Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Cookie Queen Has Done It Again


To say that my cookbook author friend Nancy Baggett has an enduring passion for cookies may be an understatement.  Cookie crazy even crosses my mind, so I start the conversation with my long-time writer colleague and occasional cookbook collaborator by asking her if this label is apt.

“I don’t know about crazy,” the youthful-looking grandmother of two responds with a laugh. “But I have been an avid cookie baker since I was about six and have been professionally creating cookie recipes and writing about them for more than thirty-five years.” No doubt those decades of experience help explain why noted food editor Nancy Wall Hopkins of Better Homes and Gardens refers to   Baggett as the “cookie queen,” calls her recipes “flawless,” and says they’re ones Americans “will want to bake again and again.”

The cookie queen’s years of experience and reputation for meticulous recipe testing are also likely why so many other culinary professionals consider her the nation’s top cookie expert. Over the years, she’s developed recipes and written articles for a large share of their publications, including Bon Appetit, Woman’s Day, House Beautiful, Family Circle, Cooking Light, Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Country Gardens Magazine, The Washington Post,  and The Los Angeles Times to name only a few. And, oh yes, they know her from her popular and critically acclaimed cookie books. The ink is just dry on her third huge, well-photographed, full color work on the subject, this one titled Simply Sensational Cookies.

As we head towards the family room, I notice the aroma of vanilla, butter, and chocolate in the air. In her pleasant, well-appointed kitchen I see a long granite island covered with tidy racks of hot pink, yellow, and burgundy-iced flower-shaped sugar cookies and what appear to be several hundred almond-studded chocolate biscotti laid out on more racks over by the stove. Two corner walls are decorated with large pegboards holding dozens of cookie cutters.  Ahead on the den mantelpiece I spy two charming little cookie houses on display.  When I comment on them she tells me her granddaughter decorated the Valentine’s Day-themed cottage all by herself.  “She was sooo proud,” she notes.

 “Cookies, cookies everywhere, and not a one to eat!” She waves toward the countertop and paraphrases the famous Coleridge “Ancient Mariner” line as we walk past. “Those are all going with me to a food conference,” she says, “so I can only give you a couple to sample.” She explains that the “painted daisies” cookies are featured in her Simply Sensational Cookies book, and emphasizes that they are iced with “all natural colors.” When I look skeptical she adds that the bright shades come mostly from readily available fruit juices. “NO petrochemical food dyes involved, and NO mashed beets or boiled purple cabbage either!” she says, clearly pleased with that line.

“I had to come up with some easy ways to create naturally beautiful cookies because I enjoy crafting and decorating with my grandkids, but absolutely don’t want them eating sprinkles and icings loaded with Red # 40, and Yellow #5 and #6 and the other usual food color suspects,” she explains. She adds that a few years back she developed a severe allergy to the very similar red and yellow petrochemical-based “azo” dyes found in lipsticks, so also prefers to avoid eating food dyes herself. “I’ve included all the traditional decorating recipes in the book, but felt it was really important to offer healthier alternatives to those who want or need them,” she explains.  She then mentions that with more and more commercially prepared foods containing artificial colorants and other unnecessary additives these days, “many home bakers and cooks are worrying and want to take control and banish the iffy products from what they make.”

I’d planned to ask Baggett how, after two highly-regarded and very comprehensive cookie tomes already on her resume (one was an IACP and James Beard cookbook award winner), she could possibly offer anything new in her Simply Sensational Cookies. But now instead, I reformulate and ask whether the emphasis on natural ingredients is what’s novel in this latest title. “Partly, but it’s different in more fundamental ways,” she says. “In the other two, I delved deeply into culinary history and mostly celebrated the cookies people traditionally bake around America and the world.”  She says that in contrast, her latest book focuses more on the “contemporary cookies people are baking now, or soon will be,” though she has included streamlined and updated versions of classic, too. “We tend to have fewer hours to devote to baking today, and we like bolder flavors and more decadence even in the old favorites,” she notes.

She says that the word “simple” in the book title reflects an emphasis on easy throughout, and this also sets the new book apart.  “Many of today’s most avid cookie bakers barely know how far to drop a drop cookie,” she observes, “and even if they do, they’re only home long enough to dash in, throw together a quick batch and rush off again.” So, she says that all the recipes are streamlined as much as possible, and notes that the book devotes several chapters to semi-homemade cookies (featuring doctored logs of store-bought dough), no-bake cookies, and “extra-easy” ones calling for pared-down ingredients and steps.

 Plus, she says that the large majority of the recipes in the book are new. “The introduction of chocolate morsels has completely altered and is still changing the American cookie baking repertoire—even now ‘modernized’ and novel offerings are appearing almost daily,” she states.  She cites the ongoing “chocolification,” phenomenon—the habit of  jazzing up  and revamping all sorts of formerly “plain” peanut butter, oatmeal, butter cookies and shortbreads with chocolate chunks or bits or various other flavored baking morsels. Some additional current trends she says she capitalized on in developing the Simply Sensational recipes: The taste for complex flavor combos simultaneously featuring  hot, salty, spicy, and even smoky all at once. The creative use of fresh herbs like lavender, sage and rosemary, edible flowers, green tea and exotic spices.  And the growing popularity of “really fun ‘crossover’ and semi-savory cocktail cookies” that combine the characteristic of crackers and cookies. “In one chapter I’ve taken the ideas behind good old grahams, animal crackers and cheese straws and run with them—think thin, crisp chocolate chip wafers, grissini-like Cajun hot sticks, and buttery tarragon-chevre nuggets,” she says.

All this talk of cookies has made me very hungry, so I’m primed when she suggests we wind up and enjoy a cup of tea and some samples. Truthfully, I’ve eaten many of Nancy’s cookies before, so I’m already predisposed to enjoy them. But the chocolate-almond biscotti are even more chocolatey and nutty, not to mention more munchable, than I expect.  “Three sources of almond—paste, extract and toasted slivers—and two sources of chocolate flavor—cocoa powder and chocolate morsels,” she explains.

 The painted daisy sugar cookies are even more of a revelation, because the glossy, eye-catching icings on top add zing and fruity flavor instead of just the bland layer of super-sweetness  normally contributed by artificially colored decorations. “These are not only pretty, but taste wonderful,” I say. All hail to the cookie queen; she’s done it again!


If you’re interested in knowing more about Nancy’s book, or would like to see some of her recipes or photography, visit her blog at www.kitchenlane.com. You can follow her on Twitter at nancybaggett; or on Facebook at NancyBaggettBakes;


4 comments:

Nancy Baggett said...

Thank you so much Ruth--I love this story. You really covered what I wanted to say.

Erica said...

This is a beautiful article that describes a great person!

Anonymous said...

What fun! I will have to check out her book. I like the no-dyes idea.

Rebecca York said...

Yes, I love these cookies.