Sunday, December 18, 2011

Brief Update

It has come to my attention that I've been nominated for "Best Kosher Food Blog" over on the Joy of Kosher's website. I would say I'm surprised by this, but I'll admit that I self-nominated. Given that the current leader is at 1000 votes and I'm at 12, I don't think I'll win, but I figure I may as well take a shot, right? If you haven't voted, you can do so here: Best Kosher Food Blog (just search for "Baking It Up As I Go Along" to vote)

If you've arrived at this site through that voting page or via some other means, you'll probably notice that I haven't posted much since October. This is due to some technical issues I was experiencing at the time; namely, I hadn't had time to do so because of other obligations. However, I have a few posts in the works and hope to get them out as soon as possible, including a mega-ultra-gigantic-insane chocolate chip cookie. So in the meantime, please peruse the archives, subscribe through your favorite RSS reader, and I promise I'll have something new here shortly.



Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Non-Exploding Cinnamon Rolls!

Last month, I wrote a post about attempting to make cinnamon buns using a recipe from America's Test Kitchen. Needless to say, it didn't go very well (let's face it, I named it "Exploding Cinnamon Loaf" for a reason.) In response, America's Test Kitchen wrote a post on their site in an attempt to figure out where I went wrong. They suggested two things that might have contributed to my failure: 1) Converting the measurements from ounces to grams, and 2) Using a baking sheet instead of the countertop when working with the dough.

I'll address the countertop issue later in this post, but I want to talk about the gram/ounce conversion right away. (Warning: math lesson follows) My kitchen scale is accurate to one decimal place when using ounces and to zero decimal places when using grams. 1 ounce is equal to 28 grams, so 0.1 ounce is equal to 2.8 grams. This means when I have to deal with really tiny fractions like 1/8 ounce, it's much more accurate for me to use grams instead of ounces. 1/8 ounce is 0.125 ounces, but it's 3.5 grams. If I use grams, I would only be off by half a gram, which is about 0.017 ounces. Using ounces, I'd be off from anywhere from 0.025 to 0.075 ounces. So I highly doubt that using grams instead of ounces played a significant role in the cinnamon rolls failing. (Math lesson over.)

As I prepared to make my second run at the cinnamon buns, I decided that there was no way I would do this half-assed. The last time, I used a silicon spatula when rolling the dough, despite America's Test Kitchen's directions to use a metal spatula or bench scraper. So I went out and bought myself a bench scraper, just in case. I have to say, as someone who's never had a bench scraper before, it's pretty awesome. Though I don't recommend walking around town holding one; you look like you're carrying a large razor blade.

I began baking the same way I did before. Measured out my dry ingredients (this time with ounces), combined my wet ingredients in a separate bowl, then mixed the two together with the wooden spoon. Immediately, I noticed the dough come together much better than the last time. I finished the stirring, then floured my counter and turned out the dough.  I started kneading the dough and discovered that it was nowhere near as sticky as the last time. Could the problem really have just been the ounces/gram conversion? As I thought about it, I realized it was something much simpler: last time, I used the wrong flour.

This recipe uses whole wheat flour in an attempt to make the cinnamon buns healthier than the average cinnamon bun. Last time, I used the only whole wheat flour in my pantry: white whole wheat flour. This time, I remembered to get "real" whole wheat flour for the recipe. It may not seem like a big deal, but it all comes down to water absorption. Whole wheat flour (the brownish stuff) can absorb up to 13% more liquid than white all-purpose flour. While I don't know what the percentages are for white whole wheat flour, I imagine that it also cannot adsorb as much liquid as whole wheat flour. So the reason my first attempt was so sticky was that it didn't absorb all the liquid in the recipe. And if you're asking why America's Test Kitchen didn't catch that in their response, it's because I didn't mention it in the original post. Above all else, I think this is why my first cinnamon buns failed so miserably. 

That being said, I must admit that using the counter helped a lot as well. It was much easier to knead on the counter than on a surface that moved around. The dough was still stickier than I would have expected or liked, but it was nowhere close to the ungodly mess I was trying to work with before. Soon, I shaped by dough into a 9 x 12 inch rectangle (with help from the bench scraper's ruler). I spread some melted butter on the surface and sprinkled on the filling. 

Now was the moment of truth: could I roll the dough up without al the tears and spills from the last attempt? Well, sort of. Using the bench scraper did make things much easier, but  at the last roll of the dough log it tore. I did a slightly better job at patching things up, but it still wasn't great. What I was able to do this time around was roll the entire log so the tear was on the bottom where I'd cut through it anyway. I used the ruler on the bench scraper to figure out where I'd need to cut the log and made corresponding indentations. I cut the individual rolls, but discovered that my serrated knife wasn't long enough and the resulting rolls where a little uneven and torn. Still, they remained cohesive enough to arrange in the pan without too much difficulty.

I covered the pan with foil and stuck it in the oven. Midway through the baking, I removed the foil and kept a close eye on their progress. I had some problems figuring out whether they were brown enough, but I eventually made a decision and pulled them out. I inverted them onto the cooling rack and let them sit there for a moment. This seems like another time to pull out the "beached whale" metaphor I used last time, but I want something more upbeat, so let's say that they lay there like…a giant block of cinnamon awesomeness. Yeah, that's it.

Eventually, I turned them right-side up and marveled at the awesomeness. Abandoning the idea of frosting again (really, I don't need more sugar), I carefully removed a roll from the block and took a bite. It was very, very good. I didn't discern too much of a difference in taste from the exploding cinnamon loaf, other than the loaf was drier. But I was glad to have something I could share with others that didn't require me to rip off random sized pieces and scrape off burnt sugar.

In the end, I still think there's some procedural issues with this recipe, but it was a significantly better experience than the first attempt. One thing I might try if I do this again is using dental floss for the cutting instead of the serrated knife. I also think I need to work the dough some more on the counter before shaping it. But with the use of the right flour and the some additional equipment, I can move this recipe from the "complete and utter failure" category to the "pretty good but needs a bit of tweaking" category. 

Not bad, if you ask me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Exploding" Cinnamon Loaf

UPDATE (10/1/11) - America's Test Kitchen took a look at this post and tried to figure out what I did wrong. You can read their response here: Exploding Cinnamon Rolls

I'm still not sure what went wrong. What was supposed to be quick and tasty cinnamon buns (or, according to the recipe, Everyday Cinnamon Buns) turned into…well, that mess you see above. 

It shouldn't have ended like this. Baking is mostly a precision science, which is why most bakers prefer using recipes that use weight instead of volume. It ensures a more consistent outcome with little surprises. So how did this recipe, which had weights for the dry ingredients, become so crazy? Better yet, this was a recipe from America's Test Kitchen! And it failed! Is nothing sacred anymore?

It started out innocently enough. I put my measuring bowl on the scale and weighed my flours and my sugars. I even converted the ounces to grams so I would be more accurate. I combined the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in another, and the cinnamon sugar filling in a third. I was supposed to combine the wet and dry ingredients and stir until the dough looked shaggy. Leaving aside the problem that I'm not totally sure what "shaggy dough" looks like, I gave everything a good stir until it looked like everything was combined.

I turned the dough out onto a baking sheet which I had floured liberally. See, my baking sheet is 12 x 18, and I eventually needed to pat the dough into a 9 x 12 rectangle. "Perfect," I thought, "I'll just pat the dough into half of the baking sheet and I'll be good to go!" I was so pleased with myself for devising this plan. In the end, it's probably the best decision I made because it allowed me to salvage the end product…but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was warned in the recipe that the dough would be sticky, and that I "should not be afraid to add more flour" if it was difficult to manage. That one line did not prepare me for just how sticky this glob was. When I think of sticky dough, I imagine small amounts adhering to my hands. This dough covered my entire hand every time I tried to do something with it. The goal was to knead it just a few times until it came together, but I was having enough of a problem just picking it up. Each time I tried, it took the whole baking sheet with it. 

Every minute or two, I washed my hands off in the sink so I could grab more flour from the bag and throw it onto the baking sheet and the dough. As my wrestling match with the dough progressed, I started to worry. By my estimation, I had used at least half a cup of flour, if not more, and the dough was only starting to get easier to handle. I was worried about adding too much flour and overworking the dough. In retrospect, this was a stupid concern, because if I had overworked the dough, there would have been high gluten development and the dough would not have been a sticky mess. But you can probably guess this was not my time for wholly rational thought.

Eventually, I reached a point where the dough could be molded without coating my palms. I gave up on the kneading, and began to pat the dough into shape, throwing a little bit more flour here and there as I worked. Once I reached the right dimensions, I brushed on some melted butter and spread the filling mixture on top. I pressed the filling in as best I could, though there was a lot of loose sugar and cinnamon on the surface that was less enmeshed with the butter and dough. With that done, I prepared to roll the dough up.

That's when things began to fall apart. Literally. As I used a spatula to lift the dough up and roll it, tears appeared everywhere. Filling began to spill out through the bottom like sand in an hourglass. And no matter how hard I tried to seal the holes with more dough, the dough (ironically) wouldn't stick together (I assume because of the butter). In the end, I somehow managed to make  something that was vaguely log shaped but was torn on one side. I'll confess that I didn't follow instructions exactly; the recipe suggests using a metal spatula or a bench scraper to lift the dough, but I used a silicon spatula. Still, I don't think it should have made such a difference with this step.

I ended up with a log of dough that had one side completely in shambles. The place where I was supposed to seal the dough shut had become a mess of dough, butter, and filling, and was barely holding together. When I tried to roll the log down the sheet so the seam would be on the bottom, I ended up with more tearing. I threw my hands up, hoped for the best, and started cutting individual slices off the log for rolls. That didn't last very long. The dough tore even more, and the first two slices I made left me with dough scraps and some filling while a mess of cinnamon sugar remained behind in the pan. 

At this point, I wasn't sure what to do. Keep on cutting and hope that subsequent rolls would be easier? I didn't have much faith in that, given the first couple of slices. Throw the whole thing away? That didn't make much sense either, because the taste of the log was (presumably) still good, even if the final assembly was disastrous. So I said, "What the hell," and decided to try baking the whole log (now deemed a loaf) in the oven. I didn't know how to adjust the temperature for the loaf from the original bun recipe, so I left it as it was. In my final act of attempting to make sense of the whole thing, I tried moving the log off the sheet onto a piece of parchment paper, but the log started to tear even more, so I let it be. I covered it with foil as the recipe instructed and threw the whole thing into the oven. When the time came to remove the foil midway through baking, it stuck on and pulled a layer of dough with it.

As the baking continued, it occurred to me that the loaf might be in danger of "exploding." There was a fair amount of baking powder and soda in the dough, and I believed that in the loaf shape, it could expand too quickly and release a burst of cinnamon sugar filling all over my oven. I ran out from my room to the kitchen and yanked open the oven door, only to see that the various tears in the dough had taken care of my problem for me. All around the loaf were puddles of burning sugar, leaking from various locations. So I guess the tears were helpful after all.

After about 30 minutes of baking I pulled the loaf out of the oven and put it on a cooling rack. Of course, the loaf couldn't resist one last shot at me, and promptly tore in two when I tried lifting it off the sheet. Torn, slightly burnt, and with a bottom soaked in melted sugar, the "exploding" cinnamon loaf lay on my cooling rack with the air of a beached whale. When it was cool enough to eat, I tried a piece. Thankfully, despite every effort to thwart me, the end result tasted quite good. 

So where did I mess up in this recipe? I haven't been able to figure it out. The only thing I can think of is that I didn't knead the dough enough before shaping it. But the reason I didn't knead it that long was because I couldn't imagine a recipe essentially leaving out a cup of flour from the recipe. So I'd lay the fault with the recipe's construction. Either add some more flour at the beginning or state clearly in the recipe that a large amount of flour may be needed towards the end. And I'd probably reduce the quantity of the filling, too.

Making this recipe has taught me a few things. One, America's Test Kitchen can make mistakes. Two, even some of the most hopeless messes can be turned into great successes. And third, the next time I want cinnamon buns, I should just make a cinnamon swirl loaf of bread. It's basically the same thing as this loaf but with less sugar.

And, hopefully, less danger of exploding.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making Pizza in my PJs

I am not a morning person. When I see my roommate after I wake up, I greet him with a hearty "Guhhhhhhhh." For all intents and purposes, I'm a walking zombie who has just enough mental capacity to do simple things like move around (albeit slowly) and maybe eat some food. I don't really get moving until about 30-45 minutes after I wake up.

Thankfully, sometimes I have just enough functional thought processes to do slightly more complex things like measure quantities of ingredients. Which is how I found myself recently making pizza dough in my pajamas.

I got this recipe from Joe Yonan's "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking For One." It's a no-knead pizza dough that's about as straightforward as they come: dump a bunch of ingredients in a bowl, mix until combined, cover and forget about it for 8-12 hours. The timing is great for me because I can put the dough together in the morning before I leave for work and when I get home at the end of the day, I have pizza dough all ready for me to work with.

I also like that I don't need to think that much when putting this together. As long as I can read a measuring cup I'm pretty good, and I usually reach that level of functionality about 15 minutes after I wake up. Since it's a no-knead recipe, I don't have to make an effort at physical activity well before my body has the strength to do much of anything. And the upside of doing this in my pajamas is that if I get a little bit of flour or pizza dough on me, it's not that annoying, while if it got on my work clothes, I'd be a lot more upset.

A word about the dough itself: this dough is pretty sticky and wet. You're not looking for a smooth and not tacky dough as you would normally expect. Since the recipe is not given in weight, but rather in volume, there's a good chance you'll have to adjust your water based on how much flour you ended up with in the bowl. The most important thing is that all the flour is mixed into the dough. If it seems a bit wet before the rise, don't worry: you can always add more flour down the line. Better to err on the wetter side. And remember, this is a no-knead dough. You don't need to work this thing to death, just enough to ensure everything is combined.

Joe Yonan's book is full of recipes that use this dough, almost all of which involve  a broiler or a pizza stone at 500 degrees. I don't have a functional broiler or pizza stone, so I've been sticking it in the oven on a baking sheet at 425. But you should play around with it until you find something you like. I'm pretty sure this will work well in most existing pizza recipes.

Finally, you are obviously not required to make this in your pajamas. But it's a lot of fun to do. Especially when your roommate comes out of his room, sees you in the kitchen mixing dough, asks what you're doing, and gets a "bluuuuugggh" in return while you shake your flour covered hands in his general direction.

I'm pretty sure that happened. Maybe. I wasn't quite awake enough to remember everything.
"No-Knead Pizza Dough" Adapted from Joe Yonan's Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One. (Another version of this appeared in the Washington Post here: No-Knead Pizza Dough)

  • 4 cups bread flour, plus more as needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant dry yeast (also known as rapid rise or bread machine yeast)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water

  1. Combine flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl. Add water and stir until blended.
  2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
  3. The dough should be ready to work with after at least 8 hours, when it has risen and is bubbly on the surface. I've had it rise for 12 hours without any problems; I suspect it could go longer but I've never tried. When you think it's close to ready, put the bowl in the refrigerator for an hour to make the next steps easier.
  4. Rub your hands and the work surface with olive oil and turn the dough out. Dust it with flour and fold it over on itself a few times. Continue with this until the dough comes together and holds its shape. 
  5. Cut the dough into 5 equal pieces (about 6 ounces each), one for each personal pizza.
  6. Sprinkle each dough ball with flour, cover, and let rise for an hour before baking. 

Any dough balls you aren't using immediately should either be refrigerated (up to 3 days) or frozen (up to 3 months). Keep each ball separate in its own Ziploc bag. You can coat the dough ball in olive oil inside the bag, but I haven't found that to be so necessary. If the dough ball is refrigerated (or defrosted in the fridge), leave it in a room temperature environment for an hour before you start to use it. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Miracle Blondies

The story behind these blondies is not about making the blondies themselves, but what led up to their creation.

On Wednesday night, I received an e-mail from a friend asking if I and a couple other friends could put together a Sabbath meal for Saturday lunch. I quickly volunteered my apartment and said I would make a dessert and the main course. The only restriction was "no chocolate" as one of my guests couldn't eat it. That's a restriction that cancelled out a lot of my go-to desserts, but I had a plan.

I recently bought a copy of David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert, which has a great collection of recipes. One of them is a Fresh Ginger Cake which has the benefit of being completely butter-free. I've made a ginger cake using only fresh ginger before from Joy of Cooking, but this is on a completely different level. How? Well...this one uses molasses! That's classy, right?

Anyway, I had all of the ingredients on hand except for the ginger. Friday morning, I went out to the Trader Joe's and picked some up to use later. Unfortunately, in my early morning barely-conscious haze, I neglected to check the quality of the ginger. And so it was, at 5:00 pm on Friday as I joyfully began to prepare making my ginger cake, I discovered that the ginger was moldy.


In retrospect, the best thing to have done at this point would have been to walk down to the Safeway (about 2 minutes away), pick up some more ginger, then come back. Instead, I panicked. It's one of my great failings that I don't deal well when my plans go awry. For the next 20 minutes I rummaged through every dessert cookbook available to find a recipe I could make. Eventually, I settled on making a pie with the blackberries and blueberries I purchased in the morning. The problem here was 1) making a pie dough quickly, and 2) making it dairy-free. The obvious answer was to use shortening, but I only had a limited amount.

I turned to my favorite emergency baking resource, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. In his book, he provides a ratio for pie dough - 3 parts flour:2 parts fat:1 part water (all by weight). Simple enough, right? I threw some shortening into the freezer to chill, then went over the recipe to see if there was anything I was missing. Suddenly, I realized that I would need to blind bake the crust, which meant I needed dried beans. I racked my brain for a moment, trying to think if there were any dried beans in the apartment, then recalled I had a bag of lentils. Somewhere. I checked the pantry. No lentils. I checked the random shopping bags in my kitchen. Still no lentils. I spent the next 15 minutes tearing up the apartment before I found the my bedroom closet. Yeah, I don't know either.

Having recovered the lentils, I removed the shortening from the freezer and hacked at it with a paring knife. Whirling in place, I grabbed a bowl near the sink, put it on the scale and haphazardly poured out some flour. I added the shortening, then put on a pair of latex gloves and started rubbing the fat into the flour.

Next, I needed to add some ice water until the dough came together. Lacking ice cubes (yeah, don't ask) I resorted to the Brita pitcher in the fridge. I gradually poured in an ounce of water and mixed it together with my hands. It came together, but I had some doubts. By weight, I should have needed more water, but the dough in front of me didn't seem to need any. Stupidly, I added more water anyway, resulting in a dough that was way too wet. I tossed in a bit more flour and shortening, and tried to rescue it.

Then, I realized I forgot to put in the salt. Rather than do the intelligent thing of measuring it out, I opened up the container and kind of shook it at the bowl. The result was a stream of salt going into the bowl, far more than the pinch or two I needed. Resigned to the fact that the dough was no longer salvageable, I tossed it in the garbage. The time was now 5:45 pm.

At this point, I was about to say "screw it," and make brownies, a very straightforward recipe that could be assembled in a brief period of time. In fact, if you follow me on Twitter (@TalkingTV), you'd know that I even said "Screw it, I'm making brownies." But I couldn't do it. Remember, I had a guest that couldn't eat chocolate. As someone who has a very long list of food sensitivities, I couldn't knowingly make something that one person couldn't eat. Especially when that person has done a lot to cater to my problems in the past. So brownies went out the window.

Finally, I came across a recipe for blondies in a copy of Baking Illustrated that I checked out from the library last week. The only chocolate involved was chocolate chips, which I figured I'd just leave out in part of the batter. Since the original recipe called for a 9x13 pan, I decided to use two 8x8 pans. One pan would contain no chocolate chips, the other would have some stirred in. It was 6:00 pm.

I was up against the clock. I quickly shoved everything around the counter to clear some space, and grabbed some margarine from the fridge. I portioned out what I needed, threw it in a small saucepan, and set it on medium heat. It melted quickly, but started to bubble, so I lowered the heat slightly. Using the paring knife, I tried to cut the margarine into smaller pieces as it melted, with only some degree of success.

Once melted, I poured the margarine into a large bowl, then glided across the kitchen to get the brown sugar from the pantry. Yes, you read that right. I glided. Flour and sugar had accumulated on the floor during my frantic tossing and mixing, so my traction was significantly reduced. I was supposed to pack the brown sugar into measuring cups, but I was so caught up in the frenzy that I ended up just grabbing handfuls of the sugar, squeezing it tightly, then dropping it into the bowl. Thank goodness there was a weight measurement too, or it would have been the fourth disaster of the day. Quickly, I whisked the sugar and margarine together, and perched the bowl on top of some other kitchen detritus.

Next, I whisked the dry ingredients in a small bowl, taking my time to measure out the salt. I found some space on a small table in the kitchen and put the bowl down. Turning back to the sugar/margarine mixture, I tossed in two eggs and vanilla and whisked them in. Finally, I gradually added the dry ingredients to the batter and folded until just combined.

I was incredibly nervous at this point because the amount of batter was so...low. I couldn't fathom how it could normally fill a 13x9 pan, let alone my 8x8 pans. But it was too late. I finally had a dessert that was going reasonably well and I couldn't give up. I scooped half the batter into a lightly greased pan and tried to smooth it out with the spatula. (Incidentally, the recipe says to make a foil sling for the pan. I was too tired at this point to deal with it.) Then, I measured out a reasonable amount of chocolate chips for the remaining batter. OK, fine, I grabbed the nearest bag of chocolate chips and just started pouring directly into the bowl until it kind of looked right. That dough went into the second pan, and both went into the oven at 6:15.

I carefully monitored both pans, concerned that the change in volume would affect the baking time. The recipe says to remove the bars when the tops are "shiny and cracked and feels firm to the touch." After 25 minutes of baking, it didn't look like the first two conditions would be met anytime soon, so I poked the cakes a bit before deciding to remove them. I dropped them onto the cooling rack and gave them the once over.

They didn't look too bad, actually. But my confidence was so shattered after all the prior failures that I gave them a 60% chance of being edible and a subsequent 30% chance of being tasty. But I frankly didn't care anymore. They were done, they were decent, and I could move on with other things I needed to do.

By the way, I did realize later why the volume of dough seemed less than expected. I had left out the cup of chocolate chips and cup of pecans which would have significantly increased the total volume. But I don't like pecans in my desserts (except for pie) and the chocolate chips were added later in the process. It was a relief to figure out that I wasn't crazy. Or, at least, not that crazy.

The moment of truth came the next day at the meal when I served the blondies to three friends and two guests that came at the last minute. I cut out pieces from both pans and handed them to my guests. I anxiously studied their faces as they bit into the blondies, chewed, and swallowed. I held my breath as I waited for someone to render the first judgment. Finally, it came.


What?!?! I had managed to pull it off?!?! I grabbed a piece of the blondies for myself and tried them. They were, in fact, very good. A little denser than I usually like, but considering everything that led up to them, I wasn't complaining. My friends stuck around for a few more hours and together we kept taking more of the blondies. By the end of the day, both pans were almost completely empty.

Because the end result came out so well despite so many setbacks, I've decided to call these blondies "Miracle Blondies." It may not be a miracle of biblical proportions to have a piece of cake come out well, but when my friends didn't spit it out and instead reached for seconds, I certainly whispered thanks to God for having my back.

Maybe He likes blondies too.
"Miracle Blondies" (Adapted from Baking Illustrated)

  • 1 1/2 cups (7.5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter (or margarine), melted and cooled
  • 1 1/2 cups (10.5 oz) light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips (I don't like white chocolate, so I just used more semisweet chocolate chips)
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped coarse (optional)

1) Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13x9 inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Make a foil sling by placing two sheets of foil or parchment paper in the pan perpendicular to each other and greasing both sheets. (I find the sling optional, but that's up to you.)

2) Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

3) Whisk melted butter/margarine and brown sugar together in a medium bowl until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.

4) Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined. Do not overmix.

5) Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

6) Bake until the top is shiny and cracked and firm to the touch (the latter is the most important one), 22 to 25 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack, then (if using a foil sling), remove the bars from the pan and transfer to a cutting board.

7) Cut into 1 1/2 x 2 inch bars and serve.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fudgy Oat Bars

First, my apologies for my relative absence from the blog. It's an unfortunate reality that things like my day job and other obligations sometimes prevent me from spending time in my kitchen causing disasters all over the place. Thankfully, last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time making one of my favorite desserts: Fudgy Oat Bars.

This is a recipe that has been in my family for quite a while, which usually means that it was in a kosher cookbook somewhere and my mom wrote it down for future reference. I remember eating these when I was growing up and it's one of my favorite desserts. I suspect that my mom made these in an attempt to get me to eat more oatmeal, since I'll eat most things that are covered with chocolate. And yes, I know how that sounds. When I moved to Washington, DC after college this was one of the first desserts I made in my tiny apartment kitchen.

Unlike the previous posts on this blog, I've made this recipe enough times that there were very few mistakes or hilarious moments while I made these last week. The only "bad idea" moment was when I tried to get dough off the paddle attachment of my mixer by raising the head of the mixer while it was running. I've seen this done before without ill effects, but somehow I managed to turn the mixer on too high as I lifted the head up. As the paddle rose out of the bowl, time slowed to a crawl and I could clearly see a couple of pieces of dough being flung from the paddle at high speed and travel across half my kitchen as if in slow motion. It was a trainwreck I could see coming but was powerless to stop. Thankfully, the amount of dough I lost was minimal and easy to clean up. I also had a minor accident cracking an egg, but magically I avoided getting any eggshell into the mixing bowl.

The only significant change I made in this recipe involved what type of oats to use. The recipe just says "quick cook oats" but there'a a lot of different oats marketed as "quick cook." Traditionally, my family and I have used Quaker rolled oats, which can cook in about a minute. Early in my time in DC, I started using Irish rolled oats, which advertise a cooking time of three minutes and have a slightly different flavor and texture. For this time around, I decided to take a crack at steel cut oats. I've read in many places that they have a completely different flavor and texture, so I thought it would be an interesting variation. They're also billed as "quick cook," but with an eight minute time, it's much longer than the others. Still, why not try them out and see what happens?

The answer is that they're not a great fit for this application. Steel cut oats are very coarse and the longer raw cooking time meant the bottom oat layer was much crunchier than I wanted it to be. They were also more difficult to incorporate evenly as they had a tendency to collect in the bottom of the bowl where they never came into contact with the dough. I frequently had to scrape down the bowl with a spatula and manually mix things around a bit until they were sticking to the dough. In the future I'd stick with rolled oats, which cook faster and have a more pleasing texture in this dessert. But if all you have is steel cut oats, you'll get a perfectly fine dessert as well.

With all of that oat of the way (see, a pun!) I strongly recommend you make these bars. Be warned that the chocolate layer can be very rich, so you might want to scale back on the chocolate chips/apple juice mixture if it's too much. I've never tried adjusting it, but I'm sure that it could work. But if you're looking for a dessert that combines a toasted oat topping with a rich fudge layer, this is the dessert to make.
Fudgy Oat Bars (adapted from the Spice and Spirit Cookbook)

Oatmeal mixture
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 cup margarine softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 cups quick cooking oats
  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • ¾ cup apple juice
  • 1 tsp vanilla

1) Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x12 pan.

2) Mix brown sugar, margarine, eggs, and vanilla, in a large mixer bowl. Stir in flour, baking soda, and oats.

3) Reserve 1/3 of the oatmeal mixture and press remaining mixture into pan.

4) Heat chips, and juice in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and mix in vanilla

5) Spread chocolate mixture over oatmeal dough. With rounded teaspoonfuls spoon remaining dough over chocolate.

6) Bake until golden brown 30-40 minutes. While warm cut into 1x2 inch bars. Cool in pan.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Creaming Method: Mixer vs. Spoon

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you'll know that I frequently lament my inability to use my electric mixer for dairy products. As a result of this limitation, I am unable to make any cookies that require the creaming method when mixing butter and sugar. I've managed to select recipes in the past that avoid this problem, such as the Chocolate Chip Cookies I made which uses melted butter instead.

But recently, I received two competing comments on posts about the creaming method. First, an anonymous commenter (later revealed to be my mother) wrote on my Girl Scout Thin Mints post: "I think it is time to get a mixer!" Then, another anonymous commenter (later revealed to be the mother of a friend of mine) wrote on my Molasses Spice Cookies post: "Wooden Spoon! One of the best implements used by bakers for generations. With a little elbow grease, it creams butter and sugar perfectly." So I had a challenge on my hands: Could a wooden spoon cream butter and sugar as well as an electric mixer? I decided to find out.

Before I began the baking, I did some research on the creaming method. This involved reading Shirley Corriher's Cookwise and watching a couple of episodes of Good Eats. Essentially, the creaming method combines fat (usually butter) and sugar together, usually at a quick speed. This has a few effects: First, it adds air to the butter/sugar mixture, resulting in a lighter final product. Second, the impact of the sugar slamming into the butter creates small pockets, which expand during baking, contributing an airy texture to the product as well. Finally, those same pockets allow other ingredients to become more evenly incorporated throughout the dough, so there aren't random pockets of concentrated ingredients.

Conventional wisdom has told me that only an electric mixer has the power and speed to cream butter and sugar effectively. Creaming by hand means that there is insufficient velocity to make the pockets in the fat that are essential to a good cookie. Therefore, the hypothesis of my experiment was this: Cookies that use an electric mixer for creaming are better than cookies creamed by hand. Now, because I was using the electric mixer for part of this experiment, I needed to use dairy-free margarine in my recipe. I found a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that called for 1/2 cup of margarine, which was also helpful as 1/2 cup is the same as a stick, so I wouldn't need to do extra measuring.

First was the electric mixer method. To start, I pulled out a stick of margarine from the fridge and put it on a table to soften for 30 minutes. While I waited, I turned the oven on to 350 degrees. Then, I measured out my flour and baking soda. The recipe was written volumetrically, not by weight, so I wrote down the weight of everything so I could precisely duplicate the recipe when I switched to the other method. Therefore, the 1 1/8 cup of flour I used became 159 grams and the 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda became 3 grams. I didn't measure the "pinch of salt" because it was too small to measure by weight. In lieu of a sifter, I put the dry ingredients into a bowl and stirred them up with a whisk.

Once the 30 minutes were up, I put the stick of margarine into the bowl of my mixer. I poured out 1/4 cup of white sugar (45 grams) and 1/2 cup of packed brown sugar (96 grams) and put it in the bowl with the margarine. I stuck the paddle attachment on the mixer and let it run for a few minutes until the margarine/sugar mixture looked light and fluffy.

In a plastic cup, I combined the egg and the vanilla before pouring it into the mixing bowl. A minute later, I added the flour/baking soda/salt mixture in batches until everything was combined. Finally, I measured out a cup of my favorite chocolate chips (170 grams) and stirred it in. When everything came together, I started portioning the dough, where I made a mistake. The recipe calls for "heaping teaspoons" of dough, but I read it as "heaping tablespoons." Oops. But larger cookies aren't the worst thing in the world, right? As long as I was consistent, the experiment was still valid. Besides, I was weighing every dough blob to keep the cookies about the same size amongst themselves, so everything was good.

Nine 44-47 gram balls of dough later, I had my first batch of cookies in the oven. I rotated the sheet after five minutes, then checked on them again five minutes later. The centers of the cookies looked undercooked, but the edges were defined and somewhat set, so I pulled them out of the oven anyway. Once I had the parchment paper off the baking sheet and onto the cooling rack, I ran the sheet under cold water so the next batch wouldn't start cooking from the heat of the pan (as they did in the Chocolate Chip Cookies). I portioned out the remaining eight cookies, and repeated the baking process. When they were all out of the oven, I put them on the rack to cool. I separated the first half from the second to account for the slight difference in oven temperature between the two, which I expected would come up again later. You'll notice there's only 16 cookies below in the picture when I made 17. That's because I ate one. Sue me.

On the left, the first batch. On the right, the second.

Then it was time for the wooden spoon method. I repeated the starting steps from before (leaving the margarine out for 30 minutes; "sifting" together the flour, baking soda, and salt; measuring out the two types of sugar), taking care to keep the weight of everything the same from the electric mixer method. But once I was ready to cream the margarine/sugar by hand, I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. Put it all in a bowl and stir the spoon around as fast as possible? Stab the margarine with the spoon, roll it in the sugar, and stab it again?

Thankfully, The Joy Of Cooking came to my rescue. It describes a method for creaming by hand: "Mash the butter against the side of the bowl with a wooden spoon, using a rocking and sliding motion and keeping the butter in a limited area of the bowl...Scrape the mass together as necessary and repeat...until the butter is softened. Add the sugar gradually and work the butter and sugar together until the mixture is light in color and texture." Sounds easy enough.

I used the metal mixing bowl again to make sure that the bowl material wouldn't be a factor. I grabbed the wooden spoon and mashed away at that margarine like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately, I had failed to take into account the fact that the metal mixing bowl was tall and narrow, so I didn't have a very good angle from which to attack the margarine. It became some sort of awkward grapple with the bowl and spoon that at one point resulted in using my left hand, although I'm a righty. After mashing the margarine around a bit, I dumped all the sugar in at once and kept mashing. Yes, I know that the instructions from Joy Of Cooking says to add it gradually, but I added the sugar all at once with the electric mixer so I did it here too. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of mashing, sliding, and scraping I ended up with this:

Doesn't look too bad, right? In fact, here's a comparison picture between the two creamings:

Left: Electric mixer. Right: Wooden spoon.

The two look pretty similar, though the electric mixer method spread the margarine all around the bowl, while using the spoon kept it in one place. In fact, I thought that the wooden spoon version was lighter and fluffier. Again, as before, I mixed the vanilla and egg together then mixed it with the margarine/sugar using the spoon. Finally, I added the flour/baking soda/salt mixture and the chocolate chips and mixed it all together with the spoon. It did become apparent that the dough was somewhat stiff and not so easy to stir with a spoon, but I was dedicated to the method.

Once the dough was done, I made the cookies exactly the same way I did the first time: Nine cookies on the first sheet, eight cookies the second time, cooling the sheet down in between batches. These are the finished cookies:

First batch on the left, second on the right

And just for a visual comparison, here are the two different trays of cookies. As you can see, there's nothing visually that stands out as different between these two cookie versions.

Top: Electric mixer cookies. Bottom: Wooden spoon cookies.

Now that the baking was over, it was time for the taste testing. I got a hold of a bunch of friends and asked them to try out some cookies for me. I labeled the cookies "M" (for mixer) and "S" (for spoon), gave them one of each, and asked for some freeform comments.

Most of the comments on the M cookies were positive. Many noted that their cookie was "not too sweet" and was "light" or "airy." A few described it as "smooth." Two tasters noted that the margarine came through really strong, leaving a noticeable fat flavor in their mouths. On the other hand, the S cookies were not as well received. One taster described the texture as "mealy." A few tasters described different dominant flavors: ranging from vanilla to salt to just plain cookie dough. Also, the S cookies were described as denser than the M cookies. In the end, four of the tasters preferred the M cookies, two preferred the S cookies, and one really didn't care.

The flavor imbalance of the S cookies was not that surprising. Remember, creaming helps the remaining ingredients combine evenly throughout the dough because of the pockets in the fat. Without adequate creaming, ingredients will be concentrated in some cookies while nearly absent in others made from the same dough. Also, S cookies would be denser than their M counterparts because less air was beaten into the fat and sugar.

That's just the freeform comments. What about hard numbers? I asked everyone to rate the cookies on flavor and texture from one to five, where one was the worst and five was the best. The results? M cookies had an average taste score of 3.21 compared to S's average of 3.07. M cookies had an average texture score of 3.43 compared to S's average of 3.07. Clearly, the M cookies were the victors in this battle.

But just how significant was that victory? While everyone had a preferred cookie, no one thought that the other cookie was so bad they wouldn't eat it again. In fact, the remaining cookies went pretty quickly; I only had a few left by the end of the day. I think the takeaway is that an electric mixer makes much better cookies than using a wooden spoon, but the spoon can certainly make a serviceable cookie.

That being said, I think I'm going to end up springing for an electric mixer. Because I hold to the philosophy that if you're going to make something, you should make it the best way you can. And it's clear to me that the best way to make a cookie is with an electric mixer.

[Got any other experiments you'd be interested in reading about? I've got a few more lined up in the future, including: oil vs. melted butter, how to replace egg whites in recipes, and gluten free substitutes. But if you've got ideas, leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at]

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chocolate Pasta: Take 1

Here's the problem with making chocolate pasta. It looks disgusting. Squid ink pasta, which I've seen on TV, is a really cool looking black pasta. That's what I thought chocolate pasta could look like. Unfortunately, chocolate is more brown than black, so almost every picture I'm going to put in this post will probably look...well, gross. But I promise it tasted good.

Why chocolate pasta? Last week, I completed my second-to-last semester of my Master's program. To kick off my temporary freedom, I thought I'd try my hand at chocolate pasta, a recipe that looked really awesome and totally bizarre. I can't remember when or how I came across the recipe, but once I read it, I knew it had to be done. The only question was a matter of time. Making the pasta isn't a labor intensive process, but when the heck was I going to eat an entire plate of chocolate pasta? Thankfully, a bunch of friends were coming to over to my place on Sunday for dinner, so it was the perfect time to try it out and get some feedback.

My friends planned to arrive around 7:15, so I began the process around 5:30 to allow time for rolling and cutting. The recipe uses a food processor to mix everything together, but mine only has a 2-cup capacity, and I was concerned about the processor overflowing. I decided to make the pasta in two batches, doing half the recipe in the processor at a time. I began by putting the flour, egg, cocoa, and powdered sugar into the processor. Then, I measured out the 30 grams of chocolate and put it in the microwave. 30 grams of chocolate is a lot smaller than I expected it to be. I melted the chocolate most of the way, stirred it around a bit, then spooned it into the processor. I closed the lid, pushed the button, and waited for the magic.

Except...nothing happened. I kept pressing the button, but nothing in the bowl moved. I heard a whirring sound each time, which led to further confusion. Finally, I realized I had completely forgotten to put the blade in the processor. This presented a bit of a dilemma. Should I: 1) try to squish the blade through everything and hope I don't make a huge mess; or 2) dump everything out of the bowl, put the blade inside, then put the ingredients back in. If you've read any of my posts to date, you can probably guess I went with option 1.

While the now-functional food processor did splash some egg around the inside of the lid, after a few seconds, the inside of the bowl went from this:

To this:

Hey, I warned you it would look gross.

Next, I had to knead the dough for 10 minutes until smooth. Here's where my lack of thorough melting came back to haunt me. As I was pressing down on the dough, I felt bumps that were scratching my hands a bit. I picked out one of the bumps and discovered it was a piece of a chocolate chip that hadn't melted. I removed as many of those pieces as I could from the dough as I was nervous that whole pieces of chocolate chips in boiling water might cause the pasta to seize or something. Yeah, so it's not the most rational worry, but it still couldn't be a good thing.

After kneading for some time, my dough looked much smoother, though no less disgusting.

I wrapped it up in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge while I made the second batch of the dough. The recipe doesn't require any resting, but since it was going to be a while until I rolled out the dough and cut it, I figured sticking it in the fridge couldn't hurt. In retrospect, leaving it on the counter would probably have been better, but I don't think it really made a difference in the end.

I cleaned out the food processor and started to combine the ingredients again, this time making sure that the blade was in place before I started pouring things into the bowl. Also, this time around, I made sure to add a few extra grams of chocolate before melting it to account for the bit that stuck to the microwaveable bowl and I couldn't scrape off. This time, when I ran the food processor, the end result was much smoother and easier to work with, and even seemed a bit shinier. I kneaded it as before, this time without any annoying chocolate chip pieces. I wrapped it up, then went to kill some time for a while before rolling out the pasta.

Now, here's where some insanity kicks in. I don't have a pasta roller, but I do have a rolling pin. I thought to myself, "Hey, I could roll this out by hand, right? It's just like rolling out cookie dough, but thinner." So I tore off a piece of parchment paper, floured it lightly, then dumped the first batch of dough onto the paper. I rolled it out a bit, then folded it over onto itself, then repeated the process a few times. Then I started rolling out the dough in earnest, but the parchment paper kept bunching up. Then, the dough kept sticking to my rolling pin. Finally, I had the bright idea to roll out the dough between two pieces of wax paper, which worked reasonably well. I put all of my weight onto the rolling pin as I rolled, trying to get the pasta to a thickness similar to fettucini. There was a lot of straining and grunting as I tried to press the dough down. At one point, it started to feel a lot like a strenuous workout, which sounds really lame, but hey: don't judge me. Much.

Eventually, I ended up with a lengthy sheet of dough that was about as thin as I was going to get. I'd put a picture here, but it looks like all my images are blurry, so you'll have to imagine it. It's just like rolled out chocolate cookie dough. I set a pot of water to boil while I began cutting the dough. I pulled out a knife and cut strips of the dough on the wax paper, peeled them off, and put them on a nearby piece of parchment paper. As I peeled the strips of pasta away, they left behind some pieces of dough, an unfortunate side effect of the wax paper. Halfway through, I gave up on the wax paper, and peeled the whole thing off to finish the cutting on the parchment paper. This way, I would have an easier time peeling the individual pieces. When all the cutting was done, here's what the pasta looked like:

Once the water started to boil, I dropped in the pasta and set the timer for three minutes. The water quickly turned a disturbing shade of brown, but that's what you get when you dump cocoa in water. The timer went off, I removed the pasta with a spoon, and put it into a colander to drain. I then went about repeating the entire process with the second batch of dough, this time transferring the rolled out dough to the parchment paper before cutting it, so I could get all the "sticking to the surface" mess out of the way at the start. 10 minutes later, I had a complete batch of chocolate pasta, which I lightly dusted with some powdered sugar.

I served the plate of pasta to friends of mine and asked for some feedback. The general consensus was that the chocolate flavor was subtle, and that it tasted more like pasta with some chocolate in there somewhere vs. intensely flavored chocolate. I tried some myself, and I was forced to agree. I had envisioned chocolate pasta as this really rich chocolate dessert dish that also functioned as pasta. The way it stands right now, it doesn't really function that way. I'm not sure it functions as a main course either, since the chocolate flavor is strong enough that I think it would clash with some of the more traditional pasta sauces.

I asked my friends for some ideas on how to make the chocolate flavor more pronounced or how to make the dish as a whole be better. One suggested adding salt to the water (nowhere during this entire process did I use any salt). Another suggested putting some coffee in there somewhere, either in the original dough or the water. One popular idea was adding a raspberry sauce, hoping the tartness of the raspberries would both accentuate the subtle sweetness in the pasta and overall blend well. I liked that idea the most and will probably try it the next time I make this pasta. I'm also open to other ideas; leave them in the comments below.

Overall, what was my takeaway? Mainly, eating this chocolate pasta as a standalone isn't so great. It needs something really pull it together. But at the end of the day, I was satisfied with what I produced. I just hope the next time it'll be even better.

Oh, and rolling out pasta by hand? It can be painful. But totally worth it.
Chocolate Pasta (adapted from a recipe on "Instructables" which can be found here: Chocolate Pasta)

Remember that the chocolate flavor of this pasta is mild.
  • 1 cup of Plain Flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 60g (2oz) Dark Chocolate
  • 2 Tbsp Cocoa
  • 1 Tbsp Icing (Powdered) sugar
1) Add all the ingredients into your food processor and process until mixture forms into a ball.

2) Turn onto a lightly floured surface and kneed for 10 minutes until smooth.

3) Split the dough in half and work with half at a time. Flatten pasta out with hands slightly and roll on widest setting in pasta machine. Fold over, and repeat, occasionally changing the rolling width. As it gets closer to the thickness you want, you can drop the folding over step. (If you don't have a pasta machine, you can roll this out with a rolling pin.)

4) Once the pasta reaches the desired width, cut the pasta into whatever shapes you want. (I made something like fettucini, but the original recipe used spaghetti. Then again, I was using a knife and the original writer had pasta cutters and a roller)

5) Bring a pot of water to a boil, then drop the pasta into the water. Cook for about three minutes, though the cooking time may vary with the thickness of your pasta. Remove the pasta from the water and drain.

6) Serve as is, or dusted with powdered sugar. You could also add a sauce to it, but I didn't make one and I don't have one to offer yet.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookies? Perfect.

Chocolate. Chip. Cookies. Is there really any better dessert than a well-made chocolate chip cookie? Eating a warm, chewy cookie is the perfect way to end a meal. Chocolate chip cookies were the highlight of meals at my college dining hall. I used to work in the dining hall as a kosher supervisor (called a mashgiach) and my seat was right next to the kitchen. When they wheeled the tray of cookies past my chair, I would always snag a couple. On days I wasn't working, I knew how to wield the tongs to ensure I got a nice chewy cookie instead of the hard, crunchy ones. I didn't think I would ever find a cookie to measure up to those I got in college.

Until now.

Recently, Cook's Illustrated, the magazine brought to us from the geniuses at America's Test Kitchen, advertised on their Tumblr page that they were holding a blogging contest for people making their "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie" recipe. No need to ask me twice. I had never made the full version of the chocolate chip cookie recipe. I once made the version of it found in their "Light and Healthy" cookbook, and those cookies were very well received. So I thought to myself: "If cookies made with less chocolate and butter tasted good, shouldn't cookies made with a lot more butter and chocolate taste even better?" Because if Paula Deen has taught us anything about baking and cooking, it's that everything tastes better with butter.

The only problem was when to make the cookies. I had originally planned for May 1, but other plans got in the way. I resolved to make them on Sunday, May 8. Then I found out that I only had one week left to complete all my academic work, including a major paper that was due by May 13. This meant I had to spend most of my Sunday writing this paper. How would I have time to make cookies? Well, it didn't matter. One way or another, I was going to make these cookies. Not just because of this contest, but because I wanted something to reward myself with after writing straight for 6 hours. And let me tell you, getting me to write for 6 hours is a miracle deserving of a reward. And so it was at 4:00 in the afternoon, after a lot of writing, I set out to make my cookies.

One thing I've started to do lately is set everything up before I start baking. This is to avoid the mad rush around my kitchen as I try to get everything into the mixing bowl at the right time while simultaneously avoiding burning whatever is on my stovetop. So this time, I started by pulling out all the bowls I knew I would need and putting them on the counter and set the oven to 375 degrees. I measured out my flour (by weight) and baking soda and whisked them together. Remembering the lessons of my carrot cake, I paid very close attention to how much baking soda I put in. I set that bowl aside, and pulled out two plastic containers. Into one, I put the white sugar. Into the other, the brown sugar. The recipe calls for dark brown sugar, but I only had light brown sugar available. I contemplated using my molasses to make dark brown sugar from scratch (so to speak) but I didn't want to run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance of ingredients. I thought about portioning out the vanilla, salt, and egg ahead of time as well, but decided those could wait.

My mise-en-place. Flour, sugar, brown sugar.

From there, I moved on to what is probably the most difficult part of this whole recipe: browning the butter. According to Cook's Illustrated, browning the butter is what gives the cookie its distinctive flavor, so messing up here would really make things go bad. Before I started, I made sure I had a lot of extra butter around in case I needed to start over.

The recipe's instructions suggest using a skillet to brown the butter, but I don't have a skillet that can be used for dairy products. Knowing this, I asked a question on America's Test Kitchen's Vyou channel whether I should use my non-stick pan (which is dark) or a 2-quart pot (which isn't dark, but is rather deep) to brown butter. Their response, which I anticipated, was to use the pot since the most important thing is to keep an eye on the color, something that can't be done easily with a dark pan.

I threw the butter into the pot and set the burner on medium. It's a little tricky to take pictures of butter melting and browning while making sure the butter doesn't burn, but I think I managed. After the foaming and the bubbling started to subside a bit, I kept a very wary eye on my butter. In the past, I've burnt the butter rather than brown it, so I chose to err on the side of caution. Once I started seeing flecks of brown appear in the pot, I yanked it off the heat and poured the butter into the bowl. I immediately dropped in the remaining butter and stirred until it had all melted. I took a quick look into the pot I had used and saw that some of the butter had indeed burnt on the bottom of the pot. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I wasn't about to make burnt-butter cookies.

My butter progression from stick to browned and melted

With the daunting task of the butter out of the way, it was time to turn my attention to the mixing of the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. I poured in my sugars from the plastic containers, then threw in the vanilla and salt and gave it a good whisk. Once everything was incorporated, I added the egg and the extra yolk and began the four-part mixing process: 30 seconds of stirring followed by three minutes of sitting, repeated for a total of four times. I'm still not sure if I was supposed to wait three minutes after the fourth whisking, but there's really no harm in doing it, right? I mean, aside from whatever wrist strain I may incur by using a pathetically small whisk to combine everything, but that's par for the course these days.

First whisking

Second whisking

Third whisking

Final whisking

I was encouraged to see that the mixture was becoming shinier and thicker as I whisked, just as the recipe said it would. That meant I was doing something right (for once)! I stirred the flour/baking soda mixture in with a wooden spoon until it was incorporated. Then came the most important part: the chocolate chips. My go-to chocolate chip is Trader Joe's semi-sweet chocolate chips. I don't just use them in baked goods, I eat them as a snack. If I want a quick fix of chocolate, I just pull out one of the many bags of chocolate chips I keep in my kitchen. I know that the chocolate chip of choice is Tollhouse (for traditionalists) or Ghirardelli (for "high class" cookies), but I figure, if I like these chips as they are, why not put them into a cookie too? I poured the chips into the mixture and stirred until they were evenly distributed.

Finally, it was time to portion out the cookies. The recipe says each cookie should be three tablespoons in size, but I didn't have a tablespoon measure on hand. I think it goes without saying that I didn't have a disher, either. Instead, I tried to eyeball the volume of each dough ball, using a spoon from the silverware drawer as a guide. As I finished placing the fifth dough ball onto the parchment paper, I realized that I was going to quickly use more than half the dough on what was supposed to be the first eight cookies (out of 16 total). I reduced the amount of dough in the remaining three cookies, then pulled out small pieces from the first five balls and threw them back into the bowl. I didn't think it would really work, but I had no real choice. Well, I could have started over, but I rarely think things through that much.

The first eight dough balls

I put the baking sheet into the oven and set the timer for six minutes. While the cookies baked, I prepared the second batch of cookies. The recipe says to use two cookie sheets, with eight cookies per sheet, and to only bake one sheet at a time. This was not a problem for me, as I only had one sheet available to begin with. I ripped off a piece of parchment paper and began to portion out the last eight cookies. The plan was as follows: Once the first batch came out the oven, I'd take the parchment paper off the baking sheet, put it (and the cookies) onto the cooling rack, then slide the paper with the last eight cookies onto the sheet. Not a bad plan, right?

The timer went off and I rotated the baking sheet in the oven. Glancing at the sheet, I saw my cookies were huge. Not just big cookies, but mega cookies bordering on the mutant. I nervously closed the oven door and set the timer for an additional five minutes, checking on the cookies after four. Once I saw the cookies were brown at the edges but still soft in the middle, I yanked the sheet from the oven and placed it on the stovetop, ready to perform the parchment paper sheet switcheroo.

Unfortunately, things did not go quite so smoothly. First, I had some trouble getting the parchment paper from the baking sheet to the cooling rack. The cookies were sliding everywhere, and I was trying to make sure they didn't break before they set up. Once I got them onto the rack, I had to figure out how to get the remaining cookies onto the baking sheet. Picking up the paper caused the balls to roll all over the place. I know now that the best thing to do would have been to take the dough balls off the second parchment paper, put the paper on the sheet, then put the balls of dough onto the paper. Instead, I tried pulling the paper over the lip of the sheet with the balls of dough on top. The cookie dough balls rolled off the paper and onto the counter, lined up in silent judgment of my stupidity. Oh, and let's not forget that the sheet is still hot from the oven, and I'm holding it with one mitt-ed hand.

Frustrated, I quickly put the sheet back on top of the stove, put down the paper while carefully avoiding burning my fingers, and hastily transfered the balls of dough from the counter to the baking sheet. As I adjusted the position of the cookies, I saw streaks of chocolate caused by the heat of the sheet melting the chips in the dough. Without a moment's thought, I frantically put the sheet in the oven and set the timer for six minutes again.

With that crisis averted, I turned my attention to the first eight cookies which had been sitting on the cooling rack for a couple of minutes. My initial prediction was correct. These cookies were massive. Like, super-mega-ultra-mutant massive. In the picture below, they're taking up more than half the cooling rack. But they certainly looked good, which was the important part.

The timer went off and I rotated the cookies in the oven, then set the timer for five minutes. I checked on them after four minutes and saw that the edges were much browner than the first batch had been at the same time. I poked a couple of cookies and decided to err on the side of caution and pulled out the baking sheet from the oven. Now, just like the first batch, I tried to move the parchment paper sheet onto the cooling rack, but I didn't have enough space on the rack. The first set of cookies weren't firm enough to be moved too much, so I tried to position the parchment paper in such a way that all the cookies would stay on the rack. No luck. No matter how I oriented the sheet, the cookies hung over the edge of the rack and threatened to break. Eventually, I put the sheet on the countertop, and once the cookies were cooler, I transferred them to the cooling rack with a spatula.

I tried the cookies three different times: once while still warm, once after they had cooled, and once the next day (remember, another important lesson from the carrot cake). The warm cookie disintegrated in my hands, but tasted amazing. The other two held their shape much better (not surprising) and tasted just as good as the first cookie, albeit less gooey. Unfortunately, I didn't taste the "butterscotch and toffee" flavors advertised in the recipe, probably because I didn't brown the butter as much as I should have. But the cookie was among the best I've ever had, with just the right amount of chewiness and avoiding the constant problem of being too sweet.

Cook's Illustrated calls these cookies the "perfect" chocolate chip cookie. I'm not sure if I would call my cookies "perfect." Very good, yes, but not perfect. There's areas of improvement, like figuring out how to brown butter without panicking that it's burning. Therefore, I readily admit that the lack of perfection lies squarely with me and not with Cook's Illustrated. Then again, maybe I'm too hard on myself. A friend of mine, to whom I regularly give samples of my baked goods, recently said that I hold myself to a much higher standard than necessary. He told me he's never been disappointed with the things I've made. And he's probably right. I don't think I will ever make anything that I can deem "perfect." There's just too many places in a recipe where I'll do something not quite right. I always feel that there's always room for improvement with things I make. It's this self-doubt that keeps me from declaring something to be "perfect."

That being said, when I ate that warm, delicious cookie, it was the most perfect moment of my day. Maybe that's the definition of perfect I should be using: not whether I did everything perfectly, but whether eating it gave me the perfect amount of satisfaction. And in this case, it did.
"Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" from Cook's Illustrated. The recipe is below, but please follow the link to the recipe for excellent advice, pictures, and videos on how to do everything described in the recipe.

  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
  • 3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted (optional)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18- by 12-inch) baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

3. Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

4. Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but will require 3 batches.)

5. Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.