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Not long ago, while my husband was away on a business trip, I bartered with my three-year-old son, Oliver, about dinner. An offer of mac and cheese elicited a stubborn “no.” Green things were rejected outright. A burrito was “too hot,” and yogurt was “for breakfast, Mommy.” Desperate, I offered a compromise: a chocolate-chip cookie and a glass of milk. The next day, when his dad asked him what he’d been up to, Oliver grinned and ratted me out, yelling: “COOKIE DINNER!” It was not my proudest parenting moment.
Giving in to Oliver’s sweets obsession has been difficult. I rarely stock treats at home. I hate chocolate. My menus are filled with low-carb, low-sugar options. But when Oliver started to jabber, “cookies” was an early word (I blame the grandparents). Soon he would ask to go for a walk, nonchalantly stroll down the block—and dash to the neighborhood bakery. He began to call dollar bills “cookie money,” which was my cue to bring carbohydrates back to my kitchen.
My first attempts at cookie-making were disastrous because I failed to adjust for Denver’s thin air. Instead of gooey chocolate-chip cookies, I made things that resembled hockey pucks. Gingersnaps were crumbly messes. Peanut-butter batter melted together into one big circle.
After much trial and error, I learned when to increase the flour and decrease the baking soda. I bought an oven thermometer to ensure precise cooking temps. I even added a few baking cookbooks to my bookshelf, which had been dominated by paleo and vegetarian tomes. Some recipes shined (Cook’s Illustrated’s brown-butter chocolate-chip cookies are now a household staple), but others didn’t (a pistachio-crusted sugar cookie shall never be mentioned again).
Along the way, cookies became one of my favorite things to bake because of the routine that developed. As I work on a new recipe, Oliver races around gathering supplies from his own kitchen set: bowls, a whisk, a cookie sheet, and a rolling pin. When I measure the flour or crack an egg, he mimics me. If I sift in dry ingredients, he furiously mixes his “dough”—a stale combination of Cheerios and Goldfish crackers reserved for this purpose.
As we work, I babble about measurements and the chemical interactions about to take place in the oven. He asks me to sample his dough; I oblige. He jumps up and down when I slide browned cookies onto a cooling rack with a spatula. Occasionally, while performing this new ritual, I worry that I’m fostering an unhealthy habit for my young son. Which is why we also spend a lot of time talking about moderation, knowing where your ingredients come from, veggies, and exercise. Most important, he knows there will be no more cookie dinners. Well, at least that’s the rule until his dad’s next business trip.
On my quest to find the perfect cookie recipe, I found it close to home, in a family cookbook. When I was a girl, my grandmother stuck with a few classics and her go-to dessert was crunchy peanut butter bars. I’ve modified her original recipe, which used corn syrup and required an extra step of melting chocolate as a top layer, for a ridiculously easy weeknight recipe. Although not quite a cookie, neither Oliver or I mind.
Crunchy Peanut Butter Bars
3 tablespoons butter
1 10-ounce bag of marshmallows
1 to 2 cups peanut butter, to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, to taste
½ cup chopped almonds (optional)
2 cups corn flakes
4 cups Rice Krispies
½ package chocolate chips (can substitute M&Ms or white chocolate chips)
Butter a large cookie sheet or cake pan (or coat with cooking spray).
Melt the butter in a large pot over low heat and add marshmallows. Stirring constantly, melt the marshmallows. Turn off heat and stir in peanut butter, honey, and almonds. Stir in corn flakes and Rice Krispies.
Using a buttered spoon or spatula, spread the mixture in the prepared pan to your desired thickness (I like to keep the batter about 1-inch deep.) Scatter chocolate chips on top and gently press into the mixture with your hands. The chips will melt slightly, which is ideal. Place the pan in the refrigerator until cool and to stop the chips from melting completely. Cut into small, nibble-size squares or cut out shapes with cookie cutters.
Tip: Although we might be able to eat an entire pan of these in a weekend, I opt to freeze most of the batch. That way, we can enjoy a little piece of peanut-butter goodness on pretty much any day of the year.
—Inset photo by Natasha Gardner