27 March 2008

Baking Class - Cookies.


Sharon asked me, as I was headed out the door to teach my students how to make chocolate chip cookies, if I thought we'd even make it past the cookie dough stage. I'm pleased to say that we did make quite a number of cookies, though at least one student went home feeling woogy from eating too much dough. Here're the baked results:

Chocolate chip cookies

Those are all student-baked cookies, in their chewy, crispy, and cakey variations (left to right). Granted, they do seem to have a little trouble with reading and following simple directions1, but everything still worked out pretty well. Especially when I'm leaning over shoulders so that I can call things to a quick halt if necessary. In the next series of classes, it looks like I'll need to spend some time discussing how one is actually supposed to read a recipe.
Baking 101 – Spring 2008


Although there are many, many different kinds of cookies, drop cookies are some of the most common ones in America. Usual examples include oatmeal raisin cookies and the ever-popular chocolate chip cookies. Like almost all cookies, they contain significant amounts of fat and sugar in proportion to flour, which make for a distinctive rich and sweet flavor. Beyond that, however, a range of ingredients and mixing techniques can produce cookies with a great diversity of textures. Drop cookies constitute a group – one with a wide range of flavors and textures in it – made from a soft dough that is scooped onto a baking sheet by the spoonful. During baking, these round balls of dough spread out into the characteristic cookie shape.


Creaming is essential to making a good drop cookie. Unlike in yeast breads, where the kneading process develops lots of tiny air pockets to be filled with expanding leavening gases, cookies need to have air bubbles worked inside without creating gluten. This process, called creaming, mixes the cooking fat, usually butter, with sugar; as the two are mixed, the rough edges of the sugar crystals tear tiny holes into the fat. As these holes seal over, they trap in tiny bubbles of air. You can see the effect of this as the volume of the sugar/fat mixture expands by up to a third and the color of it lightens. During baking, these pockets expand, raising the cookies and giving them their characteristic lightness.

Creaming can be done by hand, or with an electric mixer. If creaming by hand, always be sure that the butter is fully softened before working it; softened butter is at the stage, about room temperature, where it is soft and malleable without melting. Electric stand mixers work best, and can effectively cream even cold butter, although they’re quite expensive. An electric hand mixer doesn’t do the best job, due to the shape of the thin metal beaters, but is a fair compromise between cost and arm power.


Drop cookies are easy to make, and easy to adjust to your particular taste. Here are a few ways to modify the basic chocolate chip recipe below to get different final results:
  • Flour. Cake flour can hold less moisture than all-purpose, which leaves more of the water in the recipe available for steam; hence, cake flour produces puffier, cakier cookies. Bread flour is more likely to produce gluten, and so will make chewier cookies. It also holds on to more moisture, resulting in a slightly moister cookie.

  • Sugar. White sugar, for various reasons, helps cookies to spread while baking, and produces a crispier cookie once cooled. Brown sugar, due to the presence of molasses, holds on to much more moisture, resulting in a moister, chewier cookie. By tipping the ratio of white to brown sugar in one direction or the other, you can change the final cookie texture.

  • Fat. Butter has a relatively low melting point, which allows cookies more time to spread before setting during baking, making for flatter, crispier cookies. Margarine and shortening melt at higher temperatures, allowing more time for the cookie to rise, and less to spread, producing cakier cookies. Melting the butter before mixing with the sugar will produce very few bubbles during creaming, making for a denser, chewier cookie.

  • Leavening. Baking soda raises the pH of the dough, resulting in a higher set temperature during baking; this gives the cookies more time to spread. Increasing the quantity of baking soda by up to fifty percent will make for crispier cookies. Baking powder, on the other hand, doesn’t affect the pH of the dough, which allows for a lower set temperature. This, combined with its extra leavening power, causes cookies to rise more, producing a cakier texture. Replace the baking soda one-for-one with baking powder for this effect.

  • Eggs. Eggs tend to produce puffiness in baked goods, so replacing one egg with ¼ cup of milk will make for a flatter, crispier cookie. Egg whites also tend to dry out baked goods, so replacing one egg white – while keeping the yolk – with 2 Tablespoons of milk will make for a chewier cookie.

  • Other ingredients. Chocolate chips can be replaced with nuts, raisins, or anything else that happens to sound good. Likewise, the vanilla can be replaced with an equal quantity of another extract, spirit, or liqueur; the use of orange extract, bourbon, or even strong coffee can add a subtle but interesting variation to the usual chocolate chip cookie flavor. Finally, it’s simple and easy to add ground spices to the dry ingredients to change the flavor. Anything that goes with chocolate, from cinnamon to chilli peppers, works well.

  • Temperature. Cold dough will spread less in the oven, as the exterior sets quicker compared to the center of the cookie. For a cakier cookie, place the mixed cookie dough in the refrigerator to cool before baking.

There is a near-endless variety of cookie recipes available, with many, many different ways of preparing them. American cookies tend to fall into five basic categories:
  • Drop cookies. Chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, among others. These are made from a soft dough that is scooped onto a baking sheet by the spoonful.

  • Cut-out cookies. Sugar cookies and butter cookies. Made from a stiffer dough than drop cookies, which allows it to hold shape while baking, these are rolled out and cut into shapes with cookie cutters.

  • Hand-shaped cookies. Ladyfingers and madeleines. These are made from batters that are stiffened by chilling, then piped or molded into shape before baking.

  • Bar cookies. Brownies and nut bars. These cookies are shaped after baking, when cut from a pan. They are baked from a batter spread in a shallow pan, and have a cake-like quality.

  • Icebox cookies. These cookies are pre-formed into cylinders, often wrapped in parchment or wax paper, and kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Cross-section slices can then be cut and baked as needed; many cookie doughs can be treated this way.

Adapted from the classic Nestle Toll House recipe
Makes five dozen cookies

  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1-½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 12-ounce package chocolate chips
  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Cream together the butter and sugars in a large bowl, until the mixture has increased in volume and lightened in color. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each fully before adding the next. Add the vanilla.

  2. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Mix into the butter mixture in three parts, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next. Stir in the chocolate chips. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.

  3. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown; when the edges start to brown, but the cookie is still slightly soft in the center, they’re done. Cool on baking sheets for a moment to firm a bit before removing to wire racks to cool completely.
  • When spooning out cookies onto baking sheets, make sure that all of the scoops are the same size to ensure all the cookies finish at the same time. If possible, use a disher scoop to be sure. Larger and smaller cookies will bake up just fine; adjust the cooking time appropriately.

Adapted from How To Cook Everything
Makes fifteen to twenty biscotti

  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing baking sheets
  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting baking sheets
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips
  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl, until the mixture has increased in volume and lightened in color. Add the egg and vanilla, stirring until fully incorporated.

  2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl. Mix into the butter mixture in three parts, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next. Stir in the chocolate chips.

  3. Butter a baking sheet and dust with flour; turn it over and tap gently to remove any excess. Shape the dough into a log approximately 3 to 4 inches wide, and about an inch thick. Place onto the baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, or until it is golden and beginning to crack.

  4. Remove from the oven, and lower the temperature to 250° F. Allow the loaf to cool until easy to handle, and cut along the diagonal into ½-inch slices with a serrated knife. Place the slices back on the baking sheet and return to the oven to dry, about 15 to 20 minutes, turning once. Cool on a wire rack.
  • Not all biscotti recipes call for butter; here, it helps to tenderize them. Butterless (or other low-fat) biscotti recipes are quite crunchy, and often need to be dunked in coffee to be eaten.

  • A single cookie is called a biscotto. Biscotti is plural.
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1Sharon confirms that this is often the case in math classes, too.

1 comment:

Regina said...

Hey, awesome write up on the cookies! I hadn't known all those neat details about the leavening and set temperature before. I am a fan of Chewy Cookies, and I've always tried to produce them by modifying cooking time, but often got cookies a little less well done than I would prefer- now I can play with some of the other variables instead! Thanks, Brian!!

(of course, some cookies are only good crisp or cakey- a chewy sandy doesn't sound good at all! but I prefer pretty much all of the Drop Cookies of my acquaintance when they are chewy!)