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The Goopy, Gloppy History Of No-Bake Cookies

The strange story of how these ‘festive’ no-bake treats took over holiday trays.

My mom was a convenience-minded cook, which, in her case, is a nice way of saying she was not a very good cook. She loved any recipe that called for premade store-bought products, in part because she felt these made her cuisine more credible. (Her chili recipe, for example, involved adding one can of chili "so it tasted real.") It's no surprise, then, that she was an eager adopter of one persistent holiday trend: cookies made with deconstructed packaged goods, stirred together with a bunch of goopy stuff and plopped onto a sheet of wax paper—no baking required!

As the "no-bake cookie" trend swept through her friend group, she began collecting scraps of paper with recipes that usually required melting something, then stirring a bunch of sweet things into the goo. Sometimes you added alcohol (whee!). And because no one yet owned a microwave in these days, you had to haul out the double boiler to get the party started—still, you could feel like a real cook without bothering to turn on the oven at all. (What is so hard about preheating an oven, I want to ask these ladies who spent decades hovering over their double boilers?)

One aspect of these recipes' appeal is that their foundation is often the packaged items homemakers already have in their pantry. The consistency of these packaged goods made the recipes "no fail," or such was the logic of my mom and her friends. How could anything fail if it included Nabisco Nilla Wafers, Kraft Marshmallows, or Brach's Cinnamon Imperials?

Not everyone was a fan of the no-bake wonders, even back then. My Uncle Lou, who had been a cook in the Navy and had opinions about cooking not expressed by the typical suburban dad, would rail at the recipes and their ingredient lists. "What kind of a ****ing cookie starts with just pulverizing the **** out of another ****ing cookie?" he would ask, sounding almost like he was delivering a Zen koan full of curse words (again, Navy veteran).

No-bake, no-fail cookies: an endless variety of glop

If you've spent as much time as I have hovering around the cookie trays at holiday parties, you know the no-bakes well, because they're usually the only ones left as the party winds down—not necessarily because people don't like them, but because they have an incredibly high yield that exceeds what any gathering really needs.


There are the peanut-butter-and-a-bit of-chocolate "buckeyes," the irregular lumps known as "haystacks," and the rum or bourbon balls made by crushing up packaged cookies and tossing in plenty of hooch.

Look through any vintage church lady cookbook (and how fun is that, of course you should do that right away), and you'll find cookies with monikers like Boiled Cookies, Frog Cookies, Fudgies, Lazy Witches, Mudballs, Poodgies, Raggedy Robins, Stovetop Kisses, and Weird Wonders. Devout cooks with demanding timelines called them Preacher Cookies, because you could quickly whip them up if an itinerant man of the cloth stopped by and demanded a toothsome treat.

Other names include Chewy Charlies, Chocolate Poodles, Top of the Range Cookies and Tummy Ticklers. It's clear that these home cooks poured their creativity into the naming of these things, free from having to devise a complex ingredient list.


For my money, the pinnacle of these recipes is the "Christmas wreath" dessert, fashioned from cornflakes, melted marshmallows, and an industrial amount of green food coloring. You shape the covered flakes into rings, add red hots to simulate holly berries, then watch as your tongue turns into a production of Wicked after just a few bites.

To my mom, though, these were high art and gourmet cooking all in one. She often mused that if she could just glue some backings onto them, they'd make lovely brooches, too.

They were her specialty, in an age when every woman had a few secret recipes and at least one specialty, no matter how bad a cook she was. In that way, you could call the no-bake catalog empowering, if not gourmet.

The early days of no-bake cookies

Laura Shapiro is not a fan of this particular delicacy, but she sure knows about its rise to prominence. A journalist and culinary historian, Shapiro is the author of four books, including What She Ate and Something From the Oven. "I'm opposed to everything about no-bakes, especially the no-baking aspect, but also the manic degree of sweetness," she tells The Takeout.


For those looking to their own childhoods for a villain origin story, however, Shapiro says you shouldn't blame the 1980s, or even the '70s or '60s, because no-bakes date back to at least the 1930s.

"That's when the great and peerless Irma Rombauer included a recipe for 'Quick Chocolate Drops' in Streamlined Cooking, the cookbook she published after The Joy of Cooking," Shapiro explains.

"Rombauer knew cookies, and she knew these things didn't count, but she'd probably seen what Kellogg's did with a similar idea, and she always had a soft spot for convenience," she says.

Shapiro notes that Rombauer was cautious in her positioning of the no-bake recipe: "This may be classed as a sweet cake or a confection," the copy reads. It instructed the reader to melt chocolate bars over very low heat and then stir in cornflakes or Rice Krispies—no particular amount, just "as much as the chocolate will absorb." This mixture could be chilled as individual cookie-sized portions or as one mass, to be broken into bite-sized pieces later.


The results are far from picturesque. Unsuspecting family members who peeked in the fridge as the "drops" set might have wondered what the cat had gotten up to in there. Still, Shapiro loyally defends Rombauer, the cookbook queen, and gives her a mulligan on this one.

"Rombauer was the most personable and influential cookbook writer of her time, and 'Quick Chocolate Drops' do not constitute her legacy," Shapiro says. "If you make them, keep a copy of Joy of Cooking open on the kitchen counter, just to even out the vibes."

Making no-bake cookies at home

Nostalgia is more powerful than mere good taste, so of course I've pulled out my mom's handed-down double boiler and tried to recreate the magic. A few years back, my youngest daughter and I set out to make my mom's iconic wreaths, and it did not go well.


It started just fine. We carefully counted out the 40 large marshmallows and reduced them to steaming goo in the double boiler. Then we added lots of green food coloring. So far, so good. But then things took a turn for the worse.

The melted marshmallows took on a sinister, lava-like quality that made it almost impossible to shape the mounds of cornflakes into the semblance of a wreath without burning one's hands, possibly losing fingerprints. As the mixture rapidly cooled, I urged my daughter to work faster, before we ended up with hole-less lumps instead of wreath-shaped rings. My urging veered into drill sergeant mode, and she told me that the recipe should be called "Crying Cookies," because that's what they made her feel like doing.


We might have pulled a victory from the jaws of defeat, though, because I suggested a science experiment with one of the more misshapen of our efforts. We pressed the green "cookie" between two sheets of wax paper and pressed it into a family photo album. The next year, we checked in, and the wreath looked... exactly the same. Praise be the miracle of modern preservatives!

The kids swore they never tried a bite, but I just averted my eyes and thanked my mom, lackluster cook that she was, for keeping a little bit of herself alive in these loathsome, long-lasting cookies.

Seminal recipes of the no-bake cookie movement

I maintain that operating one's oven is no big deal, and not that hard to do, and that no-bakes don't always end up saving much time in the long run. However, if you want to try making some and don't want to recreate our wreath fiasco, there are plenty of authentic no-bake recipes to take out for a spin: