Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lost and Found: Cookie Mojo!

Self-confidence, Self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation.

I had been in such a pie baking frenzy (ipie, that is) that I hadn't been baking much else lately. But then I volunteered to bring cookies to a luncheon.

Not a big deal despite how busy I was. My go-to dessert in situations where I want to bring something special but don't have a lot of time is to bring a towering tray of my chocolate chip cookies.

I know, I know -- chocolate chip cookies don't usually fall into the oohh and ahhh category of baked goodies.

But through the years I had perfected this particular recipe. For people who tasted them for the first time, they quickly became a requested item. For those who had tasted them before, they were met with many happy smiles.

I often used them as edible thank you notes!

My daughter even used them as currency at school (and sometimes still does)!

I started freezing balls of cookie dough so I could quickly bake one or two in case of cookie emergencies like a bad day at work or unexpected guests.

I don't describe all of this to be boastful but so that when I say I lost it, the true loss is realized.

So, let me say: I lost it.

Not the recipe, my cookie mojo.

Several weeks before the luncheon I noticed I was running low on frozen cookie dough so I quickly stirred a batch together. I don't use a recipe anymore since I long ago memorized the simple ingredient list and instructions.

I usually bake a few of the cookies for my family to enjoy that day and then freeze the remainder.

I slid a few cookies onto a cookie sheet and popped the sheet into the oven.

Not knowing of the impending doom that was about to befall me, I innocently went about my morning chores as I waited for the timer to beep.

The cookies looked pretty good as I pulled them out of the oven - the dough had set around the edges but there was still a yummy softness in the center of each cookie. The top of each cookie was evenly browned.

But not on the bottom. As they cooled I took a look at the bottom of the cookies.


It took me two more batches before I realized that something more was going on than just burned cookies. In fact, something was terribly wrong!

I had lost my cookie mojo!

And I wanted it back. Quickly. Not just because these cookies had become such a critical part of my baking identity, oh no. Let's just say that life had become a bit uncertain in these dire economic times and I didn't think I could bear for one more thing I relied on to be unchanging to be castaway.

Ok, perhaps that is unfair to put all of that emotion on a simple cookie but there you go.

Being of the test kitchen mindset, I got to work. All other baking projects were put on hold.

I decided that there were only a few variables that I needed to check:
Oven temperature
Cookie Sheet

Just a note about the weather, I didn't consider the weather to be the cause because during the weeks I tested and retested these cookies the weather didn't experience any real swings in humidity or temperature.

So since I knew my ingredients and techniques hadn't changed, I investigated the first two -- oven temperature and my baking pans.

Baker, know thy oven. Not having the oven at the correct temperature is generally the culprit in underdone or overdone baked goods. Long ago I bought an oven thermometer and I automatically slap it into my oven whenever I turn it on. I'm always surprised at the difference between when the light goes out indicating the correct temperature on the outside oven dial and what temperature the oven thermometer actually registers.

My usual method is to bake one cookie sheet at a time on the center rack. I rotate the cookie sheet halfway through the cooking time.

Many of the cookbooks I consulted recommended baking two sheets at a time with the oven racks on the upper and lower middle positions. Then bake reversing position of cookie sheets halfway through baking -- from top to bottom and front to back. Sounded exhausting.

Perhaps something had changed with my oven. I bought another thermometer (just in case) and tested the temperature. Then I baked a few cookies (I started only baking a few at a time given all my tests!) using the rotating method and different rack position. Still burned.

Perhaps my reliable but very old cookie sheets needed replaced? I'd been using rimless insulated cookie sheets for years. Did I detect a bit of warping?

Here again, cookbook authors differed in their opinion on what cookie sheets delivered the best results. The choices and combinations seemed endless: rimmed half-sheet pans, rimless pans, pans with one rimmed side only, double-thick insulated, dark sheets, shiny light-colored sheets, and so on.

One option that sounded intriguing was to double pan the cookie sheets together. Perhaps it was BOTH my oven temp AND my cookie sheet that were the problems??

I quickly put a couple of dough balls on the cookie sheet, set it on another cookie sheet then started the oven rack and rotating dance. I think my poor oven never got to one steady temp!

But still no change.

I was out of control. My family started to tiptoe around me as I continued to pull two cookies out of the oven, look at them, snarl, then toss them in the trash.

I even started questioning my technique after all of these years of using the same method. I remembered an article in The New York Times where writer David Leite reported on crucial elements to turn out the perfect chocolate chip cookies. I tried some of the ideas in the article but none of them made much of a difference.

But then I noticed something that hadn't caught my attention before about the cookies -- they weren't exactly burned on the bottom -- it was almost as if there were a windswept pattern of brownness. Some cookies looked like they had dark brown and light brown stripes! And the entire cookie looked not burned but more golden brown than usual.

Now this was really getting strange!

I surfed the Fine Cooking website -- this site has great baking tips and techniques. Nothing-new here.

I logged on the King Arthur Flour live chat online and chatted with a woman about my cookie dilemma but she was stumped. She very nicely said she would check with their test kitchen and send me an email later with their suggestions. And she actually did send me an email later that same day which I thought was very cool. Their suggestion: double pan your cookie sheets.

Oh well. I decided to take a cookie break for a few days and think through all my testing and what I had learned.

And that turned out to be what I had forgotten. Did I ever mention that I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes?

Let's just say that I forgot what his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to say:

"...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

I went back to my ingredients. And there it was. All I had to do was test my theory.

As we all know, baking soda is a type of chemical leavener that gives baked good their desired rise. It reacts with acids to create carbon dioxide gas which create the lovely bubbles that make our cakes and cookies rise.

The types of acids that baking soda neutralizes includes sour cream, buttermilk, honey, brown sugar, cocoa and molasses.

Most cookbooks tell you to measure baking soda carefully because if you use more than can be neutralized by the acidic ingredient, you can end up with a soapy or metallic tasting cookie with a coarse crumb.

But baking soda not only neutralizes acidity, it enhances the BROWNING of a batter -- like a gingerbread or carrot cake batter.

The sugar in my recipe is primarily brown sugar.

Could it POSSIBLY be that I hadn't measured my ingredients carefully enough and had used too much baking soda? Had this recipe become so known to me that I was no longer as exact as I should be?

Had I forgotten what Rose Levy Beranbaum had said:
"Bakers are born, not made. We are exacting people who delight in submitting ourselves to rules and formulas if it means achieving repeatable perfection."

Well, yes, as it turned out.

So I measured each ingredient carefully. I baked a batch.

They were beautiful -- top and bottom. I baked a few more batches just to be certain.

While I was glad I had figured out the mystery and had my cookie mojo back, I felt chastened.

A few days later an email popped into my inbox from a fellow member of the Bakers Dozen organization. Seems this baker had a recipe that he made all the time and all of a sudden it wouldn't work anymore.....

The emails back and forth from the bakers trying to help him out reassured me and reminded me that we bakers never stop learning (and relearning).

But what really reassured me happened just this week at a Bakers Dozen meeting. Food scientists and authors Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee were the featured speakers.

Before the formal presentation began, I asked Harold McGee for his thoughts on the evils of baking soda. He laughed and said that because baking soda gives so much trouble to so many bakers that both he and Shirley Corriher were going to open their presentation with a discussion of baking soda! Cookbook author Flo Braker had organized this event and had specifically asked them to talk about baking soda.

And in fact McGee spoke not only about the more common problems associated with baking soda -- soapy taste, coarse crumb, but he also talked about the overbrowning of batter that can happen.

Corriher added "baking soda (over leavening) is the cause of most baking problems!"
She also agreed "there is a humbling experience for every cook just around the corner!"

Come to think of it, how did I ever come to underestimate that little orange box? After all, a product that is used to soak up odors in my fridge and garbage disposal, used as a cleaning product for my bathroom, makes my stomach feel better and my teeth whiter must be one powerful product!

So I think there should be a campaign to have a warning label put on each box of baking soda:
"proceed at your own risk -- not for sissies!"