Presidential Cookie Bake Off Round Three: Nancy Regan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars vs. Pat Nixon’s Sequoia Brownies

Reagan and Nixon Cookies 2

Bar Cookie Battle: Nancy Reagan's Vienna Chocolate Bars (left) vs. Pat Nixon's Sequoia Brownies (right)

For the next two weeks leading up to election Day, ModernDomestic will be reviewing our eight favorite presidential cookie recipes, and picking the best of the bunch. Check out last Thursday’s entry for the battle between Teresa Heinz Kerry’s Pumpkin Spice Cookies and Laura Bush’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

Part three of the ModernDomestic Presidential Cookie Bake-off is a Battle of the Bar Cookies. In the ring we have Nancy Regan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars (which I’m sure were so chic in the 1980s) and Pat Nixon’s Sequoia Brownies (named after the Presidential yacht).

Now some ModernDomestic readers have questioned the legitimacy of this particular match-up. After all, not only are both women Republicans, but does a brownie really qualify as a cookie?

This is an interesting question, and I must admit that my opinion on the matter is colored by my childhood devotion to The Joy of Cooking. In my version of Joy from 1975, brownies appear in the chapter “Cookies and Bars,” implying that both are, deep down, merely different expressions of the same baked good. I did some poking around on the Web, and found that Merriam Webster defines a “cookie” as “a small flat or slightly raised cake,” while the Epicurious food dictionary defines a cookie as “any of various hand-held, flour-based sweet cakes” and includes “bar cookies” as one of six types of cookie. So, at least from my limited research, I think I can count bar cookies as belonging to the cookie species.

As for the Republican-Republican match up? Honestly, I could have made Lady Bird Johnson’s Lemon Squares, but Pat Nixon’s Brownies and Nancy Reagan ‘s Vienna Chocolate Bars just looked so much better. And besides, the two are well matched – both women were old-school First Ladies, who presented a perfectly feminine face to the world, but who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support their husband’s political careers.

Pat Nixon’s Sequoia Brownies
I was really excited about this recipe, because I love a good brownie (note: in the spirit of full disclosure, I did not subject ourselves to the walnuts this recipe calls for. I’ve always thought walnuts in brownies were a complete travesty). And these started out as extremely promising—the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients promised a rich and fudgy concoction. When they were baking they smelled absolutely wonderful, and I couldn’t wait to take a bite.

But I was ultimately disappointed. The brownie’s texture was perfect—soft and moist, a cross between a cake and a piece of fudge—but they didn’t have a strong chocolate flavor. Two ounces of unsweetened chocolate wasn’t enough to counterbalance the cup of sugar, and the final product tasted much more of sugar than it did of chocolate. If I were to make them again, I’d double the amount of chocolate, and see if the results were any better. Or I’d just make the Joy of Cooking Brownies Cockaigne recipe, which is absolute perfection (it’s on page 701 of my 1975 edition).

Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars
As soon as I found this recipe I knew I had to make it. The Vienna Chocolate Bar is a layer of butter cookie, topped with a layer of jelly (although I used raspberry jam) and chocolate chips, and then topped again with a layer of meringue mixed with chopped nuts (I used hazelnuts). The combination of jam, chocolate, butter cookies, nuts, and meringue was intriguing, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

I served these at several gatherings, and they were always a big hit. My one quibble is that I wish the recipe were more precise—specifically, I wanted to know how thick the butter cookie crust should have been. But even with a vague recipe, the end result was great. The jam and chocolate melted into a layer of raspberry-chocolate wonderfulness, and I loved contrasting textures of the crisp butter cookie and the chewy meringue. This recipe held together well and is adaptable to a range of different flavors. I would definitely make this again.

The Winner: Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars
I am going against the opinion of Wonktheplank here, who voted for the brownies. But despite his opinion, I just couldn’t get over how un-chocolately Pat Nixon’s brownies were. The Vienna Chocolate bars had it all – butter cookie, fruit, chocolate, nuts, and the textures and flavors worked together to create an excellent whole. Granted, I’ll probably fiddle with Pat Nixon’s recipe before I make Nancy Reagan’s again, simply because the brownies were very easy to whip up and the Vienna Chocolate Bars required much more effort. But if you’re looking for recipes for your next dinner party and want to make an unusual but satisfying cookie, look no further than Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars.

You can find both recipes here:

Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars

1 cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ cups flour
¼ tsp salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 egg yolks
10 oz jar jelly (note: I used raspberry jam)
4 egg whites
2 cups chopped nuts (I used finely chopped hazelnuts)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter, ½ cup of the sugar, and egg yolks. Add the flour and gently knead or stir until the dough just comes together. Pat the dough flat onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Spread jelly (or jam) over the cookie base and sprinkle over chocolate chips. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold in remaining sugar and nuts. Spread egg white meringue over the chocolate and jelly. Bake again for 25 minutes.

Pat Nixon’s Sequoia Brownies

2 squares (two oz) unsweetened chocolate
½ cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup sifted flour
1 cup chopped walnuts (walnuts have no place in brownies!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and dust with flour (Note: I actually lined the bottom of my baking pan with parchment and was very glad I did! Otherwise they would have been very difficult to get out). Melt chocolate, either in a double-boiler or in the microwave on low heat, and let cool. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, beat well. Blend in chocolate and flour. Stir in nuts. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 35 minutes. Makes 16.



  1. Rebecca said

    I beg to differ on walnuts place in a good brownie. I love nuts in baked goods. But based on the recipes I am more intrigued by Nancy Regan’s concoction. Although I have more confidence in Pat Nixon’s ability to cook.

  2. moderndomestic said

    Oh, see I always hated when I got a brownie at a function growing up, only to find it studded with walnuts. I’m okay with nuts in other baked goods (although I like them pretty finely ground-like using almond flour in an almond cake), but I would never willingly put a walnut in a brownie.

    I suppose this is yet another example of baked goods being largely a matter of personal taste (which I think is really evident when you read things like the Washington Post Cupcake Wars).

  3. Alice said

    I think walnuts are an essential part of brownies. If they aren’t present the brownie is just a mass of overwhelming chocolate stickiness. The vienna bars sound far tastier.

  4. Mike Licht said

    Are you really gonna put things called “Nixon Cookies” in your MOUTH?


  5. Bonnie (AKA Mom) said

    I’ve trained you well, Jen. I agree, “no nuts in brownies” and the Joy of Cooking (old version) is simply the best brownie going. I can’t tell you how many other fancier versions of brownies I’ve made and they are never as good as that old recipe. It’s what a brownie should be in taste and texture. They were the all time favorite of you three kids when you were growing up and that includes the famous Nestle Chocolate Chip recipe (also without nuts) which ran a close second.

  6. Eszter Weress said

    I have been making Nancy Reagan Vienna Bars for years, since I saw her recipe in a paper in NY 2 decades ago.
    We moved to Texas 12 years ago, and I continued making them, mostly at Christmas time.
    I haven’t made them in several years.
    This year my family wanted the Vienna Bars and I couldn’t find the old recipe.
    I finally looked it up on Yahoo and was thrilled to find it
    Thank you!!!

  7. moderndomestic said

    Hi Eszter,

    Glad I could help! It’s a great recipe.


  8. Michelle said

    My grandma has been making these for decades ever since she saw them in a magazine. She still has the original clipping. They are SO good!! She makes them with apricot spread.

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