December has been flying by, so please pardon the lack of updates. To catch you up quickly, I did finish NaNoWriMo a winner but The Pembroke Engine is not finished yet. I’ve actually been struggling hard to move the narrative forward, so while originally I expected to finish up the first draft right around the middle of December, we’re at the middle of December right now; I’m thinking the middle of January is way more likely.
Anyway, it’s cookie season, and this reminded me of my favorite lost cookie I can no longer find anywhere: McDonaldland cookies. These were, of course, sold by McDonald’s, and they were crisp, similar to shortbread but firmer, with a subtle hint of lemon. When I become a supervillain my Ministry of Resurrected Products will bring them back, but for now I’m stuck for alternatives and you can’t find a copycat recipe anywhere.
For a while, Mercer animal crackers filled this void: they were identical in taste and texture to the cookies I used to love. And it seems that Mercer manufactured the off brand available at Aldi, so I could reliably pick up a box of these wonders for under two bucks. Then a few years ago, out of the blue, Mercer animal crackers disappeared and Aldi’s brand changed dramatically for the worse. For a brief and beautiful time the cookies I loved and remembered were back, and then suddenly they were no more. I was pissed. I mentioned it in this space at the time.
So now, I lament. I would gladly try any recipe that promised to reproduce the cookies I have longed for.
As I mentioned, they’re not quite shortbread. When I look at shortbread recipes online they’re all quite crumbly, like butter cookies, and that wasn’t the case here. But they’re quite thin, and the underside had a very shortbread-like texture: spongy, but hard. If you put one of these cookies bottom-side down on your tongue, moisture would wick up into the cookie and dissolve it from the inside out.
But how are they made? Clearly sugar is being creamed into butter as the first step, as with most cookie recipes, because nothing else explains those spongy holes on the bottom. There is no leavening. I imagine, but am not sure, that lemon extract plays a role. Flour too, obviously. Sounds like shortbread so far! Eggs or yolks? No idea. But there seems to be less butter in these cookies than in a typical shortbread, because they bake up firm, and that puzzles me. Maybe I would need more flour than a typical shortbread? Maybe the dough should be chilled before baking? I suspect the McDonald’s bakery that gave them their signature textured shapes did the patterning during pressing, with something that created grooves and dents in the thinly-rolled dough.
I’m not experienced enough at baking to fill in those gaps and I don’t have the time or the kitchen to experiment at length to find out, but I very much need to know.
Has anyone found a copycat recipe out there that lives up to the original?
Update (1/21/20): I hit on the idea of looking for images of the actual boxes, and was able to get a very pixelated ingredient list. I present to you the list in full, from a 1987 box:
- Enriched wheat flour: niacin, reduced iron, thiamine monoxidase (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated soybean oil)
- Corn syrup
- Leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate)
- Soy lecithin
- Natural flavor
So I was wrong about the leavening; there clearly is some. Sodium acid pyrophosphate is apparently an acid salt used in some high-temperature baking powders, suggesting the cookies may have been baked rather quickly under higher temperatures than a home oven would normally be asked to create; and yet everything I’ve read about baking cookies suggests you get thinner, crisper cookies with a lower temperature (although that may be because most cookie recipes are dough balls that will tend to spread out).
I read a suggestion that cream of tartar may contribute to some cookies tasting lemony, but clearly there is none in this recipe. Either there’s some lemon in the “natural flavor” catch-all, or that hint of lemon is coming from somewhere else. Also there’s no vanilla anywhere on this list. I couldn’t swear there was ever any in the cookies, although that’s unusual for cookies; my best guess is that vanilla was not used in the natural flavor, judging by the cookies’ “bright” flavor vs. vanilla’s heavy complexity.
The once very similar Mercer animal crackers (I believe the ones I used to get from Aldi were rebranded Mercer crackers) had a very similar ingredient list, with the main changes being to the shortening, the use of high-fructose in addition to regular corn syrup, simpler leavening that just uses baking soda and calcium phosphate (e.g. regular non-aluminum baking powder), and they put natural flavor in front of soy lecithin. I got this info from a search, so accuracy might be suspect, but the high degree of similarity makes me think this is correct. The flour is also enriched but with some very subtle differences, so I suspect regular all-purpose flour would be just as good.
No eggs, interestingly.