The Cookie Trials


For years, I've been the girl who could make a kick-ass batch of cookies with her eyes closed.  Perhaps I'm being a bit of a braggart, but you can ask my friends, my exes and the peeps back in the office.  After countless varieties of chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, toffee, peanut butter, what have you, they've all got my back.  However, there were many moments during those nostalgic Cookie Trials during which I could never quite figure out what had gone wrong.  Cookie spread, blotches of butter, uneducated guesses of how to bring the appropriate amount of chemical leaveners to the party are just a few things that come to mind.

Regardless of any failures swept under the rug during the Cookie Trials, approaching the subject matter, I hubristically felt that learning about cookies was like schooling Bob Ross on the 'fro and painting happy little trees.  It was lost.  I was already a cookie master.  As life goes, when you grow a bit big for your britches, the seams suddenly rip and you've ended up showing the entire world your polka-dot skivvies.

Trying my best to approach the subject matter with fresh eyes, I now applaud myself in seeing the cookie making process from new angles.  Educated and logical ones, although I suppose angles are exactly that.  Understanding ingredient functionality in baking is a huge step in understanding what the hell kind of alchemy is going on before you in that mixing bowl.  Yes, there is more to the process to understand beyond throwing some butter and sugar in the Kitchen Aid and letting it rip with the paddle attachment.  Tisk, tisk, tisk those of you who employ such methods.  I have given up my evil ways of blindly following recipes and taking them for simple words on the back of a bag of chocolate chips.  I now understand just what the bejeezus is going on and am much the wiser.

To lay some simple groundwork for you cookie making enthusiasts, I now step on my soap box...

-The most familiar cookie making method to Americans is the creaming method.  This can also be employed while making quickbreads and cakes.  Creaming is the act of softening butter (or God forbid shortening), combining with sugar and whipping the mixture to create an even texture as well as incorporate air.  Yes, the reason you cream the butter and sugar is to incorporate air.  This struck me as a bit of a revelation.  I always thought it had something to do with coating every sugar granule in fat (which it does), however, the physical leavening properties of creaming and incorporating a good amount of air play an integral role in the cookie equation.

-Ingredients should be at room temperature (65 or so Fahrenheit).  Yeah, I was often lazy too and just pulled the butter and eggs from the fridge.  Sometimes, I'd beat the butter with the back of a spoon to soften it up.  Other times, I'd melt it in the microwave, but it always went too far and ended up halfway soft and the other half melted in golden puddles.  If your butter and eggs are not at room temperature, zap them shortly to take the chill off.  Yeah, I just told you to microwave your eggs.  Get over it.  Just make sure to stir often and don't cook them to scramble.  The reasoning behind this is to create a smooth emulsion once you begin adding the liquid ingredients (ie: eggs).  If the eggs are cold, they will seize up the butter/sugar mixture and result in a broken emulsion.  The smoother you can get this emulsion, the more consistent crumb your cookie will have and the happier everyone will be.  Especially Santa when he rolls on down the chimney for some of your famous whatever-the-hell-you-make cookies.

-Add liquid ingredients slowly, in stages.  If you have an egg, add the yolk, mix to combine and the emulsion has become smooth again before adding your white.  If you're using beaten eggs, add them in 2 or 3 additions.  You never want to lose sight of the smooth emulsion before adding the dry ingredients.  Add the vanilla or other liquid flavorings in with the eggs.

-Sift the dry ingredients.  Yes, sift.  I used to love the job of using the hand crank sifter when I was a kid when making cookies with my mom.  Lately, we've been using a barrel sifter, which makes it nice and snappy.  I feel the idea of sifting dry ingredients is pretty obvious.  It distributes the chemical leaveners throughout the flour and makes sure there are no lumpy bits which will end up between someone's teeth.  Also, add the dry ingredients slowly in additions to ensure an even product.  Consistency is key.  Don't mix more than you have to while adding the dry ingredients.  Add any inclusions such as chocolate chips or nuts at the end of the mix.

The week of cookies also brought quickbreads.  The basic creaming theory laid out above applies.  When creaming butter and sugar for a quickbread, you want to achieve a 'full cream', incorporating plenty of air to utilize the leavening properties of these tiny air bubbles.  Liquids are added alternately with the dry ingredients in order to keep the mixture smooth.  I love a good banana bread or zucchini bread, but for the most part, quickbreads make me yawn much like a glass of Rose on a summer afternoon.

During my week of cookie and quick breads, I felt as if I had lost my muse.  Instead of sugary sirens evocatively lying on the baking sheets fresh from the oven, begging to be photographed, they were round discs studded with chocolate and anything but heart racing.  Perhaps after making your weight in cookies one hundred fold, you simply lose sight of seeing anything new in them as an art form.

Pass the Alka-Seltzer?

With computer back in action and 2 weeks worth of pastry photos uploaded, it's time for show and tell!

The weeks before and after the holiday break, we worked on pies, tarts and pate a choux.  Clearly, we have arrived in the land of desserts.  Sugar, cream, eggs, butter.  The sheer thought of the volume of these ingredients we have gone through thus far is aversion alone.  Honestly, after tasting one teeny, tiny cream puff or eclair, I've had my fill of cream laden sweets.  It's fantastic to create, but God almighty, it's near impossible for me to taste (or 'evaluate' as we refer to it in class) each item we make.  I forge ahead however, in the name of food.  As a general rule, I can't handle a lot of sweets.  Ironic?  Sure.  Perhaps it's this oxymoron which will keep inventory control at bay.  I've been told I'm the only girl who has uttered the words 'I don't particularly care for chocolate'.  It's true.  Whenever I've made chocolate chip cookies, I always cut the chocolate chip quantity in half.  Brownies?  I'll have a few bites, but that's all I need for a good, long while.

With my low tolerance to sweets, it's still pretty damn great that we are getting the chance to create such a wide array of European pastries, most of which we may not have the chance to even see in real life.  Not all of us are members of the fancy-pants country clubs or eat at high end restaurants.  As rare as it is, I'm always intrigued in class when we make something I have never seen before, let alone heard of.  I am further opening my foodie horizons, and sharing my discoveries along the way.

Prepare yourself for a serious tour of the world of pastries in which I have been frolicking for the past few weeks...

A perfectly delicious wheel of Brie.  Of course, we could not accept this as is...

We stuffed 2 separate wheels.  The first was filled with roasted chilis and kalamata olives.  The second was filled with toasted walnuts, honey, white truffle oil and rosemary.  The fat doesn't stop here, we then tucked each on into a nice bed of puff pastry.  Yee-haw!

Exhibit A: roasted chilis and kalamata olives sandwiched between warm, oozey and delicious Brie.  Heart attack in heaven anyone?

Exhibit B: toasted walnuts, honey, white truffle oil and rosemary.  No one needed to actually eat lunch after our 'evaluation' of the greatest food ever invented.  Amen.

Far from departing from puff pastry, we created miniature chicken pot pies enrobed in the delicate layers of butter and dough.  Gorgeous little ones these are!

Miniature puff pastry chicken pot pies. Some with square tops, others with rounded, nicely trimmed tops.  Either way you spell it, they were delicious.

Onto pies in preparation for the holiday break.

Mixed berry pie with a lattice top of flaky pie dough.

Tip: when mixing pie doughs for lining pies, it's best to mix a bit further to create a 'mealy' or 'short' crust'.  This is more compact and more resistant to the moisture of the filling.  Use less mixed, flakier pie dough to set atop the pies, whether in a full sheet or a lattice top.  This will remain flaky and crisp longer, as it is above the high moisture filling.

3 holiday pies which I traded for a damn fine, highly respectable bottle of Cabernet for Christmas.

In case you've been living under a rock and are unable to deduce just what kind of pies these are: pumpkin pie, mixed berry pie, apple pie.

The sourdough loaves I made while home for the holidays.  These came out much nicer than I expected them to.  With my Dad sneaking bites here and there, lurking in the shadows when no one was looking, these disappeared in a matter of hours.

The blistering you see on most sourdough loaves is a result of the overnight retarding technique which allows for a very long fermentation at a cooler temperature and is a sign of a well fermented dough.  I have scratched my head along with other classmates over this, reaching the conclusion that it has something to do with pockets of acidity and enzyme activity breaking pockets of gluten down.  I found an interesting explanation of this phenomenon here.

All of this was our material before the 2 week holiday break.  Once we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and back to 7:00 AM starts, we launched into tarts and choux pastry.

Blackberry crostata: a free form tart made with very flaky pie dough, lined with frangipane (almond cream and pastry cream) and topped with frozen blackberries before baking.  Holy stripper boots Batman!  I find beauty in the simplicity of fruits when they are allowed to shine.  Delicious.

On somewhat of the same note of tart dough, frangipane and fruits, we have a pear bourdaloue.  The slices of pear are arranged in a shingle or fan-like manner.  After baking, I glazed my tart with apricot glaze and garnished with powdered and pear sugar after busting out the camping sized blowtorch to further caramelize and showcase the slices of pear.  As gorgeous as it is, I'm not so crazy about the classic almond/pear combo.  You'll have no competition from me for the next pear bourdaloue that I bake.

So pear and almond doesn't fly me to the moon, but fruit tarts sure the hell do.  I tell you what, I'd give up chocolate for the rest of my life if I could have a few bites of a well made fruit tart garnished with glistening fresh and ripe fruits every day of the year.  I love the jewel tones found in each of these edible pieces of art.

Here is my Holy Trinity of tarts.  I'll run with the classic quote of 'less is more'.

The savory tart known as the quiche.  This was made with a very rich custard which was cooked slowly to avoid scrambling the filling.  Mine was filled with spinach, sun dried tomatoes and Gruyere cheese.

Lemon bars.  Also known as pockets of sunshine dusted with clouds of powdered sugar.  Also known as mother-uckin' delicious.

Chocolate tart consisting of:
-Chocolate tart dough
-Chocolate cremeux (a rich, creamy chocolate filling)
-Black glaze (a fluid chocolate sauce which coats the tart)
-Gold foil garnish

Keep in mind that every single thing we make in class is made FROM SCRATCH.

Chocolate tarts continued.  Note the sheen of the black glaze, acting as a mirrored surface.  Too much chocolate for this girl, however these were works of art.

Strawberry Breton tart consisting of:
-A cookie like base of tart dough.  Salty, sweet, crunchy and chewy.
-Pistachio filling
-Fresh Strawberries

This has taken the title of the BEST DESSERT I HAVE EVER EATEN.  I immediately gave mine away, knowing that if I were to take it home, it would quickly become my dinner.  I'm still regretting this lapse in judgment.

Onto choux pastry or pate a choux piped onto sheet trays.  Pate a choux is French for paste of cabbage - named after the cabbage like puffs this dough becomes when it's all grown up.

Pate a choux after baking.  The unusual method of cooking a flour/milk/water/butter mixture before baking allows for easy piping.  The dough creates large steam pockets which are responsible for creating the puffed shells we know as cream puffs and eclairs.  These were destined to be cream puffs for our St. Honore cake.

It's a hard day's work piping pastry cream into trays of tiny little cream puffs.  Remember that the next time you pop one in your mouth and wonder where the hell it came from.

Religieuses.  These are stacked cream puffs, a large body and a smaller head perched atop.  These are meant to resemble nuns, the white, spiky piping is meant to look like a nun's habit.  I personally found these to resemble tiny cracken, the white, spiky piping being the cracken's shiny and death inducing teeth.  Is that so wrong?

Besides the fact these were miniature sea monsters out for the blood of sailors, they were bona fide pastry cream bombs.  Hats off to anyone who can eat of these in it's entirety and not fall to your knees out of sheer sugar coma.  Alka-Seltzer anyone?

Paris-Brest.  A ring of choux pastry filled with a hazelnut cream.  The rings are meant to represent a bicycle wheel, as the Paris-Brest is a famous cycling race from Paris to Brest and back again.  More info on the race here.  I'm pretty sure these were invented to restore the caloric loss while cycling from one city to the next and back.

The crowning glory of our choux pastry marathon.  St. Honore cake, which is the cake in honor of the patron saint of bakers.  It consists of a layer of puff pastry, a layer of choux pastry, filled with chiboust and chantilly.  Cream puffs crowned in caramel are placed on the outer ring of the cake like a golden, glowing halo.

St. Honore cake in all it's glory.

It's 2010 already?!

Damn.  Story of my life these days.  I have entered an alternate universe in which time has no real meaning.  The days blend together so quickly and on the same toss of the coin, 2 days can seem like 2 weeks.  It's a strange zombie-like haze which has colored my world over the past 3-4 weeks.

A few reasons why this lazy bum has not updated her blog during this time:
-I've been lazy.  Step off.
-I've been busy as hell which makes for a moot point #1
-Traveling back home for the holidays
-Oh contracted a lethal virus which took the better part of a full week to remedy.  The other part of this story is that I am still working on getting some pics ready to upload from the past 3 weeks.  Patience will be rewarded upon my next post!

So, damn the luck.  However, I'm back in action and ready to update y'all on what I've been up to since my last tawdry post of sticky buns et al.

While flying back to SLC for Christmas, I attempted (successfully!) to smuggle some sourdough starter onto the plane.  I had my concerns about toting around a paste like substance coated in a white powdery mass of flour.  Who knows, maybe Homeland Security would have considered this a national threat.  Some type of biological item coated in anthrax which I was toting back to the land of conservatives.  Turns out being a rather fair skinned woman asking politely if bringing some bread dough in my luggage would be permissible got me on the plane, luggage and all scott free.

My first order of business was to sleep.  Next up: making sourdough with the parental units.  I gave my dad a crash course in the science of bread making and creating a sourdough culture as well as maintaining a starter.  I'll be honest, I was exactly 4% satisfied with the results of the first bread run.  It's difficult when you're used to whipping out loaves by the dozens in a commercial setting.  The factors are entirely different than a home kitchen.  Batch size, mixers, proofers, ovens, environment are a few of these variables.  Point being that I was left to leap over multiple hurdles in order to produce an acceptable loaf of bread.

My 4% satisfaction level was outvoted by my family's 110% approval rating.  Moral of the story: we are our own worst critics.  In hindsight, for the first batch of bread, it was pretty damn great considering I had stepped into an entirely new environment and did a great deal of thinking on my feet.

What have I been up to at SFBI since the porno-sticky buns?  Lots and lots of fantastic things!  Pies, tarts, choux pastry (you know this as the evil temptress named cream puffs and eclairs), ganaches, meringues (not to be confused with merengue music from the Dominican Republic), all out madness I tell you!

Since I've been back in school from the holiday break, I've also decided to enter an artisan bread baking competition along with some other students in the program.  Today was a trial run for a few formulas I am developing for the competition.  I can tell you that one of these was delicious.  It was so tasty, there somehow happened to be a slice of it permanently attached to my hand for me to munch on all damn day.  It'll need a few more tweaks over the next few weeks, but it's a great start.  You can find out more information about the competition and cheer me on from near or afar here.

I'm a bit disappointed I can't share the pics from these awesome escapades quite yet, but hang in there and I promise a full photo session in the very near future.  None of this post in a month crap.  Ha!