Interpreting Recipes: Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee

Sycamore Kitchen's Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee

Let’s talk about interpreting recipes (and no, I don’t mean re interpreting recipes, that’s a subject for another day). Naturally you read a recipe before you begin to cook. Of course you do. I realize most recipes aren’t that technical and that you know what you’re doing. Still, I hope you actually take the time to read and understand a recipe before you begin. The instructions are there to help guide you and to inspire you. It only makes sense to use these words to your best advantage. So step away from YouTube, silence your phone and give the recipe in front of you your full attention.

Once you’ve carefully read the recipe a first time, I want you to go back and read the recipe again. Not because I think you’re stupid. Nope I want you to read the recipe again because you’re a good cook and good cooks are good at interpreting recipes.

When you read the recipe the second time go ahead and let yourself be distracted by your own thoughts. Imagine what the dish will taste and look like. Try to see how the directions as written will help you achieve the vision you have for that recipe in your head. This step is vital because this is when the recipe becomes real. This is the moment the recipe becomes your own. It’s also the time to address any questions you have about the recipe.

Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut ToffeeCoconut ToffeeOatmeal Cookies with Coconut ToffeeOatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee

Interpreting Recipes

As an example I’ll use this excellent recipe for Sycamore Kitchen’s Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee as it appeared in the LA Times recently. To make these gargantuan beauties you start by making the coconut toffee that gets embedded onto the top of each cookie halfway through baking.

The directions say: “Melt the butter in a heavy pot over low heat. Whisk in the sugar, water and salt, scraping down the sides. Bring the mixture to a boil, and do not stir until the toffee begins to color.”

I read those instructions the first time and understood them well enough. I read them the second time and imagined the sugar melting into the butter creating a golden-hued toffee. Simple enough. Except, I know from experience that you’d need to let that sugar and butter sit over low-heat at least 40 minutes to get the “peanut butter” color described later in the recipe. Was that the intention of the author? Is that sort of low-slow heat really necessary? I’ve made toffee plenty of times so I decided it was not. In fact I decided that when the author says “bring the mixture to a boil” he or she is implying that we should raise the heat in order to bring the mixture to a boil. In that case why not start with higher heat in the first place? In my version I adapted the instructions to say: “Melt the butter in a heavy, 2‑quart or larger saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the butter begins to get foamy, whisk in the sugar, water and salt, scraping down the sides. Lower the heat to medium. Do not stir until the toffee begins to color, about 13 minutes.” In my instructions I worried that the higher heat could possibly lead to a (messy, dangerous) boil over, so I also indicated a 2‑quart or larger saucepan.

I’m not dissing this recipe. In fact I’d say it’s a highly successful recipe because perfect cookies were the result. Besides the recipe came from the newspaper. There are possibly (probably) space constraints and word counts to consider (I’ve written two books and understand these constraints). However by reading the recipe twice I was able to better envision its intention and meld that intention with my own experiences, preferences and cooking skills. Perhaps perfectly good (or possibly even better) toffee can be made using low heat and 40 minutes worth of patience. I intend to find out. Just not right now – I’m eating gargantuan Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee. GREG

Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee

Sycamore Kitchen’s Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee 

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 12Source Adapted from the Los Angeles TimesPublished
Sycamore Kitchen's Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee


  • 2 ¼ cup unsalted butter (divided)
  • 12 ounce granulated sugar (divided, about 1½ cup plus 3 tablespoons )
  • water
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt (divided, plus more for lining edges of cookies)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 ½ cup unsweetened coconut
  • 8½ ounce old-fashioned oats (about 2 ½ cups)
  • all-purpose flour (about 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ½ ounce wheat germ (about ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon)
  • 3.3 ounce dark brown sugar (about ¼ cup plus a scant 2 tablespoons )
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Make the coconut Toffee: Melt 1 cup butter in a heavy, 2‑quart or larger saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the butter begins to get foamy, whisk in 7 ounces granulated sugar, water and 1 teaspoon salt, scraping down the sides. Lower the heat to medium. Do not stir until the toffee begins to color, about 13 minutes. When it is the color of peanut butter, remove from heat and immediately add the coconut, stirring to combine. Spread the mixture onto a rimmed baking sheet so the toffee is no thicker than ¼ inch. Cool completely, then break into pieces about 2 inches in diameter. Set aside 12 of the most uniform pieces for the cookies. This recipe makes more toffee than is needed for the cookies; the extra toffee will keep, in an airtight container at room temperature, up to five days.

Make the Oatmeal Cookies: In a large bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, baking powder and soda, remaining ½‑teaspoon salt, and wheat germ. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, cream together remaining 1 ¼ cups butter with the brown sugar and remaining 5 ounces granulated sugar until light and fluffy, 6 to 8 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl, add the egg and vanilla and beat to combine. Scrape again, then add the dry ingredients in two additions, beating just until combined. 

Dump the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Form it into a 9‑inch square, about 1‑inch thick. Wrap the dough tightly in a couple layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake: Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Portion the cookies by cutting the square of dough crosswise into 3 equal sections and lengthwise into 4 equal sections, giving you 12 uniform rectangles of dough. Roll each rectangle into a ball, then flatten slightly, sprinkling a little kosher salt on the edges. Space the cookies a few inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet(s) (they will spread), and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and place a 2‑inch piece of toffee on top of each cookie, pressing down on each gently.

Return to the oven and bake until the cookies are a medium golden color and the edges of the toffee have melted, about 8 minutes more. Move the baking sheet(s) to a wire rack and let the cookies cool.