Since Verlie Payne opened Hudsons Cookies at Spectrum Center six months ago, her crispy-edge, gooey-center, ginormously large cookies have been flying off the shelves.
Payne has been perfecting her cookie recipes for over 20 years, ever since she left her high-finance job in New York City to pursue her passion. It started with culinary school. It included a stint at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan, just as Flay was rising to national prominence.
It included ghostwriting cookbooks and developing cookie recipes for a multibillion-dollar company. And then it got personal.
She vowed that if she was going to build an empire, it would be for her family, not for someone else’s. So she methodically began baking her way through over 300 cookie recipes in the 4-by-4-foot kitchen of her New York City apartment.
“It took me years,” she says. “I baked my way through every single recipe, and I whittled down what worked and what didn’t work.”
She ordered chocolate – 500 pounds at a time. She burned through two KitchenAid mixers, which last most home cooks a lifetime, in under two years. When a cookie came out too flat, she was on the phone to Gold Medal Flour, asking why.
“I just tested like a madwoman,” she says. “My neighbors were my taste-testers. And when they said they couldn’t eat anymore, I’d go to the next street over and ask, ‘Who wants cookies?’ ”
When you’re dealing with butter and fat and flour and leavening, you have to put on your science cap, she says. “And that was my science class.”
By October 2007, she was ready to incorporate her own business. She looked down at the bundle of joy in her arms – her 5-month-old son, Hudson – and named it after him.
New York to Irvine
Hudsons Cookies were ready for market, but with an infant son, Payne couldn’t possibly open her own shop. That would have to wait. So she became what’s called a private labeler — selling her dough to coffee shops, cafes and larger businesses. Among her clients: Legoland California, which attracts more than 1.4 million guests each year.
Along the way, she kept refining her technique. She already knew that salt and butter (really good butter) were keys to a perfect cookie. Now, she knew another key: resting your dough in the fridge for three days before baking.
“That lets the flavors marinate,” she says. “There’s a caramelization that happens when you use a lot of brown sugar. Something magical happens when you let it sit, and the third day seems to be the winning day.”
As her children grew (twin girls followed Hudson), so did Payne’s dream of owning her own cookie shop.
“I love connecting with people,” she says. “I’d never opened a retail store, but I wanted to be in a place where I could connect with people and give them an incredible experience.”
There was also a natural tug toward Orange County, where she had lived before moving to New York.
“I know it’s just a cookie, but it’s made from the heart. This is whatIlovetodo,andIhopeit shows in my work.” – Verlie Payne
“We wanted to come back here to provide a better lifestyle for the kids,” she says. “Here, they could be outdoors year-round. It’s a calmer place, a warmer culture, and we just craved that.”
A cookie experience
Walk into Hudsons Cookies at Spectrum Center and you’ll notice there are no placards on the shelves identifying the cookies. That’s intentional.
“We want you to talk to us,” Payne says. “We want it to feel a little bit like home.”
She’s visited plenty of bakeries where everything is laid out with precision and the cookies taste fine, but there is no conversation. No human connection.
“I’m high-touch over high-tech,” she says. “I love talking to people and asking about their lives.”
And there’s no better place for this than Spectrum Center, she says – a melting pot of people and cultures all coming together in this beautiful outdoor walking space.
“I love it here,” she says. “It’s out in the open. Our doors are always open, and people can smell what we’re baking and stop and talk. The community has been unbelievably loving and supportive.”
That leads to one other ingredient that Payne feels makes her cookies special. Sure, they’re crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside and salted and buttered and well-marinated (and did we mention they’re ginormous?). But there’s one more intangible.
“I know it’s just a cookie,” she says, “but it’s made from the heart. This is what I love to do, and I hope it shows in my work.”
CHEF PAYNE’S SPECIAL RECIPE
MAKE YOUR OWN BUTTERCREAM COOKIE
Here’s a recipe I’ll share with you that we use daily at the bakery for filling our stuffed cookies and frosting our beloved tea cakes. Our vanilla buttercream is bursting with flavor and a crowd pleaser. It’s well balanced and not overly sweet. It’s perfect for a cookie sandwich or frosting a cake or cupcake.
-16 oz. (2 cups) room temperature salted butter (I highly recommend Land O’Lakes)
-26 oz. (6 cups) powdered sugar (no sifting needed)
-2 tbsp. vanilla
Start by whipping your butter until it’s smooth and silky (low speed). Slowly add your powdered sugar one cup at a time (low speed will minimize your air bubbles and keep your buttercream smooth). At 4 cups, scrape your bowl down and add the remaining 2 cups of powdered sugar. Add 2 tbsp. vanilla. If you feel your buttercream is too thick, add more vanilla to loosen, 1 tsp. at a time; you can also use a little milk. Happy baking!