In the cookie community, it's chocolate chip that seems to get all the attention—it's Marcia to the oatmeal cookie's Jan, casting a shadow over its less-popular sister. But the humble oatmeal cookie—even a mediocre version—gratifies like no other cookie can. Biting into a thick, chewy, brown-sugary disc studded with raisins (or not) and nuts (or not) never fails to deliver comfort and satisfaction.
Raisins are a divisive point in any baked good, to be sure. But, truthfully, I have more problems with chocolate chips—largely because the chips commonly used are of inferior quality, and a weak chip can really bring down an otherwise respectable cookie. Plus, there's always the danger of some misguided or sadistic baker attempting to "health it up" by smuggling in carob chips, a substitution that often remains undetected until it's too late. The candylike chew of raisins (or dried cranberries, cherries, apricots, etc.), on the other hand, lends itself nicely to the hearty toothsomeness of the oatmeal. Besides, chocolate already has its cookie; let the raisin have the oatmeal!
On a recent afternoon, I collected 13 oatmeal cookies from 13 different local bakeries and presented them to a select group of seasoned cookie eaters willing to lend their taste buds and opinions. Truth be told, almost all of the cookies we sampled were pretty good and would do in a pinch. Baker and Spice, a superior bakery in almost all other respects, happens to put out a version with spices that overwhelm. And while one New Seasons Market branch landed in the top five, Southeast Portland's Seven Corners location offered a version that was dry and overbaked. Our top picks all shared common attributes: they were fat, chewy, buttery and fresh. Which is to say, the opposite of thin, crisp, margarine-y and stale. All things considered, if you're having trouble finding a great oatmeal cookie in this town, you aren't looking very hard. Here's how the best of the oats bunch rolled out.
All cookies are judged on a scale of one to five glasses of milk: one being a cookie criminal and five being an oatmeal overachiever.
Grand Central Bakery
(six Portland locations, 808-9860, grandcentralbakery.com) It's no surprise this local pillar of baked goods would deliver a quality, consistent oatmeal cookie ($1.25); Grand Central seems to have the basic standbys down pat. Real butter, brown sugar and golden raisins reside in a flat, caramel-y disc that leans more toward candy bar than cake on the cookie-texture spectrum. This was one of the softest of the bunch—no nuts.
Rating: 4 cups
(102 NW 9th Ave., 827-0910)
The height and heft of this cookie ($1.25) suggested it might suffer from excessive cakeyness. Loaded with walnuts and dark and golden raisins, it was instead surprisingly chewy and slightly underbaked (in a good way), and to our delight yielded more bites than its appearance indicated. Also, the bakers at Pearl are not afraid of salt. And salt—in case you haven't figured it out by now—makes good things (butter, sugar, nuts) taste even better (more buttery, sugary and nutty).
Rating: 5 and a half cups
Random Order Coffeehouse and Bakery
(1800 NE Alberta St., 331-1420)
This lovely specimen ($1.50) is perhaps the most oaty of them all; total perfection would be achieved with the use of pecans rather than walnuts. Not that I would throw this cookie out of bed by any means; it manages to be both chewy and crispy, and was deemed "most buttery" by the tasting table. Dried cranberries provide a nice relief for the raisin-haters.
Rating: 5 and a half cups
New Seasons Market, Concordia location
(5320 NE 33rd Ave., 288-3838)
I hesitated to even bring this one to the table, only because there seems to be a vast disparity between the in-store bakeries of different New Seasons Markets (there are nine in the Portland Metro area). I'm not saying the oatmeal cookies at other New Seasons locations are bad, they just aren't this: shockingly thick, stacked with golden raisins, offered in both coconut and walnut versions and big enough to feed two ($1.75). (Note to N.S. bakers: please use dark brown sugar. It's so much more brown-sugary than light!) Seriously, though, this massive, burgerlike disc can be consumed in multiple sittings; it's the all-day-sucker of oatmeal cookies. Rating: 4 cups
Wildflour Cookie Company
(5400 NE 30th Ave. #103, 502-8738)
A newcomer to the game, this sly contender is made even more extraordinary than it already is due to its elusiveness. Wildflour, together with Truffle Handcrafted Chocolates, recently began retail hours on Fridays and Saturdays, but is otherwise available by special order only at portlandtruffle.com. The modest-sized cookie ($1) is cakey, but this somehow does not sacrifice moistness and flavor. Quite the contrary: A thin, crisp coating gives way to a soft center that fills your mouth with buttery sweetness. Even the raisins seem better than average. No nuts.
Rating: 4 cups
A FEW MORE WORTHY CRUMBS (because one can never have too many cookies):
Petite Provence/La Provence Bakery (4834 SE Division St., 233-1121, and other locations) : Excellent, chewy texture, but lacks depth of flavor and spice—a little flat ($1.50).
Delphina's Bakery (4200 NW Wygant St. 281-1373, available in Zupan's Markets and some local coffee shops): This is a textbook oatmeal-raisin cookie ($1.75)—old-school like your grandma (or at least somebody's grandma) made. Big on cinnamon and dark raisins; nut-free.
Nuvrei Bakery (404 NW 10th Ave., 546-3032, also available in many area coffee shops) : This massive brick of currant-studded, shortbreadlike oatcake ($1.50) is outstanding, but probably falls into a category other than true oatmeal cookie.