Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been obsessed with Nutella ever since I first took a bite of the delicious hazelnut spread well over a decade ago. It’s the first word I type when I sit down to write, I talk about it incessantly every time I teach a food literature course, and I buy it whenever I see it on a menu or on sale at the grocery store. But it had never occurred to me to bake a Nutella dessert until this past winter when I saw that two of my Facebook friends had tagged each other in a Buzzfeed cooking video called, “How to Make Nutella-filled Sugar Cookies.” My eyes widened. How had I never thought of doing such a thing?
I come from a family of bakers. My maternal grandmother was a wonderful baker. Her specialty was pies—apricot, apple, mixed berry, cherry, chocolate pudding. You name it, and she could find a way to stuff it into a buttery, mouth-watering crust. There was no such phrase as “store bought” in her vocabulary. Every pie was handmade in her Central California kitchen on Saturday evenings so it would be ready for post-church devouring on Sunday afternoons.
“I don’t want any leftovers,” she’d warn. And there never were.
My mom is also a baker. Pies aren’t her thing, but she bakes just about everything else: apricot crisp, banana cake, pumpkin bread, almond poppy seed muffins, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and lemon bars. Most afternoons from my childhood involved coming home after school with my twin sister and two older brothers to a plate of freshly-baked goodies and the tunes of one of Mom’s favorite country singers: Reba McEntire or Shania Twain. And, don’t even get me started on the Christmases of my childhood. We’d nibble on fresh-from-the-oven gingerbread cookies while singing along to “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” or scarf down warm piles of candy-cane cookies while humming “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Coming from a line of bakers has made my siblings and me quite the connoisseurs of baked goods. Unfortunately, consumers can’t always produce. Though I enjoy baking, I fail at just about every attempt. I burn, I over-flour, I under-oil. This, however, has never kept me from attempting to bake.
This past winter, my already-poor baking skills were heightened by the fact that my oven was midway through breaking down. It only turned on fifty percent of the time. I often had to turn it up to 500 degrees just to get it going. Then, it would be so hot that even if I turned it back down to a reasonable temperature, it would either cook unevenly or burn everything I placed within its jaws.
Nonetheless, I knew I had to try my hand at those mouth-watering Nutella-filled sugar cookies.
Since I don’t bake or cook too well by watching videos, I decided to look up some text-based recipes online. I encountered several, and randomly picked one for which I had most of the ingredients already at home. I made a list of the few I needed to buy—Nutella, baking powder, and vanilla—and headed to the grocery store around the corner.
Upon returning home, I studied the recipe cautiously and prayed that this time, things would turn out perfectly. I really wanted to bring a batch home for Christmas to show my mom that I, too, had baking in my genes.
I followed the recipe exactly, beginning with freezing quarter-size dollops of Nutella on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. In the meantime, I turned my oven to 350 degrees and lined two more baking sheets with parchment paper. I then took out a large mixing bowl and stirred together the ingredients for the dough, all the while singing along to the “Mariah Carey Christmas” station on my phone’s Pandora app.
My kitchen timer then went off, letting me know that fifteen minutes had passed and the frozen Nutella dollops were ready. My moody oven still wasn’t warm, though; so I cranked the temperature up to 500 degrees.
In the meantime, I continued on with the recipe, scooping out two tablespoons of dough for my first cookie, splitting it in half, and then using my hands to flatten each half into a circle. I then used a metal spoon to scoop up a mound of frozen Nutella, placing it atop one of the dough circles, then covering the mound with the other dough circle. Finally, I sealed the edges together with my fingers, and rolled the cookie in sugar to coat it.
I placed the cookie on one of the cookie sheets, and then repeated the process until half of the dollops were gone.
I checked the oven—it felt warm. Not 500 degrees warm, but at least 350 degrees.
My mouth watering in anticipation, I placed the cookie sheet full of my handiwork in the oven, set the timer for 10 minutes, as the recipe requested, and then plopped down on my couch to waste time on the Facebook and Instagram pages of high school and college acquaintances I hadn’t talked to for over a decade. The next thing I knew, there was a beep. I rushed into the kitchen, opened the oven, and encountered a dozen flat as pancake, uncooked cookies.
Frustrated, I tried one of my most recent tricks, which was to turn my oven completely off for a couple minutes and then turn it back on to see if that would help hike up the temperature. When that proved to be unsuccessful, I tried a second trick, which was to simply leave the temperature on 500 degrees and quadruple the estimated cook time on the recipe. When I came back to check my cookies forty minutes later, they were starting to cook a little bit around the edges, but the centers were as doughy as could be, and they had not risen at all.
Worried about the potential of foodborne illness from un-chilled cookie dough sitting in a lukewarm oven for too long, I scraped the entire batch directly into the trash can.
A couple minutes later, I picked my heart up off the ground, prepared a second batch of cookies, said a quick prayer, and placed them in the oven. I figured by now the temperature had to be hot enough. I waved my hand inside to check, and it felt very warm.
I did a double fist pump, set my timer for 10 minutes, went back to scrolling and swiping on my phone, and waited for my last shot at a happy evening.
About five minutes later, I smelled something burning, so I rushed to the kitchen, propped open the oven, and encountered a sheet full of cookies that were doughy in the middle but burnt around the edges, and still flat as pancakes. I turned the oven off, placed the cookies on the stovetop, and sat, defeated, on my couch, now lacking the wherewithal to do any social media stalking.
I went back to look at the ruins a few minutes later. The innards appeared to have cooked themselves while on the hot cookie sheet, and the outsides didn’t look quite as burnt as I had originally thought, but it was for sure that either the wonky temperature or miscalculated ingredients (or the combination thereof) had ruined my cookies. My husband walked in the front door a few minutes later, listened to my story of failure, and then tried a cookie.
“They’re so good!” he said, reaching for another. I rolled my eyes, and then leaned in for a bite. They weren’t awful. But they looked nothing like the photos of beautiful puffy cookies in the recipes I’d seen online, nor the Buzzfeed video that had initiated this whole undertaking.
I still had about a dozen dollops of Nutella in my freezer. Too lazy to throw them out, I decided to leave them until the following day. I awoke the next morning with a brilliant idea: why not buy some pre-made Pillsbury Sugar Cookie dough at the grocery store, get my oven to the exact right temperature, and make cookies with the rest of the Nutella dollops? That way, I didn’t have to make the whole batter from scratch again and risk potentially miscalculating ingredients. I’d have only one hurdle to jump: the temperature of my oven.
So, I did just that, and sure enough, on Day 2, all went perfectly. Miraculously, the oven temperature was just right on my first try, and the cookies cooked evenly and rose beautifully.
Thrilled, I piled my masterpieces onto paper plates and sealed them with foil. I was going home for Christmas the following day and finally had something to impress my mom with.
When I saw her the following day, I decided to tell her the truth about my failed attempts to bake from scratch in my dying oven and how store-bought dough came to save the day.
“Great!” she said. “I’m glad you thought to do that!” I wondered if she meant it or if she wished I had the special touch she has. But nothing made me happier than watching her sneak a couple of my cookies later that day while the family sat around listening to old Christmas albums.
Christmas is just a few months away, and my oven still isn’t fixed. In fact, now, it doesn’t turn on at all—the tricks stopped working. I haven’t even attempted to turn it on in over 6 months.
Even so, I’ve been enjoying Nutella in all its forms at restaurants and bakeries around town. Since baking won’t even be a possibility for me this holiday season, I’m thinking I may try my hand at homemade Nutella ice cream.
Maybe I’ll buy a tub of vanilla ice cream at the grocery store and smear in dollops of Nutella. I’ll put my creation in a nice dish and invite over some friends.
“I made homemade Nutella ice-cream!” I’ll tell them, scooping it out with a fancy metal ice cream scooper.
“No way!” they’ll say. “You’re turning into your mom!” they’ll say.
And I’ll be too happy about the comparison to tell them the truth.
Recipe for Nutella-Filled Sugar Cookies:
- 1/2 cup Nutella
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar divided
- 14 tablespoons butter, softened 1 3/4 sticks
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- Using a 1 teaspoon measure, scoop out Nutella and place in small drops on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat together the butter and 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar on medium until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add in the the vanilla.
- Turn the mixer to low and gradually beat in the flour mixture until just combined. Scrape down the bowl to ensure everything is well incorporated.
- Place 1/3 cup granulated sugar in a small bowl. Use 2 tablespoons cookie dough for each cookie. Split the piece of dough in half and slightly flatten the bottom half by pressing it together with the palms of your hands.
- Use a small metal spatula to lift the mounds of Nutella from the baking sheet and lay on the bottom half of cookie dough. If the Nutella starts to soften, place it back in the freezer for a few minutes.
- Cover the Nutella with the other piece of cookie dough. Seal the edges with your fingers and roll the ball in the sugar to coat it. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet.
- Repeat with the remaining dough and Nutella mounds, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart from each other on the baking sheets.
- Bake the cookies, one sheet a time, rotating from front to back halfway through baking. The edges will start to turn brown when they are finished, about 10 to 13 minutes. The centers should still be soft and puffy.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes. Using a spatula, remove the cookies from the baking sheet and cool on a rack. They can also be served warm. Don’t forget the milk!
*Tip: Use Pillsbury Sugar Cookie dough rather than making the dough from scratch! And make sure your oven works!
Cover image by D. Sharon Pruitt.
Jessica Kehinde Ngo has a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California. She teaches writing at Otis College of Art and Design. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.