Chocolate chip cookies

After almost 20 years of baking various chocolate chip cookie recipes, I’m pleased to announce that the search for a perfect formula is done. I’ve found it and I never, ever will stray from it. Thank you internet, thank you Twitter, thank you food blogs.

I’d about given up on baking cookies, except for at Christmas. While my affection for a chocolate chip cookie borders on psychotic, I’d never been able to make a truly stellar batch.  To me, a good chocolate chip cookie is crisp on the edges, and gooey in the middle, a bit sweet and a bit salty, the perfect foil for a steaming cup of coffee. Yet whenever I tried making them they came out flat, or all puffy and cake-y. Often, the dough tasted better than the finished product.

Then a few weeks ago a tweet caught my eye about recipes that took off because of the internet, or something to that effect, and because procrastination is my middle name, I clicked. There, buried between tomato sauce with butter and onion and kale chips, I spied what is supposedly the best chocolate chip recipe ever, according to the New York Times. Time stopped at that moment. Angels might have started singing. I had a list of home improvement projects and friends I hadn’t seen in weeks, but I knew that weekend I would devote myself to making these cookies.

Fortunately, the recipe for these is super simple, especially when weighing your ingredients on a scale as opposed to measuring in cups. I had time not only to make cookies, but to finish painting my foyer, try Area Four (not a fan), make a pork roast and do several loads of laundry that weekend.  And the cookies? O-M-G. They were everything you want in a cookie. Even my sister, who’s sweet tooth is almost non-existent, ate three of them.

The premise of the NY Times version of this cookie is that you have to let the dough rest before baking it. While I did that with half the batch and found it made a mighty fine cookie, the half that got cooked right away were nothing to scoff at. Also, this recipe calls for chocolate discs, but as I’d just invested in some Guittard chips, I decided to go with them, and they seemed perfectly suited.  Lastly, I kept forgetting to sprinkle salt over the cookies before I baked them, but the ones with salt were definitely better. So try not to forget, OK?

I also took a tip from Orangette and scooped the dough into cookie-sized balls before refrigerating it. Much easier. Also, it enabled me to have a plate of ready-to-bake cookies in the fridge all week. Friends coming over? No one wants to eat three-day-old cookies. Instead, pop a few in the oven 20 minutes before guests arrive. They will think you’re a saint. And your house will smell great.

Make these cookies. You belly will thank you. Your loved ones will thank you. The internet will probably thank you too.

Chocolate chip cookies
(adapted from NY Times)

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) white sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
12 ounces best-quality chocolate chips (at least 60 percent cocoa)
Sea salt to sprinkle

Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a medium-sized bowl and set aside.
Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, and add dry ingredients a little at a time, mixing until just combined.

Remove paddle attachment and add chocolate chips. Stir in with a wooden spoon (by this time the dough is likely too stiff for the paddle). Use an ice cream scoop to create balls of dough about 3 ounces each. Place on a plate or tray, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night. Dough can be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and put dough balls on the pan (8 cookies on a standard-sized cookie sheet is about right). Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 15 to 18 minutes. Let cook a few minutes in the pan before transferring to a wire rack.

Makes about 20 big cookies.


Blueberry boy bait

There’s an abundance of cod in my freezer. I headed out to Stellwagen Bank last Sunday with friends and we found some keepers. I couldn’t help but be proud when I caught the first one; two years ago it was tough to tell who caught who when I had a fish on the line. The fish would be pulling on one end and I’d be on the other end amazed that a fish the size on an infant could be so strong, not sure which hand to reel it in with, and praying that I didn’t tangle my line, poke someone in the face with my rod or generally muss the whole thing up. Unfortunately, I mussed up plenty, and lost an abundance of fish in the process.

These days, I still wouldn’t claim to know an iota about fishing, not compared to the decades of knowledge that the fellows I fish with bring. But, I’m at the point where I can reel one in and not make a complete fool out of myself.

I make up for this lack of skills in other ways, so that my presence is generally tolerated on the boat. First, I can gut, fillet and skin a fish reasonable well. An extra pair of hands is much appreciated when you’ve got a cooler full of fish, and a boat full of tired souls who want to go home after a long day on the water. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I can bake. It’s a shameless bribe. In exchange for an invitation to go out, I generally show up with some kind of baked goods to stave off the appetites of my fellow fishermen.

If you’ve never spent a day out on the water, it’s hard to explain the kind of ravenousness that invades your soul. I don’t know if it’s the early hours, the salt air or the sun, but I eat on boats as if I’ve never eaten before, and I eat things I’d never look at twice on dry land. Pepperoncini. Cold cuts. Yellow mustard. Food has never tasted so good.

In deciding what to bake, a few things have to be taken into account. It should be something that can be eaten standing up, without a fork. It can’t be too crumbly or messy. It should sturdy enough to withstand the rolling and crashing that comes with heavy weather. It should taste good with a hangover. And it should beckon at all times of day. When I read about this recipe on Smitten Kitchen last summer, I knew I’d hit the big one.

“I’ll bring bait,” I told the captain. “Blueberry boy bait.”

A buttery single-layer cake, this blueberry studded, cinnamon-kissed delicacy is as easy to make as it is to eat. Though the amount of butter here (two sticks!) kind of makes me cringe, I just go with it. Afterall, no one on a fishing boat is watching their waistlines.

I’ve made this a few times now. The boys love it. Girls too. We were just passing Boston Light last weekend when my buddy Mark came up to the bridge, a piece in hand. “This is awesome,” he said, nodding approvingly as he stuffed his mouth. Mission accomplished.

Blueberry boy bait

(adapted from Smitten Kitchen and the America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book)

*Note: if you’re using frozen berries, don’t thaw them first or their color will bleed into the cake.

For the cake:
2 cups flour (I did half whole wheat, half white), plus a Tablespoon more
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen

For the topping:
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 13 by 9-inch baking pan.

Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium-high speed until fluffy, about two minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just incorporated and scraping down bowl. Reduce speed to medium and beat in one-third of flour mixture until incorporated; then beat in half of milk. Repeat and then add the rest of the flour. Toss blueberries with remaining Tablespoon flour and then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in blueberries. Spread batter evenly into prepared pan.

Scatter remaining 1/2 cup blueberries over top of batter. Stir sugar and cinnamon together in small bowl and sprinkle over the cake. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes (my oven did it in 35 min, so keep an eye on it). Cool in pan 20 minutes, then turn out and place on serving platter (topping side up).

Serves 10 hungry people, warm or at room temperature.

Perfect Clarity

I’m not entirely sure when first dawned on me that professional chefs weren’t like home chefs. For a long time, I sort of thought that “real” chefs simply had better knife skills, funny hats and a wider knowledge of how to make sauces- sort of like what you saw on “Yan Can Cook.”

Over the course of reading about and getting interested in food though, I learned that the professional chef is a much more complex being. Part chemist, part artist, part cook, a professional chef doesn’t simply have to be able to make something taste good, he (or she) has to be able to make it taste that way every single time. Hence, there is a bit of fanaticism in the blood of a chef. Actions that I don’t think twice about- the best way to sauté an onion or slice a carrot- take on a strange precision in a professional kitchen.

This belief was reinforced over the weekend by Ian, a CIA-trained chef turned restaurant consultant who joined my family’s July 4 festivities up in New Hampshire. Cooking is a competitive sport in my family and outsiders generally have to muscle pretty hard to be allowed near a stove. We are not a family that measures or follows directions. We chop and throw and bang and yell… Giving advice on how to do something is likely to get you thrown out of the kitchen and spirited debates have erupted over the best way to make a paella or how long to marinate a pork chop.


the lobsters

I drove up there on Friday with a dozen lobsters I’d picked up that morning at the fish pier- beautiful, 1.5 lb. lobsters, their speckled shells edged in blue. I figured we’d boil the creatures alive as I typically do and serve them with melted butter and a wedge of lemon. Ian, however, had other ideas.

First, the lobsters would be steamed, so as not to waterlog their flesh. While I agree with this technique on the grounds of flavor, it seems to prolong the suffering of the lobsters, which I’m not big on. Since reading David Foster Wallace’s Gourmet essay “Consider the Lobster” I’ve become much more attuned to the question of a lobster’s suffering before it gets to my plate. That, however, is another post.

What turned this lobster feast into something out of the ordinary was quite simply the butter. In his book Heat, Bill Buford takes a break from getting burned, cut and otherwise embarassed in Mario Batalli’s kitchen to illustrate the tenacity of chefs by asking Marco Pierre White how to fry an egg. What would be a mindless Sunday morning routine to most of us turned into an almost fanatical and deliberate ritual. There was nothing mindless about it.

Buford writes: “In normal life, “simplicity” is synonymous with “easy to do” but when a chef uses the word it means, “takes a lifetime to learn”… For two days, we talked about eggs.”

Ian was similarly fanatical about the butter. While I would have been perfectly happy to throw a sick of butter in a bowl and nuke it for a minute, that was not in the cards with Ian. Instead, four sticks of butter were put into a pot on a gas range and heated. As the temperature rose, the butter began to bubble and white foam formed, which he painstakingly skimmed off the top and deposited into a tea cup. More bubbling, more foaming, more skimming.

“This sounds kind of gross, but you want it to look like really yellow pee,” he said as he drew a spoon over the pot for what seemed like the zillionth time. This, I learned, is called clarifying butter, the process of removing milk solids and water, thus concentrating the flavor and raising the smoke point of the substance. It is the first step to making a bunch of mother sauces, and is also what in Indian cuisine is referred to as ghee, the base for a bunch of curry dishes and other deliciousness (I occasionally dream of marrying an Indian man solely for the home cooking… that too is for another post though).

At one point my uncle took over the skimming. Ian promptly dismissed him when he let too much foam collect in the pot. “I’ve fired guys for less,” he said, taking the spoon back. I didn’t doubt it. Finally, the pot was pronounced “as good as it’s going to get.”


the clarified butter

“In a restaurant, I’d strain it through cheesecloth to get out all the solids,” he explained. We didn’t have cheesecloth.

I was skeptical of whether all this fuss was truly going to produce something superior. After all, we’re talking about butter here, how much better can it get? Apparently, the answer is much better. 

The butter flavor was intense, slightly toasty and somehow less greasy. Add a squeeze of lemon and you could have poured the stuff over car tires and made them edible.

I have never felt compelled to drink butter before. I resisted the urge on Saturday only by dunking every edible part of one and a half lobsters in it (yes, that says one and a half LOBSTERS, not one and a half pounds of lobster). An evening of over indulgence? Perhaps. Of perfect clarity? Absolutely. In more ways than one.