How the cookie crumbles: the great first lady bake-off

America loves nothing better than a good cook in the White House kitchen, as many candidates' wives have found to their cost... By Leonard Doyle

America's presidential cookie craze can be traced back to Chicago's Busy Bee Coffee Shop where in 1992 Hillary Clinton blurted out: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."

Mrs Clinton's outburst came as a shock to a country which had always seen its first ladies as the nation's hostesses. Few were career women and Mrs Clinton's determination to break the mould caused endless grief during her White House years.

From Martha Washington onwards, first ladies were expected to make their mark in the executive mansion kitchen and to take care of public entertaining and state events, while their husband went about the business of being president. This was not Mrs Clinton's style, but she deftly turned her biscuit gaffe to her advantage by quickly producing a top-notch recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

Since then, the race for the White House has been matched by an equally frenzied competition in America's kitchens to discover which candidate's spouse has the best cookie.

Mrs Clinton's Busy Bee gaffe occurred when a reporter asked her about the ethics of her Arkansas law firm getting government business while Bill Clinton was state governor. The hash she made of the answer became a campaign headache for Bill. It was an early example of her political tin ear, though not quite as bad as when she said "I'm not sitting here as some little woman 'standing by my man', like Tammy Wynette", an unforgivable putdown of country music.

The cookie controversy has become part of the political landscape, celebrated every four years with a presidential bake-off organised by Family Circle magazine. In 1992, it was a chocolate chip head-to-head with Barbara Bush. Mrs Clinton's won, 55 per cent to 45. Consumer Reports magazine (which rates everything from cars to hot dogs) put her recipe to the test and concluded that if her political ambitions failed she would make a fine cookie entrepreneur. The verdict on her chocolate chip cookies was: "Delicate crispness, chewy; smooth, chocolatey chips."

And so a tradition was born. In fact, Family Circle readers have had a 100 per cent track record in predicting the White House winner on the basis of their cookie-baking prowess. In subsequent years Laura Bush's cowboy cookies were judged tastier than Tipper Gore's ginger snaps; and the oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies she entered in 2004 fended off competition from John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

This year's bake-off has become controversial because Cindy McCain's oatmeal-butterscotch cookie recipe was identified as a near carbon copy of a recipe on the Food Network website. Michelle Obama meanwhile has submitted a recipe for shortbread cookies with citrus zest, and a dash of Amaretto, which came from the godmother to her daughters.

"Cookies have been an American tradition for over 200 years and for decades have been served at White House receptions," said Bev Young, author of Presidential Cookies. "They are one of our most revered traditions and most of the presidents and first ladies have had a sweet tooth."

Although George Washington did not live on Pennsylvania Avenue, jumbals cookies were a favourite nibble during the Christmas season at his home in nearby Mount Vernon. He and Martha were prodigious entertainers and had 677 guests at their table in one year alone.

Most first ladies stayed out of politics, but Eleanor Roosevelt was different, a vocal supporter of her husband's New Deal policies as well as an advocate for civil rights. She would go on to serve as a delegate to the UN Assembly after President Franklin D Roosevelt's death. That's not to say she wasn't a domestic goddess, however. The Roosevelts entertained on a lavish scale and cookies were sure to be served.

Martha Washington, first lady 1789-1797

The first lady title was not coined until after her death so Martha was known as Lady Washington. The Washingtons entertained constantly at Mount Vernon, their Virginia home, but detailed records exist of only four meals served, and these survive thanks to the diary of Joshua Brookes, a visiting Englishman. Mrs Washington's cookie recipe has been adapted to suit modern ingredients.

Martha Washington's Jumbals

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 quarter teaspoon salt

Grated rind of 1 orange

1 egg well beaten

3 cups sifted flour

1 Preheat oven to 180C.

2 In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar, salt and rind until light and fluffy.

3 Beat in egg.

4 Add the flour, working it thoroughly into dough.

5 Roll the dough on a lightly floured bowl to about 1/4 inch thick.

6 Cut into rings with a doughnut cutter and bake on greased cookie sheet until brown about 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Makes five dozen jumbals

Presidential Cookies

EleanorRoosevelt, first lady 1933-1945

Eleanor never abandoned the public life she began before becoming first lady, holding weekly press conferences and writing a syndicated column, "My Day". She also entertained lavishly during her 12 years in the White House, with Honey Drops a favourite accompaniment to afternoon teas. On Sundays she cookedinformal suppers for the Roosevelts' many friends.

Eleanor Roosevelt's Honey Drops

1 cup sugar

1 cup honey

1 cup butter

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 egg

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp almond flavoring

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup chopped orange peel

About 3 cups flour

1 Preheat oven to 160C.

2 Mix all the ingredients, except flour.

3 Add enough flour so that the mixture can be rolled into balls and placed on a cookie sheet without running.

4 After placing rolled balls on cookie sheet, bake for 12 to 14 minutes.

Makes 12 dozen drops

Mary Todd Lincoln, first lady 1861-1865

Highly strung, Mary was unpopular from the moment she arrived in the capital. She was ruthlessly attacked as an over-emotional first lady, with one of President Lincoln's aides dubbing her "the hellcat". But the gingerbread cookies that came out of the White House kitchen seem to have kept Abe happy. This is an approximation of his mother's lost recipe.

Mary Todd Lincoln's Gingerbread Cookies

Half cup butter

Half cup sugar

Half cup molasses

1 egg yolk

2 cups sifted flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground cloves

1 tsp ginger

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp allspice

1 Preheat oven to 180C

2 In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar until smooth

3 Beat in molasses and egg yolk

4 In another bowl, sift together, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and spices

5 Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter egg mixture

6 Cover and chill dough for at least one hour

7 On a lightly floured board roll the dough to a 1/4 inch thickness

8 Cut into gingerbread men or other desired shapes

9 Place cookies about two inches apart on an ungreased sheet and bake for 8-10 until firm. Cool.

Makes three dozen gingerbread men cookies

Mamie Eisenhower, first lady 1953-1961

A dull-as-dishwater-army wife, who clipped coupons to save money, Mamie won the hearts of Americans for her suburban lifestyle, but she was not known for her culinary prowess. However, she did earn fame for her fudge, which Ike named and often enjoyed. Her recipe for "Mamie's million dollar fudge" was reproduced by housewives all over the country after it was printed in many publications. It became a staple at the conclusion of formal White House meals and was an inexpensive treat. However, White House archives show that she also served these sugar cookies, cut into star shapes and decorated in red, white and blue.

Mamie Eisenhower's sugar cookies

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs yolks, well beaten

1 tbsp cream

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 cups flour

Sugar for dusting

1 Preheat oven to 180C.

2 In a small bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.

3 In a large bowl, cream butter, adding sugar slowly. Mix until fluffy.

4 Stir in well-beaten egg yolks and vanilla.

5 Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the cream.

6 Chill cookie dough for one hour. Rollout on a floured surface and cut in any desired shape.

7 Sprinkle with sugar before baking.

8 Place cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet.

9 Bake 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes 36 cookies

Hillary Clinton, first lady, 1993–2001

From the moment she set foot in the White House she was more interested in public policy than entertaining. Bill Clinton said voters should "buy one, get one free", referring to the prominent role she would assume. Even her cookies hit the spot, beating Barbara Bush's in the first presidential bake-off.

Clinton's Chips (1992, 1996)

1 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose (plain) flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup solid vegetable shortening (or lard)

1 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar

Half cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

2 cups rolled old-fashioned oats

1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1 Heat oven to 180C. Grease two large baking sheets.

2 Combine flour, salt and baking soda on a sheet of waxed paper.

3 In a large bowl, beat together the shortening, sugars and vanilla with an electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs, beating until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in flour mixture and rolled oats. Stir in chocolate chips.

4 Drop batter by well-rounded teaspoonfuls on to prepared sheets.

5 Bake at 180C for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden. Cool cookies on sheets on wire racks.

Makes 90 cookies

Laura Bush, First Lady, 2001–present

Polled as the most popular first lady, she is a keen cook. But all this seems lost on Dubya, whose favourite meal is a low-fat hot dog.

Laura Bush's Oatmeal-Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups light-brown sugar

3 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose (plain) flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 cups quick cook oats (not old-fashioned)

2 cups chopped walnuts

1 1/2 packages (8 oz each) chocolate chunks (3 cups)

2 cups coarsely chopped dried sour cherries

1 Heat oven to 180C. Line two large baking pans with parchment paper.

2 With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and both sugars. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla. Add flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and oats; slowly beat until blended.

3 Stir in walnuts, chocolate and cherries. Drop by tablespoonfuls on to prepared cookie sheets.

4 Bake at 180C for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on pan on wire rack for 1 minute. Transfer cookies directly to racks to cool.

Makes about 96 cookies

Cindy McCain, Wife of Republican nominee, 2008

An ex-cheerleader, former rodeo queen and multimillionaire beer distribution heiress, Cindy has clearly not spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

Within 12 hours of posting her recipes on the John McCain website they were found to have been plagiarised. Her entry into this year's presidential bake-off has fared little better as it seems to have been copied too.

Cindy McCain's oatmeal-butterscotch cookies

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

11/4 cups all-purpose (plain) flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon groundcinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups rolled oats

12/3 cups butterscotch chips

1 Heat oven to 190C.

2 In a large bowl beat the butter or margarine, granulated sugar and brown sugartogether. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating well.

3 In a medium-size bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture; stir until blended. Stir in oats and butterscotch chips. Drop by tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.

4 Bake at 190C for 10 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes around 60 cookies

Michelle Obama, Wife of Democratnominee, 2008

Expect plenty of soul food in the White House if Barack Obama becomes the first black president. Michelle's extended Chicago family enjoys getting together to eat.

Michelle Obama's shortbread cookies

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons Amaretto (almond liqueur)

1 teaspoon each orange and lemon zest

3 cups cake flour (use plain flour, not self-raising and replace 3 tbsps per cup with cornflour or potato flour)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 beaten egg white

chopped nuts or dried fruit (optional)

1 Heat oven to 160C. Line a 17 x 12 x 1in baking pan with nonstick foil. In large bowl, cream together butter and 1 1/2 cups of the sugar.

2 Slowly add egg yolks, and beat well until smooth. Beat in Amaretto and zest.

3 Stir in flour and salt until combined.

4 Flatten dough evenly and smoothly into prepared pan.

5 Brush top of dough with egg white; sprinkle with nuts or fruit (if using) and with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

6 Bake at 160C for 25 minutes or until brown, turn off oven and allow cookies to sit in oven (with door ajar) for 15 minutes. Cut while slightly warm.

Makes 72 2in x 3in cookies

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