Mother's Circus Animal Cookies
Many of you have already heard that the venerable Mother's Cookies has closed down. I found out about this last week just as I was leaving for a trip; therefore I spent much of the weekend mourning the end of this beloved institution and wondering if all the circus animal cookies would be gone from the stores by the time I returned. Judging from the many articles written urging cookie fans to stock up on their favorites, not an unfounded fear.
As the first photo shows, I was fortunately able to get my hands on a bag after my return, and I've been slowly enjoying them this week. I know – perhaps I should have kept it hermetically sealed away and let its value appreciate; surely like Twinkies, they would have an inordinately robust shelf life?
Well, I'm keeping my eyes open for any remaining bags, but I guess the rampant nostalgia that overcame me upon hearing of Mother's demise made it impossible to resist enjoying these cookies one more time. Besides, I needed to open the bag so I could take some pictures of the little frosted animals in all their pink and white glory – so at that point not eating a few would have been unfathomable.
It was tricky for me to write this post: after all, as a baker I'm supposed to be making all my goodies from scratch, and in the health-obsessed, organic-sustainable-local ground zero that is the Bay Area, it's more than a little unfashionable to be mooning over the heavily processed packaged items at the your local store. What would people think to see me walking around with Chip Ahoys or Entenmann's in my grocery basket, when I should be pulling batches of cookies out of my ever-ready oven?
While my mother kept the family on a fairly healthy diet as we were growing up, it's not to say she never allowed us the occasional indulgence of junk food, and I had my fair share of Ho-Hos and Twinkies and yes, Mother's cookies. However, kids grow up, tastes change, and once I discovered the benefits of eating healthy and cooking from scratch, it was quite easy to leave all that junk food behind on the grocery shelves. While I know that baking cakes and tarts and other sweets isn't exactly extolling the healthiest lifestyle, I firmly believe that eating any dessert that's made fresh with ingredients you know and understand, is always superior, and healthier, to eating something from a package with thirty plus ingredients, only two of which actually sound like food, even if the label says "fat free" or "low calorie" or "tastes just like real chocolate". Also, please note the name of my blog is Dessert First, not Only Dessert All The Time:)
So why, if my blog is dedicated to the best of all that is sweet, and to the joys of baking at home, would I be so distraught over the end of a commercial cookie manufacturer? Chalk it up to the power of nostalgia. Going to the grocery store with my mother when I was young, the cookie aisle was always my favorite (Does it surprise no one here that I've always had a sweet tooth?) When we went down the aisle lined with cookies, crackers, and cakes, I would always scan eagerly over the offerings, wondering if this time my mother would relent and buy us a treat. Of all the different brands, Mother's cookies always stood out, with their striped purple and red packaging and the icon showing a happy mom in the corner. The products also seemed seemed so much more distinctive and interesting than the rest: the striped shortbread, the chocolate chip angels, and, of course, the circus animal cookies.
My take on circus animal cookies
From all the mournful posts I've seen, circus animal cookies hold a special place in the memories of many. They are like animal crackers all gussied up, with a coat of shockingly sweet frosting in snowy white or neon pink, and a confetti sprinkling of rainbow sugar balls. All of these elements were important to the singular experience of eating one of these cookies: your tongue ran over the nubbiness of the sprinkles, as your teeth bit through the soft waxiness of the frosting, and crunched through the center. The sweetness of the frosting pretty much filled your mouth, so the cookie inside really provided little more than a texture contrast. I was always convinced that there was a difference between the pink and white ones, and always made sure to eat them alternating between the two colors.
Thanks to the miracles of science and commercial food production, it is practically impossible to replicate the sugary taste of circus animal cookies at home. I'm sure that's why I was sad to hear about the end of these cookies; when I eat one, I am immediately transported back to my childhood, and the occasions when I got to have a cookie. A rare occasion indeed, for circus animal cookies in particular, as my mother disliked anything with artificial colorings, for which these cookie qualified in spades. It was only with concerted begging could we get her to buy us a bag of these, and once the Christmas circus animals came out in red and green, there was nothing for it but we had to persuade her to let us try those as well, to see if they tasted any different.
It was probably for the best that I didn't get to gorge on these cookies, and for that I thank my mom. It also kept these cookies in the realm of special treat, so even after I grew older and went shopping on my own, I would always look on these cookies fondly. I like to think these cookies played a role in developing my interest in baking: after all, they were so prettily decorated, so my liking them must have indicated that I wanted to make things as equally eye-catching and tasty.
As I noted, I haven't been able to replicate these cookies at home taste-wise, but in looks at least it was not too difficult. I used the rolled sugar cookie recipe from my Field Guide to Cookies book, and covered them in a simple royal icing. While they don't taste like the store version, I think they taste pretty good on their own, and as a bonus I got to pick up some pretty cute circus animal cookie cutters from Williams-Sonoma.
So, with this post I bid adieu to Mother's cookies, to English tea and iced oatmeal and striped shortbread and circus animal cookies. Thanks for making my childhood a little sweeter, and for being a stepping stone on my path to making my own baked goods. You'll always have a special place on my kitchen shelf.
Also, don't forget about Sugar High Friday – the deadline is next Monday and I'm looking forward to seeing all your entries!
Vanilla Sugar Animal Cookies with Royal Icing
About 3 dozen 2 1/2 inch cookies
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg at room temperature, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Royal icing (recipe follows) and colored sugars if decorating
1. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
2. In stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed for several minutes until light and fluffy.
3. With mixer on low speed, gradually add the egg and vanilla and mix until well combined. Add the flour mixture gradually. Mix until fully incorporated and the dough is smooth and uniform.
4. Divide dough into 2 pieces and flatten into 1/2 inch thick discs.
5. Wrap dough and refrigerate for 2 hours. At this point the dough can be double wrapped and frozen for up to 2 weeks.
6. When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 325°F. Grease several cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper.
7. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and dust with more flour. Gently roll the dough 1/8 inch thick.
8. Using a cookie cutter, cut out cookies and place on sheets about 1 inch apart.
9. Bake for 14–16 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges are golden brown. Transfer cookies to wire racks with a metal spatula to cool completely.
10. Once cookies are cooled, decorate them with icing and colored sugars.
2 egg whites
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 cups powdered sugar
Food coloring in desired colors
1. Using a mixer with the whisk attachment, combine all the ingredients and whisk for several minutes on high speed until the mixture is thick and shiny opaque white. It should have the consistency of glue. If it is too thin, add more powdered sugar by teaspoonfuls as needed. If it is too thick, add water by teaspoonfuls as needed.
2. Divide icing into bowls for coloring. Keep the bowls covered or the icing will dry and harden. Add food color to icing to achieve desired hues.