Presidential Cookie Bake Off: Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal Butterscotch Cookies vs. Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies

McCain and Obama Cookies

Cindy McCain's Oatmeal Butterscotch Chip Cookies (left) compete against Michelle Obama's Shortbread Cookies (right).

For the past two weeks leading up to election Day, ModernDomestic has been reviewing our eight favorite presidential cookie recipes, and picking the best of the bunch. Check out yesterday’s entry for the battle between Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars and Pat Nixon’s Sequoia Brownies.

Well this is it folks. Just one more set of recipes to go. And you knew that I couldn’t possibly do the bake off without testing out the recipes of our two current presidential nominee’s wives: Cindy McCain‘s Oatmeal Butterscotch Chip Cookies and Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies.

Just like the 2004 elections, there’s been some controversy around the 2008 Presidential Cookie Bake-Off, but this time it’s the Republicans submitting fake recipes. Yes, that’s right, Cindy McCain actually stole her recipe from the Hershey’s Web site. Or, shall I say, she “modified” the recipe from the Hershey’s Web site—Hershey’s calls for 1 3/4 cups butterscotch chips, while McCain’s recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups. Wow, a whopping difference of 1/12 of a cup of butterscotch chips!

While I think it’s a little ridiculous to expect the first ladies to have “family” cookie recipes these days (I mean, doesn’t everyone just get their cookie recipe from the back of the Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Bag?), you really wonder that Cindy McCain didn’t learn from the Teresa Heinz Kerry Pumpkin Spice Cookie scandal. The campaign also tried to pass off a bunch of Food Network recipes as Cindy McCain’s, but at least they were able to blame that on a hapless intern.

Michelle Obama has stayed out of the fray, submitting a family recipe for shortbread. Or, at least, if it isn’t a family recipe, it isn’t an easily Google-able one. The recipe is adaptable and can be spiced up with different fruits, nuts or flavorings.

Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal Butterscotch Cookies
Oh my God these were so disgusting. There’s no other way to say it. Part of it is that the “butterscotch chips” are incredibly sweet, and flavored with a fake-butterscotch flavoring that just set my teeth on edge. The cookie dough is sweet enough without the chips, and the chips send them over the edge into “nauseating” territory. Even Wonktheplank, who likes sweet things, thought they were way too much.

The recipe also didn’t bake well. My first batch spread out while they were baking, and when I tried to remove them from the baking sheet the cookies shattered. I refrigerated the second batch for 20 minutes or so before baking, which helped with the spreading problem and improved the texture slightly. Still, there was really nothing redeeming about these cookies. Overly sweet, artificial tasting, and oily, they had nothing to recommend them. How the hell did these win the official bake off? I now suspect that people who voted in the bake off didn’t make the recipes, because these were seriously gross.

Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies
This recipe was absolutely wonderful-the cookies were as amazing as Cindy McCain’s were awful. The texture was perfect—slightly chewy, but crisp on the outside, sweet without being overly sweet, and the butter flavor really came through. I actually didn’t use the amaretto to flavor the cookies, because I didn’t want to buy a huge bottle of liqueur that I would never use again (and I couldn’t quite justify the $12 splurge). So I used 1 ½ teaspoons of almond extract instead, and the results were just heavenly. The almond complemented the subtle citrus flavoring of the lemon and orange zest.

I liked this recipe because it produced an excellent cookie that, if you wanted to, could be easily adapted to different tastes. For instance, smeared with lemon curd and meringue, this could be the base of an excellent lemon bar. Or mixed with dried cranberries, cinnamon, and almonds, it could become a Christmas cookie. I bet that it would also be excellent with chocolate chips mixed into the dough.

Winner: Obama’s Shortbread Cookies (by a mile).
There really was no contest here. When I took them into work everyone devoured them; I didn’t even take Cindy McCain’s because they were to disgusting to serve to my coworkers.

I actually appreciated this cookie for similar reasons that I appreciated the Laura Bush Cookie—the underlying cookie recipe was excellent. Even if you don’t agree with some of the ingredients (like, say, you don’t like almond or lemon) you can use the recipe and adapt it to your taste. In my mind, that’s the sign of a good recipe, and another reason that made this shortbread so outstanding.

Both recipes can be found on the Family Circle Web site.

Hershey’s Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal-Butterscotch Cookies


3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups rolled oats
1-2/3 cups butterscotch chips

Heat oven to 375F. In a large bowl beat the butter or margarine, granulated sugar and brown sugar together. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating well. In a medium-size bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture; stir until blended. Stir in oats and butterscotch chips. Drop by tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets (note: if for some sadistic reason you want to make these cookies, I recommend covering your cookie sheet with parchment paper). Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes: 5-1/2 dozen cookies

Michelle Obama’s Shortbread Cookies

1 + 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 + 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Amaretto (almond liqueur)
1 teaspoon each orange and lemon zest
3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg white
Chopped nuts or dried fruit (optional)

Heat oven to 325°F. Line a 17 x 12 x 1-inch baking pan with nonstick foil. In large bowl, cream together butter and 1-1/2 cups of the sugar. Slowly add egg yolks, and beat well until smooth. Beat in Amaretto and zest. Stir in flour and salt until combined. Spread dough evenly into prepared pan, flattening as smoothly as possible. Brush top of dough with egg white; sprinkle with nuts or fruit (if using) and with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake at 325°F for 25 minutes or until brown, turn off oven and allow cookies to sit in oven (with door ajar) for 15 minutes. Cut while slightly warm. Makes: 6 dozen 2-inch x 3-inch cookies



  1. I hate to think of the McCain with an extra 1/12 of a cup of butterscotch. They were too butterscotchy altogether as it was.

  2. I’m so glad the Michelle Obama cookies won! And it is funny that Cindy McCain couldn’t even steal a good recipe. .

  3. Rebecca said

    I am not at all surprised that Cindy McCain’s lost. After all I didn’t think that vampires ate cookies. The age old rule is that you shouldn’t cook something that you don’t like. But I guess you can’t cook much out of Cindy McCain’s500-or-less-calorie-a-day diet of the blood of democrats. How does this woman live in Arizona?

  4. moderndomestic said

    Oh I know, she totally doesn’t look like someone who actually eats food.

    The weird thing is that her recipe actually won the Family Circle Bake Off. Like, the hell? Did anyone actually make the cookies? How in the world could these monstrosities win?

  5. Oh, I’m such a slut for shortbread it would be no contest anyway. Thanks for the recipe!

  6. […] is actually appropriate, since I’ve been deeply puzzled about shortbread ever since I made Michelle Obama’s shortbread cookies. I had always though that shortbread was a crisp, hard, and dry butter cookie – like Pepperidge […]

  7. […] could make an almond dessert that everyone could love. After all, I loved the amaretto flavoring in Michelle Obama’s shortbread, so perhaps my poor opinion of almonds was unjustly founded on too many lousy almond […]

  8. Emily said

    So I’ve been searching for a chocolate shortbread recipe to futz with, and yours came up from your March Bakeoff. But then the link to this recipe in that blog has me wondering if Michelle’s recipe could be turned chocolatey. I love that it has no added sugar and I also love that it kicked Cindy McCain’s ass in real taste testing. (As if the public really knows wtf they’re talking about in Family Circle.)

  9. Emily said

    Ah never mind, I see the sugar. But still, looks yummy.

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