Sweet Treats: The Perfect Cookie -April/May 2011
by: Caroline Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Who doesn’t love the aroma of COOKIES BAKING in the oven, or the taste of brown sugar and MELTING CHOCOLATE on your tongue as you bite into a FRESH- FROM-THE-OVEN homemade chocolate-chip cookie?
Those aromas and tastes that fill our senses take us back to the carefree days of childhood and send us back to the kitchen to recreate those moments. Whether your preference is to bake a pan of moist bar cookies, a sheet of crispy oatmeal cookies, or something more exotic and elaborate, utilizing the proper technique is key to turning out deliciously-memorable sweet treats.
Baking is all about patience. The chemical precision involved in this culinary art means that cutting corners by any means can lead to disaster, or anything less than perfection. Butter and shortening are two very different ingredients and egg whites must always be whipped to the exact stage that the recipe calls for – never settle for soft peaks when the recipe calls for hard, glossy peaks. These standards might seem a little unnecessary for your ordinary chocolate-chip cookie, but taking the time to employ proper technique will enable you to bake cookies that are on par with your local bakery’s finest confections.
Over the years, companies such as Betty Crocker and Nestlé Toll House have mastered the easy-bake chocolate-chip cookie. There are a variety of pre-made doughs and “just add eggs and butter” packaged mixes to choose from. These easy-bake cookies make baking convenient in conjunction with the demands of an on-the-go world, but without the time and patience that all good baking requires, such cookies lack real substance.
One trick that the kitchen staff at Provisions has been using for its cookies for a long time is chilling the dough overnight. A New York Times article on the perfect cookie that came out a little over two years ago recognizes this trick as an essential step in the cookie-baking process. Chilling the dough for at least 24 hours allows for the wet ingredients – such as the eggs and vanilla extract – to be absorbed into the flour in the dough. This results in a much richer flavor in the cookie. When the dough is cold and firm, it also makes scooping the dough onto the cookie sheet much easier. If you want your cookies to mimic the delicious giant disks of chocolate or oatmeal that you find at bakeries, slightly press down the balls of dough before popping them into the oven.
Of course, chilling is not applicable to all doughs. Bar cookies should always go right from the bowl to the pan, and because Madeleines are technically a cake, the batter should not sit much longer than the 30 minutes the recipe demands. Drop-cookies, the kind where the batter is simply dropped onto a cookie sheet after it’s made, are best after a 24-hour chill. The ginger snaps, oatmeal, cornmeal-lime and peanut-butter chocolate-chip cookies featured here should all sit in the refrigerator overnight for the best results.
A universal tip for doughs and batters alike is one that takes place in the creaming process. The color and texture of a dough when it is being creamed is key. Provisions’ famous doughnut muffins are a perfect example.
Upon my first attempt at making the batter, my boss, Amanda Lydon, told me to “cream the crap out of it.” It took me several attempts to beat the butter and sugar into submission, but once I learned to let the mixer run at medium-high speed for a good amount of time, I was able to make a proper batter. Time matters. If a recipe specifies the number of minutes to cream your dough, then you better take out your timer and start counting. If only a description of what the creamed mixture should look like is given in the recipe – usually something like “until it is light and fluffy” – then you need to mix until you see light and fluffy in that bowl.
The first time I made Joanne Chang’s cornmeal-lime cookies from her cookbook “Flour,” I ignored the recipe’s advice to cream the butter and sugar for 10 minutes if using a hand-held mixer, which I was. I simply didn’t have time to mix for 10 minutes, when the butter and sugar looked pretty well blended to me after about three minutes. My cookies ended up coming out much crunchier and far less satisfying than the one I had eaten at her bakery.
On my second attempt I decided to stay true to the recipe, putting in the extra time to fully cream the butter and sugar, and was pleased to find that my cookies didn’t resemble the texture of hard-tack when I took them out of the oven this time. Beating the dough for the full 10 minutes allowed it to aerate, resulting in a lighter dough and a tastier cookie.