The State of the Cookie
Hi Dorie, hi David—
Yum! This discussion makes me realize what a huge role nostalgia plays in shaping our appetites. David, you've made me nostalgic for something I never actually tasted—those near-candy bar HeyDays. Isn't it upsetting when a childhood taste disappears from the markets? I was sad to see that a whole cookie line, Mother's, recently went under—their peanut butter Gauchos knocked the pants off Nutter Butters.
As Dorie points out, there's something "fun" about cookies. And nostalgia is a critical part of that fun—we allow ourselves to relate to cookies as if we were still children, including ritualistic ways of consuming these treats. Dorie, for example, mentioned she has a particular way of munching a Mallomar. Currently, I'm doing my best to pass my cookie ticks onto my 4-year-old son. I've taught him to disassemble Oreos (or, in our house, Newman O's) before eating them, to decapitate animal crackers, and to go at the petit beurres corners first. (OK—now there's a plain butter cookie I do like—give me a couple glasses of wine, and I will confess to delighting in crumbly sables as well.)
The actual baking process is an important aspect of cookie joy, too. It's rarely acknowledged that cookies take a while to prepare. (In general, individual treats like dropped or rolled cookies, cupcakes, and tartlets take longer to bake than cakes or pies.) Bar cookies are quicker, of course. And I'm always a fan of keeping frozen dough in the freezer, ready to slice and bake should the need for warm cookies strike with some urgency. But there's no reason baking should always be fast and easy. Indeed, there is much virtue in a certain kind of inconvenience. I love all the observation and anticipation that comes with baking: watching for the moment when the butter is creamed or the whites are whipped; tasting and analyzing the dough, and reanalyzing it again and again; the careful rotation of pans in the oven and waiting for that golden moment when you can finally pull them out of the heat.
On that note, Dorie, you are so right about underbaked cookies. There's something about a pallid cookie that just seems so wasteful—you can't stop thinking about how good it could have been with a few more minutes in the oven. Another key cookie sin, and a common one in this country full of chunky cookies, is untoasted nuts. There's nothing like the bitter bite of raw walnut skin to knock you out of your cookie reverie, while a golden-brown one adds divine toastiness.
But let's set aside these eternal baking issues. What's out there in groceries or bakeries or cookbooks that's exciting you today? Recently, my home cooking has taken on a more healthful bent, and I have been intrigued by cookie recipes that use whole grains and alternative sweeteners. Heidi Swanson has some especially neat ideas, though I still wonder if a healthy cookie is an untenable paradox. More specifically, I'm glad to find that some recipes are once again calling for instant espresso powder. I'd never use the stuff to make a cup of coffee, but I've found that it adds a bizarrely compelling coffee-salt tang to cookies. Dorie, you've written previously about how much salt we use in baked goods these days—a trend that's made sweets a whole lot more interesting, I think. On that note, I was just reading about saltine panna cotta at momofuku ssam bar, which got me thinking about how I might use crushed saltines in a cookie recipe, perhaps as a crumb crust or even as a sort of macaroon base. (I am totally American in my affection for tinkering.) What is it that sends you both scampering off to test a recipe? And what does the cookie jar of tomorrow hold? Certainly, there will always be room for chocolate chippers, but are there any overlooked cookie traditions due for a revival, any gizmo developments that could compete with the Silpat in cutting-edge cookie technology?