Cookie Science

Cookie ScienceCookie ScienceCookie Science

F ive out of five grandkids agree: grandmothers make the best cookies. But what if Grandma wanted to shoot a little higher than family desserts and school bake sales? 

With her daughter, Marni Esposito, Cynthia Rae has been doing just that. Together they run Moon Rocks Gourmet Cookies, a Hamden bakery named after Rae’s signature recipe, one she invented 41 years ago while finishing a degree in Applied Science at New York City Community College. Underwhelmed with the chocolate chip cookies she’d tried, Rae applied the science of cooking to America’s flagship cookie and reengineered it. The result wasn’t soft and sweet but biscuity, only mildly sugary. The flavor became less chocolatey and more like Irish cream. It wasn’t flat and saucer-like but chunky, reminding a family member of the moon rocks Apollo missions were collecting at the time.

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Rae’s space-age take on chocolate chip cookies—at first available in just two varieties, with walnuts or without—were popular with her family. But she couldn’t find work as a baker. A single mother, Rae instead took up bookkeeping, and for 40 years, her “moon rocks” remained a family secret.

Until September 2014, that is. Esposito had just turned 50; Rae was 75. Time loomed large in their minds. Esposito recalls thinking, “Either we’re going to do this now, or we’re never going to do it.”

The pair rented a commercial kitchen and got down to business, selling cookies at farmer’s markets, craft shows, online—anywhere they could. Soon Esposito, who handles the business end of things, said to her mother, “You really can’t have a cookie company with just chocolate chips and chocolate chips with nuts. Can you make any other flavors?”

Rae remembers her reply: “I don’t know, but I’ve been waiting my whole life for somebody to ask that question.”

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She began experimenting, which has led to 40 different flavors and counting. A core of about 30 kinds are available most of the time, while seasonal cookies cycle in and out. Current flavors include Honey Cardamom, Sweet Potato, Marshmallow and some newbies: Anise, Rum Eggnog and German Chocolate Cake.

As you can imagine, cramming that flavor spectrum into cookies isn’t as simple as picking up a tube of Nestlé Toll House at the supermarket. Far from it, Rae has had to invent her catalog of recipes. It’s painstaking work, she says, but she enjoys the challenge.

When Rae’s grandson asked her to make a cookie that tasted like cheesecake, it was like JFK’s pledge to make it to the moon: she didn’t know how, but she knew she’d get there. Getting the peculiar taste and texture of cheesecake into the form of a crumbly cookie meant trying different substitutions and integrations. Early failures included concoctions “you could’ve bounced off the walls,” Rae says—“like rubber balls,” Esposito adds. Finally, Rae arrived at a cookie that somehow tastes and chews like a mouthful of cheesecake, with equal portions crust and filling.

Esposito and Rae are putting their all into Moon Rocks’s moon rocks. “Nothing about these cookies is cheap,” Rae says. Each is a mix of premium organic extracts, milks, flours, fruit pulps, zests and/or other ingredients, and it’s reflected in the price.

In the shop, one cookie is $2.50, while $7 gets you three, $12 gives you six and $20 delivers a dozen, with more volume discounts for larger batches. Still, Esposito has seen customers walk in, look at the prices and walk out. “That’s not our audience,” Rae says.

For her Carrot Cake cookie, she took unique ingredients from different kinds of carrot cakes and combined them. The result has notes of citrus, raisin and carrot, packed together into a moist, chewy, slightly tart and sweet treat. The Coconut variety, on the other hand, offers many layers of a single flavor, thanks to coconut extract, coconut flour, coconut milk and shredded coconut. Likewise, the Vanilla cookie—a favorite of the mother-daughter team—is flavored in layers, packing an unexpected wallop. “I could never find a vanilla strong enough, so when I was doing it, I put the punch in that vanilla,” Rae says, thumping her fist into her palm.

As in all spheres of taste, certain flavors are divisive. The Carrot Cake was a favorite of mine, but my friend was put off. Oddly enough, when it came to a very strong Garlic cookie—made as an experiment for a garlic festival Moon Rocks attended—my friend gobbled it up, while I soothed my taste buds with a mouthful of Marshmallow.

“You have to work your way through the Moon Rocks menu and find your flavors,” Esposito says. This is cookie science, after all, and that means you have to be willing to experiment.

Moon Rocks Gourmet Cookies
1830 Dixwell Ave, Hamden (map)
Winter Hours: Tue-Wed 11am-5pm, Thu 11am-8pm, Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 11am-8pm, Sun 1pm-5pm
(203) 404-4964
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Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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