Recipe for Disaster: Panda Panda Panda
Welcome to the mental-emotional disconnect power hour, with me, your host, the sour stepchild of Dorie Greenspan and, I don't know, Eileen Myles? Is that too much? We're on week eighteen of this experiment, and it’s come to my attention that I’ve been all "recipe" and almost no "disaster." So let's talk.
Sometimes you just feel shitty, so shitty that having a plate of beautiful cookies on the counter doesn't help. When you'd rather smoke than eat, when real sleep is a precious commodity, when you wish you could outsource brushing your own hair and teeth, you could have all the cookies in the world and they still wouldn't do shit. And then you open up Instagram and everyone is living their best lives, being their best selves, or at least trying to achieve those things. In the middle of this sadness, I’ve been thinking a lot about the aspirational self.
Instagram is one long scroll through people’s aspirations: Maybe we focus on the good, hoping to increase the quality of good in our lives. Post the most attractive photograph of your food, your home, yourself, and hope people will think of you that way — they’ll associate you with quality, you’ll become someone to believe in. The aspirational self: the pretend self, the outfit-personality that you put on, fake-it-till-you-make-it, I-appear-therefore-I-am.
A recent, bold example of turning your aspirational self into a reality is the rapper Desiigner. He is an eighteen-year-old from Bed-Stuy who bought a beat and made a song about expensive cars he does not own (a white BMW X6, which "looks like a panda") and all the broads he has in a city he’s never visited. When he posted his sonic aspirational self on Soundcloud, it blew the fuck up in a matter of hours. He succeeded by focusing on what he wants rather than what he’s got.
He’s now signed to Kanye West’s label G.O.O.D. Music, is shooting a video for "Panda," and saw that song turned into "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2," arguably the best track off Kanye’s paean to imperfect times, The Life Of Pablo. Desiigner is so famous he has to finish high school with a tutor, because his presence is a distraction to his classmates. He’ll own that panda-white X6 before graduation, guaranteed. Desiigner has become his aspirational self.
I choose to believe in a world in which the aspirational self is accessible, real, respected. Because whether we become that self or not, we — you and me and Desiigner and all our friends and everyone in the whole world — deserve the smallest break from homework, arguments, and Republican debates. We deserve to post that latte if that latte defined us in that moment as a person who is happy, if it made us feel relaxed or successful or #blessed or whatever else we want to be. Even if it isn’t the most honest or vulnerable portrayal. Even if we don’t have a single broad in Atlanta.
Like Desiigner's BMW, black-and-white cookies look like a panda — we call them half-moons in upstate New York, which is where I’m from, and where they were invented.
It should be noted that this isn’t my recipe. It’s the OG Hemstrought Bakery one, and to my upstate mouth, it tastes legit as hell. This recipe feels weird and wrong almost the whole time you’re baking: The batter doesn’t look like cookie batter, the bake time feels too short, the chocolate frosting is almost impossible to keep spreadable, and any time you touch vegetable shortening you immediately feel like you need 100 showers, but I promise you this is worth it. Focus on the aspirational cookie, and the rest will follow.
3 3/4 C. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
2 1/4 C. sugar
1 C. (two sticks) butter, room temperature
3/4 C. cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 C. milk
3 1/2 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate*
3 1/2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate*
1 tbsp. butter
4 1/4 C. powdered sugar
2 tbsp. corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
A healthy pinch of good salt
6–8 tbsp. boiling water
*I used 3/4 of a package of a Trader Joe’s unsweetened baking chocolate bar and half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips, and this made more frosting than I could ever conceive of using.
7 C. powdered sugar
1 C. (two sticks) butter, room temperature
1/2 C. vegetable shortening
7 tbsp. milk
1 tbsp. vanilla
A healthy pinch of good salt
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Start by making the cookies. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda in a medium bowl.
In a big bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, whip butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt until it does that cool thing a butter-sugar mix does where it gets all fluffy. This might take a minute, especially if your butter isn’t exactly at room temperature. Persist.
Whip in the two eggs and vanilla.
Alternate adding half the milk with half the sifted flour mixture until everything is combined. It’s going to look weird. Don’t worry; you didn’t do anything wrong.
On parchment-paper-lined baking sheets (PARCHMENT PAPER IS KEY HERE), drop healthy 2–3 tbsp. blobs of dough a few inches apart. I got six cookies per baking sheet; I wouldn’t suggest trying to fit any more because you want them to really spread apart and get perfectly round.
Bake at 350 for 12 minutes. They will be cake-like when they come out. Let them cool fully on the parchment paper.
While the cookies are cooling, make the frosting. For the vanilla frosting, beat all the ingredients together until it’s light and fluffy (don’t add all the powdered sugar at once or it will fly up and get in your hair and nose and all over your shirt).
To make the chocolate frosting, start a double boiler — that’s a metal or glass bowl set into a pan of boiling water. Melt both kinds of chocolate and butter together, whisking until the mixture is glossy and smooth. Whisk in the sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt. Then, tablespoon by tablespoon, add about 6 tbsp. of boiling water to thin the mixture out (it will have thickened exponentially with the addition of the corn syrup). Don’t make it too thin, but make sure it’s spreadable. Lower the water in the double boiler to the slowest simmer possible — the goal is to keep the frosting warm enough that it doesn’t solidify again, but without making it so hot that it gets runny or scorches the chocolate.
I frosted the cookies in kind of a weird way, but it worked, so maybe you want to try doing it my way too: You’re going to frost the side that was in contact with the parchment — that is, the flat side, so the nicely baked fluffy rounded side remains untouched. Once the cookies are cool, spread half that side of each cookie with the chocolate mixture, and let air dry for about 20 minutes. Once the chocolate frosting has cooled and set, frost the other half with vanilla.
Note: I made probably three dozen of these the other day and I did not get better with practice. How do people in bakeries make these so uniform and perfect? Maybe they have actual spatulas instead of butter knives. Maybe they’re not crying when they frost them. Who’s to say? What I’m trying to tell you is, don’t get mad if they aren’t perfect. They’re going to taste really, really good no matter how dorky they look. Snap a photo, post it on Instagram — no matter the aesthetics of its manifestation, your aspirational cookie self is worth claiming.
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