Sunday, October 29, 2006

Cooking: Comfort Cookies

I grew up in the Midwest during a time when going out to eat was still considered a rare luxury and the whole idea of 'take-out' was still catching on. We had the odd Pizza Hut pizza, and I can distinctly remember a few celebration meals at Sarah's, a bone fide American steak house in Algona, Iowa. But for the most part all of our meals were cooked and eaten at home. My parents both cooked--Dad mostly managed the garden and made the breads and soups, and Mom...well, Mom did pretty much everything else. From a young age, my brother and I were corralled into chopping vegetables, stirring soups, punching down bread doughs (ok, we actually fought over who got to do that one), cutting fruit for salad, and a host of other meal prep tasks.

This all sounds very wholesome and apple-cheeked, I'm sure, but in reality, my brother and I fought all this home-cooking tooth and nail. Whole-wheat bread tasted gross and the slices were too thick for sandwiches. Home-made cookies weren't "cool" enough when packed into school lunches. Hamburgers that didn't come from McDonald's just weren't the same. We adored Halloween with its abundance of commercially-made sweetness. I'm sure Mom and Dad thought they'd given birth to palate-challenged morons, but still, they persevered. A few 5-minute time outs on the back stairs and commands to eat now-cold plates of brussel sprouts (grown in our backyard, of course) didn't faze them in the least.

Still, something must have stuck because
my brother is happily employed as a line cook in a restaurant in Wisconsin, and here I am gleefully spending a Sunday afternoon dividing my time between my foodie blog and going through back issues of Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Gastronomica. In the past few months, my mother has repeatedly said, "I never would have thought this is what you and Andy would end up getting into"--always in the same slightly incredulous voice.

So when I find myself in need of some comfort food, what I crave is chili that's been simmering all afternoon, thick-sliced bread--toasted and buttered, and perhaps most of all, home-made chocolate chip cookies. It could be that I love these chocolate chip cookies just because they're familiar, but I haven't found another cookie anywhere else that I would take over my mother's. A few years ago when I was first living on my own and had a hankering for them, I called her up one afternoon and--for the first time ever--asked her for the recipe.

This recipe is basically the same recipe that's off the back of the Nestle chocolate chip bag, but with a few modifications of ingredients and procedure. First of all, use only one stick of butter instead of two. Surprisingly, the reason for this is not to cut down on the fat but to improve the texture of the cookie. More butter will make the cookie flatter and crispier. Less fat makes a denser cookie that is chewy without being cake-y.

Second (and this is my own modification), use dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar. Dark brown sugar gives the cookie a deeper flavor with the subtle taste of molasses. I feel this creates a nice balance to the sweetness of the white sugar and compliments the semi-sweet chocolate.

Third, all of the ingredients should be room temperature, especially the butter and eggs. It's best if you let them come to room temperature on their own, but in a pinch you can microwave the butter for a few seconds until soft and put the eggs in a bowl of hot tap water for about 5 minutes.

And fourth, add the flour last (except for the chocolate chips) and mix very little to avoid forming any gluten. Developing the gluten in the flour will make your cookies hard and tough. You want a little gluten development for the chew (which is why you use all-purpose flour instead of pastry flour) but not too much.

Everyone has their own version of the perfect cookie, and this one is definitely mine. Chewy and moist, plenty of chocolate chips, not too sweet--it takes me right back to those school lunches trying fruitlessly to trade them away for Kudos bars and Chips Ahoy. But really? I was just as glad to keep them for myself.


Francis Family Chocolate Chip Cookies
modified from Nestle's Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe

Makes about 36 large cookies or 72 small cookies.

3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. dark brown sugar
1 stick real butter (softened)
2 eggs (at room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
~2 c. (about 1 bag) of chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the two sugars together in a medium sized bowl. Mix in the butter gobs at a time. Mix in the eggs and vanilla, and then the salt and baking soda. Mix all of these ingredients as much as possible until the batter is smooth, shiny, and a rich brown color.

Add the flour all at once and mix as little as possible (to avoid forming gluten, which makes tough cookies). I prefer to fold the flour into the batter until it's evenly incorporated. To do this, run a long-handled spoon or spatula around the edge of the bowl under the batter. Smoothly lift the batter slightly and fold it toward the center of the bowl. Continue doing this at intervals along the entire circumference of the bowl and then continue until all the flour is incorporated. The dough will look like a grainy, light brown paste.

Stir in the chocolate chips all at once, again mixing as little as possible (and again, I prefer to fold the chocolate chips into the batter).

Drop batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet using a full tablespoon (for larger cookies) or a well-rounded teaspoon (for smaller cookies).
Space them about two inches apart--they will spread a tiny bit as they bake. Bake for 9-11 minutes until the 'peaks' on the cookies are just starting to brown (leave cookies in longer for crunchier cookies). Allow to cool for about 5 minutes on a cooling rack before devouring. (I know it's hard, but it's worth it. If you eat them right away, not only will you burn your tongue and thus not be able to enjoy anymore tasty treats for a while, but when it first comes out of the oven, the cookie is actually still quite liquidy and will collapse on itself and on you until it has a few minutes to set.)

-->Large cookies are about 3 inches in diameter and are about 3 WeightWatchers points each.
-->Small cookies are about 1.5 inches in diameter and are about 1.5 WeightWatchers points each. (By the by, these smaller cookies definitely do not feel skimpy. They pack the same flavor, chew, and chocolate as the regular cookies--they're just portion controlled. I think the small cookies are the perfect size for feeling like you really had a good, satisfying treat.)


Michael C said...

With the taste of these cookies still fresh in my memory from this weekend, I would like to vouch for them being absolutely delicious. Clearly, the rest of us are lucky that your early aversion to cooking didn't stick!

Angelina said...

We were exactly the same in our household. My mom was a wholegrain, homegrown, home canned, natural foods lady witha penchant for trying out interesting sprouted things on us kids as well as repeatedly trying to get us to agree that raw cold tofu is a good addition to salad.

While I still say yuck to raw tofu, I ended up cooking and eating like my mom. Just with fewer sprouted things. Yet I used to look forward to the two times a year we got to eat at diners and get greasy french fries and grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread. I used to long for cerials that didn't weigh about six pounds per bowl.

It's so funny how much our parents can influence us without us even really knowing it's happened.

Those cookies look amazing!

Emma C said...

Ok, I'm on the phone with my mother. A few "corrections" to this post:

1. In my childhood, fast food DID exists but it was a luxury for us (so much for my memories of a wholesome midwestern village).

2. Thanks for recognizing that she did "everything else," but actually she did "EVERYTHING." Dad was really out earning money so that someday we could actually go eat at McDonald's.

3. She NEVER gave time-outs for food issues (but I think she might be lying). She claims it was time outs for misbehavior only, but I have trouble believing I ever misbehaved during meals. Rilly.

4. Mom and Dad MAY have made us eat cold brussel sprouts, but they always caved and gave us dessert in the end.

5. However it WAS true that Andy and I were reluctant to eat homecooked food on the general principle that it was 'uncool.' Mom has since recovered from this disappointment.

There you have it, folks. Straight from the mother's mouth.

Adam said...

I'm totally going to steal this recipe and use it! Just as soon as I fill my cupboards with basic essentials!

Adam HH said...

Oops; that was me by the way. HellO!

Emma C said...

You rascally cookie recipe stealer, you! Next time I make cookies, you're only invited if you bring milk for dunking.