The baker behind the viral cookies

Amelia Rayno
Star Tribune of Minneapolis

Perhaps if you spend much time on Instagram or surfing the web, you’ve already heard of them.

“The Cookies” — officially dubbed the Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread cookies — have become something of a viral phenomenon in the months following the release of Alison Roman’s debut cookbook, “Dining In.”

The New York Times’ Sam Sifton has praised them. Food Network’s Bobby Flay has raved. So has Bon Appetit, the “Today” show and “Inside Edition.” Not to mention the thousands of smartphone-wielding home bakers boasting social media accounts and no shortage of emoticons for the sparkling-edged sweets.

So what’s the deal? How have mere cookies that are reportedly not filled with money or drugs achieved such fame?

Roman, in her cookbook, defines them as a cross between the traditional chocolate chip cookie — which she calls “deeply flawed” and often too sweet, too soft or containing too much chocolate — and a shortbread, with a demerara sugar rim for maximum crunch.

But Roman, a former Bon Appetit and BuzzFeed food editor, admits that she was taken aback by the cookies’ explosion in popularity — especially since they come from a book that in general leans much more heavily into the savory than the sweet.

We caught up with the New York-based chef and writer to talk about her kitchen creativity and the cookies.

Q: So how do you make a cookie recipe go viral? Was this the grand plan all along?

A: I mean, no. I don’t think you can plan for something like that and even if I could I probably wouldn’t know exactly what to plan. But it does give me a bit of anxiety to think about the second book and how I’ll never be able to do this again. It really just kind of took off, and I think what’s exciting is that it kind of pulled people in to cooking more recipes and buying the book and kind of just general awareness of who I am and what I do, getting people cooking at home more, not just making cookies. So it’s been an amazing side effect and something I definitely did not see coming.

Q: Interesting that it was the cookies that people went wild for since it’s not a super sugar-heavy book, right?

A: That’s what’s so funny. There are a million other recipes in that book, but the one they decided to home in on is the cookie. I was thinking about it today. It’s mostly vegetables (in the book). And people are making those dishes, they’re just not making them quite like they are the cookies. Honestly, I think with the cookies it’s just a combination of something familiar and something new. They’re not totally familiar and they’re not totally new. They’re sort of in between, but people can wrap their minds around what they are. And I think it helps that I was kind of promoting other people’s versions of the cookies, so it wasn’t just that they have to look like this. I wanted people to know that it doesn’t really matter how they look, they’re all going to taste good. They’re all going to look a little different and that’s the fun of it.

Q: You post a ton of your readers’ cookies on your Instagram. How big is the social media piece for you?

A: I think it’s really important, and increasingly more so because I don’t have a blog, don’t have a restaurant, I don’t have a place where people can really reach me except for Instagram. It’s been really great for spreading the word about events and people giving me feedback or asking me questions about recipes, and that I’m so grateful for. It’s a lifeline to people who are cooking from my book.

Q: Where does your passion for cooking come from?

A: I feel like I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember, but it really started around high school. I joke that it was a way for me to procrastinate, so I didn’t have to do homework. My parents cooked growing up, too, so it was something that was always around. As I got older, I would come home from school and make snacks or I’d make dinner for everyone. And it just turned into a really cool hobby. I never thought I would do it professionally, but I think once I got to college is when I started cooking a little more ambitiously and reading cookbooks and things like that.

Q: What do you love about it?

A: I like feeding people. It’s nice to take care of other people. But it’s also creative and it’s also intellectual, and it’s never the same. I like that it changes depending on the season and where you are and what you have available for your resources and who you’re cooking for and the occasion you’re cooking it for. I just love how challenging it can be and creatively fulfilling.

Q: Is there anything in particular you most love to cook?

A: It kind of changes all the time. Like yesterday I had this idea for a cauliflower dish and I was so fixated on it that I could not do anything else until I cooked this cauliflower dish. And it turned out great. I was really happy with it. So for me, it’s really about cravings.

Q: How did you get this dish into your head?

A: Well, I don’t really like cauliflower that much. I struggle to enjoy it because it seems like it’s always kind of soft and soggy. And I think cauliflower rice is interesting, but it’s raw and you have these little bits of raw cauliflower and that’s not that interesting. So I thought ‘What if there is a splitting the difference?’ You’d chop it up into really small pieces and roast it really hot for a long time until it got crispy and golden and then cover it with cheese and chives and black pepper almost like a cacio e pepe pasta or something. It was so good, I ate the whole thing, I almost ate an entire head of cauliflower.

Q: It seems like you’re really motivated by vegetables. Did you want that to be a big part of this book?

A: Absolutely, that’s how I cook.

I wanted the book to be something that is helpful and great for other people to have in their kitchens but just a reflection of the way I actually eat and cook. The longer I looked at it, the more I realized it is a really vegetable-heavy cookbook. But I just think vegetables are really interesting. There is only so much you can do to a chicken breast, but a head of broccoli you can do a lot to.

Q: You sort of foster this anything-goes mentality in your book, too, giving people a lot of substitution options and flexibility. Why do you emphasize that?

A: Well, I really just wanted to make a book that people were going to cook from. I dubbed them “highly cookable recipes” and the idea was just to create a sort of gateway drug of people getting back into the kitchen and overcoming their fears that they couldn’t do something or were afraid to do something. I’ve found that most cookbooks are either really accessible and boring or they’re exciting and totally inaccessible, so I wanted to strike a balance between the two. It was important to me to create something that was very accessible. I don’t want people to feel like just because they don’t have cilantro, they can’t make a dish. For the most part I like to create things that people feel empowered to kind of put their own twist on.

Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookies

Note: Demerara sugar is a light brown cane sugar with large grains; find it sold with other sugars. Cookie dough can be made ahead and stored, tightly wrapped in plastic, up to 1 week in the refrigerator, or 1 month in the freezer. Cookies can be baked and stored in plastic wrap or an airtight container for 5 days. From “Dining In,” by Alison Roman. Makes 24 cookies.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold salted butter (21/4 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

21/4 cups flour

6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped into chunks

1 egg, beaten

Demerara sugar (see note)

Flaky sea salt

Using an electric mixer and a medium bowl or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla on medium-high speed until super light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.

Using a spatula, scrape down sides of bowl. With mixer on low speed, slowly add flour, followed by chocolate chunks, and beat just to blend.

Divide dough in half, then place each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Fold plastic over to cover dough and protect your hands from getting sticky. Using your hands, form dough into a log shape; rolling it on the counter will help. Each half should form a log that is 2 to 21/4 inches in diameter. Chill until firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush outside of logs with beaten egg. Roll logs in demerara sugar.

Slice each log into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Arrange on prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle with sea salt. Bake cookies until edges are just beginning to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before eating.