Seasons by the Sea: Cookies Are a Piece of Cake

Cookies have been around since man figured out that grains, water, and hot stones could create a form of biscuit
Whether as gifts or in a buffet, no one can resist a great cookie, particularly at the holidays. Laura Donnelly

    What is your favorite kind of cookie? Chocolate chip? Me, too! Oatmeal raisin, gingersnap, peanut butter, shortbread? All of those, too. Are you a crisp and delicate cookie aficionado, or a jumbo half-baked shopping mall cookie fan? Super sweet, short and crumbly, filled with jam or just plain Jane, there is a cookie for everyone.

    The late Richard Sax, author of “Classic Home Desserts,” pointed out that “more than any other baked goods, cookies are the province of home bakers.” This is especially true because you most likely have all the ingredients on hand, cookies are pretty darned easy to make, they take very little time, and most will last a long time in an airtight container or the freezer. Even as a pastry chef, I seldom say to myself, “I’ve got about three hours to kill, I think I’ll whip up a cake or pie today.” But cookie doughs, many of which can be put together in 10 minutes and baked equally long? Instant gratification! Even the former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier said that whenever he had a few moments, he would make cookie doughs to have in his arsenal of emergency desserts. Served with a sorbet or ice cream, mousses, fresh fruit, or as an assortment platter, freshly baked cookies make it seem like you’ve gone to more trouble than perhaps you actually have. Of course, they are also a thoughtful treat to send to your children at camp, school, college, life away from home. And this is the time of year that most of us do a lot of holiday baking for gifts.

    Cookies have been around since man figured out that grains, water, and hot stones could create a form of biscuit. Spices, nuts, and various sweeteners such as honey came later. Just about every culture has some form of cookies. Even commercial cookie brands tailor their cookies to different countries. Oreos are made with green tea ice cream flavored filling for China and Japan, and Argentines can buy banana and dulce de leche-flavored Oreos.

    The basic varieties of cookies are macaroons (cookies made from ground nuts), jumbles (butter cookies that are cut or shaped), rusks and biscotti (crisp, twice baked), sponge fingers (also known as lady fingers or Naples biscuits), apees (wine and caraway flavored), gingerbread and gingersnaps, and a more current trend popularized by Momofuko’s pastry chef, Christina Tosi, “the garbage cookie,” filled with cornflakes, pretzels, chips, nuts, bolts, and so on.

    At the beginning of cookie making, they were only served on special occasions or used as offerings to the gods, probably because the ingredients were so expensive. Nowadays we think of vanilla as a common flavoring in almost every cookie, but vanilla had never been used in this country until Thomas Jefferson introduced the orchid bean in 1789 upon his return from his service as minister to France. Sherry, Madeira, caraway seeds, and rosewater were more common. Ugh.

    With a little help from Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” here is a primer on why and how different cookies come out the way they do. The high proportion of flour to water is what makes cookies crumbly. More water plus eggs creates a more cakelike cookie. Sugar contributes to structure and texture, and adds crispness. Honey and molasses, however, do not crystalize like sugar, and therefore make a cookie moist and chewy. Fat provides richness, moisture, and suppleness. Leavening, when included in cookie recipes, provides tenderization and puffiness. Because cookies have very little moisture and a lot of sugar, they are not hospitable to microbes and keep for a long time.

    Besides being easy and generally inexpensive to make, cookies are a fun way to introduce baking to children. They can measure, roll, and decorate their own creations.

    A few things to keep in mind: Use the best and freshest ingredients you can afford. Fake vanilla is not an option; when recipes call for eggs, they almost always mean size large; kosher salt is best for baking, and always use unsalted butter. A dark baking sheet will brown cookies faster and you may need to lower oven temperature. Invest in a good, sturdy baking sheet. Parchment paper is easier than having to grease and regrease sheet pans. Silicone Silpats are expensive but will always ensure your cookies won’t stick to the pan. This is especially helpful when making Florentine or other crisp lace cookies. Measure carefully and accurately. While making cookies is a piece of cake (ha!) it is still chemistry and science. Enjoy!

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