Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cookie Perfection

Last November, I posted about the magical properties of brining a Thanksgiving turkey. The post began like this:
If there were one culinary lesson I could teach the world, it would be "how to bake a cookie". Most people have made cookies before, but very few have done it correctly. But if there were a SECOND culinary lesson I could teach the world, it would be "how to brine a Thanksgiving turkey".
Well, grab your's the day I teach the world to bake a superior chocolate chip cookie. One thing you've got to realize about me though, is that I love cooking, physics, and I'm a complete nerd. Nathan Myrvold's new book would be in my collection if I had the funds. So, this may be more in-depth than your average cookie recipe. In fact, I won't even be giving you a recipe in this post. The techniques of cookie baking are universal.

When I think of a well-made cookie, I think of structure.  But not just any structure, a cookie is kind of like this:
Nobody sneeze.

You see, baking a cookie is a complex exercise of creating and preserving structure in a volatile substance. For a cookie, those substances are air and butter.

I am happiness.

Creaming butter, sugar, and one egg together to make a house of cards isn't easy unless you've been taught how, so various cookie recipes try to compensate for this lack of knowledge by incorporating the cardinal sin of cookie baking: shortening. Every time a cookie is made with shortening, a kitty dies. Think of the kitties.

I don't have a problem with shortening - it is fantastic in shortening gluten strands for things like biscuits. But cookies are about structure; you don't want to reduce structure by shortening gluten strands in the flour! Plus, cookies made with shortening taste terrible. I won't eat them.

The other cardinal sin of baking a cookie is leaving the mixer on too long. If your mixer is on for more than 5 minutes total, you're breaking down structure. A related note, scraper beaters won't work on cookies because they don't allow the butter and sugar to cream properly.

So, how is the house of cards made?

Step 1 - Make sure your butter is COLD. Cut it into pieces and cream it on high for about 2 minutes in your mixer. The butter will turn a pale yellow when complete.

It is imperative that the butter be cold (maybe even the beater and the bowl) or the butter will never withstand the friction caused by the mixer. Remember, all structure is based in the butter; melted butter doesn't hold air.

Creaming the butter is, by far, the scariest process of making a cookie. You want to cream the butter really well but not melt it. Most people are afraid of that trade-off, so they only cream the butter about 1 minute and the butter looks like the above picture. Sorry, that's not enough time. The butter isn't smooth enough yet. Try creaming until the butter looks pale yellow like this:
Now that's gonna be good. And I promise this is the same butter, same mixer, same camera.

Step 2 - Scrape the sides. Add sugars, vanilla, salt. Cream on medium for 2 minutes (or until lump free). Scrape sides again.

Well, we've all been here and know what to do. The sugar crystals are pushed through the fat, adding air and softening the butter. The lumps are beaten out, and the mixture becomes light and more absorbent.

Step 3 - Mix (low speed) an egg that is at ROOM TEMPERATURE into the batter for 15 seconds. Scrape sides.

An egg lightens the batter, leavens a little bit, and adds (what else...) structure. Why room temperature? Because a cold egg causes the batter to lump, which gives cookies a broken appearance. When I make cookies, the first thing I do to prep is put a cold egg in a cup of hot water; it's sufficiently warm by the time I need the egg.

Step 4 - Add a blend of flour and baking soda. Mix (low speed) until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape sides.

Hopefully, your batter looks something like this:

Fluffy and light, but with a noticeable structure. Sorry for the blurry image. (I was in a hurry to preserve structure)

Step 5 - Add chocolate chunks. Notice that I didn't say chocolate chips. Mix (low speed) until just incorporated, about 15 seconds.

Here are the chocolate chunks I use. I still think they're a little small. When the batter is baking and melting the house of cards that you so carefully created, the thing that will save it is the chocolate chunks. The bigger they are, the more structure you will have in the cookie.

Step 6 - Place parchment paper on cookie tray. Drop the dough, bake at 350 for about 12 minutes or golden brown.

Parchment paper is really important here. It slows the melting process on the bottom of the cookie so it doesn't turn into a thin pool of crispness. Not only that, it's really easy to remove the cookies from the tray!

So that's it. A few tricks, and you too will have perfect looking, perfect tasting cookies. No Crisco aftertaste, crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside, fluffy, golden brown, and above all...a beautiful structure.

My Preferred Cookie Recipe

If you want a good chocolate chip cookie recipe, below is the one I use. Just use the techniques I described above and you'll be alright. Oh, make sure the baking soda and flour are well mixed before being added to the batter.

This recipe comes from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. Sherry is not only one of the best pastry chefs in the country, she's also a great educator. This book won a James Beard award (the Oscars of cooking). If you want to be able to make any dessert on earth, this is the book for you.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

1.5 cups flour
.5 teaspoon baking soda
.25 lb (one stick) cold unsalted butter
.5 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
.5 cup plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
.25 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg at room temperature
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into .5 inch chunks

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Davis' Blessing

Davis was blessed in church today. At 2.5 weeks, he was the youngest of our boys at the time of their blessing; Jordan and Carter were both just under two months old. I probably would have waited another month with Davis too, but by having the blessing today, Grandma and Grandpa Shamo were in attendance!

 Now there's a happy crowd. It's been a good day.

Davis' blessing had similar elements to Jordan's and Carter's (same papa, you know), but Davis was blessed with a few unique elements; a sharp and keen intellect, a deep trust in his Heavenly Father, and the ability to be a peacemaker.

Blessing Outfit

Eight years ago, my Mom made a blessing outfit for Jordan. Carter wore the same outfit for his blessing in 2006. Today as I was dressing Davis in the same garment, I forgot that the suit was made by my Mom; it's so beautiful that I thought we purchased it from one of those 'all-white' stores in Utah. Here are the other boys on the day of their baby blessings.

Here's our towhead, Jordan

We got this cute hat back in 2003 for the suit, but Carter was the only one with a head large enough to fill it out!

Who's the Boss?

Thanks to the Kids Bowl Free program, I've gone bowling with the boys a few times this summer. Carter is finally old enough now that the arcade portion of the bowling alley is no longer more enticing than the bowling lane, so we're actually able to get in 6 games (2 for each of us) for just a $4 shoe rental. Cha-ching.

The problem in bowling with a 5 and 7 year old is that they want strikes or spares on every frame. To keep them motivated when that doesn't happen, I've got to be an energetic cheerleader. "Way to hit that gutter!", "Oooh, you almost had it that time!", "Way to go!", "Knock the crap out of those pins!", etc.

My new cheerleading slogan that I tried the other day was "show those pins who's boss!" The first time I said it, I had to explain what I meant, but the boys seemed to like it. I said it a few times that night and the boys started saying it too.

Near the end of the 2nd game, Carter picked up his ball, looked back at me and said pompously, "I'll show those pins who's boss!" He then moseyed to the foul line, prepped the ball, and before releasing he yelled "JESUS is the BOSS!"