Non-Cookie Cookies: A Storyteller’s Unbaked Secrets

Cookies & Content Marketing: The 12 Cookies of KOTAW | (Non-Cookie) Cookies 9, 10, 11 & 12 (Pucker-Up Lemon Loaf, Giddy Goat Cheesecake, Exploding Cranberries Bread and Teddy Bear Popovers)

The secret to sweet storytelling success | KOTAW Content MarketingBoredom is my worst enemy – and best friend. It stalls my writing and motivates some of my best work. Because I find it painstakingly difficult, if not downright impossible to finish dull tasks.

No one cleans half a closet better than I do. The “Let’s get organized!” and “Make it pretty!” phrases excite me, and I have a few award-worthy shelves in my house to prove it. But the actual task of putting everything in its place drains my enthusiasm. My productivity falters, then drops dangerously low. I end up sitting on the floor, staring forlornly at an unmatched sock or half-eaten box of cereal, beseeching it to grow wings and put itself away or fly next door and torment my neighbor. (He’s mean to Ivy and, therefore, deserves to inherit some of my misery.)

Neither the socks nor cereal listen to me, which is why our house now includes an Unfortunate Area, a resting place for unwanted items that I challenge to make themselves lovable again within the next six months or face the ultimate rest stop: the garbage bin.

Bloggidy Blah, Blah

It’s also why I tell stories. A lot of writing that clients request is pretty dull. OK, really, really dull. They want me to extoll the 25 best features of a deep fat fryer, detail the 5 years of technical genius behind an app or cite the top 10 reasons why their service or product is absolutely, positively unique.

At least that’s what they think they want. Because it’s what their competitors are doing. What their investors recommend. What every copywriter, blogger and reporter has already done.

What I won’t do. What I can’t do.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. It seems easy enough to flesh out a client’s outline or rewrite someone else’s article. It seems easy to meet a client’s low expectations, pocket a paycheck and move on. For me, it’s extraordinarily difficult.

When I think about a deep fat fryer, I don’t think about its operating instructions. I think about a field trip I took to Dunkin’ Donuts with my writing students because I’d always wondered how they got the jelly in their donuts. When I think about the “technical genius” of apps, I think about a now-defunct company that assigned programmers to write their marketing material. And, when I think about a dozen things that make a product or service unique, I focus on the one that really matters and tell a story about it.

I ignore the rest. Because the rest bores me. And, judging from the number of unread, unshared and unnoticed content floating around — and the number of flailing and failing digital businesses – I think it bores you, too.

A good story saves a boring party. A great story sells just about anything.

Say Oui to Ennui

So, when I’m bored, I embrace the feeling. I take it as a sign that I need to do something different. I need to rethink, rework or scrap entirely a bad idea.

Even when the bad idea is my own.

When I first came up with the 12 Cookies of KOTAW, it was meant to be the easy-breezy CoverGirl sequel to the 12 Days of KOTAW, a truly inspired series of stories I wrote for the 2013 holiday season. For 2014, I thought, I’d bake some cookies, take some pictures, share some recipes and lounge about for the rest of December.

So I preheated the oven, charged the camera and sifted the flour. Somewhere around the third batch of cookies, I started to wonder, “Who, besides my daughters, really cares about my recipes? If I can’t connect my cookies to some branding principle or social media lesson, what’s the point?”

While the cookies baked, I mulled over some story ideas and came up with three that met my critical sniff test. And while I ate some of my creations, I penned “Branding Magic and the Evolution of Kris Kringle Cookies”, “Allergic to Peanuts or Social Media? This Cookie’s for You!” and “In Cookies and Content Marketing, Cut the Sugar in Half.”

So far, so good. But I was still four cookies short of a dozen. I didn’t want to bake any more of the cookies on my list. And I certainly didn’t want to write about them! I wanted to bake Pucker Up Lemon Cake, Giddy Goat Cheesecake, Exploding Cranberries Bread, Teddy Bear Popovers, Sort-of-French Holiday Pie and…

Oh no! I had committed the storyteller’s worst sin of all – I was boring myself!

But I was committed to finishing the series. I couldn’t leave the project in limbo just because I’d tired of it. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – ban it to the Unfortunate Area of my brain.

But I also wasn’t about to write some meaningless drivel such as “5 Ways Sugar Cookies Will Rock Your Social Media World in 2015!” or “3 Super-Easy Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Website the Irish Shortbread Way.”

Say Yes to No

“Why don’t you write about non-cookie cookies?” my elder daughter Bri suggested. “And how writing doesn’t have to fit a formula – it just has to be good.”

“Sure,” Kelsey, my younger daughter, agreed. “Bake whatever you want and let the tie-it-all-together story come to you. It always does.”

This is what it’s like to live in a house where stories dwell. My daughters understand me and, more important, they understand that storytelling is a mindset that doesn’t follow the rules of an instructional manual.

In storytelling, it’s not the thing that counts but the thinking. And just because a few ideas don’t work out – or a batch of cookies burn – you don’t toss all of your ideas or give up on baking altogether.

Say Hello to More Storytelling Secrets

Some people collect art or souvenir spoons. I collect stories. It’s why storyteller isn’t a job title but a definition of who I am.

When Robert Rose asked me a year or so ago to produce a course about storytelling for the Content Marketing Institute’s Online Training and Development Program, I was honored but skeptical.  How could I perform a monologue about how to tell a story without sounding monotonous? But I thought about it for a few weeks and came up with “Living the Fairy Tale: How to Think Like a Storyteller.”

I filmed it almost entirely on location – at a park, café and horse stable – to illustrate what I think is the most valuable lesson about storytelling: you have to live a story to tell it well.

It’s entirely possible to write good fiction from your imagination and fine journalism from research and interviews. But a great story demands your presence. You must figuratively – or literally – put yourself in the center of the action.

It’s why I baked the cookies and non-cookie cookies for this series. I’ve had the recipes memorized for years. But the stories only came to me when I was cracking eggs, sprinkling cinnamon and chopping fruit.

Will it work for you? Try these four non-cookie cookies recipes and let me know. Or sign up for the CMI course (I get no commission for this) and tell me whether it helped you adopt a fairy tale existence (magic wand not required.)

Pucker-Up Lemon Loaf

As much as I love sweet things, I love the tart taste of lemon more. I’ve said “extra lemon, please” to so many restaurant servers that most bring me a bowlful as soon as they see me coming. So this lemon bread is both sour and sweet. For a sweeter bread, double the sugar or reduce the lemon zest.

To make, line a 13 x 9-inch pan with parchment paper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together butter, sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Stir in lemon zest.

Sift together flour and baking powder and fork into above mixture.

Stir in the milk.

Spoon batter into pan and smooth the top to level it.

Bake in oven for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown and inserted toothpick comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, put the confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice is a small pan. Heat gently until sugar dissolves – do not boil.

When cake is done, let it cool for about 10 minutes, then prick the top all over with a fork.

Spoon the hot syrup evenly over the cake.

Let cool and serve.

Giddy Goat Cheesecake

Someday I’ll write the “I Can’t Eat Anything!” cookbook, a collection of recipes I’ve created over the years to accommodate food allergies and other dietary considerations that affect members of my family.

And I just may put Giddy Goat Cheesecake on the cover.

It’s made with goat cheese instead of cream cheese and sour cream substitute and is so good that guests without food allergies always ask for a second slice (and so yummy I wish they wouldn’t.)

For the crust, mix together the graham cracker crumbs, butter and brown sugar. Press into the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

While oven is preheating and the crust is baking, make the filling.

Mix filling ingredients on medium speed for 10 to 20 minutes.

Pour over crust and bake for about 45 minutes. Top should be yellow-ish and should shake no more than slightly when you move the pan.

Remove from oven and increase temperature to 400 degrees.

Mix together the sour cream substitute, sugar and vanilla.

Pour over cheesecake filling and use spatula to spread it gently over the top of the cake.

Bake 20 minutes or until topping bubbles on the sides.

Remove from heat. Cool on counter until it reaches room temperature.

Refrigerate for at least several hours or overnight.

Exploding Cranberries Bread

Mine reduces the fat and sugar and increases the cinnamon so I can eat a thick slice in the morning without resigning myself to eating steamed vegetables for the rest of the day.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper or spray with cooking spray. Or do the same with three, 5-inch mini loaf pans.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla. Add orange juice, orange zest, and eggs until well combined.

Add to dry mixture and combine until ingredients are just moistened. (Do not beat.)

Fold in chopped cranberries and sliced almonds. I sometimes substitute coconut for the almonds and sometimes use both.

If using frozen cranberries, there’s no need to thaw them. Just chop. Or not. You will get more of the exploding effect of the cranberries if you leave them whole.

Pour batter into pan(s). Bake about 55-60 minutes if using a large pan, about 35 minutes if using small pans.

Bread is done when inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Let cool before slicing.

Teddy Bear Popovers

When my daughters and I lived in New York’s Upper West Side, we spent a lot of mornings at the Popover Café, a delightful restaurant that made room on its shelves for teddy bears. And displayed written invitations to hold them while feasting on a bottomless basket of popovers, which we drizzled with honey and slathered with strawberry butter.

The Popover Café closed in 2013. I don’t know what happened to the teddy bears, but popovers are alive and well at our house during the holidays.

The recipe is deceptively simple. While it’s impossible to make a bad popover, creating the perfect popover requires attention to detail.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Sift flour into large bowl.

Whisk egg and milk in a small bowl and let sit until they reach room temperature (or heat in microwave until barely warm.)

Stir liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir until just mixed – there will be a few small lumps remaining.

Put the popover pan in oven and heat until just hot – about three minutes. Brush bottoms and sides with melted butter. (Make sure the butter is melted before you take the pan out of the oven – you don’t want the pan to cool.)

Divide batter evenly into 6 popover cups. (I found my popover cups at Williams-Sonoma.)

Bake for 20 minutes at 450 degrees. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and cook for about another 20 minutes until tops are crispy and golden brown.

Popovers rely on steam to reach their dramatic height. Don’t open the oven door to peek at them earlier than the 35-minute mark.

When popovers are done, remove immediately from pans. Serve warm with butter, honey, maple syrup or preserves.

Popovers are a make-you-smile treat. And, unless you go crazy with the toppings, you can enjoy them without guilt. Plain popovers weigh in at about 120 calories.

Non-Cookie Comments! Does this post make you want to kiss a lemon, bite a cranberry or hug a teddy bear? Does boredom prompt you to write better or take a nap? What are your storyteller secrets? Please share your inspired thoughts below.


  1. OMG! hhahahahahah

    It’s 9:30 pm and I am at the library, barely restraining the laughter that is threatening to erupt! hehehehehe

    “5 Ways Sugar Cookies Will Rock Your Social Media World in 2015!” or “3 Super-Easy Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Website the Irish Shortbread Way.”

    hahahahah – I would LOVEEE to see you pen something like this :P You will add life to the most meaningless drivel, Kat ;) (Dang, here I was thinking about some way of connecting Crossword Puzzles and Writing ;) )

    You are awesome – I love you so much, my master storyteller. And I am also glad to find someone else who gets bored of cleaning…scratch that. I get bored of even thinking about cleaning, which is why we have embraced a perpetually messy home, happily blaming Oreo for the much-ruined state of the rooms :P



    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Uh-oh, I don’t want to get you banned from the library! But so glad you got the joke. :)

      You should definitely write something about crossword puzzles and writing. They’re decidely linked, and you will make the connection brilliantly! I take the “step away” approach to both crossword puzzles and writing. The only way I effectively solve either is to let them sit idle while I do something entirely different. Unfortunately, the “step away” approach doesn’t work with housecleaning — the mess seems to grow in my absence. Of course, we blame our four-legged family members, too!

      For you, I take the “step closer” approach — always want to be in hugging range.



Join the Discussion