Posted in baking

New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies: The Hype and The Truth

Anyone who’s into chocolate chip cookies knows about the NYT recipes from Jacques Torres.  Some swear by it.  Last night, I was struck with cookie inspiration and decided to finally try it. My overall impression is that it makes for great texture, meh flavor. Here’s what I’ve found out so far:

No need to be so fancy

  •  Flour: It calls for, by weight, half bread flour and half cake flour.  Depending on the flours you use (their contents vary by brand), I think this amounts to using all all-purpose flour.  Perhaps Jacques had some good reason for writing the recipe this way, but until further notice, I’ll assume it was just to look fancy.  I didn’t have enough bread or cake flour on hand (most of my bread flour is whole wheat because most of it goes to making, you know, bread), so I used all-purpose flour, and I was perfectly satisfied with the result.
  • Chocolate: I hope I don’t even have to tell you that you can use whatever bits of yumminess you want in these cookies. High quality chocolate tastes good, but I used regular old chocolate chips and they taste just as good as they always do.
  • Size: The NYT recipe wants you to make enormous cookies.  Well, sure, cookies the size of my head can stay soft for a while, but I like my cookies normal size, and I want a recipe that produces well-textured normal size cookies. So I test mine with somewhere around a tablespoon of dough per cookie.  The results are good: the success of the NYT recipe is not due to a size trick. It makes good normal size cookies, too.
  • Timing: The NYT recipe says to chill the cookie dough for 24-36 hours before baking. What a pain, I wanted cookies last night! So I decided to find out if it really matters. I baked one sheet of the cookies last night right after making up the dough – I stuck them in the fridge for 5 or 10 minutes just because the preheated oven was making the room hot and I wanted them to have a fair chance. Then I put one log of cookie dough in the fridge to be baked tonight, and another log (it makes a lot of cookies!) in the freezer for a rainy day (like yesterday, and today…).  I will report on the results of a blind taste test soon. But already I can tell you, unchilled NYT cookies are plenty good. Not too flat or hard or crispy, pretty much just how I like them.

It succeeds in making a cookie that’s chewy, not crispy or cakey.

  • It uses a little more brown sugar than white sugar, as a chocolate chip cookies should, in my opinion. Brown sugar is brown because it has molasses in it, and molasses has water in it, so it’s a way of making your cookie a little softer.
  • I like to compare cookies to the Nestle Tollhouse recipe, which I’ve had memorized for I don’t know how many years.  My Nestle cookies always come out too hard when cool, and kind of greasy. Here’s approximately how to make NYT cookies from a Nestle recipe (all comparisons are by weight):
    1. Divide the amount of butter in half.
    2. Divide the amount of egg in half.
    3. Subtract one fourth the total amount of sugar.
  • It’s hard to tell that these are the differences between the two recipes, since they make different amounts.  That’s why putting recipes in baker’s percentage is so handy. But the result is that the flour, leavening, salt, and vanilla play a bigger role in the NYT cookies.
  • Why less butter and egg: Cookies that are heavier on flour and lighter on butter stay soft better, but they run the risk of being too cakey and dry.  In fact, I made some like this once and compared that recipe to the NYT recipe.  It turns out that the only difference between the two was that the dry recipe used all white sugar instead of a mix of white and brown, and more egg.  We know that brown sugar makes a cookie wetter and softer, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, eggs make them cakey, even though eggs are wet. So I guess in order to increase the relative amount of flour in the recipe without ending up too cakey, the NYT recipe had to decrease the amount of egg.

My one complaint is the flavor.

  • What I don’t know about is the sugar. Does it have to be decreased?  The combination of less sugar and more salt seemed to trick my taste buds into thinking I was eating peanut butter cookies, which I’m sure is right up some people’s alley, but I’d rather have the regular old sweet flavor. So my next task will be to replicate this recipe but with more sugar and less salt. (In Jacques’ defense, I had to estimate the amount of salt, because I was using kosher instead of sea salt, which is less coarse.)
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Posted in custard, thickening

I’m a Daring Baker!

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and www.nanaimo.ca.

This is the point when I came around to making graham crackers - it looks like cookie dough!

In December I found out about the Daring Bakers, and I really wanted to join but I thought, I’m probably not up to speed with them.  But they have deadlines for getting in each month due to the way they all reveal the challenge on the same day, and the thought of missing the deadline and having to wait a long time gave me that extra push.  So I dove in, and here I am doing a Daring Bakers’ Challenge!

Unfortunately I missed the month they did cannoli only to come in right on time for the graham cracker month.  Graham crackers.  I won’t even eat the things if they aren’t in s’mores or pie crusts.  But ok.  I wanted to be a Daring Baker, I’ll do it.

At least there is also a recipe for the graham crackers to go in – Nanaimo Bars.  This is cool because it’s a Canadian recipe I had never heard of, so I’m learning.

A sheet of graham crackerness coming out of the oven.

I’ll be learning about gluten-free cooking, too.  I of course wanted a deeper understanding of the chemistry of gluten-free baking, so I read up on the different kinds of flours at Gluten Free Mommy.  I soon realized these flours replace the starch of wheat flour; the binding action of the gluten is left up to other ingredients, like xanthan gum.  Gluten-free Lifestyle gets a little more into the nitty gritty of it – you need less xanthan gum for products that would otherwise rely less on gluten than yeast breads.  Guar gum is another possible binder.  And adding protein, such as milk powder or gelatin, can be helpful, I suppose because protein strengthens the structure of the baked good.  Apparently, graham crackers don’t really need a binder, because there is no egg or gum in them at all.  I guess they don’t have to support much!

I couldn’t find glutinous rice flour anywhere, so I used white rice flour.  It seemed to work fine.  One of my flours seemed not to be milled quite fine enough, though, and left a grainy mouthfeel that kept me

Some was sacrificed to the Nanaimo bars.

from enjoying them too much, although the flavor was good otherwise.  I don’t know which it was but for some reason I suspect the sorghum.  I also substituted a little 1% milk and a little cream for the whole milk I was supposed to use.   I forgot to make my graham crackers look like crackers, but that didn’t matter for crushing them up for the Nanaimo bars.

It seems kind of a shame to forfeit the lovely texture of a custard, yummy as the mix-ins were.

The bottom layer is a chocolate custard with stuff mixed in – graham crackers, coconut, and almonds.  This is the part I would do differently the next time around.  1) The custard curdled on my first try.  I redid it a little differently: I melted the butter halfway, so it wasn’t too hot, then took it off the heat and added the rest of the ingredients, then put it back on the heat and let it thicken.  If you don’t mind dirtying up another bowl, mixing the egg with the sugar first would be extra protection.  Alternatively, you could cream the butter and sugar and then add the egg, like you’re making cookies.  The point is, if you have fat and/or sugar mixed with the egg, the proteins will be protected somewhat from curdling.  If you add the egg to already hot ingredients, you should remember, unlike me, to temper them first by adding a small amount to

Middle Layer
Yum.

the egg and then adding the egg to the rest. 2) I think the flavor would be better with melted chocolate than

cocoa powder.  I think this about most chocolate flavored things.

The middle layer is mostly butter and powdered sugar.  Gross to think about, delicious to eat.  The top layer is mostly chocolate.  Delicious again.

I served these at a party I threw recently and they got great reviews.  I happened to have a guest who eats gluten-free, so she was pleasantly surprised!

The finished bars
Ta-daaa!

PS: Apologies for the bizarre look of this page.  I wrestled with WordPress to get my pictures displayed nicely and WordPress won.  Kind of took the fun out of my first Daring Baker post, to be honest.

Posted in baking

Sweet potato cookies

I am a Cookie Monster for our department, meaning I make cookies when speakers come (I do also eat a lot of cookies, but that’s coincidental).  The night I made these, I had completely forgotten that there was a colloquium the next day, and so I dreamt something up that I had all the ingredients for: sweet potato cookies.  I got the sweet potatoes from the farmshare, and I always have the makings for cookies.  I even had chocolate chips on hand, so I tried to make the cookies look like jack-o-lanterns, because it was right before Halloween (yes, that’s how far behind I am on posting).  It didn’t really work.  But they tasted good.

I started with the trusty old recipe on the bag of chocolate chips and tried to change it to accomodate the sweet potatoes, which I microwaved and blended.  I used the same amount of butter and sugar as normal, but more brown than white.  I used one egg instead of two, thinking the sweet potato would add moisture.  I added cinnamon and allspice.  Then I figured I would just add flour until I got to the right consistency.  I had bread and cake flour but not AP, so I figured I’d try to use half of each and it would all even out.  Well, normally you use 2 1/4 cups of flour in a batch of cookies, so I thought I’d add the flours a half a cup at a time.  But when I got to a 3/4 cup, it seemed like the right consistency.  I mean, ok, sweet potatoes are starchy, and I only used one egg.  Now I’ve made a lot of cookies in my life, folks.  I know what homemade cookie dough feels like.  But somehow, I was very, very wrong.  This was what I ended up with (don’t use it):

  1. 1 cup butter
  2. 1 cup mashed sweet potato
  3. 1 cup brown sugar
  4. 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  5. 1 egg
  6. 1 tsp vanilla
  7. 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  8. 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  9. 1 tsp baking soda
  10. 1/2 tsp salt
  11. 1/2 cup bread flour
  12. 1/4 cup cake flour
  13. chocolate chips

I lovingly scooped them onto a baking sheet and pressed chocolate chips on top as the face of a jack-o-lantern.  Jack-o-Lantern Cookie

Then I baked them.  Then I checked how they were doing in the middle.  I had a sheet of cookieness.  It was delicious.  But it was not cookies.  So I snacked on cookieness for the next few days, and I added flour like crazy to the next batch.  Which did actually turn into cookies.  I chilled them overnight and baked them in the morning.  They came out sticky and flat, but at least they were separate.  I wish I had written down how much flour I added, but I probably didn’t even measure it.

Cookieness
Part of the way through scraping the cookieness off of the sheet.

The flavors, however, were quite good.  It would not be a waste of time to work on this one.  The sweet potatoes didn’t come through as much as I would have liked, though.  They weren’t really orange so much as orangey brown and people weren’t quite sure what the flavor was.

Posted in baking

Buttermilk biscuits without buttermilk

Flat but yummy whey biscuits
Flat but yummy whey biscuits

One of my life goals is to learn how to make really good biscuits – and by biscuits I mean the soft, buttery, flaky things you eat in the South.  They’re traditionally made with buttermilk, but you can also use other liquids in them, such as whey.  I recently made yogurt and had drained off some of the whey – I didn’t want it to be too liquidy – so biscuits were a good use for that.  I found this recipe on RecipeZaar and it sounded authentic enough that it might help me to finally get past my biscuit rut, because all my previous attempts have ended up yummy, but not at all resembling Southern biscuits – too flat and tough, not flaky at all.  It got me two out of three – the right taste (I think the whey helped give it that tang but the butter is definitely to thank here), and the right texture, but I didn’t get enough rise.  I think it’s because I rolled out my biscuits before reading the part of the directions that says not to roll with a rolling pin!  Whoops.  It’s kind of ironic, too, since I don’t even own a rolling pin.  I used an empty wine (or, limoncello-to-be) bottle, thinking the rolling was necessary.  Next time I will pat my biscuits by hand.  Promise.

So when I stocked my new apartment with staples, I bought bread flour and cake flour but not all-purpose flour.  The complement of most people’s flour holdings, I guess.  I figured bread and cake were better for well, bread and cake, and when I needed all-purpose I’d just mix the two.  So that’s what I did for these biscuits – half and half.  Seems to work ok.  Maybe someday I’ll do a taste test with different kinds of flour.

Posted in baking

Banana bread

banana breadI bought four bananas a while back and instead of ripening into a nice yellow before getting brownish, they sort of when straight from greenish to brownish.  I managed to eat one, but the others just weren’t very appetizing so I kept letting them sit there, even though they were only going to get worse.  Then I remembered the goodness that is banana bread.  I found this recipe, which uses three very ripe bananas, and whipped some up.  It has to bake for a while but the batter only takes a few minutes to put together so it’s very compatible with homework.  It came out lacking a little of the oomph that my mom’s banana bread always has; maybe some spices would help?  But the texture and moistness were great.  It looks kind of dry in the picture but it wasn’t in real life.  I didn’t have a loaf pan so I used a glass pan I have that’s somewhere between square and 9×13.  It worked fine.