The Cookie Trials

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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.

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