannabe account manager giving me a hard time. I never have to hear:
“What is this? This is not what I asked for! The client was specific. She said 112 chocolate chips. These have 118 chocolate chips. Did you read the creative brief? Does anyone in this fucking creative department read the fucking creative briefs, or do you people just do whatever the fucking hell you want? I don’t know why I fucking bother. We are going to lose this client and we are all going to get fired because you people can’t read a fucking creative brief and can’t follow simple goddamn instructions, or I wouldn’t be staring at a plate of cookies with 118 chocolate chips when I was very clear in my creative brief about the number of fucking chips the fucking client wants in her fucking cookies. And now I have to take this pile of crap to my client meeting and explain why I work with a bunch of incompetent fucking assholes who can’t follow simple, fucking instructions.”
Nope. I never have to hear that. At least about my cookies, anyway. So, here’s to cookies, with or without chips, nuts, or dried cherries. Made with sugar and spice and whatever else the hell I want to put in them. My cookies, made from my heart. The way I want. Even when I don’t have time to find my zen with French macarons, chocolate bonbons, or almond croissants, my cookies are always there to keep me centered and sane. And for those simple little round balls of doughy happiness, I am very grateful.
“Make ‘Em Your Own” chip, fruit, or nut cookies
(adapted from Chef Mark Ramsdell at L’Academie de Cuisine)
350° 13+ minutes (depending on size of cookie)
This recipe makes a lot of cookies. I make small (about 2 bite) cookies that I portion with a scoop, and I get about 4 dozen cookies from this recipe.
4.4 oz. shortening (I use the transfat free “Spectrum” shortening that I purchase at Whole Foods)
5.25 oz. butter, softened
8 oz. sugar
8 oz. brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 large yolk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
14 oz. all-purpose flour
1 cup nuts, dried fruit, or a combination, coarsely chopped
12 oz. chocolate chips, coarsely chopped (I buy my chocolate in bulk and chop it by hand, which gives some textural diversity which I think is appealing — but you can use bagged chocolate chips)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment.
2. Sift together. flour, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.
3. Cream shortening, butter + both sugars in a stand mixer, or with a hand-held mixer, for about 3 minutes.
4. To the cream/butter/sugar mixture, add eggs. Then add flour mixture a little at a time until just combined.
5. Mix in nuts, chips, and/or dried fruit by hand.
6. These spread a bit so leave about 2 inches between cookies. I bake these at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.
These are great for making ice cream sandwiches.
(adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe)
10 oz (about 2 cups) flour (I use a combination of 9 oz. King Arthur all-purpose and 1 oz. King Arthur Queen Guinivere cake flour)
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground ginger (I use Penzey’s) — more if you really like ginger
16 oz. unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
7 oz. (about 1 cup) granulated sugar
1 tbs. light brown sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cups chopped, crystallized ginger (I use Penzey’s Australian crystallized ginger)
to roll cookies, mix together:
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground ginger
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat.
2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and ground ginger.
3. In a glass measuring cup, lightly mix egg, egg yolk, and vanilla extract.
4. In a Kitchenaid, or with a hand mixer, cream butter and both sugars for 3 minutes. Add egg/vanilla mixture and mix until just absorbed. Add dry ingredients gradually until just incorporated.
5. Mix in chopped ginger by hand.
6. Using a small scoop or a spoon, form dough into small (about 2”) balls, roll in sugar/ginger mix, and space about 2” apart on parchment-lined baking sheet.
7. Bake between 12-15 minutes until lightly brown around edges. I have a convection oven, and it takes a few minutes longer.
Another Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that doesn’t require shortening
Makes 1 1/2 dozen 3-inch cookies
This is a recipe that I adapted from Cook’s Illustrated. I made one significant change. The original recipe calls for melting and cooling the butter. I brown the butter, which gives the cookie a butterscotch flavor that is a definite improvement. I really like these, although not as much as Chef Mark’s.
10 1/2 oz (2-1/8 cups) all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur organic unbleached)
½ tsp. table salt
½ tsp. baking soda
12 tbs. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
7 oz. (1 cup) dark brown sugar (light can work too)
3-1/2 oz. (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1-½ tsp. vanilla extract
1-2 cups chocolate chips or chunks (I buy chocolate in bulk and cut it up myself), nuts, or dried fruit
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silpat.
2. Brown butter by melting it gently over medium-low heat until it smells like butterscotch and has darkened slightly to a beige color. Don’t burn it. If it turns black, do it over again.
3. Mix flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl.
4. In a measuring cup (or any other cup), lightly mix egg, yolk, and vanilla together.
5. Mix melted and slightly cooled butter and brown and granulated sugars for 3 minutes in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer (or by hand for longer). Mix in egg/yolk/vanilla mixture. Mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in chips by hand.
6. Portion cookies in balls about 1” in diameter (I use a portion scoop). Keep about 2” apart on baking sheet. They spread a bit.
7. Bake until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges start to harden yet centers are still soft and puffy, about 15 to 18. Don’t overbake. Cool on the cookie sheets if you want these cookies to retain their chewiness.