Friday, February 3, 2012

Kick-off: The Cookie Diaries - Intro and Practice, Part 1 of ?

The goal of creating a new blog, after many (well, a few) years of random what's-going-on-in-my-life blogging is this: keep all the recipes and experiments in one place. I love to cook and bake, but am terrible at keeping track of what I've done successfully (and worse, what I've done that has miserably failed). So this is more like a stream-of-consciousness diary that will track my cooking and baking progress, with the ultimate goal of making me better and, most importantly, more consistent in the kitchen.

Now to the meat (the cookie?) of this post.

We are tracing the chocolate chip cookie evolution of me by examining my cookie technique and practice. My mom is not a baker, so I don't think I ever baked cookies from scratch until I went away to college. Before this the only experience I had baking chocolate chip cookies at home was taking the frozen ones off the cardboard and putting them in the oven. There were also Chips Ahoy involved, I believe.

Anyway, I started baking cookies in college using the recipe on the bag of the Tollhouse chocolate chips. I remember several things: that recipe makes a goobledy-gork amount of cookies, most of which ended up undercooked because I was in a rush and also ill-equipped with sheet pans of varying sizes and thicknesses and an unfamiliar oven. I also (shamefully) used margarine almost exclusively, because that was what we usually had around. Only later did I convert to the church of all-butter, all the time (or did I? Stay tuned!).

[The word "cookie" is used throughout but means "chocolate chip cookie," as opposed to the abstract "cookie" which can mean any of several hundred varieties. I realize that noting this distinction marks me as slightly loony. But I am also writing this ridiculous tome on how I bake cookies, so it's all relative.)

Fast forward to law school, when I suspect that I used the same recipe (or at least, whatever chocolate chip bag recipe was at hand) but did several things differently: preheated the oven, used an ice cream scoop to make truly monstrous cookies, and added nuts. I still employ the ice cream scoop trick when I want to impress strangers, but have mostly abandoned the nuts because I find that there are more nut-haters than nut-lovers in the chocolate chip cookie world.

Nowadays, there are several additional changes I have adopted to aid my pursuit of cookie perfection. Which is a slight misnomer, because I am not really seeking cookie perfection per se (I'm too fickle to stick to any one recipe), but rather am seeking a sort of cookie-omniscience: an in-depth understanding of what each element of the recipe adds to the finished product, so that I can tinker accordingly.

Here are the things that I now do: allow the butter to soften completely. Pre-heat the oven. Use a Silpat (also because parchment paper can be expensive and I hate scrubbing cookie sheets and because they are awesome, as is my friend L. who gave me mine). Mise en place (to a certain extent; this usually consists of just taking everything out and putting it on one counter). I also have an oven thermometer, which allows me to bake cookies at 350 instead of believing I am when really blasting them at 425 and wondering why they're burnt after seven minutes.

I really believe that practice and knowledge are the key here. Because I bake cookies so often, I know instinctively what I have to do (whereas previously I would read a recipe and panic because it called for softened butter and I only had half an hour). Conversely, this works against me when I want to try a cookie recipe that calls for something different (e.g., Nigella Lawson's chocolate chip cookie recipe requires melted butter, but I haven't worked up the nerve to try it yet because it seems so...wrong).

Moving on.

If I were planning to bake cookies for dessert after a dinner party, here is what I would do (my current habit): the morning of, I would remove the butter (2 sticks, usually, even if the recipe I am using calls for 1.5 sticks) and put it on the counter. Approximately 6 hours before the guests arrive, I would mix the actual dough. Note: If I plan to bake immediately, I turn the oven on as soon as I enter the kitchen, which is also when I take the egg (or two) out of the refrigerator. Most recipes tell you to use a room-temperature egg, but as cookie recipes are generally forgiving and leaving eggs on a counter skeeves me out, I will usually settle for a not-quite-refrigerator cold egg. I have learned that other recipes calling for eggs (such as yeasted breads or rolls, where the warmth of the dough highly affects the rise and flavor) do require room temperature eggs.

If the oven is hot, then I put my dough on the cookie sheet (I usually bake in batches for evenness, but if pressed for time will use two sheets). Whereas I used to crowd the cookie sheet with dough (a side-effect of my terrible impatience), I have since learned to value adequate space between cookies and usually place about 11 cookies per sheet (four, three, four, staggered). Not surprisingly, this has also vastly reduced the number of cookie sheets that need to be cut apart.

Then I bake for the allotted time.

If I am not baking immediately (usually for a dinner party I prefer to bake the cookies right as we are finishing dinner, so they are delicious and gooey right out of the oven), I will chill the dough in the refrigerator. This step alone shows my growth as a baker throughout the years. If baking has taught me anything, it has taught me patience. You just can't rush something like a second rise or stiff peaks.

I prefer a chilled dough, because the cookies retain their shape better and something about the sit-time makes them taste a little better. Numerous bakers and food writers have discussed this technique (most notably the NYT recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie). Whereas many of these recipes call for a 24 hour rest, I just settle for however long I have until I need the cookies baked. I don't think I have that discerning a palate, especially not when I've burned my tongue with the first cookie off the sheet.

The chilled dough is also easier to scoop and less messy. I don't really find that I need to adjust baking time, but cookies are all about degrees of doneness anyway. For frozen dough, however, I do add a couple of minutes. When I freeze my dough I roll it into balls, freeze the balls on the sheet pan, and then keep them in a big gallon zip. This is an amazing way to make just two chocolate chip cookies when you have a craving for a homemade treat.

So that concludes our discussion of technique. Right now I feel that my chocolate chip cookie technique is pretty good. I have begun to naturally intuit when to stop mixing the dough, and when the cookies are done. One thing I have been unable to perfect is to stop eating said cookies, but that's another matter entirely.

Tune in next time when we discuss the three chocolate chip cookie recipes I currently alternate between and what makes them different. I appreciate the virtues of each, but have some ambitious thoughts about combining what I like from each recipe into some kind of...master cookie. But again, this is not a pursuit of cookie perfection - well, it might be a suit of PERSONAL cookie perfection, because my "Master cookie" would have all the things I like in a cookie - but not what others might enjoy.

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