The Pina Colada is not a drink, but a cookie. Topped with a thin thatch of blond shredded coconut, it marries the sweet bombast of coconut and pineapple puree and artificial rum flavoring in a cakey-base studded with middling chocolate chunks. There’s a Love Boat-style fantasy of a poolside vacation in here somewhere, but the flavors are murky, the texture kind of gummy, and who wants chocolate in their tropical rum drink, anyway? In the end, it’s just a composite of contradictory, eager-to-please flavors, and a cookie I’d rather not finish.
That’s the general gist of the cookies I sampled from Ruby et Violette, a bakery owned by Trump mega-donor Rebekah Mercer and her two sisters. The Mercer family just may be the single biggest reason we have our own thin-thatched blond in the oval office today, and I wanted to know how the dark art of political machination interacts with the mostly sunny craft of making sweet treats. Until the Koch Brothers launch their own artisanal caramel line, this was my only chance to find out. So I ordered a 24-cookie assortment.
Mercer is the daughter of hedge-fund giant Robert Mercer, and is viewed as the major player in her family’s political patronage, which includes ownership stakes in Breitbart news and data mining service company Cambridge Analytica. As Politico reported in November last year, the Mercer family at that point had “given more than $48 million to campaigns, committees or companies run in part by top Trump allies or advisers.” Though you won’t see Rebekah as a surrogate on Fox news, she took a key role on the executive committee of Trump’s transition, reportedly making sure his pond was stocked with the likes of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, spokesperson Kellyanne Conway and once-National Security Advisor and current-5th Amendmenteer Michael Flynn. Most directly, perhaps, she is a major supporter of Steve Bannon, and reportedly talked him out of quitting his position as adviser to the president when he was ousted from the National Security Committee.
But before she was a major power broker, and still to this day, Mercer is a bakery owner. She and her sisters bought Ruby et Violette, a Hell’s Kitchen bakery, in 2006. At the time, the shabby-chic establishment was known for its endless variations of chocolate chunk cookies and New York magazine named it home of one of the city’s top eight ice cream sandwiches. Eventually the sisters closed the brick and mortar bakery locations, and the cookies are now sold strictly through phone and online orders. At one point, at least, the cookie store was willing to court both sides of the aisle: The Ruby et Violette website boasts 2009 letters from both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, thanking “the Mercer Girls,” as Clinton called them, for their cookies. (Who knows what the two presidents actually thought of the sweets; an edible gift from such flush potential donors is always delicious.)
But now that the Mercers and their wares are solidly in the Trump camp, I worked my way through my box of cellophane-wrapped cookies wondering if there were any messages I could glean among the cocoa and marshmallows.
The bakery focuses on very chunky cookies; about three dozen flavors of them are listed on the website (along with a selection of brownies that I didn’t try). As at an ice cream parlor, choice is clearly part of the fun here: When ordering the cookies, you pick your box size first and then add icons for each flavor of cookie you want to put in it. The bakery has gone long on novelty flavors, particularly ones that evoke a certain cozy sense of Americana: one of baseball games and diners and southern celebrations that all fit into the MAGA world view. There’s the unfortunate Root Beer Float, a brown sugar cookie with lots of artificial root beer essence, chewy chunks of melted marshmallows and pale plaques of chalky white chocolate. “It’s outta here!” is a sticky light chocolate cookie studded with peanut butter chips, caramel chips and caramel-coated nuts, whose sugar melts into little chewy divots in the cookie. It’s a likable concept, fueled by visions of Babe Ruth bars and Cracker Jacks, but mawkishly sugary in practice. The Red Velvet cookie is more successful, a daub of tangy cream cheese to offsets the sweet matrix of the lightly-cocoa’d cookies. But all these high-concept varieties lean heavily on artificial flavors that ultimately undermine the quality of the cookie.
One could argue that a plain chocolate chip cookie is a nostalgic gesture in itself, and of course Ruby et Violette makes a simple version of the classic American form, dubbed the Perfect. Like almost all of the bakery’s cookies it has a moist, unvarying cakey texture that leans hard on sugar, and is fairly generously populated with semisweet chocolate chips. There are many ways for a chocolate cookie to be great, but all great cookies commit fully to some aspect of the form. A chocolate chip cookie can go long on quality, bittersweet chocolate (like, say a Jacques Torres cookie) or a distinctive texture (like impossibly crisp Tate’s). The Perfect, on the other hand, fails to take a strong stand and ends up just moderately pleasant.
I have rarely come across so many white chocolate confections in a bakery (see their Instagram celebration of the substance here). It’s tempting to take a big haymaker at white supremacist politics amid all these white chunks: Just imagine Jeff Sessions nibbling at an all-white chocolate assortment of cookies as tells big city police departments to stop worrying about racial bias. The truth is, however, that there is a place for white chocolate in baking, which is to sweeten and offset other flavors when they get to be too intense. The problem is that most of the cookies I tasted are far from intense. In fact, they merge on meekness, like the Lemon White, a fine-in-theory lemon cookie studded with grainy white chocolate chunks. The best lemon desserts toy with you on the edge of astringency but the lemon flavor here is just an echo of the actual fruit: more like the soft yellow sweetness of lemon Jell-O.
Better an understated lemon cookie, I suppose, than the Champagne Strawberry, a cookie with a stripper name that was the worst of the batch. Everything about it has the whiff of manufactured desire. The strawberries in question are sticky and dried, the semisweet chocolate chips are cloying and its artificial champagne flavor leaves sweet hung-over taste in the mouth. Do I imagine that Steve Bannon likes this cookie best? Yes I do.
On the whole, the bakery’s best cookies are those built on chocolate cookie batter selections; that is, if you can get past the embarrassingly overheated names like “Primal Seduction,” (banana puree and peanut butter chips) and “Creamy Seduction” (chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting). The whole chocolate as aphrodisiac theme seems very retro, as if Cathy the Cartoon were penning the cookie titles. Still, “Rocky seduction,” a play on rocky road, finally incorporates some interesting textural variation with crunchy nuts and chewy bits of marshmallow studding the cocoa-based cookie. Exotic Seduction, which takes the slot that at any other bakery would be called a Mexican chocolate cookie, has a prickle of hot spices in its mix along with chocolate chips, bringing enough pizzazz and sharpness to balance out the sweetness.
Surely the time needed for a cross country flight and their airtight packaging doesn’t do the cookies any favors. Ruby et Violette might have been a pretty great bakery when it was still a brick-and-mortar shop, with the scent of baking in the air and chocolate chips still semi-molten in still warm cookies. In its current state, it’s sort of stuck in between genres. It doesn’t deliver serious cookies intense with high end chocolateand other natural flavors. Nor does it go all in for a flamboyantly decorative motif like a rainbow assortment of macaroons. The company doesn’t even seen to be able to settle on a name. It appears to be in the midst of a puzzling soft rebranding, with its cookie packaging covered with logos for “The Indulgent Baker” and an Instagram handle to match. (Could this be a sign of discomfort with the bakery’s original Francophilic name, when the Mercers seem committed to such an America First foreign policy?)
Overall, with its “cookie concierge” and delivery services within Manhattan dialed in, Ruby et Violette-slash-The Indulgent Baker seems most valuable for its logistical competency. The price isn’t too high (about $2 a cookie, before delivery, but in New York bakeries, cookies can easily go for more like $4 each), and a cookie gift can deliver the impression of indulgence in a brisk efficient manner, for wedding favors, for holiday gifts to your accountant or as a welcome platter for any visiting autocrat. Though honestly, if you really want to delight your autocrat, you might want to splurge on some financiers from Maison Kayser or some pineapple linzers from Té.
Among the cookies, one stands out above the others by a considerable margin. It’s a chewy peanut-butter oatmeal cookie that’s a little bit assertive in flavor, with a wisp of smoked sea salt and nicely contrasting chocolate chips. It, too, has a weird name: It’s called “The Breakup: His Story.” (There is a feminine version, with, you guessed it, white chocolate.) The web copy tries to explain the name: “This is the answer to any bad day. Oatmeal, peanut butter, caramel, dark chocolate and smoked salt. The result: Breakup? … What Breakup?”
With so many bad days ahead, I only wish that the cookie truly had the power of oblivion.
But it isn’t that good.