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Incredible Cookies from Lousy Ingredients and Pedestrian Recipe

So here's this weird thing. I've been really into these oatmeal cookies baked by a mysterious guy in CT for years (he's a friend of several friends, and they save me a couple of leftover cookies whenever he visits, and when he visits he usually brings cookies).

After a very long time, I finally met the guy, and told him how much I loved the cookies. His attitude was a mixture of exasperation that I'd make such a big deal, but also obvious pride, because he clearly knows they're ridiculously great, even though it turns out he's using crap ingredients and using the recipe on the Quaker Oats box.

Yes, you read right. The recipe on the Quaker Oats box. Some of the best cookies I've ever had, which I've been admiring for years, are made from the Quaker Oats recipe. I've tasted dozens of results from that recipe over the years, but none were anything remotely like this.

So the question is: how does the magic get in?

I videotaped him to try to find out. View the video, plus the EXACT recipe he uses (which does integrate a few minor tweaks) at http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2011/11/e... .

I'd love your feedback about this mystery!

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  1. If that is (and it looks like it) a variation on the Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal cookies -- yes, they're the best oatmeal cookies on the planet.

    I don't know what alchemy happens, but they come out moist and chewy and wonderful every time.

    (but with Heath chips? OMG)

    15 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      Ok, that's helpful, thanks. It IS a really good recipe (Quaker certainly has incentive to make the most delicious recipes possible, to create incentive for you to buy lots of their product!).

      But Von has passed this recipe to lots of people, and reports (as he says in the video) that no one seems to get the same results.

      Which brings up a huge question no one seems to ever focus on, though it's really the most important question any of us can ever ask: why do some people, working from the same ingredients, recipes, and equipment, create deliciousness while others don't? Two violin students of the same teacher, with the same violin and same music, will not move you equally. I could give a thousand - ten thousand! - other examples. But the fact is that there is something immaterial that makes some renditions beautiful, inspiring, and/or delicious, and others less so.

      Knowing that this particular recipe is a Mozart concerto helps. But one experienced pianist can make you cry with a Mozart concerto, whereas another will leave you cold. And there's one somewhere out there whose performance will change your life......as Von's cookies have done for me.

      And that's the enigma.

      I've eaten a lot of cookies. I've eaten a lot of great food (for those who don't know, I'm a restaurant critic known for ferreting out great stuff, and I founded this site). I'm not easily impressed - especially not to this degree. I've eaten widely in 25 countries and nearly every state for thirty years, but I've hardly ever had cookies this good!

      1. re: Jim Leff

        The magic gets in the same way my great grandmother Bessie could turn flour, butter and nuts into magic baked goods-it's their hands. Their touch. Their nonchalance about it all. Bess had these walnut cookies that drove the men in her neighborhood well, nuts and the women could never replicate them. She said she found the recipe off a bag of whole walnuts and committed the thing to memory. Baked thousands of walnut cookies in her 94 years and never could quite figure out what the big deal was.

        I watched the video days ago on your slog and thought Von and Bessie would get on famously.

        I've made the walnut cookies dozens of times and they just aren't as good as Bessie's.

        1. re: HillJ

          Great story, HillJ, thanks (my grandma was a Bessie too, btw).

          Hey, we can easily just sigh and nod our heads, and chalk it up to "one of those things". We've all met such people and eaten their magical food. We're grateful when we do, but I think it should inspire greater curiousity.

          I've long been driven to figure out what it actually IS. Not spiritually, but on a physical level. What's that THING? In fact, I've been working on a book about just that (working title: "The Roots of Deliciousness"). I'm writing it "on spec", because I don't want to rush. As years go by, my understanding deepens.

          But Von threw me. I didn't see much love and care and touch. In fact, he seemed pretty darned blase about the whole thing. EXCEPT (as I noted in the video), the shaping of the cookies onto the parchment paper. I saw, there, some juju. Did it convey for you at all?

          1. re: Jim Leff

            As a matter of fact it did. Basic tools, don't make a fuss-what I'm referring to as the nonchalance. What you call blase here. Bessie used two spoons to form the cookies; not parchment-brown paper bags. But she also used the two baking sheets together that Von used to keep the cookies from bottom browning too much. Must be the distrust of appliances (Bess never found a stove she trusted).

            Roots of Deliciousness sounds spot on for a book on spec. Keep interviewing the folks, Jim. The (THING) story IS IN THEM.

            1. re: HillJ

              HillJ, we agree on a lot, but I couldn't disagree more on "Keep interviewing the folks, Jim. The (THING) story IS IN THEM."

              They never know, and they can never say. Some of them can tell you a story, but it's just a story. They don't know any better than anyone else. If it were "knowable", in a rational way, then it'd have long ago been distilled, disseminated, and everyone could do it. I think that's self-evident. It will never be reduced to formula, or explained in a way the analytical mind would find satisfying.

              And that's why I talk about it in suitably hushed tones, using loose terms like "magic". I don't think we can ever pin it down. But I do think I can explain, for those who've never been touched by this whatever-it-is, what it sort of is and sort of how it gets in. I've already approached it from several angles on my Slog (e.g. in the articles linked to in the cookie video link). I present the cookie video as a pretty keen and tidy koan reduction.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Such an excellent point.
                My love of accidental story tellers is showing.

            2. re: Jim Leff

              Jim, my chocolate chip cookies are straight off of the back of the Nestle's Toll House Morsels bag -- and people BEG me to make chocolate chip cookies for them.

              I've baked countless hundreds of dozens over the years -- as the football team mom, I was churning out 10-15 dozen a week (sometimes TWICE a week), so I have it down to a science, and can turn out that amount in only a little more time than it takes me to turn out 4 dozen (the standard recipe).

              I don't do anything weird or special or different -- but people swear that they can never get them to turn out like mine...and I have no idea why - but it's transferred through several moves, both within the US and internationally, so the ingredients obviously change...and still no one can replicate them.

              1. re: sunshine842

                sunshine your post reminded me of another interesting aspect of this experience-the gratefulness that comes when someone makes one thing well, over and over, and the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy them. Bessie's cookies were spectacular but so was the idea that we could walk into her kitchen any day of the week and eat a batch just out of the oven. That's also the juju.

                1. re: sunshine842

                  sunshine: also, your oven's changed with those moves. Several people have theorized that ovens are unique and personal. But your experience disproves that.

                  Mabye you and Von and others like you ought to form an elite society. You could wear lapel pins, so you'd know each other. People would be constantly hitting on you for cookies. You'd have supermodel-like cache in society.

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    Those always taste good, but look awful when I make them. they spread out too much.

                    I have tried every chocolate chip recipe I can find, and they always turn out flat. I've made sure to buy brand new baking powder or baking soda, depending on the recipe, and still...flat cookies.

                    My oatmeal cookies rock, but chocolate chip cookies hate me.

                    1. re: Acantha

                      There's so much I could post about improving your chocolate chip cookies but it doesn't belong in this thread. If you post a new thread asking for advice, I'm sure you'd be inundated. Chowhounds are great at diagnosing problems.

                      1. re: Acantha

                        Just a quick word about choc chippers. My chocolate chip cookies improved when I began chilling the dough before baking. They don't spread as much then.

                        Even if you are unsatisfied with your cookies, I imagine your family appreciates them.

                        1. re: Acantha

                          I'm with the chilling crowd. I age my dough in the fridge and often make extra and freeze it so I don't have to wait 36 hours for cookies. When it's fresh out of the fridge it resists flattening, and when I bake from frozen they're nearly half domes.

                  2. re: Jim Leff

                    One variable--I think a lot of people don't take into account the loss of heat from an oven when you open it (and/or have ovens that aren't accurate temperature-wise). Since they bake so quickly, I think it's important to set the temperature a bit high for cookies before you open the oven door to account for the loss of heat (I usually turn it back down the last five minutes then crank it up again after I take the cookies out to get it ready for the next batch).

                    The other more intangible factor is that when you bake a lot of cookies, you know what the consistency should be and learn to make very minor (practically subconscious) adjustments to the cookie size, flatness, baking time, dough coldness, velocity at oven-opening/closing, etc. to get the results you want. Making cookies small in size is another very easy way to make them taste better, in my opinion--more of that golden crispy surface area, less potential for cakiness (which I abhor in a cookie!).

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      cooking is an art, as well as a science

                  3. I'll have a look at your video later tonight, but I really like your question. I don't know why your friend's cookies are better than your cookies might be. But there is probably a cookie, or other item that YOU can bake or make better than anyone else. You just have to find it. And, the oatmeal cookie recipe that I have made in the past from the Quaker Oat box always was pretty good. Sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

                    And here's a thought--what sort of vanilla does your friend use?

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: sueatmo

                      Stop and Shop vanilla extract...as a matter of fact Jim commented several times on the ingredient list. Even the oats Von was baking with on camera were Stop & Shop brand. No frills. When you watch the video sueatmo, you'll see the almost careless approach Von takes to make what's been described as cookie love.

                      1. re: HillJ

                        HillJ, I do try to keep my mind open to the notion that love can be injected without a big "thing" being made of it. In fact, chefs who go on and on about all the love and tenderness they inject are almost invariably lousy chefs. It's all posing and intention - i.e. all internal. It's about the "about", rather than about the doing.

                        So you can miss the people who actually do this. I sometimes see this myself: I'd do just about anything to help just about anybody, but I don't act warm and fuzzy, so people rarely notice. There are the people who immerse, and the people who make a show of immersion. It bugs me that the former don't get much attention (hence Chowhound, where we shine a spotlight on underappreciated gems).

                        Von's an extreme example. So blase! And you almost never spot any level of care at all (except, as I said, for his left hand, quietly nudging the dough behind his more noticeable right hand). My theory is that his heart is absolutely melting into the things (he likely doesn't even realize). And just 'cuz he's declining to grimace in dramatic spiritual catharsis doesn't change anything.

                        This stuff just fascinates me. Sorry to go on and on. But I spent a decade hunting down and writing about people (and restaurants) like Von. And I spent another building this site so kindred spirits could pool notes. I guess I'm spending this decade trying to get to the bottom of what that "thing" actually is. I've read lots of "aesthetics" philosophy, but none of it really gets there for me.

                        1. re: Jim Leff

                          If you find it, I'll be reading along.

                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            Jeff -

                            Years ago my husband and I went to a Japanese Festival in Torrance, CA. And one of the events was a sushi chef judging. My husband was chosen as one of the audience judges (probably because as a pale red head he looked so out of place!) and we thought it would be just a lark. Because the rules were, everyone got the exact same ingredients from the exact same supplies. All restaurant chefs. And they were to make the same thing. And yet - my husband said there was an ENORMOUS difference between the dishes.

                            It was such a demonstration of skill and touch, we have not forgotten it.

                            I'm off to watch your cookie video!

                            1. re: happybaker

                              happybaker, I had a formative experience like that, too. It will, in fact, open the book I'm writing (per my reply to HillJ, above).

                              In 1992, I had a week-long gig at the Olympics in Seville. Like lots of gigs, they kept the band so far out of town that there was nothing to eat (chowhoundish musicians suffer unbearably). Me and the sax player strolled over to a convenience store to buy identical boxes of lousy pasta and jars of lousy sauce. We brought them back to our identical convenience apartments, with identical stoves and pots, and we both cooked up dinner. Mine tasted like convenience store pasta topped with convenience store sauce. His wasn't exactly great, but it had unmistakable pizzazz. It tasted ITALIAN (he was, in fact Italian). I searched his apartment for oregano or EVOO, but there was none.

                              The Von video is one crystallization of this phenomenon. But the pasta experience was as stark as one could imagine. And it's what's brought me down this path. I've been thinking about it ever since.

                              What WAS it about Ralph's pasta? I do have an answer, but I'm developing it for the book! But the upshot is this: I'm quite sure that this question is the crux for everything that inspires me about human life on Earth. I live for the "greater" part of "greater than the sum of its parts". That's all that matters to me. Everyone else pays attention to the parts, but I'm completely obsessed with the magic part of the equation. And it IS magic (not like making rabbits disappear, or stirring cauldrons; this is, I believe, what magic really is). And once you start paying attention to it, you can't settle for less.

                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                Oh you make me smile.

                                My grandma Helen could take potatoes, boil them - and they would be nirvana. Better than any boiled potato you'd ever had. Just potatoes, margarine, salt and pepper. But somehow she knew how to watch and adjust and - magic. My dad was what they now call a "broilerman". He could grill and broil like no ones business. And my mom? Her recipe for stuffed cabbage ends with "The dish is done when the cabbage is soft and the liquid tastes like wine."

                                Most of their stuff I can replicate, some I cannot. I know it's the magic in their fingers and in their heads. I take comfort in the fact that my oatmeal cookies? A tweak from Joy of Cooking? No ones replicated them yet : )

                                1. re: Jim Leff

                                  Could he have put a bouillon cube (caldo) in with the water when it boiled? A lot of people here in Spain cook pasta this way and those cubes are ubiquitous in kitchens (and much tastier than their generic American counterparts).

                                  1. re: butterfly

                                    ¡Sin caldo!

                                    He promised, he added nothing. And I believe him.

                          2. I don't get why this is a "pedestrian" recipe. Common, yes, but a lot of the great recipes are this simple. There are no gimmicks or hard to find ingredients, sure, but deliciousness has never required these.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Isolda

                              Isolda and Georgia,

                              I wasn't trying to sound snobbish. I'm actually the furthest thing from that.

                              But if you'd spent several years intrigued by mysterious oatmeal cookies baked by a mysterious baker who was fairly guarded with details, and if you'd been eagerly driving miles and miles whenever friends got their hands on some, and, after years and years of effort, you'd finally met the guy and was told they're baked from the recipe on the Quaker Oatmeal Box, using standard supermarket ingredients, I'm betting you'd share my bafflement.

                              I didn't expect fanciness. I did, however, expect esoteric touches and tricks. Grain shipped in from a nephew at an oatmeal farm in Gdansk. A subliminal pinch of earl gray. Leave the brown sugar out in the sun. Butter from a cow meandering around his yard. Something!

                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                but it's also a nudge to remember that it doesn't HAVE to be esoteric to be special -- sometimes the simple works the best.

                            2. On the back of Kraft PB jars, there is a recipe: peanut butter, sugar, egg. Oh sure, I can make fancier cookies with good fresh organic peanut butter and fancy sugars, but they're so classic as printed.

                              1. Lousy ingredients? Pedestrian? Huh.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Georgia Sommers

                                  I wonder if it's not an instinct, the smell of the cookies when they are approaching the "done" stage, the attention to the color of the cookies (or whatever they are cooking), the timing of the cookies to be done when they seem done rather than the designated period of time. Fwiw, I usually set my oven to 325F for cookies regardless of the instructions and set the timer for every 5 minutes, turning the sheet and checking for when they "look" done. Pie crust, I set a higher temperature.