Salted Oatmeal Cookies

By Leigh Lambert
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again.

Some people hunt rabbits. I hunt recipes. Every grease-stained, cocoa-speckled addition to my collection comes with a genealogy all its own. With some, it's as simple as asking for a friend's crab dip recipe after a cocktail party. Others are more squirrelly to get hold of.

I began my quest for salt-spiked oatmeal cookies the old-fashioned way. I called Teaism, the Washington chain of teahouses, where I'd first tasted them under the name Salty Oats. No luck. The recipe, I was told, was proprietary, and Teaism had agreed with its creator not to share it. The only hint I got was that the cookies were made with the highest-quality ingredients. That's all well and good, but I've been baking long enough to know that a few organic oats weren't the only thing standing between my flat oatmeal cookie and their chubby, chewy Salty Oats.

Next, I tracked down the cookie's creator, Terri Horn, owner of Kayak Cookies. For years she lived and worked in the District as a pastry chef at 1789 and other restaurants. Inspired by a cookie she had tasted in North Carolina, she crafted something that satisfied her fond memory. For a long time it was the only cookie she sold, although she has since added a Chocolate Salty Oats. The owners of Teaism clearly knew a good thing when they tasted it and contracted with her to make them. The partnership continues today, even though Horn lives on Cape Cod, Mass.; she comes down a few times a year to check in on the baker she trained.

Bottom line from our conversation: She was lovely to talk to but wouldn't budge on sharing the recipe. I am as respectful as the next gal when it comes to creative privacy, but my appetite was heightened all the more as the mystery grew.

Time for Google, which immediately showed that I was not alone in my pursuit of a home-kitchen approach to this baked good, so simple and perfect in its concept. There were pleas in several cyber-chat rooms for the recipe: from locals who were addicted and from tourists who had been unexpectedly hit by the cookie's genius while traveling through town and went home with the craving.

I found a recipe. It wasn't directly from Teaism or Kayak Cookies, but it looked promising. I found it on the Habeas Brulee blog, which in turn had gotten it from the DCist Web site from a 2005 posting by Scott Reitz. I had to call him. But because two years had elapsed, he struggled to recall the details of his baking tests.

"I made it for seven weekends in a row and then never made it again," said Reitz, who lives in Alexandria. He did remember starting with the Spiced Oatmeal Chocolate-Chip Cookies from "Chocolate Bar: Recipes and Entertaining Ideas for Living the Sweet Life," by Matt Lewis and Alison Nelson (Running Press, 2004). He changed ratios and introduced rice flour, which has less gluten than all-purpose flour, for a scone-like texture. He replaced chocolate chips with raisins and played around with the temperature of the ingredients.

I wanted something less spicy, focusing squarely on the oats and salt, so I went with regular flour instead of rice flour, reduced the cinnamon and omitted the raisins. I suspect the real secret to the cookie is not the ingredients as much as the technique: The dough sits in the refrigerator for at least an hour before baking (preferably longer). That allows the oats to absorb moisture from the eggs and butter, giving them a chewier texture.

I also don't know how to make a small cookie. I think they're mean. So the fact that I portion my cookie dough in the size of golf balls may have accounted for their soft but still chewy centers.

In addition to the plumped oats, the glory lies in the salty-sweet contrast, a combination that's in vogue for good reason. There is no salt in the dough, but coarse salt is sprinkled on top of the cookies like sugar before they go in the oven. Reitz's recipe calls for kosher salt, but I prefer the more delicate flavor and texture of sea salt.

Once I made them, I called off the hounds. I had found my cookie. Your idea of perfection may include raisins, or dried cranberries, or toasted hazelnuts. Who knows? If you want to keep hunting, you can take it from here.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company