Whenever we got a treat at our grocery store, I noticed my kids always picked snickerdoodles—the fairly dull-looking, cinnamon-sugar dusted butter cookies—over more exciting chocolate chip or peanut butter chip. I couldn’t believe my very own flesh and blood would reject a chocolate cookie. Certainly they couldn’t just be enticed by the silly name, I thought (which, granted, is silly and part of the appeal).
So I begged a taste. They were simple, sure, but also delicious and deeply satisfying.
Since the last (and first) time I made snickerdoodles was back in seventh grade home ec class (which was so long ago, it was still called home ec class), I did what any self-respecting, obsessive baker would do in her quest for a master recipe: I tried 12 different recipes side by side.
It was a Saturday night, and I had guests coming for dinner. The cookies were cooling on the counter when my friends arrived. One of my less inhibited friends grabbed a cookie and stuffed it into his mouth. There was a pause, followed by a sigh of deep relaxation. He reached for another, and the rest of us followed suit. It turns out snickerdoodles make an excellent appetizer course.
My guests weren’t the only ones bewitched by the snickerdoodle. I shared these cookies with my neighbors up and down my street and the response was near universal. People paused. They smiled.
What is it that makes them so special? The buttery warmth? The delicate cinnamon-scented sweetness? Really, it’s because they’re like a grandma in cookie form: warm, soft, and comforting.
They're a lump of love, if you will.
As I worked on my recipe, I noticed kids would follow me and my kids home from the bus stop to find out if I had baked that day. I invited them to stay, and with their help, I soon learned snickerdoodle eaters (snickerdoodlers, maybe?) fall into two distinct camps: the pillowy-soft cookie lovers, who prefer them puffy and rounded (my son), and those that prefer a slightly flatter, crinkly cookie with crisp edges and a chewy middle (my daughter).
The ingredients for this humble cookie are basic, save for one outlier—cream of tartar—which if you hunt around in your spice cupboard, I suspect you will find hidden in a dark corner behind the tub of green sprinkles you also forgot you had (it keeps indefinitely.) Cream of tartar is a by-product of the wine-making industry and what gives these cookies their subtle tang.
The major variables in the recipes I tested—which came from sources that included The Joy of Cooking, The Pioneer Woman, a Houston Junior Forum cookbook from 1980, and the cherished family recipe of my neighbor’s mother, Dolly—are the amounts of flour, sugar, and cream of tartar. Dolly’s version also substituted Crisco for half of the butter, but I missed the rich flavor butter brings. A simple addition of a half-cup of flour to a recipe turned a pancake-flat chewy cookie into a delicate, soft mound of cookie.
I quickly learned that baking the cookies at a temperature higher than 350°F meant dry, crunchy cookies no matter what the ratio of fat and flour were. I also decided a smidge of vanilla was an important addition. Snickerdoodle purists may object, but it really does enhance the buttery flavor and plays nicely with the cinnamon-sugar.
Twenty-four dozen cookies later, I have created a master recipe that produces a soft, rounded cookie. A lump of love, if you will. For those of you like my daughter, who prefers a thin, chewy snickerdoodle that is crisp around the edges, I have a master recipe for those, too: There’s more sugar and less sugar so the cookies spread more and bake up crisper—and while there is less cream of tartar in this recipe, the acidity helps maintain the chewiness, which results in a happy crun-chewy balance.