The Envelope, Please
Announcing the winner of Slate's recipe contest.
And now for dessert.
The tiny two-vote margin in favor of the Cook's Illustrated sugar cookie would send politicians calling for a recount. The Cook's Illustrated cookies were made from a very soft dough, which included butter and vegetable oil and cream cheese, and eerily simulated the doughy-chewy nature of a commercially baked soft cookie. I agree heartily with the Slate reader who described the recipe as "interesting and counter intuitive"; the dough is unlike any I've worked with before, and it delivered on the desired texture. "I enjoyed how the crisp edges with the chewy middles formed a nice contrast," wrote another. Whether the Cook's Illustrated cookies were really sugar cookies was more of an issue: They were seasoned with a blend of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and clove that one of my guests described as "snickerdoodle-y." A Slate reader picked up the thread: "I really don't think they are 'sugar cookies.' …. I thought this was going to be a head to head cookie contest, with plain sugar cookies competing. These clearly are not."
As for the food52 cookie, it was more of a classic recipe reworked to use not just white sugar, but also brown sugar and crunchy turbinado sugar. Commenters liked the crunch of the turbinado, which contrasted with the soft center of the cookie—and so did I. Some described the cookie as having a caramel taste, and several liked that the cookie was flavored very simply. "My husband just wants a normal sugar cookie. This is it," said one Slate reader.
Oddly enough, considering the close vote among Slate readers, at my dinner table there was almost no debate about which cookie was superior—we had a 7-to-1 vote in favor of the Cook's Illustrated cookie, with two abstentions (one for gluten issues, another for a powerful aversion to clove, one of the Chai spices). I suspect I know the reason: For the competition, I followed the recipes to the letter. For the food52 cookie, this meant beating flour into the batter for one minute and then scraping the bowl and beating the flour for another minute. Had I not been preparing the recipe for a contest, I would have mixed the flour in only until it was incorporated. I think this over-mixing ended up toughening the dough, and that the cookies would have been pretty lovely otherwise.
This brings up one of the issues that consistently came up in the comments. The looser prose of the food52 recipes sometimes made for confusion—when the sugar cookie recipe said "cream butter and sugars for 1 minute," was I supposed to include the turbinado sugar as well, or was that just for rolling the cookies in the end? And how long should I allot for the pork shoulder to come to room temperature? Should I really aim for room temperature, or rather something in the 50s? These questions can be major or minor depending on the audience. An experienced cook is likely to use a recipe less literally, while someone new to a technique depends on precision.
In the end, it's that kind of precision that earns Cook's Illustrated its many fans. But for me, at least, the whole process once again called into question the very premise of a "best recipe." Many Slate commenters obviously weren't quite finished with the debate: One suggested deglazing the porchetta pan with apple cider rather than vinegar; others discussed different cooking temperatures for both roasts. At my dinner table, my friends offered that the Cook's Illustrated pork sauce would have been less cloying if offset by the stronger seasoning on the food52 porchetta. We were already cooking again before we finished our meal. It's that kind of open discussion that has drawn people to the Web for cooking advice and input.
Cook's Illustrated should celebrate its victory, but without being too namby-pamby, I hope both forms of recipe development (and food52) continue to thrive. I agree with the Slate commenter who wrote: "I think that there is a room in this world for both approaches. The scientist in me loves the CI approach; the people connection in the Food 52 approach is valuable as well."