Election 2008: If you can't stand the heat, don't bake cookies!

It all started with an innocent cookie contest. “Vote in Our ’08 Presidential Cookie Bake-Off!” shouts the headline on parents.com, online home of American Baby, Parents, and Family Circle magazines. “Call it the sweet side of politics—for the last four presidential elections, we’ve asked the candidates’ better halves to share their favorite cookie recipe, then asked readers to vote for the best. So far your ballots have been spot-on in terms of predicting who’ll end up in the White House—every winning spouse has moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue soon after…”

But wait a minute; there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Yes, sad but true, there’s a dark (chocolate) under-currant here. And online blogs all over the world are having a field day with it. Try this:

Cindy McCain, Bill Clinton Plagiarize Cookie Recipe, Website Reveals — usmagazine.com

And this:

Cindy McCain cooks up more controversy – nydailynews.com

And then there’s this:

Bill Clinton’s Cookie Recipe Copied from Betty Crocker – huffingtonpost.com.

It seems that the recipes submitted to the Presidential Cookie Bake-Off by both Cindy McCain and Bill Clinton were—gasp!—NOT ORIGINALS. Only Michelle Obama, and her shortbread recipe, came off unscathed in this Battle of the Presidential Spouses.

Original recipes? Puh-leeze. I doubt any of us has more than a handful of absolutely original recipes in our repertoire. I mean, when you bake cookies, do you start by thinking, “Hmmm, I’m going to invent a brand new cookie. I’ll begin with 2 cups of flour, and add 2/3 cup brown sugar, and maybe 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder…”

Nah, doesn’t work that way. It’s more like, “I love this oatmeal cookie. But how about substituting dried cranberries for the raisins, and leaving out the nuts, and adding more cinnamon…” THAT’S how recipes evolve. Take one old favorite, add a teaspoon of imagination, a quarter-cup of baking science, and there you have it: a “new” recipe is born.

Cindy, Bill—don’t feel bad. You’re being raked over the online coals unfairly. Those vipers of the press are probably just jealous of your cache of cookies. My advice? Try, try again. After all, campaigning for the 2012 election will be starting in a couple of months. And it’s never too soon to start working on your favorite recipe for the next Bake-Off.

Now, it’s our responsibility to take part in the democratic process, right? And that means voting for the Cookie of Your Choice. Which means you have to bake all three of the following recipes. And thanks to parents.com, here they are.

To be absolutely fair, let’s look at these recipes in alphabetical order of their owners. Bill Clinton, you’re up first:

Bill Clinton’s Oatmeal Cookies
2 1/2 cups quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

Heat oven to 350°F.

Spread oats and walnuts in ungreased 15 ½” x 10 ½” x 1” baking pan. Bake 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until toasted and light brown; cool.

In small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Beat together brown sugar, butter or margarine, vanilla and egg in large bowl. Stir in oat mixture and then flour mixture.

Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 350°F for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on pans for 3 minutes; remove from cookie sheet. Cool on wire rack.

EXIT POLL: These cookies are the rugged he-men of cookie-world, more oats than anything else. They baked for about 15 minutes before they even started to brown; and they didn’t flatten out like oatmeal cookies usually do. But if you like a REALLY PLAIN oatmeal cookie, this one’s for you.

Next up: Cindy McCain. Take it away, Cindy—

Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal-Butterscotch Cookies
¾ cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups rolled oats
1 2/3 cups butterscotch chips

Heat oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl beat the butter or margarine, granulated sugar and brown sugar together. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating well. In a medium-size bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture; stir until blended. Stir in oats and butterscotch chips.

Drop by tablespoonfuls about 2” apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

EXIT POLL: Cindy, good effort. The cookies baked as advertised. Except you said I’d get 66 cookies… but I only got 46. Guess we have different sizes of tablespoons, huh?

And finally, Michelle— it’s your turn in the spotlight:

Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Amaretto (almond liqueur)
1 teaspoon each orange and lemon zest
3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg white
Chopped nuts or dried fruit (optional)

Heat oven to 325°F.

Line a 17” x 12” x 1” baking pan with nonstick foil. (Parchment works just as well here. And you’re right, this isn’t a 17” x 12” pan; I cut the recipe in half and used a 9” x 13” pan. And since that’s a bit too large for a half-recipe, I only spread the dough part of the way to the edge, as you’ll see in a succeeding photo.)

Slowly add egg yolks, and beat well until smooth. Beat in Amaretto and zest.

Stir in flour and salt until combined. Spread dough evenly into prepared pan, flattening as smoothly as possible. Brush top of dough with egg white; sprinkle with nuts or fruit (if using) and with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake at 325°F for 25 minutes or until brown, turn off oven and allow cookies to sit in oven (with door ajar) for 15 minutes.

Cut while slightly warm.

EXIT POLL: Michelle, you’re thinking outside the box. This cookie is certainly more interesting than the other two entrants. I wasn’t happy that the apricots I sprinkled on top burned, but other than that—moderately tasty, and definitely handsome. A good “for show” cookie.

And what did our King Arthur Flour taste-testing team think?

As KA goes, so goes the country? With no help from an electoral college, and no problem with hanging chads, our testers gave Cindy’s Oatmeal-Butterscotch Cookies the campaign win with 7 votes. Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies came in second, with 5 votes (and swept the test kitchen bakers’ constituency); and Bill Clinton’s Oatmeal Cookies came in—sorry, Bill and Hill—last, with 3 votes.

OK, folks, how about a popular vote? Bake these cookies, and post your comments. Then vote at the Presidential Cookie Bakeoff. One (wo)man; one cookie; one vote. It’s the American way!

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. Cindy

    I made a similar comment to my husband about the recipe origination controversy! But I can’t bake any of them – it’s over 110 outside here in Tempe, AZ and baking heats up our condo way too much!

  2. Coco

    I made both Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama’s cookies last week and thought they were both mighty tasty. The shortbread cookies were definitely more unique (although I didn’t use any dried fruit) and I kind of wish that Cindy had put some sort of spin on what was otherwise a pretty familiar butterscotch chip cookie. I don’t care that she didn’t invent the recipe, but it would have been nice to see some sort of alteration based on her and her husbands’ tastes.

    That said, both batches went preeeetttty fast around here!

  3. Zane

    About an hour ago I was thinking to myself “Gee, I really should bake something, it’s been a couple days”. I opened up my unread feeds for the banter and low and behold what do I have, Cindy McCain’s Butterscotch Oatmeal recipe. However I noticed as well as everyone else it seems that it was to plain. I started thinking to myself and added the teaspoon of imagination you mentioned earlier to create the Smoatmeal Cookie. Half smore, half oatmeal cookie, all delicious. Substituted 1 cup of oatmeal for crushed graham crackers and seeing as I only had a handful of butterscotch chips on hand I substituted the rest with semi-sweet chocolate chips (both big and small). Really delicious, crunchy yet chewy I highly recommend. Next time there will be more graham less butterscotch and some marshmallow! Thanks for the post!

    Zane, sounds GOOOOOOOOD! Thanks for sharing. I LOVE s’mores… now you have me thinking about a s’more pie: graham cracker crust, chocolate filling, marshmallow topping… – PJH

  4. Kimberly

    Ok, now can I have the recipe for the s’more pie. It sounds yummy! I guess I like simple cookies I grew up making oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips or raisins. So my vote is for Cindy McCain’s cookies.

    I don’t have a recipe for a s’more pie… I was just thinking how good it would be. My vote would be graham cracker crust, chocolate pudding filling, and a nice layer of Marshmallow Fluff on top. Or a chocolate custard filling and meringue, which would make it more like toasted marshmallow… OH BOY – now I really DO have to make up a recipe! -PJH

  5. Deirdre

    Gourmet magazine had a S’mores pie recipe last November I believe — it is very good and worthwhile — at least it would give you a start for a different recipe.

  6. Barbara

    I am unimpressed by any of the Presidential cookies. But s’mores pie sounds good…or s’mores tart with a graham cracker crust, a chocolate ganache center, some marshmallow fluff spread on top and then piped on top would be a pouf of meringue nicely browned for that toasted marshmallow flavor…

    Exactly what I was imagining, Barbara -now I just have to get a moment to do it! – PJH

  7. Melissa

    I’m late in commenting on this post but I’m really glad that you touched on the fact that the cookie submissions for the “election” were meant to be in the vein of sharing a family favorite recipe. As you alluded to, so many people misunderstood the point of the whole endeavor and blew it up into a baking contest whereby the candidates’ spouses were supposed to whip up an original recipe and go at it, bake-off style (as if they don’t already have enough to do during election season). That vast misunderstanding gave rise to all of the unfair allegations of plagiarism, etc. It’s not surprising that many members of the press and the blogworld took up the story and ran with it but it is unfortunate. It’s great that you “got it” and shed some light as to the real intent of the cookie contest. How refreshing!


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