Austin dessert moguls published “It’s Not Just Cookies: Stories and Recipes from the Tiff’s Treats Kitchen” this month
In the cookie world, think of Tiffany and Leon Chen as Moses, and their new book is like the Ten Commandments. The married couple behind Austin-based cookie delivery empire Tiff’s Treats have, finally, given their recipes to the people.
“We have never given up the recipes before,” says company namesake Tiffany.
And let’s be honest, no matter how closely you follow the steps within “It’s Not Just Cookies: Stories and Recipes from the Tiff’s Treats Kitchen,” nothing will taste as good as a chocolate chip treat found in one of those white boxes with the blue ribbon around it.
The recipes in the book are modified, at-home versions of the company’s treats. And with the exception of the classic chocolate chip, the varieties included are off the beaten path, or the beaten order form: No other standards like M&M or snickerdoodle cookies, but there are flavors like salted caramel and double chocolate mint.
“There’s always going to be that easy order button on your phone,” Tiffany says, but “if you want to do a little more hands-on and something a little more fun, and you have the time and you want to take the effort,” then she thinks the couple’s book is a new way to experience Tiff’s Treats.
Leon says, “A lot goes into baking a cookie that I’ve learned over the years through Tiff’s. … It’s kind of cool, because somebody’s chocolate chip, homemade version of Tiff’s Treats will come out different than someone else’s, depending on the equipment they use, or the type of flour they use. It will be very interesting to see all the different creations out there online as people post.”
Plus: The book’s subtitle doesn’t lie. In the pages of the release from Harper Horizon, out now, fans will find some of the Chens’ now-legendary history as a couple and as cookie czars, as well as behind-the-scenes morsels about family and business life.
Here are some more cookie secrets that the Chens shared with us.
How did they decide which recipes would make the book?
Tiffany says they initially thought to publish specialty recipes that the stores only run for limited times. People ask for those flavors year-round, anyway. “Plus, they’re a little bit more of the fun and more adventurous flavors,” she says.
They knew, however, that they could not get away with leaving out the classic chocolate chip cookie recipe.
“That’s the first one out of the gate. You got to have it,” she says.
“And some non-cookies are in there,” Leon says.
“We’ve got some bars in there that are really cool,” Tiffany says, also pointing out the inclusion of things like truffles and “offshoots of what you can do with cookie-based recipes.”
Sometimes, the past comes back to haunt them.
In “It’s Not Just Cookies,” the couple shares that the original Tiff’s Treats fliers printed Leon’s personal phone number. Do they still get calls for wayward cookie orders?
“Oh, yes,” Leon says. “It’s petered out, but like once a year, maybe twice a year, I’ll get a voicemail. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to order. I don’t know if this is Tiff’s Treats. It doesn’t sound like Tiff’s Treats.’”
“We’re always really curious where they’re coming up with that number,” Tiffany says. “Do they have a 20-year-old flyer in their cabinet, and they pulled it out?”
Customers have found love through cookies.
In Austin, Tiff’s Treats have become punctuation marks for life — they arrive after really happy things, and sometimes, really sad things. They’re delivered for a birthday or a job promotion. A box of cookies is also easy to send when your loved one needs cheering up. (Have you seen flower delivery prices these days?)
You could say that Tiff’s Treats taste like memories.
“We wanted to put what we call warm moments in the book, stories that were sent to us by our customers … all around different moments in different people’s lives,” Leon says. “Happy, sad, comfort-wise. We take it very seriously.”
“There was a guy who would send his girlfriend cookies — I can’t remember what the occasion was, but just (every) so often. Every time, she would save the ribbon from the box,” Tiffany says. “He ended up proposing, and they got married. She took all the ribbons from all the boxes of cookies he had sent her and made a little bouquet out of it for her wedding.”
What was the hardest thing to put in the book?
In “It’s Not Just Cookies,” the Chens don’t shy away from detailing personal and professional low points. Leon says it was particularly difficult writing about times when they weren’t sure if they could cover payroll costs.
“In the early days, there was just so much stress to make things happen, to where I thought I was having some health issues,” Leon says. “I went to the emergency room twice, thinking I was having a stroke. I was having a hard time breathing. And it turns out, the doctor was like, ‘Look, I think you’re having panic attacks.’”
Writing that into the book was something that made Leon pause, but he felt like he owed it to others who might experience something similar.
Do Tiffany and Leon get time to celebrate Valentine’s Day?
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck day. You get up super early in the morning. It’s a crazy stressful day,” Leon says. “Sometimes you come out victorious, and other times you don’t. But either way, it’s an intense workday.”
Tiffany adds: “There was one Valentine’s Day where we were both crying at the drive-thru line at the Whataburger after the day, because it was so intense, and we couldn’t believe it.”
Do the founders of Tiff’s Treats still like eating cookies?
“More than I thought I would,” Leon says.
“I don’t think we ever got to the place where we were having them for dinner. We were around them a ton, and still are. But we can still definitely enjoy it,” Tiffany says.
The book contains almost 30 homemade versions of their recipes, which necessitated testing out some batches. “During the whole past year, we were eating more cookies than probably the decade before combined,” Leon says. “Only over the past few months has my cookie consumption risen.”
Tiffany: “We try to only eat these for work reasons, because there’s enough work reasons to eat them.”
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Could Tiff’s Treats have happened anywhere besides Austin?
“We could not have started this business and made anything of it without having started in Austin when we did at the time,” Leon says.
The couple feels like they grew up with the city, as people and as a business.
“It really took a weird place to take a chance on two kids that didn’t have a real kitchen to start, and (to) order cookies off of a flyer,” he says.
The concept of delivering warm cookies to customers wasn’t a thing when Tiff’s Treats started in 1999, he adds.
“There are so many hard times that we write about in the book where I felt like man, everything’s against this business succeeding,” Leon says. “And the one thing that kept us going was the support of the people in the city of Austin.”
Tiffany those times well. “We opened a little Sixth Street location; it was a huge failure,” she says. But their landlord there introduced them to someone in real estate, who helped them find a new digs. A couple degrees of connection later, and the couple met their first investor.
“We were up into a tight time, because we couldn’t get any more loans,” Tiffany says. “We had already signed a lease for another location. We couldn’t have paid for it without him.” Years later, looking at how things came out in the wash, she’s learned not to replay what might have been.
Leon and Tiffany acknowledge that Austin has changed radically since their start, but they think that there’s still a sense of possibility.
“When you think about when we started … Austin was filled with adventurous people that didn’t care about something being posh and perfect,” Leon says. “They saw a flyer; it seemed interesting. They don’t know where these cookies are coming from or what this is all about, but they’re going to give it a chance.
“I think that the city of Austin is still made up of those people. We may have more buildings, and we may have fancy restaurants and new shopping and things like that. But I still think the spirit of those people is still here.”
Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies
Here’s a recipe from “It’s Not Just Cookies: Stories and Recipes from the Tiff’s Treats Kitchen: by Tiffany and Leon Chen.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 1/2 dozen cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Hershey’s special dark Dutch cocoa
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter candy pieces
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, white sugar and brown sugar together using a hand/electric mixer on medium speed until the mixture is smooth.
Add the eggs, vanilla, salt and baking soda to the butter mixture. Mix on medium speed until the ingredients are incorporated and smooth.
Add the flour and cocoa. Mix on low speed until the flour is no longer loose, then on medium speed until the flour is fully incorporated.
Add the milk chocolate chips and peanut butter candy pieces, and mix on low speed until incorporated fully.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a medium-sized cookie scooper, scoop the cookie dough (approximately 2 tablespoons each) onto the cookie sheet, placing the scoops at least 2 inches apart.
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until the edges are set and darker brown.
Slide the parchment paper with cookies off the cookie sheet and directly onto the counter for cooling. (If not using parchment paper, let the cookies sit for 1 minute and then remove them to cool on the counter or a wire rack.)
Note: Using standard unsweetened cocoa instead of Hershey’s special dark Dutch cocoa will result in a lighter-colored dough with a less rich chocolate flavor.
— Tiffany and Leon Chen