Cookie Party: Volume 4

Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Everyone always thinks that money is tight for themselves, but lately, my dollars have had to stretch further than they ever have before. What better time to revisit a cost-saving Cookie Party, originally posted September 2, 2009? Enjoy!


Hey, you may not have heard, but we're in a recession. Put down that lobster thermidor, yuppie! Frugality is in fashion, which is fine with me; I've always been adept at saving a buck or two. Well, except in one area of life. I spend money freely when it comes to food. The happiness that I derive from the burst of salmon roe on my tongue or from the soft pink of a perfect, medium-rare steak makes them more than worth their hefty price tags. I rarely regret expensive food, unless it doesn't live up to expectations. If you're going to charge me ten bucks for a sandwich, it had better be a corker. All that aside, I wanted to see if America's newfound love of penny-pinching could be applied to my baking experiment. Is it possible to make a serviceable cookie without gourmet buttercreams and Chilean dark chocolate?

In order to test this out, I reached back into the past. Here's where you can help me out by making those wavy arm movements and "DOODELEE-OOP! DOODELEE-OOP!" sound effects that everyone uses to signify time travel. Fortunately, one of my friends is descended from a line of Rombauers, and keeps a print of every edition of The Joy of Cooking ever published. Fascinated, I paged through the older ones, and happened upon a recipe from the 1936 edition entitled "Plain Cookies. Very economical." If there's one thing people living through the Great Depression were looking for to lighten their spirits, it was a recipe like this. It's got the instant happiness that a dessert brings without the sorrow of an already-stretched budget reaching its breaking point. So, as a minor act of contrition for my gastronomical indulgences:

Great Depression Cookies
Brother, can you spare an inflation-adjusted dime?

Now, the whole point of these cookies is that they're extremely simple. No bells and whistles here. Do you have any idea how much bells and whistles cost? So, there's not much of story to spin about the cookies themselves. They're just a basic sugar cookie. I can say that they took an amazing amount of flour, to the point that I was worried the dough wouldn't coalesce, and would crumble into little, gravel-like balls.


Luckily, the butter was sufficient to pull it all back together as it warmed up, and I had no trouble rolling it all out. The only cookie cutters I have are letters of the alphabet. I noticed with some dismay that E was among the letters I'm missing. Crap. I managed to cobble one together with the F and the I, but only did it once. The stiffness that the flour gave the dough made the cutouts simple to lift and transfer onto cookie sheets, so there were no Lace Cookie disasters this time around. Of course, you don't have to roll Lace Cookie dough out a gazillion times.

Like I said, sugar cookies are basically the white bread of the cookie world, so what I was really interested in this time around is how cheaply they could be made. I went to a local store that keeps prices low by having customers bag their own groceries. Once there, I prowled the aisles, and wrote down the absolute lowest price offered on each of the ingredients I'd need. I'll admit right now that I didn't actually buy any of these items. If it's a waste of money to buy overpriced cookie ingredients, it's even more of a waste to buy cheap ingredients that I don't need because I've already got all of it sitting in my cabinets at home. The batch I made actually had some very nice vanilla in it - the discounted imitation vanilla is merely a hypothetical thrown in to see how inexpensive this recipe could be. Recording the prices was the easy part. The tough part was calculating the amount of ingredients I was using. It's all well and good to know that I'm using three tablespoons of milk, but that doesn't do me much good when the volume is given in gallons and liters. Fortunately, I've got something the Great Depression cooks didn't have: Internet conversion tables. Ready for some math, you nerds?

Sugar: $1.88 for 4 pounds - Using 1 cup for dough and 1 cup for topping = 24 cents.
Flour: $1.53 for 2 pounds - Using 3 cups = 61 cents.
Baking powder: $1.77 for 10 ounces - Using 1 teaspoon = 3 cents.
Egg: 87 cents for 8 eggs - Using 1 egg = 11 cents.
Milk: $1.77 for 1/2 gallon - Using 3 tablespoons = 4 cents.
Butter: $1.78 for 8 ounces - Using 4 tablespoons = 47 cents.
Vanilla: $3.17 for 2 fluid ounces - Using 1 teaspoon = 26 cents.

Even using the cheap, imitation stuff, there's no getting around vanilla as the most expensive ingredient. That said, since you're only using 1 teaspoon, the 3 cups of flour winds up being the most expensive component. Still, check out that list. If you had none of these things on your shelves, the grocery bill would come out to $12.77 before taxes. Not bad. And considering that most home kitchens have most, if not all of these things already on hand, the bill drops even lower. I didn't have to buy a single thing to turn these cookies out, so I expended only the amounts needed to make one batch, which comes out to about $1.76. That's $1.76 in 2009 dollars. I don't have the resources to correctly deflate this back to 1936 prices, but it must be pretty damn low. I managed to get 42 cookies out of this batch, which was more than enough to fashion LabRat's name, feed the Top Chef viewing party, and still have enough left over to satisfy the vultures at work. 42 cookies into $1.76 is just over 4 cents per cookie. Impressive! I've never seen a four-cent cookie, even at the shabbiest of bake sales. Hell, by this standard, the Girl Scouts are a veritable cookie Mafia.

Clearly, no-frills sugar cookies will likely elicit the least excitement of any recipe that gets made for the Cookie Party. They're tasty, but not much to write home about. Even so, when December rolls around, and I'm elbow-deep in holiday baking, I'll take a moment to look down at whatever intricate concoction I'm attempting to whip together and think to myself, "There's no fucking way I could ever get this for a nickel."