For years, I half-heartedly bought into the idea that it was scientifically important to eat a balanced breakfast. I tried eating eggs, but they made me feel sick to my stomach for hours before leaving me inexplicably ravenous at lunch. I went for a stretch on oatmeal, even though it reminded me of paste. Smoothies worked from the moment I got my wisdom teeth pulled until I got sick of cleaning the blender; pastries were too rich; fruit, with the exception of summer berries and the occasional fall apple, was too flimsy, the bodega bananas never quite ripe, the inner-city oranges too sticky and messy. At some point, I gave up on breakfast entirely, but found that lunchtime couldn’t come soon enough. I needed something in the morning; it just could not be the meal that is formally known as breakfast.

My revelation came on vacation in Malta a few years ago, at an outdoor café five minutes from the apartment I’d rented for a week. The café served a haphazard selection of snacks, cigarettes, soft drinks, ice cream, and whiskey, which elderly Maltese people seemed to be drinking at all hours. My then-boyfriend and I quickly established a morning routine. He would eat a local three-Euro toasted tuna sandwich called Hobz biz-zejt. I would order two Americanos at once (it took them longer to make the coffee than it took me to drink it) and my mother, who joined us for a few days, had Nescafé and, on a whim, a couple of packets of Loacker biscuits—chocolate or hazelnut cream between thin layers of wafers. I was taken aback by her boldness. Cookies for breakfast. What a thought!

My boyfriend ate his sandwiches, marveling at how cheap and delicious they were. My mom, in her usual fashion, had Nescafé with a tiny scoop of sugar eaten straight off the spoon, never mixed. I mainlined my Americanos and nibbled on the cookies. It seemed sacrilegious to be eating cookies for breakfast—something one would only do on vacation in Malta, off-duty, by the sea. But by midweek, I noticed that the cookies were by far more satisfying than any other breakfast I’d tried. They checked all the boxes: sweet, small, not mushy or messy, easy to eat without utensils, good with coffee. They weren’t filling, exactly, but I didn’t want them to be. All I needed was something to take the edge off for a couple of hours.

Back in New York, I bought a bag of Quadratini—the mini version of what we’d had—which I’d keep in the fridge and eat by the handful. I had to stop buying them for that very reason—I dare you to start, then stop eating cold Quadratini. But cookies have since become my favorite breakfast, and one I’d recommend wholeheartedly to anyone averse to eating first thing in the morning.

The first thing to remember is that not just any cookie will do. Rule number one: commercially packaged “Breakfast cookies” are not the same thing as cookies for breakfast. “Breakfast cookies” are more breakfast than cookies; you might as well eat granola, which is fine but nowhere near as fun as a cookie. “Breakfast cookies” are a corporate travesty, a flattened granola bar with a man or a logo on the wrapper. If you’re going to eat cookies for breakfast, do yourself a favor and eat a real cookie.

Which leads me to rule number two: there is a qualitative difference between cookies you’d eat for breakfast and cookies you’d eat for dessert. The purpose of dessert is pure pleasure; it is an unnecessary part of a meal, which is precisely what makes it worth eating. The purpose of breakfast, on the other hand, is the avoidance of hunger without consequences. That’s why American-style cookies—those hunks of chocolate and butter and sugar—while utterly delicious and absolutely part of a happy life, are not suitable first thing in the morning. If I wanted to start my day feeling like I’d swallowed a rock I’d eat actual breakfast and feel smug about it later.

The Italians have the right idea when it comes to breakfast cookies. On a recent vacation in Turin, I was tickled to find a bag of abracci by the rental flat’s espresso machine. Abracci are little black-and-white twists, like a dustier version of shortbread with a slight bitter undertone that pairs perfectly with a strong, tiny coffee. They’re good dunked, which is crucial for a breakfast cookie: you want what you’re eating to soften without making a soggy, crumbly mess of your cup. Given that my other two meals consisted of multiple courses of wine and pasta, the treats were a perfect start to the day. When you spend so much of your time thinking about the day’s other meals, you don’t really want to think too hard about breakfast.

Which leads me to my third criterion: breakfast must have a mindless quality. My brain works best first thing in the morning, so I don’t want the distraction of cooking, dishes, or a knife and fork. To that end, cookie breakfasts can’t be distractingly delicious; a certain measure of blandness is welcome.

I discovered the platonic ideal of a breakfast cookie on assignment in the most far-flung corner of the world: the Comoro islands. I stayed at a guest house run by a Frenchman who cooked lavish brunches: foie gras, soft cheeses, spicy sausages from the South. I’d pick at these elaborate spreads, but ultimately lose interest in favor of a yellowish biscuit, just crumbly enough to qualify as a cookie, the perfect amount of sweetness and fat and salt, neither abstemious nor rich. It was a largish cookie, which my host would cut into fourths; I’d eat one section and save two for later. It was just perfect.

Later, in a French supermarket, I scoured the aisles for something resembling this elusive, ideal breakfast. Was it a Gallette Bretonne? A croquant? A Petit Beurre? All of these cookies have their merits, and all of them are perfectly acceptable for breakfast. But hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to figure out what I ate as the sun rose over the Comorian palms. And when I think back to those hazy mornings so far from everything and everyone I knew, it occurs to me that cookies for breakfast are so much more than a food, a meal, or an approximation thereof. They are vacation in Malta. They are indulgence in Italy. They are the way a license to break the rules, the feeling of briefly being somewhere else. Eating cookies for breakfast is a reminder that everything can be strange and new again—and that the order of things can, and should, sometimes be reversed.