I haven’t had the cookie dream in a long while, but I’ve always remembered it. It’s not a unique scenario. I find myself locked in the front room of a bakery overnight. The lights have been shut off for the day. But the ambient lights are still on. I particularly remember the realization that I have been left alone with all that lies before me.
My eye darts around the room, not knowing where to land. On the counter is a stand supporting a pie with a few slices cut out, so I can see the dark red cherry filling just spilling out of its flaky, tender crust, tantalizing me. Then my gaze descends to the main display where the cakes are decadently lounging, some dressed in a simple glaze of ganache. Some adorned with crowns of fresh fruit, golden rings of baked pineapple and slices of strawberries coyly fanned out as if to hide something luscious…and forbidden.
Because it’s a dream, ice cream doesn’t melt. I spot a sundae in a fluted soda glass. Scoops of vanilla ice cream, encircled with modest ribbons of fudge, topped with a spoonful of that same fudge, and a fancy dollop of whipped cream, sprinkled with crushed peanuts, and a candied cherry on top. The glinting handle of a spoon is just visible behind the cherry.
But all of that gorgeous and glorious visage falls away, fading to the edges of my vision, when I see the simple plate piled not high but humbly with something I have never been able to resist.
Chocolate chip cookies.
Now I don’t remember every detail of my approach. But if it was anything like how I would approach such a sight in real life—in waking life—then I probably walked over slowly but deliberately, my gaze locked on the platter. I probably gulped. I probably licked my lips, but not too loudly. After all, I might get caught. Whoever’s shop it was might not be far enough away. They might hear me.
Finally, I am there. In front of the platter. I can smell the soft scent of vanilla and brown sugar circling around and through the overpowering scent of the chocolate. Butter, cocoa, milk. I reach for one of the cookies, and find that they haven’t quite cooled all the way. There is just a touch of warmth left in them. And I know what that means.
So I begin to slowly split the cookie in half to watch the extravagant amount of chocolate chips and chunks pull apart in a satisfying melted ooze.
I take a breath. I can’t believe this is happening. The edges of the cookie are crisp. I bring the cookie to my mouth.
And I wake up.
And I realize what’s happened. I try to go back to sleep, just long enough to finish what I started. Long enough to taste that cookie. That perfect cookie.
My dream cookie.
But it doesn’t work, of course. I can’t reenter the dream. And anyway, it wouldn’t be the same to consciously finish it.
Are you kidding me? I think.
I’ve had a similar dream a few times in my life, and maybe once it was an alarm that woke me. But the other times, I just woke myself.
I haven’t subjected the dream to any real in-depth analysis. I figured that my mind believed I was deserving of a good thing like a gooey chocolate chip cookie, but not quite yet. Or maybe I wouldn’t let myself have it because of the scenario. If I ate that cookie, it would be stealing (I was a child in the dream and did not seem to have any money to leave behind).
Whenever I told someone about the dream, especially someone who’d just taken a bite out of something I’d made, the typical response was something akin to “Why didn’t you end up being a baker?”
The question annoyed me when I was younger, probably because I still had a lot to prove to both myself and to the world. And I didn’t like to think that I was so impressionable and aimless that I would let a childhood dream influence my future so strongly. (I was kind of a jerk when I was young.)
Of course I was influenced by the dream. But only long after the dream was influenced by me. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. And I learned how to bake before I learned how to cook.
A culinary profession. It didn’t seem like a thing that I could do. Would I be allowed? Who did I think I was that anyone outside of my personal sphere would enjoy eating a slice of cheesecake that I’d baked, much less paying for it? I mean, outside of the occasional bake sale, but that, that was for charity.
Happily, I was past such questions. The great question that loomed ahead of me now was…
“What cookie will I bake?”
I was one of three finalists in our town’s annual “Most Delicious Cookie Ever Baked” contest.
I was the only finalist in the contest of cookies who had a “day job.” The local paper referred to me as the “scrappy” analyst who “crunches data by day and brings it with the batter by night.” Interestingly enough, the baking-as-a-side-gig angle made me the underdog. And my town—like maybe every town?—loves underdogs.
I liked my day job. But baking was my calling. And I’d been doing more and more of it over the past few years, spending time baking batches of cookies and brownies to sell to four different delis; spending my own money for quality equipment and ingredients; and spending effort and focus researching and testing recipes. I was stretched thin. Teetering on a brink. Standing at a crossroads. But if I won this contest, I would be able to commit to my calling. I would be able to snap back into shape, stop teetering and stand on solid ground, and start walking down the path I had already chosen.
The contest’s past themes have included some intriguing and delightful challenges. One year the theme was “flowers,” and the bakers had to incorporate real flowers and flower scents into their cookies. Another year the theme was “three dimensions,” and the bakers had to bake delicious cookies that formed three-dimensional structures. One hundred percent of the structure had to be edible.
The winner of the “three dimensions” theme year was the woman who was my biggest competition by far, an at-home baker herself, self-taught just like me. Lucy Snickenliebe. She used to be the underdog, but she’d been dominating this contest for years—and pretty much every fair and baking contest in town (and even beyond). So, she was underdog no more.
For the three dimensions theme, she baked a gorgeous “tree of life” that was almost as tall as she is. Every part of it was a different kind of cookie. Chocolate cookies layered with gingersnaps and butterscotch cookies shaped like long thin slices of peeling bark surrounded a core of lace cookies rolled into tubes to represent the actual structures that transported fluids in a living plant. Mint cookies shaped like leaves adorned branches baked of brown sugar shortbread. There was even some mossy green meringue climbing along one side of the tree.
I had entered every year for the past few years (luckily missing the “three dimensions” theme year). I came close to third place once, but I have never placed. And certainly never won the grand prize.
The other finalist, known only as “Jules,” has been on the professional track since he was a kid. He’d attended three culinary schools, one of which focused solely on baking—from breads and soufflés to sugar cookies. He barely qualified for the contest, which was for amateurs, because he hadn’t yet started working. He was slated to start in the fall at an up-and-coming restaurant on the eastern seaboard. A “hometown guy who was about to go off to the city and make good.” Some said he didn’t “need” the win.
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t get it.
A winner. A pro. And an underdog.
The finals would be fun for the spectators. And it was originally going to be fun for me too. With such strong competition, no one would be wondering how the heck I lost. So long as I put up a good fight. Except that I intended to do more than just put up a fight. Once we learned what the grand prize was, I decided that I wanted it. I needed it.
For the first time since the contest started, instead of an all-expenses paid trip to a reasonably exotic location, the prize was something I could really, really make use of.
Something vital. Something that could change the course of my sweet destiny.
Money. Or to put it less crassly, an investment. The contest sponsor was putting up forty thousand dollars to the winner toward any baking-related expenses—schooling, equipment, business costs, websites, vanilla extract, cake flour, cream of tartar, bags and bags of glorious premium chocolate chips.
I’d run the numbers. And of course, I can’t predict the future. But if I won, I would no longer have to teeter on the edge. I wouldn’t have to wonder how I could muffle the sound of my mixer if I was making something at one in the morning, so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. I could get a newer quieter one. Better yet, I wouldn’t up be in the dead of night. I would be sleeping, because I didn’t spend the day at work and the night baking. I would be able to quit my day job. Baking would be my day job. Sleep would be my night job.
I was already starting to make a net profit with my deli sales. I just didn’t have time to do more. And I didn’t have time because I had to work. And I had to work because I needed money. And over the long haul, I’d need more than forty thousand. That amount didn’t even cover a year’s salary.
But I’d been using up all my vacation days so I could practice and experiment and fulfill my deli orders on time. I’d been using vacation days to do the contest. I’d been spending my own money on upgrading my equipment and buying more, even re-doing my small kitchen so I could maximize the space with a few convection ovens and stand mixer stations.
So even if I didn’t quit yet, forty thousand dollars would get me there sooner. I could pay off some debts. I could press “purchase now” on some long-standing but pricey wish list items.
I learned about what this year’s finals theme would be at the same time I learned I was one of the finalists. That put a little damper in my plans and fantasies of fanning myself with fresh wads of the cash I would definitely be winning.
This year’s contest theme was “Original Cookie.” So no pressure. We just have to do the impossible and invent a new type of cookie, after generations of human beings have no doubt attempted countless variations—the most successful of which we have inherited through commercial recipes books, “secret” recipes passed down from elders, and the occasional new discovery.
The cookie had to be delicious. It was the contest’s overall requirement. Bonus points were awarded for a pleasant appearance. Points were subtracted if the cookie appeared unappetizing. We had three days to research, design, and test our cookies.
A panel of judges would ultimately decide the winner. But batches would also be passed out to a select group of early birds who arrived at the town square first that day, and they would also be given a vote.
On day one, I began to brainstorm.
At first, I thought about all the kinds of things I could put in a cookie: marshmallows, sunflower seeds, gruyère cheese. Then I approached it methodically. I made a spreadsheet with different columns for different kinds of add-in ingredients: spices, fruits, nuts, candy components. I randomized to assess different combinations. Cinnamon, cherry, walnut? Or marshmallow, peanut butter chip, cayenne? Or maybe caramel cream cheese…coriander?
I wondered if I should make a drop cookie, or a shortbread cookie, or a filled cookie, or a rolled cookie. I looked up the definition of “cookie” so I could maybe experiment with baking something that only minimally fit the definition. But that didn’t appeal to me. The cookie had to be recognizable as a cookie, and it had to look like something that a cookie-lover would want to sink their teeth into. The perception of “deliciousness” would give the cookie a head start in the assessment of the judges and the crowd. It couldn’t look too weird. It couldn’t look too un-cookie-like.
I spent more of the first day like this, and started feeling anxious when the clock struck five in the evening, and my mom called to check in on me and make sure I hadn’t forgotten to eat some real food. She probably envisioned me taste-testing cookies all day. Little did she know I hadn’t lifted so much as a lady finger. After I assured her that I’d had a proper sandwich and chips for lunch and had been hydrating all day, she talked me down and reminded me of something that I had forgotten to consider in my quest for originality.
I was aiming for something rare and precious. But that went against the very ideal of a cookie. A cookie was not a dessert meant only for kings and nobles, or only for adults, or only for those in certain professions. Cookies were an everyday treat. Cookies were meant for everyone. So even the most delicious one must not be rare. Maybe original didn’t have to mean “completely new.” Maybe it could mean “first of its kind.” The original cookie. Classic shortbread. Sugar cookie. Chocolate chip.
I thanked my mom, declared I had an idea, and immediately hung up on her.
What if…? I wondered. My old dream played at the edges of my thoughts. Something was coming together in my mind. A chocolate chip cookie was not original. Unless…I put my original spin on it. But what could a person do with a chocolate chip cookie that hadn’t been done before?
But what if it wasn’t a chocolate chip cookie? What if it was my chocolate chip cookie? The cookie from my dream? What if I tried to make that?
I shook my head. There was too much riding on this contest. How could I even think about trying to make a cookie I’d never even tasted? And how could I be so arrogant as to think the judges would be charmed or swayed? I knew what they meant by “original.” I’d been on the right track before.
Why would I sabotage myself?
Because I have no other ideas, I told myself.
I set aside the notion of baking a simple chocolate chip cookie. I set it aside as an option if I didn’t come up with anything better by the end of the day. I couldn’t afford to waste the second day on just thinking. I had to start baking. I should have started already.
I scoured the internet. Every single idea I could think of had already been done by someone else. I was not at all surprised. Then I thought maybe I could get away with making something that had been done before, but giving it a new name. Or maybe a new enough spin. I found lists of different kinds of alcohol shots that people had invented and imported those into my spreadsheet.
But when it came to cookies, I couldn’t stay away from chocolate. Whatever I did had to have chocolate in it.
When I woke the next day, my stomach dropped from the weight of dread.
I still had no fresh idea. No original idea.
But I’d told myself I had to start baking. So I did. I spent the second day trying to perfect the chocolate chip cookie recipe. My kitchen became my laboratory, where I worked on one variable at a time. First different types and proportions of flour. Then the same with sugars, and fats, and chocolates. Different shapes—chips, chunks, flakes, buttons. Different percentages of cocoa. Different brands. I experimented with adding just a bit of an extra ingredient from the many lists I’d started the day before: a splash of amaretto, or a few specks of cayenne or maybe an instant coffee granule or two. I was hoping to find a “secret ingredient” that would merge all the others into a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts.
It was Thursday. I would have one more day to hone the recipe, test-bake more batches to establish consistency, and invite any bystanders in my vicinity to taste the cookies and give feedback. A few colleagues came by. A few friends. My sister dropped by to pick up a batch to take home. Her family would have them for dessert that evening.
Everyone knew that the theme of the contest was “original cookie.” So everyone was perplexed by my choice. But they also seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing, which was mostly touching and maybe somewhat troubling. I expected at least one person to call me out and demand that I justify my choice, and ask me if I really believed I could win the contest with a basic chocolate chip cookie.
No one challenged me. But they did give feedback on the cookies. I took copious notes. I baked more. I tasted bits of cookie myself and noted my own observations. This was, after all, the cookie of my dreams.
The day of the contest had come.
The three of us finalists stood on a stage in the town square in front of screens that hid the many platters of cookies that we and our volunteer assistants had baked. Even with the help of four long-suffering assistants—whom I was proud not to have snapped at even once—I was exhausted from baking since six in the morning till three in the afternoon. My nerves felt as raw as my hands. My breath hitched when the announcer spoke my name.
We clapped for each other. When I glanced over at Lucy Snickenliebe after her name was called, she glanced back, smiled, and winked. And when I glanced at my other fellow finalist, Jules, he nodded to me. They had both seen what I’d baked. They had both heard me rehearse my simple speech about my dream cookie.
I’ve spent some time in my life being cynical. The sentiment rears its head every now and then. I could have interpreted their winks and nods as relief on their part that I had definitely sabotaged my chances of winning. And thereby increased their chances. But I didn’t feel that from them. Snickenliebe was a fierce baker, but she really was as generous with her heart as she was with her toppings and fillings. And Jules was humbled early and often by one of his instructors. He had learned what I hadn’t yet learned when I was in my twenties, the difference between confidence and arrogance. My fellow contestants respected the risk I was taking.
After we were announced, the screens that hid the cookies were lifted.
The crowd applauded. As the applause died down, there was pointing and smiles. Some people rubbed their hands together.
As I expected, there were puzzled looks and whispers when glances landed on my cookies. They looked like chocolate chip cookies. But surely, there was something more to them. Some hidden delight. Something…original, as the contest required.
As the previous year’s winner, Snickenliebe went first. She had baked a beautiful cookie that looked like a large cakey, whoopie pie base. That cakey cookie was interspersed and filled with bits of honeycomb candy, coconut nougat, delicate peanut brittle (which I didn’t know could be delicate), and chocolate flakes that were proportioned so that they melted into creaminess with each bite. Somehow the cookie gave a cooling sensation along with the creaminess, so that it felt a bit like eating a spoonful of ice cream with each bite. She called it simply, “chocolate candy cake.”
I watched the crowd. Little kids were getting chocolate smeared all over their faces, feeling no shame for it. Teens and adults were taking delicate bites both to savor the cookie and to keep its abundant fillings in check. Their admirable efforts to maintain cookie integrity soon failed, and many surrendered by using spoons and forks. All around me eyes were sparkling, heads were nodding, thumbs were sticking high up in the air. I couldn’t help but to smile.
And we all applauded for Snickenliebe’s chocolate candy cake cookie.
Then came Jules.
He introduced his cookie, a vibrant rainbow shortbread cookie, as being inspired by a discipline called “molecular gastronomy.” From what I understand of the discipline, the science of what happens to food during cooking (and baking), is applied to developing new techniques and never-before-tasted dishes. I’ve heard about intriguing concoctions like bubbles bursting with flavored vapors inside, flavored foams and gelatins. And those ever-present raindrop “cakes” on the internet (which I refuse to acknowledge as a cake). Most of it didn’t sound too filling or satisfying to me, but I was keen to taste that rainbow cookie.
It was indeed shortbread on the outside, but each color burst with a different fruity flavor. The purple section tasted like blackberries, not just the flavor, but the burst of juice and a bit of grit. The blue section tasted like a ripe blueberry. The green like fresh lime. The yellow like a bright lemon. The orange like orange. The red like cherry. He didn’t seem to have used bits of the actual fruits. Artificial extracts were hit-or-miss. I’ve never tasted a good blueberry-flavored anything. But these flavors felt fresh. He must have used natural homemade extracts.
So…he too had taken a risk. A different kind of risk than the one I’d taken.
Again I watched the crowd. People gasped or squealed with surprise and delight at the first burst of juice in their mouths. Again, there were nods and thumbs-up. There was a lot more sniffing going on as people sniffed the cookies, guessing at the various flavors of each section before tasting. There was a lot more examination too, as people broke the cookie sections apart to try and “see” what magic was responsible for the unexpected sensations.
And we all applauded for Jules’s rainbow shortbread cookie.
Then came my turn.
“I call my cookie my ‘dream cookie,’” I said. “But this is a cookie that most—if not all of you—know and love. It already has a name. It’s a chocolate chip cookie. How it fits into this year’s theme of ‘original cookie’ is that I attempted to replicate a very particular chocolate chip cookie from a dream I once had…”
I told the crowd about my dream. There were quite a few chuckles and winces of solidarity when I got to the part where I was denied cookie satisfaction.
I felt my heart drumming in my chest, galloping, the whole time I’d spoken. Even the judges, whom I could tell had already decided that I hadn’t followed the rules, offered sympathetic, even approving smiles at my attempt to manifest the cookie of my dreams.
I watched the crowd a third time. This time they were eating my cookies. I’d been through it before. But something was different this time. I spotted quite a few people almost taking a bite before stopping or before someone else swiped the cookie away. They would close their eyes, as I described I had done. But unlike me in my dream, everyone in the crowd enjoyed the satisfaction of taking a bite, chewing, savoring, and swallowing. Even though I wasn’t eating a cookie myself at the moment, I felt that satisfaction with them.
As with Snickenliebe’s cookies and Jules’s cookies, I too received nods of approval and gestures of thumbs up.
The voting ballots were passed out to the spectators. The judges already had their ballots before them. We were afforded a brief intermission while the judges discussed the cookies and re-tasted them.
When they came back out and once the crowd’s ballots were gathered and counted, we three finalists gathered again onstage.
The judges began by praising our work and creativity, giving each of us specific notes. When my name was called first, I took a breath, and from the periphery of my vision, I saw my fellow contestants stiffen. I was third place, which meant that one of them was the winner.
I smiled and thanked the judges and bowed to the crowd. No one booed, but there were some “awws” on my behalf, which made my eyes suddenly start to mist. I blinked profusely, accepted the medal, turned to wish Snickenliebe and Jules good luck, and stepped aside.
The crowd waited. The announcer and host smiled and spoke.
“And the grand prize winner of this years ‘Most Delicious Cookie Ever Baked’ contest with the theme of ‘original cookie’ is…”
Of course it was Snickenliebe. Her cookie had combined what Jules and I had done. Mine was classic and familiar. Jules’s was experimental and fresh. Snickenliebe’s cookie was delectable and familiar, and chocolately, but also surprising in the way the chocolate melted over the tongue and some yet-to-be-revealed ingredient cooled the mouth to give that ice creamy sensation.
She was sincerely surprised though when they called her name. Her first reaction was to rush over to Jules and me, and gather us both into a hug.
I came home that night with only half a dozen of my own cookies. I thought I would have more to spare, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Chocolate chip cookies are classic for a reason.
I was still wired from all the excitement. I had already received some orders for the “dream cookies.” And there were some handshake offers of “let’s meet for lunch” and business cards I collected that seemed promising. But I would follow up with all of that come Monday.
For now, I would savor my win. Being one of three finalists, I’d known that I would walk away with a medal no matter the contest’s outcome. But it was another thing altogether to actually have the bronze medal around my neck. It was no joke. The contest committee got a quality metalsmith and artist to craft the medals each year. I still had to get my name engraved on it, but in the meantime, I would wear it to work on Monday. And maybe when I was just out and about, strolling down the streets.
Third prize came with a gift certificate. A five-hundred-dollar gift certificate. Not even close to forty thousand. But still a good start. The certificate was for an online vendor of restaurant quality kitchen equipment. I would definitely make use of it.
Before I turned in that night, as I was turning off the lights, I spotted the plate of cookies on the counter.
I approached slowly. Underneath the plastic, long-cooled, the cookies gave off no scent until I pulled the plastic wrap away. I picked one cookie up and brought it to my nose, savoring the scent of vanilla and brown sugar, and chocolate chips.
“Dream come true,” I said. And I closed my eyes, and I bit into that chocolate chip cookie.
And I smiled a smile of triumph.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel