I make cookies all year long. In fact, with few exceptions, every dessert I make at work includes some type of cookie as an element. That’s because my personal pastry philosophy requires that each plate have a variety of textures, and cookies provide the best crisp. But even though I make them all year long, December is when I embark on my real cookie tour de force. Even if I didn’t have family and friends with whom to share, I would still go through the holiday cookie ritual for myself because it is, without a doubt, my favorite dessert. (Accompanied by, of course, a tall glass of milk.)
And although I am physically and mentally equipped to create any cookie I want from scratch (not to brag, but, yes, I’m that good), in a few exceptional cases I defer to the superiority of the store-bought. Pepperidge Farm’s Mint Milano is one. I have been presented
on more than one occasion with attempts at the homemade version of this minty morsel, but they are never quite right. The Oreo is another. While the effect of ebony cocoa and Crisco cream filling can be approximated, the real thing is always better. Girl Scout cookies, too, are a must-buy. A homemade Samoa or Thin Mint is wrong on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it denies little girls their cookie sales. (I feel this way about marshmallows too. Yes, we can make them in cute shapes, colors and flavors, but it turns out that they taste exactly the same as a bag of Jet-Puffed once melted into your cocoa, or flaming on the end of your campfire stick.)
But of all the store-bought cookies in the world, my favorite is the very un-haute animal cracker. The recipe is easily duplicated at home (it’s not a particularly intricate cookie), but for me, the joy of eating it comes from its circus box, and the discovery and identification of the animals, which cannot be duplicated in one’s own kitchen.
I talk a lot about food-related sense memories — the way the smell or flavor of a dish whisks you back to a time and place. Nothing does that for me more than animal crackers. Carrying the box by the string handle as if it were a grown-up handbag. Unwrapping the waxed inner bag to discover, hopefully, my favorite animals. Eating them in order of their hierarchy in the animal kingdom. Nibbling their body parts in a way that offers the animal the least amount of suffering (head first). Eating them now, I remember this ritual and am instantly sitting cross-legged in the sun in my grandmother’s yard, feeling the scratch of her perfectly manicured lawn on my bare summer legs.
As it turns out, a lot of folks have similar animal cracker memories. Nabisco says that everyone eats its animal crackers head first, which is a relief to those concerned with what that might say about you — apparently we are all a little morbid. The string handle was not added to make little girls feel like fancy ladies, but rather so that the box could be hung on a Christmas tree. The original box looked much the same, but the wheels of the circus wagon were partially printed on the underside of the box and were perforated so that kids could punch them out after snack time and have a circus wagon toy. Simple joys.
Animal-shaped cookies were first imported from Britain in the 1870s, prompting many local bakeries to begin making them. The Brits called them “biscuits,” but here in the U.S. we preferred the term “cracker.” Like most products of the era, they were sold in bulk out of cracker barrels. Soon automation transformed small bakeries into large companies like Stauffer’s Biscuit Company and the National Biscuit Company. In 1902 Nabisco began using the infamous P.T. Barnum as inspiration — though there was never a licensing agreement between the baking company and the Barnum & Bailey Circus (a lapse we all know would never happen today).
The term “cracker” always confused me, because these were not salty like the crackers I crumbled into my Campbell’s Tomato Soup. To further confuse me, according to the 1935 film Curly Top, Shirley Temple liked the sweet cookies in her soup so much she sang about it. Animal crackers in soup still sounds yucky. After soup, sure. But in the soup? (I am making my best Shirley Temple wrinkly-nose face.)
Today there are several companies making animal crackers, but for me, Barnum’s Animals are the best. The taste is classic, and the animals are recognizable. Over the years the company has produced more than 50 different animals for the box, including a special 1995 World Wildlife Fund endangered edition, from which you could decapitate a Komodo dragon. There are 19 animals in rotation at any one time, with new animals chosen occasionally by popular vote. The most recent addition was the koala, which, thankfully, beat out the cobra. Despite the lyric in Shirley’s song “monkeys and rabbits loop the loop,” there has never been a rabbit animal cracker. This fact makes Shirley Temple a liar, which I hope was disclosed to Ghana before we sent her there as U.S. ambassador. Unlike me, Nabisco didn’t care and used the song for years to promote the product.
One final animal cracker fact: The monkey is the only animal in pants. Mull that over the next time you nibble off his head.
Despite the fact that I just railed against making these cookies at home, it’s actually sort of fun. You can buy mini circus-animal cutters, but I prefer to use some of the weirder random cutters I have accumulated through the years. Let’s just say, there are shapes that Nabisco would never consider.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons honey
½ cup cream
1. Preheat oven to 350°, and coat a baking sheet with pan spray.
2. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse to form a uniform powder. Set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter until smooth. Add the honey and cream and mix thoroughly. Add the flour mixture last, and mix until just combined. Divide the dough in two, press into a thick disc, then wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be left in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen for longer storage.)
4. Dust the work surface with flour, and roll out the dough to a quarter-inch thick. Cut out animal shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown. Cool before serving.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.