North Tahoe High School’s cookie week is a wonderful week that’s near and dear to my heart. If you or your children have attended NTHS, you may be familiar with the culinary program’s annual cookie week; but if not, let me fill you in on the high school’s most cheerful time of the year.
Cookie week is the last week of school right before everyone leaves for winter break. During this time, the culinary students are hard at work baking cookies on a mass scale. At the end everyone gets to take home a variety of cookies to share with their families during the holidays and winter break.
The project is the student’s midterm, according to Laura Hartung, director of the NTHS culinary program. “It’s a chance for students to produce at a commercial volume and share it with their peers,” she said. “The scope of the project allows students the chance to research, test, plan, schedule, and produce bakery quality cookies. They’ve been working for 13 weeks and now they have the time and space to bring their theory and skill to fruition on a large scale.” Hartung has been teaching at the high school for the past 23 years, and this year will be the 15th year of the cookie week project.
Although called cookie week, the endeavor takes about three weeks in total to complete. The first week is all prep work when the students break into groups, choose their recipes, standardize the recipe, and calculate the costs. Next, they get into the kitchen and mise en place (a French culinary term for “gather”) all the ingredients and equipment.
Then the magic happens! The kids bake the cookies while holiday music plays in the background and the smell of cookies fills the entire school. The lessons students learn throughout the experience include mise en place, large volume measurement, time management, baking science, standardizing/yielding recipes, and culinary math/costing.
Each culinary student participates in the project, including level one and level two students, as well as teacher’s assistants. This totals at least 125 students each year. They break into groups of three to five, and each group is responsible for making 250 cookies, resulting in a total yield of at least 8,000 cookies. Each group makes a different variety, so there will be at least 30 different kinds.
On the last day of school before break, students display their cookies on long rows of tables. Students and teachers are able to walk through the rows, each carrying a large cake box to fill up with all the cookie goodness to take home. Boxes of cookies are also donated to senior citizens in Truckee.
The project ends with a written final test that is taken after students return to school from break. This helps students to reflect on the experience and determine whether it would have been profitable if they had been running a real bakery.
The total cost to pull off the project is between $1,500 and $2,000 each year, according to Hartung. The culinary program at NTHS is funded by Measure AA. Hartung explained that the highest cost each year is for butter, amounting to at least $450. “What we’re doing is real cookies, the cookies that taste good,” she said. “So, if you use partially hydrogenated oils, they feel different; they taste different.”
This year the project will take place from Dec. 5 to 22; however, not each group of students has culinary class each day, so they plan and use their time in the kitchen wisely. Hartung said in total it takes about six hours of kitchen time, “but each class period is only one to one-and-a-half hours, so it takes about four to five days of full-time kitchen work, as well as about five days of planning and researching.”
A curveball, or shall I say snowball, that students must be prepared for is the chance of snow days. Snow days during cookie week mean days lost baking. Last year three snow days fell on days students would have spent in the kitchen. “We had to give out cookie dough,” Hartung recalled. “Everyone put out their cookie dough and people came in and made boxes of cookie dough. It was the weirdest thing.”
Hartung explained that she had to just go with it, and she found a way to still make the experience joyful despite the disruption. She said that the experience simulates running a real bakery and sometimes stressful situations happen in real life, too, and people have to find ways to adapt and make the most of the situation.
Hartung told Moonshine Ink that out of all the cookies she has tasted over the years, her favorites are Italian rainbow cookies, shortbread cookies, and anything with caramel. She reflected on a former student who sends her boxes of the cookies he learned to make many years ago in her class.
“I still have a student who I adore,” she said. “He is this fantastic baker and a wild foodie still to this day. Every year I get a little package of rainbow cookies from him, and it just makes my heart happy.” She described the project as a joyful time for her and her students and “one of those things that keeps me going.”
Hartung said she’s “a big fan of learning from mistakes, so when we are able to catch and fix a problem, those are always memories that stick.” She explained that some students choose to take on cookies that are hard to make and that require special permission from her. “The one where I just roll my eyes and go ‘oh no!’ and that I will never allow a culinary [level] one to do them: macarons.” she said. “Macarons are just hard to do.” The French egg-white cookie is difficult to master, especially at elevation, and making them has left students in tears at times. As a former culinary student who took on macarons during my own level two cookie week, I can testify to this.
When I was a student at NTHS, I participated in three different cookie weeks over the years. I made peppermint crinkle cookies, French macarons, and shortbread cookies. During my first years in college, I would still return to the high school during winter break to fill a box of cookies and to visit with my former teachers. The cookie week project is a tradition that so many students hold close to their hearts.