England has Tea & Scones.
Paris has Cappuccino & Croissants.
And here, in America, we have Milk & Cookies.
Milk and Cookies. It is a beautiful marriage. A perfect pairing. A flawless union. And there’s a tiny shop, on a windy street in the heart of the west village, that pays homage to this fine couple. Filled with romance, intrigue and seduction, Milk & Cookies Bakery is a lesson in love.
The romance begins even before your first nibble. The shop, which sits at 19 Commerce, practically whispers to its passerby – Come in, Come in. Tucked away from the main drag, the shop has eluded even local village residents. And that is certainly part of the allure. Once you stumble upon this great cookie sanctuary – you feel as if you have just discovered a speakeasy during the prohibition era. You want to keep the secret for yourself and shout it from the rooftops – all at the same time. NYers love to stumbled upon a secret saloon or discover a chef who experiments with a yet to be explored food group. The search is half the fun. Luckily for us, the capture at Milk & Cookies is just as rewarding.
When I first found myself winding my way down the curve of Commerce Street and I peered into this little nook – I knew I had to know more. I spent last Thursday falling in love with these two classic American treats…
Like any good date, my day at Milk & Cookies Bakery starts with a little mood-setting. Damien DePaolis is the store manager here and he is a man in charge of his cookies. The first order of business upon entering the shop is to dim the lights and raise the music to create the right cookie-indulging-atmosphere. You can almost hear the echo of Barry White playing in the distance.
I walk into the shop and I am kissed by the sweet smell of Pure Premium Madagascar Vanilla, Guittard Chocolate and Valrhona Cocoa. We haven’t even begun to bake yet but the walls, which are painted a Robins egg blue, and the hardwood floorboards are soaked in the sweet scent of freshly baked cookies from days gone by. All of my senses are standing at attention now.
Damien has a newsboy cap on his head, fire in his eyes and drama in his voice. He speaks slowly and smoothly – like he’s got a secret to tell. He dances, in one poetic movement, across the floor of our little shop: lights… camera… action… cookies! Damien is an actor and he knows just how to create the right ambiance for the cookie encounters our customers are about to experience.
We begin our work by displaying all of our sweet treats on the large marble counter-top. I am given the task of placing and piling the chocolate covered macaroons in a perfect pyramid ever so delicately on a paper doily which sits atop a white ceramic cake plate with laced edges. Each Macaroon is dipped, halfway, in chocolate and Damien instructs me to arrange the plate so that the chocolate sides all face the same direction. There is a method to Damien’s madness…
Our cookies and our other treats [macaroons, magic bars, lindsor tarts, blondies] are meant to be admired and adored and eaten – in that order. Everything here, at Milk & Cookies, is pretty. From the chalkboard colors used to highlight the ice cream sandwiches, to the counter display, to the precious little smart car that is used for emergency cookie deliveries – the beauty is apparent in every corner. Even Damien is pretty.
I am reminded of those early stages of love. In the beginning, before we touch – we look. We admire. We breath in the fragrance of our object of affection. We exalt in the symmetry of the face. We contemplate the curve of the hip. We are captivated by that cascade of hair that falls gently across the eyes. Buying a cookie is much like this romantic dance.
As our customers approach the counter, they are timid, shy and quiet. I ask my first customer what she would like and I can sense her apprehension. Buying a cookie, I discover, is about alot more than a purchase of sugar, butter and gourmet chocolate chips. Buying a cookie is an indulgence. It feels as if they are taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.
I step back – away from the counter – and to occupy myself with some other task. I realize I have just entered a private space between a lover and the object of her affection and I become fully aware that there is no place for me here. This cookie is not a gift for a friend or family member. It is not a token of appreciation for a co-worker. This is a very personal and private cookie encounter. If you watch closely in your local bake shop – you just might notice this same dance.
Finally, my first customer orders – and she does so apologetically. A cookie, especially one that looks so pretty and tastes so perfect, feels like an indulgence – especially when you pair it, like she does, with a small glass of Ronnybrook Farms milk. And Damien and I step back again so our customer can enjoy this moment at a quiet table in a cozy corner of the shop.
Damien knows what he is doing. And he knows food. As a child, his only notion of breakfast was meatballs and a loaf of italian bread. And Sunday dinner just had to be a stuffed chicken in Sicilian sauce. On Saturdays he was treated to Pizza Fritte. Damien’s Saturday date with fried dough, butter and sugar – was only foreplay for a career in cookies.A Traditional family recipe for Pizza Fritte: About 1 LB Prepared Pizza Dough 3 cups oil Powdered Sugar, Butter or Cinnamon Sugar
Heat Oil in skillet to about 325f to 350f
Break off pieces of dough about the size of the palm of your hand and flatten with your hands till about 3/4 an inch thick
Fry dough in oil till light brown one side, turn over and brown other side
Drain on paper towel or brown paper bag Sprinkle on cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar or spread on some butter Serve Warm
“I am food obsessed,” Damien tells me, “have been since I was a kid.” And here, at Milk & Cookies, Damien combines his two passions. In addition to his food obsession, Damien is an actor and an artist and a showman. He knows just how to dim to lights and raise the curtain on our leading couple: Milk and Cookie.
At Milk & Cookies, we have 14 different types of cookies to choose from – 15 with our cookie of the day. No wonder it is so hard to decide. It is just about as overwhelming as logging on to jdate to glance at the available bachelors. So many options – but only one cookie is just right for you. And the funny thing is – with all those choices – only one cookie seems to stand the test of time – The Chocolate Chip!
Milk & Cookies Bakery adds rolled oats to their chocolate chip cookie – making it a more complex cookie with a depth of flavor that is absent in most store-bought versions. And the use of E.Guittard chocolate doesn’t hurt either. With so many cookie choices: Dark Chocolate Toffee, White Chocolate Macadamia, Milk Chocolate Caramel, M&M, Peanut Butter and on and on – sometimes simpler is better. The simple chocolate chip is the house favorite here.
I like to keep things pretty simple too. I live in a 6th floor walk-up building in Greenwich Village. I have no use for fancy things like elevators and doormen – or even cars or TVs for that matter. I don’t wander much above 14th street or much below Houston and I stick mostly to the west side of 5th Ave – NYC’s dividing line. SImple is good. And sometimes a cookie is indeed the simple answer to all life’s problems…
It’s about noontime and I’ve been so curious about the cookie buying habits of human beings (it is almost like watching a documentary about the courting rituals of peacocks on the National Geographic channel) that I have forgotten to eat. While no one is looking, I grab a quick cup of the full-fat Ronnybrook milk and drink it down. I don’t think Damien noticed. And that should just about hold me over.
I slowly and carefully descend the spiral staircase to the heart of the bakery. I swipe a fork-full of raw dough (since I can’t have my milk without my cookie, albeit a raw cookie) and I continue my work – this time mixing 72% dark chocolate, butter and corn syrup, which we will use to glaze a large chocolate chip cookie birthday cake. While stirring the chocolate over low heat, I have a chat with the former Banker turned Baker, Teresa Coles.
Teresa is sweet and pretty – much like the cookies she is decorating. She stands among a sea of butterflies and daisies as she hand decorates each one with pink fondant and yellow and purple piping. I love watching the transformation – as butter, flour, sugar and eggs become butterflies and daisies. And butterflies and daisies become smiles and laughter on the faces of happy children.
Back up stairs, I am needed to help bake more cookies. We’re low on M&M Sugar, Double Chocolate and, of course, Chocolate Chip.
Stevie Wilson teaches me how to roll the cookie dough just right. Each of our 14 different cookies are rolled differently – some more square, some round, some flat. Some get squashed with the palm of my hand and some are left plump. Stevie teaches me that each cookie really has a unique personality and that each ball of dough has a life of its own. Some cookies (the dark chocolate toffee, smores, milk chocolate caramel and white chocolate macadamia nut) need to be baked on the top shelf with higher heat because they tend to be “spreaders” and they will end up flattening out and becoming thin and puddle-like. The high heat source insures a nicer cookie shape. Stevie also tells me that if we roll them too tight or bake them on the wrong rack, they come out ugly, misshapen, fat and lumpy – and then we have to throw them out – or chop them up and give them away as samples. The uglies and the misshapens don’t even make the cut for selling.
The uglies. The misshapens. The fat. This reminds me of a few blind dates a recently went on. But can we really size up a cookie, or a potential mate, by its outward appearance? When it really comes down to it, doesn’t it taste the same? Maybe we have all been too picky about what is on the outside and we have been forgetting what is at the core. I’m not sure. But what I am sure about it that they do indeed taste the same. I know because I ate them – all of them – even the lumpies, the misshapen, the uglies and the fat.
When I was in high school I remember that all of the girls were thin and pretty and blond. And there I was, with brown curly hair feeling like I just didn’t quite fit. I also remember that appearances were important. And I recall that all the popular girls had the coolest clothing and the funkiest accessories and the hippest hair styles. I think I was still wearing OshKosh B’Gosh until 6th grade! Not only did appearance matter, but it was everything. The cuter the girl, the blonder the hair, the more ski-sloped the nose – the more popular she was. Oh how I would desperately try to become one of them – putting sun-in highlights in my hair and going on those silly diets (Richard Simmons dancin to the oldies, anyone?) and denouncing or denying my Jewish heritage. I even found myself hanging out at St. Mary’s Church on Ponquogue Avenue with my Christian friends – all for the sake of fitting in, looking the same and trying my hardest to not appear just like those cookies we were throwing to the curb earlier today.
Times change. And while appearance and how we present ourselves to the world still matters, it does not matter more than what is on the inside. I’ve always gotten along better with people who don’t quite fit the mold and who are a bit misshapen. I find those little cracks, crevices and imperfections to be the thing that makes people most attractive, not less. A slight stutter or a scar just above the eyebrow – this is the stuff of real people and real beauty.
At Milk & Cookies Bakery, we want our cookies to look beautiful and to be perfectly shaped. In real life, there’s a little more leeway. And even though some of our batches (especially mine) may not always look perfect – they sure do taste good.
Stevie and I continue to work the cookie dough into their proper shapes and sizes. Stevie is pretty cool girl. She’s a geek – but she’s the cool kind of geek that you might find living in one of those hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She has fair skin and dark hair – well except for the hot pink streaks!
Stevie and I chat like two grandmothers who have been making cookies for generations. Stevie is not more than 30 years old but she has a wisdom and a sense of authority about her. She teaches me how to roll the cookie dough, properly and pop it in the oven, properly.
Stevie is also an artist. Specifically, she’s a comic book artist. She writes love stories, but not the kind of love stories that are familiar to you and me and not the kind about married couples like Milk & Cookie. Her stories are no fairy tale. They are urban fables filled with cursing, drinking and, as she puts it, gay-themed-romance.
By day Stevie sells the sweetness of milk and cookies but by nightfall, she writes and draws the darker side of love. Whichever your preference – Stevie’s talent is undeniable. See for yourself – and come by Milk & Cookies to say hello to Stevie – she might even draw you into one of her comics!
My day is almost done. Stevie and I have few more trays of cookies to bake before the late shift arrives. I sneak a little bite of a cookie from the tray of misshapen, lumpy and fats. Ah the sweet taste of imperfection!
The late shift is ushered in by the owner of Milk & Cookies herself, Tina Casaceli. By day, Tina is the Director of Pastry and Baking Arts at the French Culinary Institute. Her nights are spent here.
Fittingly, Tina’s last name loosely translates into House of the Sky or House of the Heavens – and I think that explains where her cookies come from.
Tina’s earliest memory is of being a little girl only as tall as the kitchen table and watching her grandmothers and aunts make cookies. Back then, the women of the house never went to the store to buy cookies for a special occasion – they made them. Tina remembers how all the ladies of the house would sit around and chitter chatter and make cookies. The only problem was that their fingers were too large to tie the tiny little bow on the top of those cookies – and that is where Tina enters stage right and begins her career in pastry.
Young Tina’s little hands were the perfect bow-tieing size and, when needed, she would step up to the plate and lend a hand to the women of the house. Cookie-making, for weddings and christenings and holidays, was a 2-3 day family event – and Tina loved being a part of it. As the ladies would gab on and the elaborate and intricate cookies were designed – Tina would dream about the day when she would be old enough to get her hands in the dough. That day finally came. And we are all thankful it did!
Milk & Cookies. It is a perfect match, isn’t it?
Marriage is a tough business. We have all watched, with hope and expectation, the rise and fall of so many. There was Princess Diana and Charles. There was Fergie and Andrew. And then there was Brad and Jen. Not all marriages are made to last. But thankfully, some do.