Saturday, February 23, 2013

On Proust and Thin Mints

Who doesn’t love home baked cookies, that crispy-on-the-outside-but-soft-in-the middle small package of sweetness? They conjure up more feelings of old fashioned hominess than just about any other food. Yesterday my daughter Isabel told me about this video that’s gone viral called The Scared is Scared, made by a Middlebury College student, in which cookies figure prominently. Isabel is a high school senior and anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from colleges, so the video spoke to her. It spoke to me too, as I think it does to anyone who is facing or has faced a big life transition. In other words, all of us.

I don’t bake much. I prefer cooking, which is more forgiving. It also allows more room for experimentation. In my experience, deviations from recipes don’t often work out successfully when baking. Baking feels more like science than art, whereas the reverse seems true about cooking. Every once in a while, though, I’ll make cookies. Usually, it’s around the holidays, but sometimes, like this week, I’ll make them on a whim. I had been promising Chris that I’d bake for a while, and he gets just as delighted about a full cookie jar as the girls do.

Besides, spring is in the air, which means it’s Girl Scout cookie season. Our family favorite is Thin Mints, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to try to make this iconic cookie. We usually buy a few boxes each year, and biting into a frozen Thin Mint (our preferred way to eat them) is like Proust’s madeleine for me: it instantly transports me back to my childhood. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout along with my sister Lynne, and my mom was our troop leader for several years. We went to camp and sat on Sit-Upons and earned badges to sew on our sashes. My own daughters were never involved in the scouts, but they did have their own little baking business for two summers called Sweet Sisters. They repainted Chris’s old newspaper delivery cart and sold lemonade, strawberry shortcake, and cookies on the 4th of July and a couple other weekends throughout the summer.

In just seven fast years, my girls are (almost) all grown up. 

The scared is scared; let's bake some cookies. I found a recipe for Thin Mints online, but being more artist than scientist, I couldn’t help but deviate a bit. I decreased the sugar by 25 percent, for instance, and used dark chocolate for the coating instead of semisweet, and the cookies still turned out plenty sweet. Also the original recipe doesn’t call for unsalted butter, but I would recommend using it unless you like a slightly salty cookie. Using local butter and eggs makes a big difference in flavor.  

I also used a high quality organic cocoa powder from Lake Champlain Chocolates.

This is a classic icebox cookie, which calls for rolling the dough into narrow logs

and then chilling it before slicing it into discs and baking them.

You then spoon a mixture of melted chocolate and butter over the top like an icing.

The cookies turned out pretty well (and with no artificial ingredients, to boot), although next time I make them I would use straight chocolate as the coating, instead of the chocolate and butter mixture, and I would dip them in the chocolate to cover them completely. I've made these changes to the recipe below.

With apologies to the Girl Scouts, home baked is always better.

Serenity is a full cookie jar. Sometimes it's as simple as that.

Thin Mint Cookies (adapted from

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t mint extract (I like the Frontier brand made of only organic peppermint and canola oil)
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ t salt
12 oz. dark chocolate

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until they’re mixed well. Add the eggs and mint extract and beat until combined.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, and salt. Add this mixture in three parts to the creamed butter mixture, beating until well combined after each addition.

Divide the dough into quarters. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough with your hands into four cylinders measuring 1½ inches in diameter. Wrap each cylinder in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least five hours.  Forty-five minutes before baking, move the cylinders to the freezer.

Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Removing one cylinder at a time from the freezer, slice the dough into ¼ discs using your sharpest knife. Arrange the discs about two inches apart on a cookie sheet and bake for ten minutes.

While the cookies are baking, melt the chocolate in a double boiler on the stove. While the cookies are still slightly warm, dip them into the chocolate using a chocolate dipping tool (a fork will work too). Coat the cookies completely, but let the excess chocolate drip off. Place them on wire racks to allow them to cool and the chocolate to harden. Makes 36 cookies.

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