Wednesday, December 20, 2006

about cookies - tips and tricks

For a while, I had about lost the Christmas cookie spirit. After a forced bake to make a ship date, I had moved on to pumpkin bread and left the cookies. Then, today, a very thoughtful co-worker remembered my grousing about only having two cookie sheets to rotate, and got me a brand-new Wilton non-stick for Christmas. So I may have to get back into the swing of things.

Turns out I’m having to take tomorrow off. Duckie’s school is closed on Thursday and Friday, and I’ve made arrangements for Friday, but Thursday’s plans fell through. So I’ll have to content myself with (hopefully) a trip to Saluda to snag some last-minute hand-made wearable art, a nice afternoon nap (hopefully), and … well… cookies.

In the spirit of sharing, I wanted to pass along a few tips that I’ve learned over the last ten years of cookie-making.
Use a little advance planning. Make the dough separate from the actual baking. It will help keep you focused on the fun stuff (like helping a three-year-old hold a hand-mixer) and you won’t feel so overwhelmed at having to do it all at once.

Since I’ve gotten glasses, I’ve had to just accept the fact that my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Duckie can spot Shrek or Dora the Explorer from fifty yards, and I’m sure the marketing agencies know it. Me, I’m a little more challenged.

And there’s nothing more annoying to me than wasted steps and a broken train of thought walking from one side of the kitchen to another to get the next part of a recipe. Small as my kitchen is, I can’t remember how many times I’ve screwed something up because I was in a hurry and forgot a step or even an entire ingredient. And these were sober moments, too, in case you were wondering.

To alleviate these annoyances, I write the basic recipe, along with critical processing points (“add gradually,” “stirring constantly,” “sift first” etc.) on a single sheet of paper, in black sharpie, using embarrassingly big characters. Then I tape it to the kitchen cabinet above my favorite work zone next to the oven.

Once mixed, bake a small test batch – two or four cookies, depending on how many people you’ve inconvenienced by hogging the counter space. Not only does this give you a handle on the perfect timing and the eventual desired outcome, you (and your inconvenienced household) get some immediate gratitification for all that work you just did. And if you blow it, you won’t have wasted a dozen cookies. Keep in mind, though, that four cookies on a sheet will bake significantly faster than twelve.

You can freeze cookie dough for up to two months. Some of these doughs are even better after they’ve been frozen; I don’t know why, Alton Brown probably would. This year, I started mixing doughs just before Thanksgiving. Still haven’t baked them all, although I’m getting there.

Use several sheets of plastic wrap to wrap the dough. I strongly recommend the Reynolds plastic wrap with the zip-track for cutting. Five years ago I wouldn’t have spent the extra money on it – I would have dealt with the stress and added time involved in dealing with stubborn, cantankerous, self-governing plastic wrap. Now, I wouldn’t do it any other way. I’ve been tempted to give boxes as stocking stuffers.

Once wrapped, write the contents and the baking directions (remember, these are supposedly why you did the test batch) on a slip of paper and tape it to the dough. Listen, I know it sounds anal-retentive – but if you come back to the dough a month later, it might have frozen to a darker color. Sugar cookies might look like gingersnaps, and gingersnaps might look like chocolate crinkles, which will really piss you off later on. If you want to get really technical, jot down the date you made the dough, too. (Dough doesn’t usually last long enough in my house to make that a necessity.)

Then give the dough an extra layer of protection by putting it in a freezer bag. One big freezer bag can hold several batches.

The possibilities for creating cookies are mind-blowing. Other people have written books about it, so I’ll skip the details of rolling and shaping. I will suggest that if you’re working with chilled dough, even drop cookies (like chocolate chips) can be shaped into little balls before setting on the sheet.

Some people prefer big monster balls, but I like them on the small side. They’re neater and easier to fit into your mouth all at once. (James, stop choking on your coffee. Get a grip.)

When it comes time to bake, use parchment paper. Seriously, I mean it, use parchment paper. It completely eliminates the whole problem of cookies sticking to the pan, reduces clean-up time to almost nothing, and allows you to dough out several dozen cookies at a time while others bake. And as long as you don’t burn the cookies entirely, parchment paper will always give you that perfect finished bottom.

Know your oven. Mine runs hot, so I set it a little low. Others have colder ovens; they set theirs high. Figure out what yours does – don’t fight it, just adapt.

Set. Your. Timer. Cookies are high-maintenance. Thirty seconds can make all the difference. If you have to pee, if you have to answer the phone, if you have to change a diaper, let the dog out, blah blah blah, you could easily lose track of those thirty seconds.

When you do set your timer, set it on the low end of the recommended bake time. I usually go a minute less – you can always add more time, but once a cookie’s burned, it’s burned, and there’s nothing you can do about it unless Superman’s around to make the time turn backwards.

Set your timer for half the recommended bake time. At the halfway point, pull out the cookies and turn the entire sheet around in the oven. This will ensure that any hot spots in your oven don’t ruin a few cookies up on one corner of the sheet.

Of course, this is a good rule for baking anything, especially pies. I had been doing it for years, and Brian thought I was just being anal-retentive. Then I got the Pie book last year from Coz and there it was, in every recipe: “Turn the pie halfway through baking.” Then Alton Brown (for whom I harbor a secret crush) did an episode of Good Eats dedicated completely to the different incarnations of the chocolate chip cookie. He does it, too. So there! I gloated.

Once you’ve turned them, set the timer again. This is where I always blow it. Cookies are turned, they look great, on to other matters, until I smell that disappointing dark sweet flavor of just-baked-too-long-by-a-few-seconds cookies.

Underbake. The cookies will keep baking when you pull them out of the oven, even if you move them immediately onto a cooling rack. So if you want to make sure that your soft cookies stay soft and your crisp cookies don’t shatter inappropriately, underbake. Underbake, then let them set up on the baking sheet for a moment or two before you try to move them.

A thin flat-bladed spatula, as wide as you like your cookies, is the perfect tool for transferring the finished product from sheet to rack. And since you’re using parchment paper (even on the nonstick surfaces; I promise, the bottoms will be perfect) you don’t have to worry about scratching your pans from the metal.

Speaking of pans, make sure your pan has cooled down some before you lay the next batch down. (Using several cookie sheets will allow you to rotate them out. I put a thick towel down on my kitchen table and just move the sheets to rest there as the next sheet goes in.) If your sheet is too hot, it will start to cook the bottoms immediately, which might mean you a) burn the cookies and b) ruin the shape. Plus it’s just safer, you know? Especially if you ever tend towards the clutzy in the kitchen.

A cooling rack is a nice thing to have. It lets the bottom of your cookie stay crisp, which help cookies keep their shape. They’re inexpensive, and they work well for pies, too – to keep some air circulation under the pie dish so that the pie cools more evenly. I suppose you could do without one – but if you care enough about cookies to read this far, why the hell would you want to?

So there’s my gift to you for the holidays. If I could get the piece of shit scanner here at the plant working I might could manage a Christmas picture of Duckie with her bessfen Santa Claus, but that ain’t in the stars today.

Hope things are well with you, and that you’re finding a few precious moments of peace here and there.

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