Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.

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Medz Mama’s Cookies, aka Armenian Butter Cookies.

Was it really so long ago that I went to Eastern Lamejun and bought some mahleb, with the intention of baking cookies? Honestly, where has the month gone? Oh, right — I remember now.

Regardless, with Easter around the corner (where has the month gone?!) I have shifted gears into a sort of terrifying overdrive — we’re expecting fourteen people over Sunday, and rumor has it they all expect to be fed. I’ve been trying to stay organized by preparing as much as I can ahead of time, and that includes desserts. Hopefully, a mostly-cookie spread will help me keep a firm grip on my sanity, even as shelf space in both my fridge and freezer dwindles. Thus far I’ve gotten two different types out of the way, as well as the mahleb cookies I’ve been wanting to bake for a while.

These cookies are traditionally made around this time of year but, in all honesty, seasonality has nothing to do with my desire to make them. After all, do I need a holiday simply to make a batch of cookies that are lusciously buttery and nutty, that are fun and easy to make, and that remind me of my grandmother?

I grew up eating these cookies, the recipe for which my mom cajoled out of my father’s mother. To this day, we still call them Medz Mama’s cookies; in Armenian, medz means big. To a child, that sort of logic makes perfect sense, no? Not that you have to be a child to enjoy this delicious little treat.

Medz Mama’s Cookies

img_2203.jpg2 sticks butter, melted
4 cups flour
½ cup sugar (add up to 3/4 cup if you prefer sweeter cookies)
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoons nigella seeds (caraway seeds are acceptable)
½ teaspoon mahleb
1/4 cup Mazola oil (I used olive oil)
1 egg, beaten
sesame seeds

img_2213.jpg1. Preheat oven to 325°. Mix the first eight ingredients (up until the egg) until they are all totally incorporated. The resulting dough will be somewhat on the oily side; if you find it too oily add a little bit more flour.

img_2214.jpg2. Pinch off about one tablespoon’s worth of dough. On a clean surface, roll dough into a wreath, a twist or any other shape and set on baking tray. Repeat with remaining dough. Though the cookies will not expand much during baking, try to keep them about two inches apart. Brush with cookie tops generously with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds.img_2230.jpg

3. Bake for approximately thirty minutes or until the cookies turn a nice deep golden color. Let cool, then store in an airtight container. I’m not quite sure how long the cookies keep for, because they don’t last long around me.