Since its inception, cookie cake has been culturally important. In the Showtime series I Love That For You, a Cleveland tween cancer patient named Joanna has just gotten up out of her hospital bed to explore. She finds a group of nurses laughing and slicing up the dessert. “Is that a cookie cake?” she asks. “Yes,” a nurse responds, “it’s my birthday, and cookie cake is my favorite.” With the devilish grin of a child cancer patient knowing she can guilt-trip the nurses, the show cuts back to the hospital bed with Joanna plopping the full cookie cake down in front of her and taking a satisfied bite.
Why, exactly, is the cookie cake? This dessert has always perplexed me—a cookie frosted like a cake and shaped like a pizza? What is the cookie cake’s history, and why is it popular? Perhaps, simply, it is popular because people love cookies. And a large cookie is even more compelling.
The Cookie Cake was first conceived by Michael Coles and Arthur Karp, two businessmen who wanted to get into the cookie business and founded the company Great American Cookies. Coles was inspired to use his grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe after visiting a busy cookie shop in a San Diego mall.
“When the company began looking for real estate, many landlords passed on leasing to the company believing standalone cookie stores couldn’t make enough money,” writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. However, the duo opened their first store in 1977 in Atlanta’s Perimeter Mall, and it was an immediate hit. Forty-five years later, the mall is still an important aspect of Great American Cookies’ continued success.
“The cookie cake slice was, and still is, such a popular impulse buy, especially in the mall environment, because it’s easy to walk around with,” says Katie Thoms, Sr. Marketing Director at Fat Brands, Great American Cookie’s parent company. “We have research that supports that the cookie cake is a destination food, and people will drive to the mall to pick [one] up.”
While Great American Cookies would go on to expand beyond malls, its foundational history as a mall food staple and nostalgic touchstone has certainly kept their popularity going.
“These kids that grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s are now having children, and they have this nostalgic myth about cookie cake,” said Thoms.
While perhaps best known as a dessert for children’s birthday parties, cookie cakes have become an emblem of the college sports recruiting process. According to ESPN, the now common practice of having cookie cakes prepared for football recruits began in 1991 at Army, when head coach Bob Sutton, who realized that visiting West Point as a recruit could be intimidating, “wanted to humanize and personalize the experience for visiting prospects.”
The cookie cake became a facet of the football recruiting process, a soft and sweet way to endear a university to players. “Recruits talk and compare what one school did for them and what another didn’t. And so, the cookie cake as recruiting tool spread.”
Cookie cakes have even been at the center of a college recruiting scandal. In 2014, the University of South Carolina’s Compliance Department self-reported a group of potential infractions, including one regarding “impermissible icing.” The NCAA bylaw in question states that “An institution may not arrange miscellaneous, personalized recruiting aids.”
Perhaps the University of South Carolina was worried that personalized cookie cakes with recruits’ names piped on in colorful frosting might be seen as an illegal recruiting move. Luckily for college recruits, the NCAA did not choose to further investigate.
Here is a tweet showing the top safety in the 2023 recruiting class receiving a cookie cake from the University of Georgia:
At this point, most companies in the confectionary space have gotten hip to the cookie cake. The product can be found at grocery stores and bakeries across the country. One noteworthy derivation comes from the restaurant chain BJ’s, which has an item called a pizookie.
Founded in 1978 and originally called BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria, BJ’s created the pizookie, a cookie baked in a personal pizza pan and often served with ice cream on top. While I cannot cosign the messy portmanteau, the pizookie is proof that cookie cake is not simply a novelty, but a powerful idea that can take different forms.
Perhaps one reason that cookie cakes have remained popular is that they are comparatively simpler than a traditional cake.
“[Cookie cake] is easier to make, as opposed to baking a cake (usually with layers), and then icing and decorating a cake,” said Julie and Tommy Wang, who own and operate Chicago-based bakery Sweet Mandy B’s. “They’re also sturdier than a traditional cake, which can be delicate. The cookie cakes are packaged in a pizza-style box, which makes it easier and lighter to carry home or to a party.”
While a traditional cake can certainly be customizable, the cookie cake’s more open and blank design (with frosting along the edges like a pizza crust) lends itself to customization.
“Essentially, people use cookie cakes as a messaging vehicle, like you would use it as a greeting card,” says Thoms. “We have people from real estate firms celebrating new home buyers, kids asking each other to prom—you can kind of make a smash cake out of it and do a gender reveal. I think everyone falls back to having some fun with it.”
Maybe I underestimated cookie cakes. While I will always believe that traditional cake has hegemonic control, everyone has a different opinion.
“There are some people who simply prefer cookies over cake,” said Julie and Tommy Wang. “Some people just don’t like cake that much, believe it or not.”
The cookie cake gives the cookie its big-time moment. It needn’t be relegated to the realm of bite-sized treats. Here it claims its space as deserving of a central dessert role, a reputation equal to that of a layered birthday cake. Looking at its history, I’m starting to believe it.