The first time I made cookies on my own (peanut butter, at age 8), I knew I wanted to keep baking. I just had to figure out how.
Neither of my parents baked, so we didn’t have a mixer or cookbooks or cake pans. My only guide was one of my favorite aunts — everyone’s favorite aunt — who seemed to have a tin of blueberry muffins, crackly, tender and steaming, in her oven-mitted hands every morning we visited.
During one trip, I perched on a stool next to her as she cracked eggs and poured sugar into a bowl, all without measuring. She scooped a handful of flour and mixed, and maybe sprinkled in a bit more. When I asked how much she had added, she said, “Oh, just the right amount.” As she slowed her batter-beating, I asked why. She replied, “Because it’s almost ready.”
My aunt’s style of baking by feeling became my goal, as did her ability to feed us effortlessly. Now, when I cook for family and friends, or develop recipes professionally, what drives me is the desire to nourish when all is well, to comfort when things fall apart and to offer hope and joy when everything that rises starts to converge.
That means keeping dishes simple. But simple doesn’t mean boring.
Sometimes, the most delicious form of a dish comes from stripping away excess and fine-tuning the balance. Ease can mean streamlining the steps that require time better spent with those you’re feeding (or that leave you with too many dishes to wash). It’s also about swapping finicky techniques for flexible fail-safe ones.
Baking is often presented as an intimidating science: If measurements aren’t scaled to the gram and precise steps aren’t followed, then an inedible disaster will occur. There’s also an assumption that you need a stand mixer. I love mine the way I imagine I’d love James Bond’s Aston Martin if I owned it. Shiny with a powerful motor, my mixer can do all the fancy things. But it’s not necessarily the best tool for learning the art of baking.
Skipping the mixer and working by hand allows you to experience the tactile joys of the process — and to understand how simple intuitive baking can be. You want a mixer to whip a dozen egg whites into clouds and a food processor to grind nuts into powder, but, to smash a high proportion of butter into flour, as you would for short dough, you want to use your fingers.
Think shortbread. Press it into a tin, and you have a tart crust. Break it into crumbles, throw in nuts and oats, and you get the cookie-meets-granola topping of apple crisp. Squeezing dry ingredients into butter allows you to experience how flour meets fat, to learn how to stop as soon as you feel everything form a sandy, putty-soft dough.
That same knowledge — sensing when dough comes together by feeling and adjusting accordingly — also applies to oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Oats absorb liquid like a sponge, so a splash of cream in the mix prevents the cookies from drying out. But too much air beaten into the wet ingredients can make the cookies caky. Mixing with a wooden spoon allows you to fuse the butter and sugars just until creamy and to beat in the egg only until its golden streaks disappear, to feel the resistance of the dough and push harder against stiffer pockets, and to stir in the chocolate and oats with a gentleness no machine can replicate.
The result of this muscle-based mixing? Cookies that manage to be both delicate and sturdy, crisp at the edges and caramel-chewy and tender in the centers.
Making these foolproof sweets — alone, quietly, or with other big or little hands to help — can be a therapeutic experience. There’s pleasure in scraping sticky bits off your fingers, something grounding about working anything other than clacky keys and glassy screens. And if you’re afraid of baking — or just don’t feel like pulling out your mixer — you’ll find confidence and joy in the kitchen with these easy desserts.
Recipes: Apple Crisp | Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies