The Holy Grail of Cookies

Holy-Grail Chocolate Chip Cookies

My dear husband celebrated a birthday recently, and like every year, I started steeling myself for the inevitable conversation several days in advance. Normally it goes something like this:

Me: “What kind of cake do you want for your birthday?”
Him: “Oh you don’t have to make me a cake.”
Me: “But I want to, and besides it’s not a birthday without a cake. What kind would you like?”
Him: “Oh I don’t care.”
Me: “Come on, how about something with lots of chocolate?
Him: “Nah.”
Me: “Okay then, tiramisu again?”
Him: “Just make whatever you feel like.”
Me: “But it’s your birthday! I’m supposed to make whatever you feel like!”
Him: “But you know I’m not picky.”
Me: “We both know that’s not true! Now just choose something!!!”
Him: “I’ll be happy with whatever you make. But you really don’t have to make anything.”
Me: “$%&#@%!!!!!!!!!!!”

I suppose I could just accept that he doesn’t care nearly as much as I do and just drop the whole thing, but I have two fundamental problems with allowing someone a cake-less birthday: one, there’s already a tragic lack of opportunities to make and eat cake in life and I couldn’t in good conscience contribute to this cosmic cake deficit, and two, without cake (or something remotely cake-like) where would the candles go? Heaven knows the nachos and beer—a.k.a. the two things he can’t imagine having a birthday without—are not a very good stand-in (though don’t think I haven’t tried).

This year, though, things went a little differently. I hadn’t even broached the what-kind-of-cake question yet when he asked: “Can you make chocolate chip cookies for my birthday?”

I don’t think I could’ve been more stunned if I’d learned that gospel-singing aardvarks had secretly colonized the moon. “Chocolate chip cookies…for your birthday?” “Yeah!” he replied enthusiastically, “is that okay?” “Um, of course,” I said, feeling slightly bewildered that the battle I’d been psyching myself up for had failed to materialize. Of course what he’d requested still wasn’t a cake, but, well, at least he’d come up with it on his own. And truth be told chocolate chip cookies sounded pretty good to me too, even if they’d offer only a slightly less-dubious surface for holding candles than nachos or beer.

But what chocolate chip cookies would be worthy of a birthday? Unlike many (most?) of my countrymen, I don’t have a tried-and-true recipe. Oh sure, just about every recipe I’ve ever made has been somewhere between good and great (can a chocolate chip cookie be bad?), but none has quite been my personal holy grail. Even discounting all the ones that fall beyond the borders of a ‘classic’ chocolate chip cookie—the ones with things like oats and grated chocolate and cinnamon and dried cherries—I must have baked a dozen and a half different recipes over the years, from the Nestlé back-of-the-package recipe my mother and I used to make to recipes calling for all kinds of weird twists on the basic formula: browning the butter, hard-boiling the egg yolks, slamming trays of half-baked cookies on the counter to limit their rise(!)… Like many people I was impressed by the Jacques Torres/David Leite recipe featured in the New York Times a couple years ago which calls for aging the dough for three days and sprinkling it with a finishing touch of sea salt; those were some gorgeous, tasty specimens. But I don’t always want to have to plan three days in advance when I want chocolate chip cookies, and what’s more I found that those cookies went stale very quickly; by the second day they were a shadow of their fresh-from-the-oven selves.

So I started poking around, dropping in on blog and forum conversations about favorite chocolate chip cookies. A lot of of the same names kept popping up—Martha Stewart, Alton Brown, Thomas Keller—but then I noticed that I’d run across more than a few enthusiastic mentions of a recipe by Pam Anderson (this Pam Anderson, not that one!) from her book CookSmart. I’d discovered this fascinating book, in which she tests her way through dozens of versions of comfort-food favorites to arrive at an ‘ultimate’ version, last fall in the course of my pumpkin pie quest. Even though I hadn’t been completely won over by her pie, it was still good enough to convince me to give her cookie recipe a try. At the very least her ideal chocolate-chipper sounded an awful lot like my mine: buttery, puffy, crisp-edged and chewy-centered. And even better, her final recipe didn’t sound too fiddly (no hard-boiling eggs or slamming hot cookie sheets on countertops!), and crucially could be whipped up in only a couple of hours.

First, let me tell you what sets these cookies apart in terms of technique. Unlike most recipes that call for a single kind of fat, these call for two: butter for flavor and a small amount of vegetable oil for texture and keeping properties. Then there’s the handling method, in which the dough is rolled into balls and frozen before being baked. This allows the outside of the cookie to crisp up while the center—i.e. the part that thaws last—remains delicious chewy and moist. Finally there’s the baking which is done in two stages, first at a higher temperature and then at a lower one. The blast of high heat sets the outside of the cookie quickly to prevent excess spreading while the lower heat gently finishes the interior without over-browning the edges. The result, Pam promises, is a cookie that achieves the best of all worlds in terms of texture, flavor and longevity.

But did they deliver? Well, I can tell you this: after having these cookies around the house for two days I desperately unloaded half the batch on Manuel’s colleagues after finding myself literally unable to eat anything else. I mean I always like chocolate chip cookies, but these are in another league—the same league, I’d say, that boasts various banned substances and other things which render you powerless to control your impulses. With their crunchy golden edges and soft, squidgy centers, their heady bouquet of butter and brown sugar edged with electrifying little jolts of salt and just enough bitter chocolate and toasty nuts to keep each bite interesting, these are most certainly the best cookies I’ve ever made, and probably among the best I’ve ever eaten. They even look great too, with their puffy, wrinkled tops. In terms of both flavor and consistency I’d say they’re as good if not better than the 72-hour cookies, only that they can be made on the spur of the moment and stay fresh for days. In a word, they are perfect. Manuel thought so too. And so did his colleagues, who I hear started to get a bit violent over who would get the last one.

Oh, and as it turns out they even hold a birthday candle quite admirably. Which is good, because I just might want chocolate chip cookies for my next birthday too.

p.s. What are your favorite chocolate chip cookies?

Holy-Grail Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is basically Pam’s recipe, with just a couple of my own (minor) touches. I prefer my cookies slightly smaller than hers (which almost qualify as meals unto themselves), so I made 20 per batch instead of 16. You could probably even go a little higher, but don’t make them too small or you won’t get the full spectrum of textures. I also borrowed my favorite touch from the Jacques Torres recipe, namely the finishing sprinkle of flaky sea salt. If you haven’t tried that, do—it sends the flavors over the moon. Also definitely use the darkest brown sugar you can find; I love dark muscovado, sometimes labeled as ‘molasses sugar’. Finally I don’t have access to the kind of flour Pam felt works best in these cookies, namely bleached all-purpose (bleaching flour has apparently been outlawed in Germany since the 1950s—who knew?), but didn’t feel my unbleached all-purpose (type 550/T55 for those of you in Europe) did them any harm. Still, if you feel like trying them with bleached—or even better, a side-by-side comparison!—I’d be really curious to know the outcome.
Yield: 16-20 cookies
Source: Cooksmart by Pam Anderson

2 1/4 cups (315g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
14 tablespoons (210g/1.75 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3/4 cup (150g) dark brown or muscovado sugar
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) flavorless vegetable oil
8 ounces (240g/about 1.5 cups) good-quality chocolate chips or your favorite bitter/semisweet chocolate cut into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) chunks (I like Lindt Excellence 70%)
6 ounces (180g/about 1 cup) chocolate chunks/chips PLUS 3.5 ounces (100g/about 1 cup) toasted, chopped pecans or walnuts
flaky sea salt, for finishing (e.g. Maldon)

Stir together the flour, baking powder and baking soda in a bowl; set aside. Stir together the eggs, vanilla and salt in another bowl; set aside. Microwave the butter on high power until just melted but not hot, 30 to 45 seconds; set aside. Mix the brown and granulated sugars in a large bowl, then stir in melted butter and oil until smooth. Add the egg mixture and stir until smooth and creamy. Add the dry ingredients and stir again until smooth. Stir in chocolate and nuts, if using. If the dough is very soft, refrigerate it until it’s firm enough to shape. Roll the dough into golf-ball-sized spheres (I made them 60 grams/2.1 oz each) and arrange on a pan that will fit in your freezer. Freeze until the dough is hard, at least 30 minutes. (Once the dough balls are frozen, they can be stored in freezer bags up to 3 months and baked as the craving strikes.)

Meanwhile, put an oven rack into the upper middle position and preheat to 400F/200C. Working in half batches, place 8 frozen dough balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet leaving at least 2 inches (5cm) between them. Sprinkle the top of each ball with a pinch of flaky salt (don’t worry if some salt falls onto the parchment—the cookies will pick up the stray flakes as they spread). Bake until set but not yet brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350F/175C. Continue to bake until cookies are golden-brown around the edges and lightly colored on top, about 8-10 minutes longer. If your cookies are smaller than Pam’s, you may have to shorten each stage by a minute or two. My cue for taking them out is that the cookies are lightly puffed all over except for the centers, which should still look a little underdone. Let the cookies cool on the sheet before removing them to a rack. Repeat for the remaining cookies, preheating oven to 400F/200C again before baking each batch.

The cookies can supposedly be stored in an airtight container up to 5 days, though I recommend freezing the ones you won’t eat within a couple of days and thawing them as needed (I find this also helps to moderate consumption!).

It’s an Honor…

…just to be nominated, in this case for the second time as one of Saveur Magazine‘s six best food and travel blogs on the web. If you haven’t visited their 2011 blog awards yet, don’t doddle; like last year, it’s a smorgasbord of talent, and I’m sure you’ll find several fabulous new sites to add to your daily reads.

Of course, if you want to cast a vote for little ol’ me I’ll be thrilled. Do note, you have to register with them, but don’t worry, it’s free and they really, truly don’t spam you afterwards.

p.s. Voting ends May 12th.

p.p.s. In case they haven’t expanded their country options yet—which they’re working on, we’re told—those of you outside the U.S. should just enter anything you like for city, state, and zip.

A Super, Natural Spread

The weather gods have finally decided to smile on northern Europe. While the rest of the hemisphere gradually stumbles into spring, we’ve been blessed with too many magnificently warm, fine days to count. And this week seems to be their culmination: the skies are an endless expanse of sapphire, the sun is golden and intense, and everything is flowering and blossoming like mad. All I want to do is sit in the garden next to the crazy-fragrant lilac bush and bask in this crazy-unexpected heat. The only time I even think about opening my laptop is to check the weather forecast of places like Athens and Madrid (ha ha, suckers!) and delight in this rare and wonderful feeling of climatic schadenfreude.

As you can imagine I haven’t felt like cooking much, lest I squander what might be the best weather of the year over a hot stove. I don’t think I’ve eaten as many salads and sandwiches in the last six months as I have in the last two weeks. But then a few days ago something arrived in the mail that threw a wrench in my routine. It was a preview copy of a cookbook so full of simple, tempting things (many of which, I was thrilled to see, don’t actually require cooking), that I was powerless to resist its gentle nudge back into the kitchen. Well, at least for a few minutes.

In all honesty, I feel silly even giving this book an introduction. Can there be anyone out there who reads food blogs and doesn’t know Heidi Swanson and her exquisitely beautiful site 101 Cookbooks? I’ve been a fan—actually more like a groupie—of hers for longer than I’ve been blogging myself; hers was one of the very first blogs I stumbled upon more than six years ago and I remember feeling totally floored by the beauty and creativity being channeled into this website about food. Not only is she one of the online food community’s true pioneers, having started blogging in 2003(!!), even more extraordinary to me is that over the years her work has lost none of its appeal—if anything, it’s gained bucketloads more.

There’s a lot of reasons why Heidi’s site is fantastic: her gorgeous photography, her clean, elegant design, her gentle, approachable tone. It’s her recipes, though, that seal the deal for me. Heidi has a rare gift for putting together easy, healthy, yet utterly imaginative dishes—things that make you go, “now why did I never think of that?” I regard her as the ingredient whisperer; she knows how to make the most mundane of raw materials sparkle. And the fact that she does it all with a focus on whole, natural foods—with not a speck of meat in sight—makes it all the more remarkable.

But Heidi doesn’t just write a great website, she writes great books too, full of bright, fresh, exciting vegetarian recipes and stunning photos. And the latest—Super Natural Every Day, just released by Ten Speed Press—may be her best yet. It features Heidi at her most elemental, making magic out of simple, everyday things. Take the salads, for instance; no slave to the ubiquitous leafy green, she offers up things like black bean salad with feta and roasted tomatoes, split-pea salad with cilantro-chile pesto, and wild-rice salad with goat cheese and fresh cherry vinaigrette. For breakfast she tempts us to get out of our morning ruts with prune- and brown butter-laced oatmeal, bulgur bathed in coconut milk, and mile-high spelt biscuits with the tang of greek yogurt. Her hearty, wholesome dinners include things like saffrony chickpea stew, ravioli tossed with harissa, broccoli and pumpkin seeds, and baked couscous-stuffed tomatoes. Her desserts are unfussy but compelling: sweet raspberry panzanella, buttermilk-plum cake, watermelon salad with dates and pistachios.

The recipe below came out of her snacks chapter, and even before I made it I knew it was going to be a hit. That said, I was honestly unprepared for just how good this spread—a creamy drift of white beans pureed with garlic- and rosemary-infused olive oil, a splash of lemon and a handful of toasted almonds—would be. I briefly worried that just using infused oil rather than tossing in the aromatics themselves would be too subtle, but I shouldn’t have; the garlic and rosemary were definitely present but their edges had been smoothed, like they’d grown up and learned some manners. The thing that really sent it over the top, though, were the almonds; who knew that what beans were crying out for all along was a nutty, satisfying crunch? There aren’t many spreads I’d just as soon attack with a spoon as a piece of bread, but this was one.

But the best part was that making it required only a few minutes away from my lilac bush, particularly since I took the (completely legitimate!) shortcut of using canned beans. That, I’m sure, will come as welcome news to all my readers in balmy northern Europe who’d rather be out frolicking in the sunshine than slaving over lunch. As for all of you stuck in colder climes, well, all I can do is offer my sympathies and remind you that your time in the sun will come soon too. Just make sure to file this recipe at the top of the stack for when it does.

White Bean Spread with Rosemary and Toasted Almonds

Yield: about 2 cups/500ml
Souce: Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day

1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 cups (12oz/340g) cooked white beans, or 1 (15oz/425g) can, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup (70g) sliced almonds, toasted (I used whole natural almonds; they were great too)
sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice, plus more to taste
1/4 to 3/4 cup (60-180ml) hot water
grated zest of 1/2 lemon

In a small saucepan, combine the olive oil, rosemary and garlic. Over medium-low heat, slowly warm the mixture until the oil just barely starts to sizzle, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes. Pour the oil through a strainer and discard the garlic and rosemary bits.

In a food processor, combine the beans, two-thirds of the almonds, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the lemon juice and two-thirds of the rosemary oil. Pulse a couple of times to bring the ingredients together. Add the water 1/4 cup (60ml) at a time, pulsing all the while, until the mixture is the consistency of thick frosting. You might not need all the water; it really depends on how starchy your beans are and how thick you want your spread to be. Taste the mixture and add more salt and/or lemon juice to taste.

Scoop the beans into a small serving dish and make a few indentations in the top. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and the remaining almonds and drizzle with the remaining rosemary oil. Serve at room temperature with bread, crackers, crudites, etc.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Ten Speed Press.