A non-cook braves a party all about inspiring cooking
This fall, to celebrate the release of her new book, Cookie Swap!, Sag Harbor author Lauren Chattman threw together a part potluck, part get-your-recipeshumming, part food-sharing happening. Recovering non-cook Evan Harris trotted out her chocolate chips to become part of the emerging cookie-swap scene.
SAG HARBOR—In spite of efforts to the contrary, the wild noman’s-land of my non-cook attitude has not yet been colonized by recipes. Or at least not enough recipes to get my family through a long, hard winter. But even though I am a confirmed non-cook, never cooking is not practical, mainly because of my children, who must eat even if my beloved husband, their father, who is a terrific cook, has commitments away from home. And so I am learning to embrace my non-cook status and let my non-cook nature simmer on low in peace while still sometimes cooking. How, you may ask, is it possible to be a non-cook and yet cook? It’s the difference between attitude and action, the difference between how you feel and what you actually do. It’s the difference between self-conception and macaroni and cheese. It’s the difference between a constructed identity and a roasted chicken. You can be a non-cook, you can think of yourself however and be whatever you want, it’s a choice, but don’t forget to baste!
Still, my life as a non-cook is generally uneventful, cookingwise. Apart from low impact breakfast getting, lunch packing (does this count as cooking? It is a debate ) and some dinner rustling, I am mostly cook free. But things do come up. In the self-imposed category, for example, there’s Thanksgiving dinner. Yearly and of my own free will, with great hope and energy, I enter the strange Thanksgiving bubble, a psychological and culinary state that does not exist for me at any other time. Wildly, I insist on hosting, cooking and spearheading decorating efforts, much to my total exhaustion, the demise of a perfectly good turkey and the reckless use of untold sticks of butter. And then, in the lifebeing-unpredictable category, there was the time two years ago that still haunts me when my in-laws were visiting for 10 days and my beloved husband got the flu two days in, leaving me scrambling not just to come up with something worthy but to come up with anything normal at all, my recipe base being limited, you see, because part of being a non-cook is lack of gumption. Part of being a non-cook is not even knowing where to begin.
Yes, even for the happy non-cook cooking situations arise. But up until now, I didn’t know about the cookie swap.
Recently brought out by Workman Publishing, Cookie Swap! is a party-planning handbook and cookie cookbook by Lauren Chattman. Chattman is a former professional pastry chef, a food writer (her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Cook’s Illustrated and the New York Times) and the author of numerous cookbooks, including Cool Kitchen and Dessert University (with former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier). In the introduction to Cookie Swap! Chattman, who lives in Sag Harbor and also writes a column for the Sag Harbor Express, writes, “Cookie swaps are the best type of potluck, because even people with no kitchen experience at all can participate.” Non-cooks, do not be paranoid: she is trying to encourage you, not single you out!
Cookie Swap! has a super-cute design with lots of color and fun fonts. Expertly styled photographs of disembodied cookies (no plates, trays or hands cramping their style) mark chapter headings and beautify the book in general. Shaded boxes sport interesting cookie-related ideas, information and trivia. Did you know, for example, that there’s a group of male teachers at Arbor Heights Elementary School in Seattle that has been doing cookie swaps for 10 years? “Smart Cookie” text boxes give helpful hints about actual baking, like how to actually make caramel without ruining it, how to substitute spelt flour in baking, and lots more. “Party On” call-outs give suggestions about party planning, like coming up with themes and ideas for cookie swaps, themes and ideas you would never ever think of like the “Eco-Lovers Swap,” the “Vir tual Cookie Swap” or the “Doggie Biscuit Cookie Swap.”
Throughout the book—and frequently—mentions are made of specific items and exactly where to get them: special baking equipment, custom-made cookie cutters, cookie-scented candles, ribbon with a motif to match your cookie-swap theme, party favors perfectly synced to your cookie swap concept. At the end of the book, there’s an additional resource list of various companies that sell baking items and party items. In including all of this specific, practical information (and you can find more on her blog: sagharbordays.blogspot.com), Chattman strikes me as being like the maven outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, which is a study of social “epidemics,” by which he means contagious trends. The maven in this book is a person who thrives on gathering information, often on the best products or deals on those products, and then sharing it with others. According to Gladwell, when a true maven gets behind something, he or she has “the power to start a word-of-mouth epidemic.” So when Lauren Chattman writes, “I’m on a crusade to convince anyone who bakes even occasionally to order a 100-count box of precut parchment paper from the Baker’s Catalogue,” the people over there should get prepared for that parchment paper to start flying off the shelves.
And watch out, maybe this cookie-swap thing could really take off, too. Or maybe it already has ? Indeed, a quick search on trusty Google shows lots of cookie-swap (or cookie exchange) articles, at least one major Web site, and two books in addition to Chattman’s. However, unlike Chattman’s work, much of what I saw is focused on Christmas-holiday cookie baking and sharing. With her push in the anytime not just Christmastime direction, who knows to what heights the cookie swap will soar.
In Cookie Swap! Lauren Chattman creates a complete, detailed, specific, on-it cookie-swap world, and you start to imagine a whole subculture of energetic, party-theme-hungry, ribbonloving, cookie-cutter-buying swappers sweeping down upon every occasion on the calendar, inventing occasions that are not on the calendar, and planning away with hyperorganized delight. The writing in the book is spiffy, chipper, snappy, catchy. It’s got a cando tone. There are lots of little jokes.
That said, when it comes to the actual recipes for cookies, and there are a great many, our maven is all business. Here, she is utterly straightforward, clear and totally no-nonsense. There are no little jokes because little jokes are not going to produce results. And for the baking part, she is definitely talking about results. If you follow her recipe for chocolate and peppermint-bark cookies, lemon-poppyseed cornmeal cookies, raspberry-meringue kisses, marshmallow treat black-and-whites, and so forth, you ought to come up with the article. If you do not follow her recipe, don’t come crying to her if your cookie crumbles, or something like that.
To celebrate the publication of Cookie Swap! Lauren Chattman and her husband, Jack Bishop, hosted a cookie swap at their home in Sag Harbor. Jack Bishop is a cookbook author, has served in editorial, staff or directorial roles at Cook’s Magazine, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, and is currently the editorial director for America’s Test Kitchen. He also acts as tasting lab expert on the TV cooking show America’s Test Kitchen. I don’t really know exactly what a tastinglab expert does, but you can bet your Viking range that you can’t just be some schmo with a couple of taste buds and an opinion, OK? So you see that Chattman and Bishop are a food power couple, and if I weren’t a non-cook, I’d be totally intimidated. On the invitation to the cookie swap it said: “Please bring three dozen homemade cookies to swap.” The hostess also added: “Let me know what kind of cookies you will be bringing because God forbid there should be an overlap!”
Immediately, I made my RSVP and got finny dibs on the chocolate chip cookie. I did this because the chocolate chip cookie is the only kind I can bake (but I can bake the heck out of it, I really, really can—or at least I thought I could—see more on that below). I was fearful that if someone else laid claim before me, I would be Ms. Bakeless with no three dozen homemade cookies in sight because in my case there are no options. I have nothing in my apron pocket, no baking bag of tricks, nothing to fall back on.
When I arrived at the swap with my beloved husband in tow, Lauren Chattman ushered me to the dining room, where the cookies were to be displayed before the swapping part. The house was tidy and organized and everything was ready. The cookie swap checklist, as offered in her book, was obviously fully complete. I was the first guest to arrive, so all the beautiful, gleaming, clean white serving trays arranged on the large dining room table were empty, except for the tray with her cookies, the chocolate-mint sandwich cookies, from a recipe of her own concerted invention. I got the impression she has a soft spot for these cookies, and that they return the favor by being a triumph every time she bakes them. I would have taken one, but they were there to swap later, not to eat now. I would have taken one anyway, hid it in my pocket and eaten it in the bathroom, but she was standing right there.
“You were the only person who told me what cookie you were bringing,” she told me. “These are all such food people, I couldn’t get in their faces about what they were baking.”
I nodded. I stood there with my cookies. The second guest arrived. He is the celebrated chef at a Sag Harbor restaurant with a long, legendary history. He began to efficiently set out his three dozen homemade cookies: small, pale, beautifully articulated squares with a perfect swirl of darker creamy something set in each center: shortbreads with passion-fruit cream. The next guests, a duo of sweet and lovely professional baker women who run a small, soulful baking company in Sag Harbor arrived, each with her own three dozen homemade cookies to be set out on the platters: molasses cookies and chocolate-dipped shortbread sandwiches.
Next, a well-known and rather charming winemaker arrived with his three dozen homemade vanilla kipferl. OK, fine, I’d never heard, much less written that word, “kipferl,” until I was fact checking details to write this piece; what I had in the initial draft was: crescent-shape, white-dusted, buttery-looking cookies . After the kipferl, the glamorous photo editor and dashing publisher of this magazine arrived with their three dozen homemade sweet potato cookies, which looked healthy and very self-assured. And so it went. I realized that my earnest, anxious pounce on the chocolate chip was completely unnecessary and neurotic. These swappers were way, way beyond anything like that!
Surreptitiously, I slid my three dozen homemade cookies, still piled up on the plate I’d brought them on from home, onto a platter. The reason I didn’t properly take them off the plate from home and arrange them individually is that my three dozen homemade cookies had not been properly baked or had not been properly packed up, or probably had not been properly either, in spite of previous boasting on the merits of my famous non-cook chocolate chip cookies—ha. My cookies had wilted, sagged against one another—they had fallen in an exhausted, sticking-together heap. Maybe they felt bad because all the other cookies looked so good.
Later, during the swapping part, everyone was going around the table selecting three of each cookie variety (part of the cookie swap hosting duty is figuring out how many cookies everyone gets to take home—you can learn this equation from the book). “What are these,” asked the man ahead of me in the swap line. He was somebody’s date and not one of the actual bakers of three dozen homemade. We were moving in an orderly, clockwise direction, putting the cookies in bright pink boxes, each decorated with a sticker that said Lauren’s Cookie Swap 2010. The man was trying to pick up one of my cookies, but part of it was cleaving to its friend on the heap while the part he held crumbled.
Quizzically, I looked at my cookies, pretending not to really know them. I smiled noncommittally. I might have shrugged. I threw my poor unfortunate cookies under the bus.
After the cookies had been thoroughly subjected to cookie-swap math and packed in their carry-away boxes, all things cookie were whisked away. The gleaming white platters vanished, the cookie display table was un-cookified, and dinner was served. For eats, there were two kinds of darn good chili concocted by the host, a basket of beautifully golden corn bread baked by the hostess, and an unusually fluffy salad. The charming winemaker had supplied some wine. Everyone forgot all about the cookies.
I may be mistaken (and I’d safeguard the true confessions of my fellow swappers), but I do not think a single cookie passed the lips of a single swapper over the course of the evening. In fact, the dessert that followed the meal was cupcakes! There were three kinds, the orange essence, the gingerbread, and the chocolate cream. These were baked by the aforementioned lovely baker women. So you see that delayed cookie gratification can be the name of the cookie swap game!
At the end of the cookie swap when it was almost time to go, a dynamic, enthusiastic woman, baker of the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (she flashed a beautiful smile and called her cookies humble, but I thought they looked profoundly sincere) was chatting with my beloved husband who was listening intently, the cook in him all peaked attention. She had been inspired. She was getting ideas about gathering people together, about warm company and community, about sharing food. The coziness, the delicious smells. She was saying that she wanted to have a beef party. She took us in, her eyes sparkling. Would we come?
Sure! But my beloved husband is going to have to come up with the beef. Because fallen cookies are one thing, but former cow is quite another.
Evan Harris writes, and sometimes cooks, in East Hampton.