If cookies were a literary genre, I suspect they’d be the romance novel. Neither one gets much respect in highbrow circles, but both have a dedicated, verging-on-rabid following. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a rainy Sunday afternoon – and it’s dangerously easy to consume several in one sitting.
But unlike romances, with their embossed and be-Fabio’ed covers, cookies aren’t winning any beauty contests. They’re usually not much to look at, which is one reason why they’re more often found in our home kitchens than on restaurant menus. They’re homely in every sense.
If you had met him on the street, you might have thought Wallace Stevens was similarly unremarkable. Every day for over 40 years, he got up, got dressed, and commuted to his achingly normal day job at a Connecticut insurance agency (Kafka also worked in insurance, which makes you wonder just what goes on over there). His humdrum evening routine consisted of eating a cookie while reading the paper. He didn’t publish his first poem until he was 35, and even after he won the Pulitzer, he still went to the office every day, and ate a cookie every night.
No other writer talks about cookies as much as Stevens does. Elsie, his wife, always seemed to have a batch baking; “I can almost smell them,” Stevens wrote in his letters. He brought them on picnics, and gave boxes of them away as Christmas gifts. Even Stevens’ daughter associated with cookies; when he was away on business, she would put a cookie by his place at the table, waiting for him to come home.
Stories like that remind me why cookies, despite their homely status, are so beloved: They tie in to our most cherished memories, and remind us of those little moments that make life worth living. Stevens knew that power well. In 1948, after returning from a trip to New York with Elsie, he wrote, “We went into the kitchen, sat there drinking milk and eating cookies. … This is not much. Yet it is a little in spite of everything.”
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What kind of cookies was Elsie whipping up in that kitchen? Maddeningly, Stevens never describes them beyond the smell. But, as someone whose sugar addiction rivals Sartre’s, he does mention several of his other favorite sweets, including graham crackers and coconut caramels. On his doctor’s orders, Stevens repeatedly tried to cut his dessert intake, but when a friend sent him a bottle of coconut syrup that reminded him of his beloved caramels, it all went out the window. “God help me, I am a miserable sinner,” he wrote, “and love being so.”
These cookies combine all of those favorite flavors—graham, coconut, and caramel—into a single package. Chewy on the inside, crispy on the outside, they let you have three desserts at once. Even Stevens’ doctor would have approved.
Coconut Caramel Sauce:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon flaked sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
3/4 cup coconut caramel sauce
1. Make the caramel sauce: In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add sugar in an even layer over medium heat. When the edges begin to liquefy, drag them toward the center, stirring as little as possible, and turn heat to low. When caramel reaches a deep brown, add coconut milk and salt, stirring to remove lumps. Remove from heat and cool completely. (For more tips on making a dry caramel, see David Lebovitz’s handy illustrated guide.)
2. Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Stir in vanilla extract and eggs, one at a time.
3. In a small bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, flour, baking soda, and salt. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, mixing well. Fold in toasted coconut and caramel sauce, until just combined.
4. Line a cookie tray with parchment paper. Place dough in rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until edges are crisp (They will look golden much earlier, because of the graham and the caramel, so don’t be fooled!). Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks. Makes 3 dozen.