I have suffered from this neurosis for years. I thought my only recourse was to suffer silently and wait for any opportunity to get on the I‑5 and drive the 191.44 miles north to The Harris Ranch Restaurant in Coalinga, CA.
Which may sound a little extreme. But I have done it before.
What sort of cookie deserves this sort of mecca?
Well, a delicious cookie of course, with the unassuming name of The Harris Ranch Pecan Drop Cookie. But the name is the only thing uninspired about this culinary marvel.
Let’s start with texture. They are crackly on the edges. There are lots of bits of crunchy pecans to provide a counterpoint to my favorite thing about this cookie. And that is the sticky chewy interior.
This thing tastes like a very, very, very good pecan pie; but somehow better than a pecan pie. It’s oh so buttery, but contains no butter.
This cookie is so good that it will change your life. It is the sole reason I don’t bake cookies at home very often. I mean what’s the point if the benchmark waits nearly 200 miles north, mocking whatever paltry replacement comes out of my oven.
So you must wonder how in the world did I discover such a gem. Especially in a place as unknown to most of you as Coalinga, California.
The answer lies in the geography of the Golden State. Because Coalinga is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Making it a very good choice to stop when traveling between these two great cities.
But that alone is not enough to explain why this cookie, and why this restaurant.
The California Central Valley is ground zero from an agricultural standpoint. Meaning there are vast fields stretching out along both sides of the freeway as far as the eye can see. For hours and hours.
If you do not live in California then “The Central Valley” may be a meaningless phrase to you. But it is a huge and economically important area of California. The Central Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. On less than 1 percent of the total U.S. farmland, The Central Valley produces 8 percent of the nation’s agricultural output. The Central Valley is around 42,000 square miles making it about the same size or larger than Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.
So how did I find this one cookie among all this vastness?
Well the ironic thing is this:
California is the top agricultural state in the nation. It has been #1 for 50 years.
The Central Valley is largely responsible for this fact because it produces roughly half of all the fruits, vegetables and fiber consumed in the United States.
And yet despite all this good, healthy, fresh produce grown in the Central Valley. There is NO PLACE TO EAT! The Coalinga Yellow Pages on-line lists 25 restaurants in all of Coalinga, and they are either fast-food (no thank you) or too far off I‑5 to be useful to the traveler.
But there is an exception! And you guessed it. That exception is The Harris Ranch Restaurant, which lies on the still active cattle ranch of the same name. I have been a customer there since sometime in the mid 1980’s I think.
They have passably good breakfasts, excellent beef and the cleanest rest rooms in California. That includes the restroom at Sup’s house. If these three reasons were not enough to make you stop at The Harris Ranch, then this cookie will make it a done deal.
So, stop I have, for many, many years.
But it is this blog that has given the story the sweetest ending imaginable. Because of this blog and my desire to share this cookie with you. I did something the normally stranger-adverse Sup rarely does. I asked someone I did not know for a favor.
I had to steel up the courage too. But the story goes (something) like this:
I walk in the door and head straight up to the bakery counter. Though the lure of a clean potty was strong.
“Would you mind sharing the recipe for your Pecan Drop Cookies?” I said to the very young girl named Becky behind the counter.
“You mean these cookies?” she says picking one up in her cellophane wrapped hand and holding it dangerously close to my face”.
“…Um yes.” I reply taking a step backwards so I don’t accidentally bite her hand off and choke on one of her 12 or 13 rings.
“Why don’t you just buy some?”
“I’d like to try making them at home.”
“Oh…” she says as she turns and walks into the kitchen where I hope she is going to grab a recipe card for me.
Instead she comes back with what I swear looks like her older sister. This one is named Maggie. She has no rings, but she does have an important looking pencil tucked behind her ear. A pencil! Do they still make pencils?
“We don’t make it a policy to give away recipes.” She says looking me right between the eyes.
I decide to try flirting. “Maybe just this one time?”
“Well”, she giggles and blushes. “Actually, I don’t actually know the recipe”, she says as she flips one side of her over-bleached hair onto her shoulder. “They make these cookies at night before my shift starts.”
“Oh well, thanks anyway”, I snarl to her butt as it walks away through the swinging doors back into pencil land.
Then the younger (nicer) sister says to me.
“You know The Los Angeles Times asked for the recipe a couple of years ago for an article they did. Where are you from?” She asks, eyeing the Prius parked outside, and further noting my Britney Spears loves cookies t‑shirt and John Varvatos for Converse Jack Purcell’s in Kobe Bryant Purple and Gold.
“Portugal” I lied.
2 1/2 cups brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 pounds coarsely chopped
1/2 cup egg whites (3 to 4 large egg whites)
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the brown sugar, salt, vanilla and pecan pieces. Beat on low speed to incorporate the ingredients then drizzle in the egg whites. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 4 to 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
2. Drop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto a parcment lined baking sheet. Press each ball of dough with the back of a spoon or your 3 middle fingers to form a cookie 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about one-eighth-inch thick.
3. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and immediately remove the cookies from the baking sheet to a cooling rack. The cookies will be quite soft but will firm up as they cool. Once cool on the first day they are rather crisp, but on the second day (if you can wait that long) they develop that marvelously chewy texture I so love about these cookies.
Note: The names, dates and facts in this story were changed to protect the innocent.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD