"Baking With My Daughter" by Joseph Robert Mills + Sarah's Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies from The Vanilla Bean Baking Cookbook

When I first met Sarah, we shared a bowl of terrible guacamole. (Here's a picture to prove it.)

I was in Minneapolis for work and in the sliver of free time I had one evening, Sarah drove to the suburbs and met me in the hotel restaurant where I was staying. It was dark and lightly sprinkling, so the whole thing felt sort of moody and cozy while we sat next to the window overlooking a courtyard fountain. There may have been a fireplace, although my memory escapes me now. 

The wild rice soup wasn’t memorable either, but the company was. We talked about blogging, about writing, about our future books, the things we had in common, and as I expected, Sarah had the same warmth offline as she projected online. 

We both wrote our cookbooks around the same time and occasionally exchanged exasperated and/or encouraging emails about the process. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this arrival because I know how hard Sarah worked on it. She was committed wholeheartedly to creating the best book possible, with well-tested recipes and thoughtful writing. Putting a book into the world is an enormous task requiring devotion, time, energy, and in Sarah’s case, pounds and pounds of butter and flour, plus grateful friends and neighbors who could take pies and pastries off her hands. 

If you followed her Instagram at all this past year, you would have seen the occasional face and frequent stray hand of her son or daughter and read notes about her family life. I love how her kids were such a part of this process, and although my own son isn't old enough to help much in the kitchen, I look forward to the day when he stands next to me adding flour to a bowl or mixing dough, and today's poem captures this special moment so beautifully. 


Baking with My Daughter

by Joseph Robert Mills

I want to do it, she says at each step
of the recipe, and I try to let her
even if it means broken eggs on the counter,
too much salt, and too little flour.

She splays the dough onto the cookie sheet,
using the wooden spoon as if it’s a combination
snow shovel and mallet. When she turns away,
I try to perform a kind of cookie triage,
finding those blobs with a chance at survival
and nudging them into a vague roundness.

After they’re finished, she holds one aloft
like a medal and tells her mother,
I did these all by myself, right Daddy?
I nod, saying nothing, and, for the first time,
wonder how many of my own victories
were smoothed into shape behind my back.

From Love and Other Collisions (Press 53, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.


The first stanza delicately illustrates the never-ending dance of embracing childhood impulses alongside the patience we must summon as adults. No, the counter will not always be clean. No, the toys will not always be picked up. No, the laundry won't always be folded. No, they will do it this way or that way. But it doesn't matter, does it? 

I chuckled a bit in the middle, after the girl's father comes in to try and salvage the cookie dough, to give it "a chance at survival." It's an illustration in our daily task as parents: letting go of the should, and embracing whatever comes, even if it includes misshapen cookies. 

By the end of the poem we're privy to an insight only made possible by having a child of one's own. That is, the question of how many times the father's own parents did something similar, creating small victories in the midst of chaos. It's a beautiful tribute to the magical yet complicated relationships between parents and children, and one so many of us can relate to.

That is the job of the poet, and the role I like best of all: To make the mundane meaningful. Time stops, if only for the twelve minutes or so it takes for a tray of cookies to bake. And whether they are perfectly round or thick blobs on the sheet pan matters little. They will be eaten and loved because they were made by a father and daughter.


When it comes to dessert, I tend to be a purist. You won’t find me adding avocado to brownies or making vegan birthday cakes. My sweet tooth isn’t strong, so when I do have a craving, I want the real deal. I can’t think of any circumstances under which chocolate chip cookies are not appropriate. It’s one of my favorite things to make, and I’m known for saying things like “It feels like a cookie day,” or “I just need a chocolate chip cookie” around the house. No one ever complains.

So, of course, this chocolate chip cookie recipe was the first treat I made from her beautiful cookbook. I’ve also bookmarked lots of goodies for the future. And as someone who occasionally feels daunted by the task of baking anything elaborate, Sarah actually makes me feel like I can do it. Her photos are beautiful yet welcoming, her voice is encouraging, and I might have found my absolute perfect birthday dessert, in the form of her raspberry cream cake which I’ll be making next May. 

But back to the cookies, which remind me of two things. 

In high school, I usually brought a packed lunch, but once a week I bought lunch from the cafeteria. It was always the same: a personal cheese pizza and a cookie. The cookie was slid into a brown bag made translucent with oil remnants seeping through, and like Sarah's cookies, it was a size that could comfortably feed a family of three. That's the first thing. These cookies also remind me, strangely, of my French bulldog's wrinkles. I know, it's a stretch, but if you happen to have a French bulldog of your own, you might understand why. 

Now, a few baking notes.

First, read the recipe. It requires some freezing, several baking sheets, and whatever you do, DO NOT bake the cookies close together. They spread. 

If you, like me, have a side-by-side fridge/freezer situation that won't accommodate a large sheet pan, use a half-sheet pan instead. I possess only one, so I cooked two cookies at a time. It will take longer this way, but if you have a relaxing afternoon at home, not to worry. You can also bake them in the usual way (without freezing in advance, which I tried), by scooping rounds onto the baking sheet with a cookie scoop and baking for 14 minutes. They won't be as craggy, but as Sarah says, they will still be quite good.

Sarah anticipated readers' reservations about lifting up the tray and slapping it down, but it works. You'll see the bubble flatten out, and after three or four times of this, those edges will push out and get wrinkly, which is a very satisfying sight. 


SARAH'S CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Barely adapted from The Vanilla Bean Baking Book by Sarah Kieffer

Makes about 10 extra-large cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into bite-size pieces (not chips)

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line 3 baking sheets with aluminum foil, dull side up. (If you don't have this many sheet pans, or a small freezer, do this one at a time with a half-sheet pan instead.) 

In a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter on medium until creamy. Add the granulated and brown sugars and beat on medium until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and water and mix on low to combine. Add the chocolate and mix until just combined.

Using a 1/3-cup measuring scoop, place balls an equal distance apart (2 cookies for a half sheet pan; 4 cookies for a regular sheet pan). Transfer to the freezer for 15 minutes. After you put the first baking sheet in the oven, put the second one in the freezer.

Place the chilled baking sheet in the oven and bake 10 minutes, until the cookies have puffed slightly in the center. Lift the side of the baking sheet up about 4 inches and gently let it drop down against the oven rack once or twice. This will feel strange, but you'll see the cookies flatten out, and the crinkly edges begin to form. 

After the cookies puff up again in 2 minutes, repeat lifting and dropping the pan. Repeat a few ore times to create ridges around the edge of the cookie, baking a total of 16 to 18 minutes. Repeat with remaining cookie dough.