Let’s pause a moment and set the scene.
It’s Los Angeles––mid-city to be exact. We’re standing on a busy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, sandwiched between Fairfax and Highland. Nearby is the portion of Wilshire that Angelenos refer to as Museum Row. The gas lamps at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are just to the east, the El Rey Theater––a music venue––is across the street, and it’s metered parking everywhere.
The sun pierces the blue sky. Cars whizz past. Steady streams of people flow up and down the sidewalk. The city is loud and alive.
Are you ready? Because, this L.A. scene is about to change. As we to turn on our heels, the view pans from Wilshire Boulevard to the store windows of Milk Jar Cookies. The lighting shifts from hard lines to a soft glow. Colors transform into subtle pastels. The city noise softens to a hum.
A minimal set of patio furniture just outside the storefront serves as an inviting gesture. Once inside, refurbished tables, unhinged doors pinned to the walls, shelves of distressed wood and dated, weathered milk jugs create a timeless scene. And that’s to say nothing of the chandeliers made from milk bottles.
It isn’t long before our eyes are drawn to the center display in what looks like grandma’s kitchen parlor. Here we find neat rows of pristine, white cake stands. Yet rather than cakes, each one is topped with a stack of cookies.
For critics that might be wondering what makes these cookies such a big deal, well––that’d be tantamount to saying King Taco is just a taco.
Bite into a Milk Jar cookie. It’s oven-fresh in the good, old-fashioned way. There is a balanced sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the palate, and leaves you salivating rather than thirsting for something to wash it down. The crispy edge and soft, inner gooeyness create layers of texture. And then there are the flavors, which are both traditional and inventive.
Served on mismatched antique-like saucers, these cookies possess a distinct style that falls right in line with the Pinterest-perfect aesthetics of the store itself. They are half-an-inch thick, about three inches across, puffed up at the center and decorated with a modern, signature touch.
If I were a betting woman, I’d wager that your mama couldn’t make these cookies, try as she might. Because only one woman can––Courtney Cowan. Like her cookies and her shop, she is straight-out-of-a-cookbook delightful. She meets me for the interview in a darling apron, all smiles and full of goodwill. Underneath the delicate details, there is a fighting spirit that exudes hard work and a welcome sense of humility.
Originally from Indiana, the 37-year-old creator of Milk Jar Cookies comes from strong, Midwestern stock. In 2000, she left family and home and moved to Los Angeles one month after graduating college. She gives credit to a family friend who took a chance and offered her a post-production coordinator role with Nickelodeon’s The Jersey.
12 years later, Cowan’s portfolio is populated by shows like Six Feet Under, Entourage, Dirty Sexy Money and The Good Wife. While taking a break to recover from back surgery, Cowan found herself at a massive fork in the road, wondering whether she wanted to go back into the industry, or to take this as a turning point.
You see, Cowan had juggled the demands of her television production career with her cookie side business since 2005, but she knew one day she would have to choose. As our audience already knows (and thankfully for us), she chose cookies. But that was only a part of the picture.
“I wanted a place where I could host people,” explains Cowan. “There’s something special about inviting people in and giving them an experience––not just a cookie.”
Cookies, like many pastries, were first created for function. Thier history dates as far back as seventh-century Persia, where historians suspect sugar had originated. More closely resembling rock-hard wafers, these early cookies could be stored for months, making them extremely useful for travel. This helped to spread them to Europe, and subsequently to North America.
In the hands of skilled bakers, the cookie received a sweet makeover as it passed from explorer to home cook. The first recipes found in America were printed in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery in 1796. Then, in the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie, which was meant to play second fiddle to a serving of ice cream.
When the recipe was published in the 1938 edition of her Toll House Tried and True Cookbook, it became quite the sensation, and World War II soldiers went nuts for it. Through the war and the Great Depression, the cookie served as a reminder of better times––a slice of comfort or a small reward after a hard day’s work.
When Nestlé bought the rights to Wakefield’s recipe and the Toll House name for the big-ticket price of one dollar, the cookie extended its reach from the home kitchen to the production floor. Pillsbury and Nabisco took the hint, soon followed by Famous Amos and Mrs. Fields, among others.
As a child, Cowan started with that recipe, the one on a bag of Nestlé Toll House chocolate chips. She remembers making cookie dough as early as seven years old. She couldn’t get enough––so much so that one night, she and her sister, Holly, snuck ingredients into the bathroom after their parents went to sleep.
“Rarely would we bake the cookies,” recalls Cowan. “We just wanted to make the dough.”
In her teens, she began tweaking the chocolate chip recipe to develop something entirely her own. She learned to roll the dough a specific way, to shape it to meet her aesthetic vision, to refrigerate it one way and then another; techniques that she has passed on to her, “dough girls,” a term she uses to refer to the Milk Jar team.
Flavor development naturally followed, and Cowan tried everything from Chocolate Raspberry, which was inspired by her brother, to Bacon Cheddar––just for kicks. “It tasted like a pancake breakfast,” she says.
Her ice cream-inspired line of cookies has been a particularly huge hit. Rocky Road, Mint Chocolate and Banana Split––all of which could, she surmised, “Either be really disgusting, or really delicious.”
In 2005, Cowan set up a computer, fax machine and credit card processor in the closet of her Los Angeles apartment, and launched her new cookie company. She crafted, baked and packaged each confection by hand. And just like that, she snatched the cookie back from the factory floor, and placed it into hardworking human hands.
The decade since has been a marathon of everyday challenges and big moments; all-nighters baking with supportive girlfriends, rolling out dough to the Four Tops’ classic, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” cookie deliveries all across town, from labor and delivery rooms to parking lots, partnering with her husband, Adam––her biggest cheerleader––transforming a Quizno’s into a cookie shop, filling online orders to ship nationwide, and overall making sure the business grows in a smart way.
“Life was just a pressure cooker at every point,” says Cowan. Perhaps the climax to her unfolding story was when her father was diagnosed with cancer just as Milk Jar Cookies was getting started. Cowan was relieved when he conquered his battle after three rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant––only to learn that her mother had breast cancer two days after her father was in the clear.
“I used to joke that the secret ingredient was the salt of my tears,” she quips. “Life as I knew it was gone. It was so intense and so overwhelming, yet so wonderful at the same time.”
No matter the series of events, Cowan finds the silver lining. She tells me how lucky she is––really lucky, incredibly lucky, very lucky. In a self-deprecating, and still so charming way, she wonders aloud how many more times she can possibly use that word.
It’s a sentiment is seems she’s shared with others, too; her refrigeration repairman once told her, “It’s not luck. It’s grit.”
It is her grit. It’s her years of hard work. It’s her humble approach, her striving for perfection. It’s what gets her up at 3:30 a.m., and has her baking until the enchanting hour of midnight.
The secret to Milk Jar Cookies is Cowan, herself.
Milk Jar Cookies
5466 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036