"I haven't been alone in two and a half months," my brother muttered into the bowl of cookie dough he was mixing.
"I haven't seen my mom in longer than that and I can't get to her," his girlfriend countered, stabbing the dough with a wooden spoon.
"I have so much work to do and all I want to do is nap," my fiancé said. Somehow, the wooden spoon had become a talking stick. "Why are we making these rage balls again?"
The "rage balls" we were making are actually called "Aggression Cookies." We spotted them in an undated church cookbook and were convinced to make them by the name alone. In the house where the four of us have been quarantining — along with two boisterous dogs — the frustration is palpable.
We count ourselves extraordinarily lucky to have recovered from our own coronavirus scares, and to be sheltering in place with enough space to coexist comfortably, but, well, the gripes bubble up in ways big and small, as most cooped-up folks can relate to.
The beautifully simple instructions for Aggression Cookies were irresistible: "Mash it! Knead it! Pound it! The longer and harder you mix, the better it tastes."
Family spats getting you down? What better way to take it out than on some cookie dough? And instead of a fight, the end result is ... cookies? We had to make them. For our health — our emotional health.
Retro recipes are having a moment right now, thanks in part to the rise of stress-baking in quarantine. A newly-minted nation of bakers has led to shortages of flour and yeast, while general frugality is forcing many home cooks to get creative with pantry staples and substitutions, especially with soaring egg prices. Al Roker recently raved about a Depression-era cake he made with New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark that doesn't call for milk, butter or even eggs — but mayo instead. So, it's no surprise we're looking to recipes of yore for inspiration on doing a lot with a little.
I was a little skeptical of this recipe at first because my grandma, the best baker I ever knew, always told me that overworking a dough with flour in it will make it tough. It was her cardinal rule when she taught me to make tender shortbread cookies as a kid. "Don't over-mix once the flour is in!" she said. So I had to know why this cookie dough would actually get better as you use it to release your rage.
For answers, I turned to frequent TODAY Food guest Alejandra Ramos, my favorite food-science nerd.
"It's true that overworking doughs with flour in them generally leads to tougher baked goods because it develops the gluten," she told me. "This is usually more of a concern with cakes and soft pastries like pie crust or biscuits.
"But, in this recipe, it's not really an issue for two reasons: Wheat has two proteins in it and when it's mixed with a liquid, the proteins combine to form gluten, which continues to develop the more you mix or knead the dough. Great for bread — not great for cake. But this recipe doesn't have any liquid in it, so there's no need to worry about the gluten making things tough. Also, the main base of this recipe is oats, which don't have gluten in them. So, even if there were liquid in the recipe and you 'over-mixed,' the texture of the oats would balance everything out. The idea that this tastes better the more you work it is probably because it's how you would best evenly incorporate all the ingredients."
Mystery solved, we got to work. Into a big bowl we combined rolled oats, brown sugar, flour and baking powder. I took the liberty of using butter instead of margarine and then, well, I took a few more liberties. I added salt, because I think most sweets benefit from it, and some cinnamon too, because oatmeal and cinnamon are best friends.
Then we each took turns mixing the stiff dough.
Making the aggression cookies may have started as a joke, but that cookie dough managed to elicit some pretty real emotions. The oatmeal batter absorbed them all, unfazed. We stirred, mixed and jabbed before ditching the utensils in favor of our (washed) hands so we could put in some proper elbow grease, venting into the cookie dough void all the while.
I filled up one cookie sheet as instructed — without any additional toppings — and then got creative with what remained. I'm a "more is more" type of person, and while I was grateful to these cookies for listening to our secrets, they seemed a little plain for my taste. So I mixed in two more beloved pantry staples: peanut butter and chocolate chunks.
In this household, I was not surprised the jazzed-up cookies were the first to go. The peanut butter chocolate chunk oatmeal cookies were crumbly and salty with just the right amount of bittersweet chocolate to spark joy. Think Reese's mixed with an oatmeal sandie. But after those were devoured, the original ones weren't far behind. They were crispier with a more pronounced butterscotch flavor. Turns out, you can't really go wrong with this recipe. And sometimes simple fits the bill just right. I'm including instructions to make both versions — so you can choose your own aggressive adventure.
- 3 cups rolled oats
- 1½ cups brown sugar
- 1½ cups flour
- 1½ cups salted butter
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 cup chocolate chips or chunks
- 1 cup chunky peanut butter
- Combine ingredients in a large bowl. The softer your butter is, the easier it will be to mix, so if you're looking to really work through something here (or keep kids occupied for a while), leave it on the colder side of room temperature.
- Mash away to your heart's content. Once it's thoroughly mixed, you can stir in chocolate chips and/or peanut butter if you have them on hand.
- Roll walnut-sized balls between your palms and give them some space on the cookie sheet (they spread).
- Bake at 350°F for 10-12 minutes or until edges look golden. Enjoy!