Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Cat Batch Fever

What’s the secret to those coffeeshop cookies? A lot of love and a little flexibility.

June 21, 2023

Hanna Raskin ’98

Manager Hillel Hinton_Williams Baking Cookies.
The beloved recipe leaves some room for baker discretion, says manager Hillel Hinton-Williams.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’98

According to the cookie recipe tacked to a wall of the Cat in the Cream, one tablespoon of molasses can be substituted for one cup of sugar. But when Hillel Hinton-Williams is working at Oberlin’s student-run coffeehouse, he sometimes adds a little more molassesto the mix.

“These cookies are very forgiving if a person wants to vary amounts, or add in ginger or allspice, or use extra salt,” says Williams, a senior from St. Joseph, Minnesota, studying psychology and education. “They allow for that personal touch.”

Hillel Hinton-Williams baking cookies.
The Cat in the Cream's employees bake a huge batch of cookies
every morning to satisfy the overwhelming demand from the community.

Customization has always been a defining feature of cookies at the Cat, which prides itself on showcasing unique voices and spurning cover charges. While the recipe appears to have originated on the back of a Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip bag—a theory consistent with former Associate Dean of Students Clark
Drummond’s vague recollection of the preparation having been borrowed from a co-op in the 1980s—generations of students have shaped the cookies into
a singular aspect of campus culture.

The Cat has served cookies almost since the start. In 1978— three years after student Jennifer DeBeer ’78 converted a staff breakroom in the basement of Bosworth Hall into “an alternative to the boozy, smoky atmosphere in the Rathskeller”—an Oberlin Review event listing for the café promised “live cookies and homemade entertainment.” (If you didn’t laugh, try reading that line again very late on a Thursday night, which is when the paper’s staff scrambles to meet its weekly deadline.)

Around that time, Lee Stern ’78 immortalized the menu item in a poem. “I sat at a table and looked hopefully/From corner to corner for some trace of esprit/One skinny guitarist, one bony old hound/Some world-weary cookies were all that I found.”

As Stern’s verse suggests, the Cat’s free-thinking student employees weren’t all equally enamored of the presumably chocolate-chip cookies. In 1992, years after the venue had relocated to the Hales Gym Annex, manager Ray Vinkey ’93 announced plans for the café to shake off its folksy image—freshly baked cookies included.

Weekly Jazz Forum at the Cat in the Cream.
The Cat in the Cream has been hosting a weekly Jazz Forum,
open to the entire Oberlin community, for 30 years.

“Our format has shifted to having jazz, and sometimes alternative theater, and occasionally rock,” he told a Review reporter, adding: “We’ve also tried to diversify and broaden the kinds of food we have. Bread. Pizza. All types of juices that the heart might desire.”

What the heart apparently desires most are warm cookies with unpredictable amounts of sugar and spice. Starting in the early 2000s, they became a campus-wide fixation.

Students endured “extraordinarily long lines” for oatmeal raisin cookies and tea, but the Cat’s staff felt like they bore the brunt of the cookies’ massive popularity. They dreaded working when improv comedy was on the night’s bill because they couldn’t bake cookies quickly enough to keep the ostensibly good-humored crowd happy.

“We have to battle with a very unhelpful oven to make these cookies,” Hinton-Williams explains.

Lately, he has been lobbying to add scones to the menu. In the meantime, he continues to individualize its cookies by playing fast and loose with the molasses.

By now, he rarely needs to consult the tacked-up recipe. But it closes with the instruction to “Wipe the sides of the molasses bottle before returning it to the shelf,” because at the Cat in the Cream—regardless of choices made nightly about cinnamon and raisins—a collective mindset still reigns.

Check out two of the Cat in the Cream's famous cookie recipes below.

The Cat in the Cream’s Non-Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies


2 cups butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups brown sugar (or 2 tablespoons of molasses)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 dash cinnamon
4 cups oats
3 cups chocolate chips


Heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine butter and sugars in a large bowl. Add eggs and vanilla; stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.

Pour dry mixture into wet mixture and stir until combined fully. Stir in oats and chocolate chips.

Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges of cookies are slightly brown.

The Cat in the Cream’s Vegan Cookies


1 cup margarine, softened
1 ½ cups granulated sugar (or 1 tablespoon molasses)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
5 teaspoons water
¼ cup soy milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups oats
Cinnamon (optional)
Raisins (optional)


Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine margarine and sugars in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine cornstarch and water. Pour wet mixture into dry mixture and stir until combined fully. Add soy milk, vanilla, flour, baking soda, and oats, as well as preferred amount of cinnamon and raisins.

Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges of cookies are slightly brown.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.

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