02 March 2010

Vegan Cowboys?

In college, I always took reading material to the big lecture hall classes.  I graduated from the University of Florida where it was nothing to have 300 people in class with you.  This was only the case for the general education classes.  There were only four students in one of my senior level French classes and those were the classes that mattered.  On one particular day, in this particular psychology class, I had a copy of the now defunct Gourmet magazine.  In the 'readers write' section, there was a recipe for 'Colorado Cowboy Cookies' as made by a small bakery in Manhattan.  The recipe made me drool on my syllabus.  The cookies had oatmeal, chocolate chips and walnuts...no raisins!  I love oatmeal cookies but I can't stand the texture of chewy, gummy raisins.  As soon as class was over, I went to the store and gathered the ingredients to make Cowboy Cookies.

At the time, I was living with my boyfriend Geoff and our friend Cristina.  As many college kids do, we have tons of guests in and out of our house throughout the day.  I wasn't baking for money.  I was working at an Asian place called 'Maui Teriyaki,' home of the chicken bowl.  I had to stand over a hot grill, flipping marinated chicken or stand at a cutting board hacking the chicken to bits with a cleaver.  I still prefer a heavy knife as opposed to the super light models on the shelves now.

The first batch of cookies didn't last long.  I followed the recipe exactly.  The dough was measured in 1/4 cups which made for Texas sized cookies.  I liked them the way they were but I decided to start using pecans because they were plentiful in Florida and I felt they had more flavor than walnuts.  In both cases, I ground the nuts to a flour before folding them into the dough because I don't like large nut chunks in my cookies.

These cookies were the turing point in my life as a baker.  My friends insisted I try to vend them to local cafes and maybe on the street for football game days.  Gainesville, and my social group, is very vegan.  I wanted all my friends to try my handy work so I made a few changes and ended up with vegan Cowboy Cookies.  That's when I hit the pavement.  My first stop was one of my favorite dives, 'Steamers'.  Art, the owner and also the founder of Flying Dog Brewing Company in Colorado, made loose meat sandwiches and yummy, spicy  stir fried veggie versions of the same.  It was cheap, good food.  This is also where I met Kevin and James.  Kevin was the original drummer for the band Against Me!, back when all they could afford were buckets.  James is still the bassist for the band.  The first time I saw them play, it was at an acoustic show in a laundry room.

Art agreed to buy my cookies so long as they weren't vegan.  I sold them to him for $1/cookie and I think he charged $2.  I delivered once a week.  When I arrived there were always people waiting inside just to get some of my cookies which Art lovingly called 'Rachel's Treats.'  I found out that Art was telling everyone they were vegan even though I was baking the original recipe for him.  The next week, I switched it up and sent him the vegan version but I didn't clue him in.  He reported that they were the best batch yet, amazing!

After I graduated, I was living in my hometown, Chestertown, Maryland.  I was teaching history classes at the county high school.  In the mornings before school and on the weekends, I was helping my friend Diane get her bakery business going.  I loved working with Diane.  She used to be an accountant and she just walked out one day to live her dream of baking.  She made lots of classy cakes and upscale brownies.  I just baked what she told me to.  She gave me a recipe for cookies that came from the back of the Ghirardelli    chocolates package.  The recipe was very similar to my cowboys but it included some spices like cinnamon and cloves.  I liked the combo and the next time I baked a batch of my cookies, I added the spices.  It was the enhancement they needed to put them on a higher tier.  

Soon after that school year was finished, I started culinary school instead of getting my master's degree to continue teaching.  During my second year of school, I had a class in nutritional baking.  Our final project was one in which we took a familiar recipe and made a vegan version, a low-fat version and a sugar-free version.  It was very involved and it included a power point presentation of the findings.  I chose to make the cowboy cookies.  It was intense and exciting.  I enjoyed the experimentation and I enjoyed the butter.  I decided to stop toying with the vegan recipe and stick with the full fat, animal content of the originals.  I did, however, start putting golden raisins in the cookies to up the nutritional content.  Cowboy cookies are the original Powerbar.  History states, cowboys used to make them for riding the trails.  They were a quick, easy way to get a lot of nutrients and they kept well for travel.

A few months after I started baking for The Patisserie, I pulled out the Cowboy card.  I felt the showcase needed a non-chocolate alternative to the super chocolate chunk cookies.  After baking the first batch, I thought they needed something more to compete with the chocolate cookies.  It had to be something that added a textural component and also provided more nutrients (just because I like the idea of a healthy cookie).  I went with pumpkin seeds.  The current cowboy cookie is not vegan (though I could whip up a batch if I needed to).  It is comprised of oats, pecans, golden raisins, dark chocolate chunks, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon, cloves and the usual cookie components.  They are still big beautiful cookies though I do make mini's for snacking at home.  As a matter of fact, I just baked a batch last night so I can ship some to my mother-in-law in Ireland.

That's it.  The history of my Cowboy Cookie with all its trials and tribulations.

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