Like so so many things, it’s a balance. Of course you don’t want it to be a flat, too-crispy, wafer with no substance. But you don’t want it overly solid, either, like ship’s hard tack.
What you need, more than anything, is to start with a great recipe — and great oatmeal raisin recipes are surprisingly rare, it turns out. You need the right balance of sugars: More brown than granulated. You need to use the right oats: Whole, not quick. And you need to add enough structure to hold the cookie together despite its heft.
I love a good oatmeal raisin cookie myself, so I worked out my ideal recipe years ago. It wasn’t until I started selling these cookies, however, that I learned that a great recipe must satisfy three separate camps of oatmeal raisin fans:
First, there are people who insist they’re not into oatmeal raisin cookies, but actually are just waiting for a great recipe.
Second, there are people who love oatmeal raisin cookies — but still have been known to eat other cookie types on occasion. (I am in this camp.)
And third, there are those who have devoted an entire lifetime to seeking The One True Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.
This recipe works great for all three camps — we proved it at our little bakery every day.
The truly rabid fans, however, seemed to prefer shopping at our stand at the Leesburg Farmers’ Market. I remember one older guy in particular. He bought a half-dozen on his first-ever visit, then returned just a few minutes later in a state of rapture: He had eaten one, he said, and it was the very best oatmeal raisin cookie he’d eaten in more than 90 years!
That was quite some praise, said the younger woman with him — his daughter? — because finding perfect oatmeal raisin cookies had become his life’s mission, quite literally. The man was happy to agree, and told us he’d be back every single week for more: His quest was now complete.
He did come back weekly, too, for as long as we were there. (And he sometimes brought us gifts!) How sweet is that?!
Put butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set it on low and run it until the butter is mostly broken down, then turn it up to medium speed an beat for 2-3 minutes until the butter is light and fluffy.
Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat for about 20 seconds.
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, and oats. Scoop this mixture into the mixer bowl and run the mixer on low speed until batter is almost fully combined. Then add the raisins and stir the rest of the way.
Take the paddle off the mixer and scrape it down. Use a spatula to turn the dough and scrape it off the sides of the mixer bowl, then run the mixer on low for another 30 seconds-1 minute. (If you skip this step, you risk an uneven batch — some flat cookies that have extra butter in them, some cookies that bake much thicker.)
Scoop cookies onto prepared baking sheets using a #20 yellow-handled ice-cream-style scoop. (See my cookie baking tips for more about scoops.)
A family recipe book is like a family photo album. Just browsing a page can transport you back in time; follow the recipe and you can recapture the memory over and over. In some families there is a member who gathers and preserves family recipes: This person is a historian, valuable as any genealogist.
Congo Bars are part of my family’s history. Some people call them “blondies,” but not in my family. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, our family friend John turned us on to them — and John called them Congo Bars.
Flashback: My Massachusetts memories
John was (still is!) a wonderful, funny guy who brightened all our family parties. Aside from his delightful company, he often brought these dense, chewy chocolate chip bars with walnuts that were so satisfying to sink your teeth into.
When I think of Congo Bars, an old flashbulb fires in my head and I see a yellowing Polaroid of kids riding bikes with banana seats and streamers on the handlebars. The sun is up late on Massachusetts summer nights and my mother bought blackout shades so my room will be dark at bedtime, but in the end she lets me stay out with the other kids.
I flash on those family parties, too. John arrives into our busy kitchen with a pan full of bars. (Congo Bars are great for parties because they travel well.) One of the adults is working the blender. Kids are all over the house, and outside too. After we grab a bite, we’re racing down to the pond.
Where did these good-time bars come from before they appeared in my family?
Apparently the recipe was published in the Boston Globe sometime in the 1950s, and spread all over New England. Some versions included coconut and other ingredients that seemed exotic to mid-century Yankees — so maybe that’s where “Congo” comes from, although the Congo was never a producer of coconut (or chocolate or walnuts).
Another theory: “Congo” is slang for Congregational churches, where these bars were a potluck staple.
Oh, well, the name sounds great either way. For me it evokes the Boston-area of my 1970s childhood, of community and sharing.
When I came to Virginia, I brought John’s recipe with me and started making Congo Bars for the local farmers’ markets and then at my little bakery. Before long they were on national TV, chosen as “Snack of the Day” on the Rachael Ray Show!
Did that make me love them more? No, I already loved them totally — but it did give me a great new memory to be triggered by my recipe book.
Do you have a memory of these Congo Bars? Did you taste them for the first time at the Leesburg Farmers’ Market on a hot Saturday morning, perhaps chased with a slice of fresh local peach? Or outside the Lola’s bakery on a First Friday night as you enjoyed live music on our patio?
Or maybe your first taste will be today, after following this recipe at home.
Whatever your chewy, chocolate-y memory, please be sure to share it — and the recipe — with friends and family. That’s what these bars are all about.
Classic chocolate chip bars with walnuts. These very bars were served as the "Snack of the Day" on the Rachael Ray Show!
1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lb dark brown sugar (~2¼ cups)
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
14 oz flour (~ 3 cups plus 3 Tablespoons)
2½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
13 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (~2 cups)
4 oz chopped walnuts (~1 cup)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the dark brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Melt the butter in a metal bowl in the oven (takes about 3-4 minutes) or on very low power in Pyrex in the microwave oven (takes about same time). Stir out any last lumps until it's all liquid, then pour it into the mixer bowl with the brown sugar.
Stir on low speed until combined and not too hot.
Add the eggs and vanilla and stir until just combined. (If you beat the eggs too long, your bars will be cake-like, not dense as bars should be.)
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then add them to the mixer on low speed until just barely combined.
Now add the chips and walnuts and stir until fully combined.
Remove the mixer paddle and use a rubber spatula or scraper to turn the dough over and get it all off the sides, making sure it is all evenly mixed.
Prepare a 9" x 13" pan by spraying it with cooking spray or lining it with parchment as you prefer, then spread the batter in the pan. It helps to get a little water on your hands and pat it a bit on top as you finish it.
Put it in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the outer edges get slightly golden and a tester comes out clean.
They taste great warm, but if you want to cut the bars cleanly, you'll need to let them fully cool and even chill them — perhaps overnight — in the fridge, then cut with a sharp knife. At that point you can bring them back to room temperature or warmer and serve them all soft and lovely.
People sometimes ask: How can I make my cookies as perfect as the ones from your bakery? I’m using your recipe, but I can’t replicate the taste I remember from Lola’s — or the appearance in your photos.
My answer is that baking cookies is an exacting science; small things make a big difference. Over the years I’ve learned this the hard way. Here are my top eight tips, so you can skip the learning curve and go straight to the awesome.
1.Baking Is Not Like Cooking!
When you cook you can add in “some” of this and “a bit” of that. Even if you change direction halfway through a dish, it still may turn out great. This seldom works in baking.
Professional bakers sometimes call recipes “formulas,” and for good reason. Baking is all about the chemical reactions that take place once your concoction is in the oven. You must set things up right or things won’t work the way you want.
Whenever you get a new recipe, follow it exactly the first time. Don’t substitute, don’t modify the instructions, don’t omit anything. You need to establish a “control” so you can decide what — if anything — you should tweak.
Then, when you start changing things, write down your adjustments and note the results. After experimenting a bit, you will see what direction to go.
If you’re used to the more improvisational style in cooking, you may not like baking at first. I’ve come to love the structure, and I like knowing where it’s OK to adapt and where I must toe the line.
2.Measure by Weight
Many home bakers measure dry ingredients by volume — in cups and tablespoons. But I urge you to measure by weight. A good kitchen scale will make you a better baker.
Baking is all about precision. The same amount of flour or sugar may have a different volume on different days, depending on the humidity and your method of scooping. Besides, weighing is faster: No need to pack brown sugar or to level each cup as you scoop if you are weighing it, just dump it in a bowl in the scale until it reaches weight and you’re set.
My recipes list the major dry ingredients by weight. (I still do spices and the like by teaspoons and tablespoons because it’s not practical to weigh them for home-baking batch sizes.) I usually supply a volume equivalent; many Web sites have weight-to-volume converters, too. But using a scale is best.
3.Can I Use This Other Flour?
You have flour in your cupboard — just not the exact type called for in the recipe. You don’t want to go shopping. Tempting, right? Please resist.
Remember, baking is science. Different flours have different amounts of gluten, plus other qualities that can change the texture and structure of your finished baked goods. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but more likely you’ll be unhappy with the results.
4.Know Your Oven
The temperature in many ovens is 10-25 degrees different than the oven’s readout. Use a cheap oven thermometer (available in most grocery stores) to check your own oven; you may be surprised by the results.
Also, each oven simply performs differently. All my recipes used to be calibrated for my bakery oven; now that I’m baking at home, I’ve needed to re-calibrate temperature and time slightly. I’ve published the times that work for my particular home oven, but your results may be different — so check your baked goods toward the end, and see how they’re doing. If they take a slightly longer or shorter time, make a note on the recipe.
(Remember that item size affects times, too. If you scoop your cookies bigger or smaller, they may take more or less time to bake.)
Finally, does your oven have “hot spots”? In many ovens, the bottom rack of cookies may brown faster than than the middle or top rack. Or maybe the cookies at the back of the oven will brown faster than those at the front. What to do? Just rotate the trays during baking.
5.Convection? Probably Not
Should you use the convection feature on your oven? In my experience, I do not trust this feature on home ovens for cookie baking.
At the bakery I had a beautiful convection oven; I miss it terribly. But commercial ovens are bigger, and the air flow is nice and even. Home ovens don’t seem to work as well.
My recipes here all assume non-convection baking. If you do use the convection feature on your oven, set the temperature 25 degrees lower than my recipe says.
6.Scoop Like a Pro
For consistent results, bake a consistently sized, consistently shaped cookie. The easiest way to do this is to use an affordable standard-sized scoop.
Did you know that professional scoops come in industry-standard sizes with different color handles? Three sizes cover all the cookies I make: The yellow-handled #20, the red-handled #24, and the purple-handled #40.
7.Use The Right Baking Trays
What kind? Heavy aluminum baking pans with rolled edges are the best, in my opinion, and they are generally what the pros use. They heat evenly and last forever, all for a reasonable price. I have two sets at home: One set exclusively for baking, and another for everything else (roasting vegetables or broiling fish, for example).
If your oven has three shelves, I recommend buying four cookie baking trays. That way the next pan is always ready to go when you remove one from the oven. Efficiency!
Does anyone “grease” baking trays any more? Seems like everyone I know uses silicone mats or parchment. Either is fine; I prefer parchment because it leaves no residue on the baked goods and it’s easier to clean up.
8.Chill The Dough
This is indispensable advice for sugar cookies: Chilling the dough is the only way to get nice sharp edges on your cut-out shapes, rather than the more amorphous, spread-out look that comes from warm dough.
Many bakers also believe that chilling the dough overnight will improve flavor for chocolate chip cookies and other “drop” cookies. I chill these doughs mostly for convenience. It makes the job easier the next day if I’ve already made and scooped the dough and stored it in a container.
After removing the dough from the fridge, I put the pre-scooped balls on a baking tray to soften for about 20 minutes while the oven warms up, then I bake them off.
Does this improve flavor? Do your own taste-testing experiment and tell me what you conclude: That’s science at its tastiest!
With even the most basic cookie cutter, the decoration possibilities are endless.
Plus decorating is a great group activity — a bonding experience for family and friends that often turns into a tradition.
For Easter cookies, an egg-shaped cookie cutter is really all you need. (Other options: Flowers, carrots, bunnies, chicks.) Our photo shoot included two sizes of egg cookie, but otherwise the cutter shapes were generic — it’s all in the decoration. To inspire you I asked Lola’s former head decorator, Jillian Cimino, to share some of her favorite Easter designs.
Jillian has been honing her skills for years, of course, but cookie decorating is fun for anyone. Even small kids can use royal icing to decorate sugar cookies: I’ve found that anyone over 10 years old can handle a pastry bag with a little instruction, and younger kids can apply icing with a butter knife, embellishing with sprinkles. After some practice — remember, you don’t need a special day to make these cookies — everyone will start to push their own artistic envelope, which is great to see.
By the way, Jillian sometimes takes orders for special occasions. You can reach her here.
This recipe is tasty and easy to work with. The resulting cookies are not as hard as some other recipes: I recommend limiting shapes to about 3.5" across, or they'll get too fragile.
1½ sticks butter, cut up into chunks
½ cup shortening (such as Crisco)
8 oz granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
13 oz all-purpose flour
2½ oz corn starch
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
Put the butter, shortening, and granulated sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer. Set the mixer on low speed and mix until the butter chunks are broken down, then increase the speed and beat until it is light and fluffy.
Scrape down the bowl, then beat in the egg and extracts.
Stir the flour, corn starch, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl, then add them to the mixer on low speed and stir until well combined.
Remove the dough from the mixer and pat it into two slabs; wrap each slab in plastic wrap. Put the dough in the refrigerator and chill for about an hour.
After the dough has chilled, take it out and roll it thin (but not too thin!) on a lightly floured surface.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Use a cookie cutter to cut your cookies.
Bake the cookies on prepared trays (silpats, parchment or greased) for 10-14 minutes depending on the size and shape of your cookies. The cookies should be just starting to brown on the bottoms when you take them out.
Let the cookies cool completely before decorating with royal icing
A few years ago we went to Ireland for a big family reunion: Nearly 100 relations gathered from all over Ireland, from the U.S., from England and elsewhere. We converged on a small town in County Clare — in the West, barren but scenic — and our gang stayed in these thatch-roofed cottages.
The kids loved feeding donkeys, sharing meals with cousins, and exploring the countryside. Until the next trip, we keep up with the culture as much as possible, reading Irish legends, watching Irish movies (like this one), and noting great Irish achievements.
Speaking of which: Guinness, am I right? A drink, but also a technological marvel (read all about it) and even a wonder drug.
Yep, turns out there’s science behind the 1920s advertising slogan, “Guinness is good for you.” More than a decade ago, a team of researchers found that old-time doctors weren’t crazy to prescribe a daily pint of the black stuff: Guinness works as well as aspirin to prevent blood clots.
And what happens when you bake it into a cupcake, you ask? I have done this research myself and, as I hope Lola’s customers remember, the result is wonderfully smooth: Baking removes the stout’s bitter edge, leaving a mellow taste that’s the perfect complement in a rich chocolate cake. Top it with cream cheese icing — to evoke the creamy head on your “pint” — and a dusting of cocoa, and it’s just grand.
I started by selling cookies at the farmers' market. Then, in 2006, I rented a few small rooms in an old Victorian building in historic downtown Leesburg, Virginia, and turned them into the bakery of my dreams.
We baked everything in our open kitchen using no preservatives and no artificial flavors — because that's how it tastes best.
Lola's was featured on The Rachael Ray Show and Fox 5 TV; in Washingtonian magazine and Northern Virginia magazine; and on the cover of Loudoun Magazine.
In 2013 our building was sold and converted to office spaces, so we closed — at least for the moment. So many customers asked for our recipes that I started this blog in response.