I am not the sort of baker who dabbles in "health food." I have no interest in sneaking protein or fiber into my recipes, or smuggling some sort of seaweed purée into a batch of frosting to make kom-buttercream. My one and only goal is to make and share recipes for desserts that I love to eat.
But when my beloved sister-in-law came to me, nine months pregnant, asking if I would conquer lactation cookies on her behalf, I was powerless to refuse—though I've never baked, tasted, or required such a thing myself.
So what are lactation cookies? They're cookies made with ingredients reputed to promote milk production in nursing mothers, such as oats, barley, brewer's yeast, and flax, as well as all sorts of nuts, spices, and obscure herbs. While scientists have a solid understanding of galactagogues in a chemical and pharmaceutical sense, the effectiveness of particular foods in promoting lactation is not well studied.
But nursing mothers in many cultures have long turned to certain foods to boost their milk supplies, from macadamia nuts and ginger to cinnamon and even chocolate. Internet forums are crowded with advice on the matter from moms who've put various recipes to the test, and many commercial products have sprung up to cash in on that interest.
I'm not here to debate the clinical efficacy of lactation cookies; I'm here as a baker with the power to make my sister-in-law's request come true in the tastiest possible way, given the requirements of the genre. Which is not, as it turns out, a tall order, as the list of supposed galactagogues includes a number of flat-out-amazing ingredients, like malt and the aforementioned macadamia nuts.
Whether or not these ingredients work as intended may be up for debate, but there's a delicious logic in bringing them together in a buttery cookie (or a vegan one!).
With a different name, these malted oatmeal cookies loaded with nuts, chocolate chips, and spices could be anyone's new favorite thing. Is the term "lactation cookie" just a genius bit of branding that ensures nursing moms needn't worry about other people's sticky fingers ending up on their cookie stash?
The Specialty Ingredients You'll Need
Because of its reliance on a roster of very specific ingredients that can supposedly promote lactation, this recipe requires more than a casual grocery run. Most of the following items can be found at a well-stocked health food shop, but call ahead to save yourself the hassle of running all over town, or shop for them online.
- Non-bitter brewer's yeast powder, such as BlueBonnet Brewer's Yeast
- Ground flax seed, such as Spectrum Essentials flax seed
- Barley malt syrup, such as Eden Foods Barley Malt
- Commercial oat flour, such as Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Oat Flour or Arrowhead Mills Organic Oat Flour
It can be something of an investment to assemble all of these ingredients the first time you make a batch of these cookies, but you'll be well prepared to keep the nursing mother in your life armed with cookies for a year to come.
Beyond that, many of these ingredients can be used in other recipes here on Serious Eats (or in my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts). Ground flax is a personal favorite of mine in multigrain bread, homemade granola, and raisin bran muffins.
Oat flour is a key ingredient in the oatmeal cookies from my book, as well as in my favorite recipe for banana bread. Please note that commercial oat flour is milled from raw oat groats, so it cannot be made from scratch from rolled oats (which are steamed husked oat groats). Not only will a DIY version lack the nutritional value of commercial oat flour, its thickening power will be greatly reduced as well.
The heavy-hitting ingredients in this recipe are rolled oats, macadamia nuts, oat flour, brewer's yeast powder, all-purpose flour, flax meal, and chocolate chips (in assorted percentages and styles; see my list of favorite supermarket chocolate chips for brand recommendations).
It's an assortment of dry ingredients that's conducive to long-term storage, so I can scale out the bulk of this recipe all at once (thus taking care of the most time-consuming step) and stash the dry mix on my pantry shelf until the date stamped on the package of macadamia nuts.
Having that dry mix on hand allows me to throw these cookies together at a moment's notice when my sister-in-law stops by, as the remaining ingredients are fairly standard for cookies: butter, sugar, baking soda, salt, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon. The only unusual component at this stage is barley malt syrup, but the technique is perfectly classic.
I start by mixing on low speed, using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, to gently combine the ingredients without flinging them from the bowl.
Once they come together in a lumpy paste, I increase the speed to medium and cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is soft, pale, light, and much more voluminous.
The timing of this step will vary depending on the power of a given mixer, the capacity of its bowl, ingredient temperature, and other factors, so those physical cues of transformation are more important than any strict timetable. For those who'd like more information on this technique, please see our complete guide to the creaming method.
Along the way, I'll always pause to scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, which gives me a chance to feel the texture of the butter and sugar myself, helping me to ascertain whether it's soft and light or firm and dense.
When it's ready, I crack in an egg and keep mixing until smooth.
Once the egg is emulsified into the dough, I add the prepared dry mix all at once, with the mixer running on low.
I let the mixer keep running until the dry mix is fully incorporated, with no patches of flour left behind.
After it's incorporated, I fold the dough a few times, using a flexible spatula, to make certain it's homogeneous. From there, it's ready to be divided into two-tablespoon portions.
As a final touch, I top each portion with a few extra chocolate chips. Aside from boosting the overall chocolate content of each cookie, this surface application gives each freshly baked cookie a few glossy splashes of chocolate right on the top. Strictly necessary? Definitely not. Capable of making these cookies infinitely more alluring? You'd better believe it.
Because these cookies are intended for a single person, it's best not to bake them off all at once. I highly recommend setting aside only a dozen cookies to bake and transferring the rest to a heavy-duty zip-top bag for cold storage.
The dough will keep for a few weeks in the fridge, or a few months in the freezer, which means nursing mothers can enjoy a continuous supply of freshly baked cookies for weeks to come.
Thanks to the barley malt syrup, the cookies may seem a touch darker than you'd expect from a classic chocolate chip cookie, but don't mistake that color for doneness. To keep them soft inside and crispy outside, pull the cookies from the oven when they're firm around the edges but still a bit puffy and wet in the middle. For fully crisp cookies, or fully soft ones, simply bake them a little more or less.
How to Make Vegan Lactation Cookies
For an extra dose of oats, the egg in this recipe can be replaced with the oat slurry from my Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies. And from there, they can be made completely vegan by trading the butter for refined coconut oil; everything else, including the technique, remains the same. The vegan version looks just as inviting, too.
Either way, anyone could fall in love with these hearty cookies, chock-full of bittersweet chocolate and crunchy macadamia nuts, underscored by a deep malted flavor, with a hint of warm spice and vanilla. But please, keep calling them "lactation cookies" so nursing mothers don't have to share.