Why we're sweet on cookies

Cookies came to the New World with Dutch and English settlers, but Americans have truly made them their own, says P.J. Hamel, who has just helped test more than 20,000 cookies - rolled, shaped, bars, no bake - for a big cookbook that focuses on everyone's favorite sweet indulgence.

"Of Americans who bake at home ... 98 percent bake cookies," she says.

As editor/writer of "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion" (The Countryman Press, $29.95), Ms. Hamel has given much thought to what's behind this popularity.

Some reasons are practical - many cookies aren't particularly complicated and don't take much time to whip up.

But largely, she thinks, cookies are No. 1 on the dessert hit parade because of nostalgia: "Most Americans grew up with their first sweet memory having something to do with cookies."

And as Hamel found when she sent an e-mail to King Arthur's employee-owners, requesting their favorite cookie recipes, many keep those memories alive by continuing to bake from their mothers' and grandmothers' recipes.

Cookie evolution

Hamel was intrigued to learn that cookies have changed through the generations. The biggest difference is that "early recipes had very, very few directions. Some of them were lists of ingredients with no directions at all," she says. "People back then knew what to do with their ingredients, and they didn't need you to tell them."

Recipes from the early 1900s "tended to be very simple," she notes. "I think it's because people didn't have access to a lot of different ingredients."

For cookies of more recent vintage, Hamel learned to pinpoint when a cookie was created by what it contained.

"As we got up into the 1950s, they tended to include a lot of wacky stuff, packaged foods and candied cherries and things like that," she says. "Then there was a little craze in the '70s where they were whole wheat. You could almost tell what decade the cookies were from by what they were focusing on."

Brownies, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies "have stayed remarkably the same," she adds. "The best of those basic cookies are really the old recipes because they work. You don't need to do much to make them taste good. And what is better than a soft, moist oatmeal-raisin cookie? You really can't improve on that."

Cookie favorites vary regionally. "Molasses cookies are very popular in New England, but they're not that popular elsewhere," she says. New England, the upper Midwest, and Amish country are home to the big sandwich cookie known as a whoopie pie.

Brownies are favorites across the country, but fans of the rich chocolate bars tend to fall into two camps - the majority, who prefer their brownies chewy, and those who say the texture should be more like cake.

Actually, there's also a third way. The 509-page cookbook supplies an "in-between" recipe, On the Fence Brownies, which produces bars that are fudgy and moist but rise taller than a typical chewy brownie. "Those are actually my favorite brownies because they combine the best of both worlds," Hamel says.

In a kitchen equipped like one at home (without huge professional stoves or any special equipment), a team of trained bakers spent seven months working its way through thousands of recipes - decorated sugar cookies, peanut butter balls, pizzelles, shortbread, biscotti. In the end, the decision of which ones to include in the cookbook was made democratically: They put the just-from-the-oven cookies out on a table and asked everyone who came by to comment on taste and texture and to vote for their favorites.

Chocolate chip cookies are the most popular home-baked variety and rate 11 pages in the new cookie compendium. Readers can choose from chewy or crisp textures and a host of additions to the basic recipe - orange rind and pistachios, dried cherries and white chocolate, peppermint and cocoa.

Home cooks who bake infrequently are as likely to be looking for problem-solving advice as for new kinds of cookies. The No. 1 question that comes to King Arthur is, "Why are my cookies burning on the bottom?" says Hamel. "That's usually because they're using a dark- colored pan or an old, thin pan. You want to use a light-colored aluminum pan and one that's thick enough it's not going to warp when you put it in the oven."

Another solution to burnt bottoms is to line baking sheets with parchment paper instead of greasing them. Parchment paper also has added advantages: The cookies slide right off, and the pan stays clean.

Inexperienced bakers may run into trouble if they don't follow directions exactly. "If the recipe says to chill the dough [before baking it], chill the dough," she advises. "Don't skip that step because it's for a reason. Usually it's that if you don't put the dough in the refrigerator [for the specified time], the cookies are going to spread too much when you bake them."

Don't try this at home

Cookies that spread too much can also be the result of dropping dough onto a too-hot pan. It's best to alternate two sheets, but if you have only one, let it cool to room temperature before putting more cookies on it.

Other reasons for spreading too wide are substituting butter or margarine for shortening, greasing the cookie sheet too liberally, and using too much sugar.

If home cooks prefer to spritz cookie sheets with a nonstick cooking spray instead of greasing them, Hamel suggests they avoid sprays that contain lecithin, as it tends to darken and get sticky on the sheet.

When trying a new cookie recipe, a good way to avoid failure is to bake a test cookie, she says. Mix the dough, bake one cookie for the recommended time, let it cool as specified, and then taste it. It may seem like a time- consuming extra step, but if that lone cookie isn't satisfactory, the cook can make adjustments in the rest of the batch - maybe bake the cookies for more or less time.

Those who are short on time, especially in the busy holiday season, don't have to head to a bakery for delicious, attractive treats. Instead of the typical round cookie, consider bars, which often take less time and effort: mix, pour into a single pan, bake, and cut into squares. "It eliminates all that drop, drop, drop of the individual cookies," Hamel says, not to mention standing in front of the oven waiting to pull one cookie sheet out and put another in.

Another speedy idea is a two-ingredient cookie. Mix together 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk and 2 cups shredded coconut (preferably unsweetened). Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for 13 to 14 minutes, or until set and golden.

Spruce up a store-bought

It's not even necessary to turn on the oven to create a cookie gift that will be a hit with recipients.

"Take Oreos [the No. 1 commercial cookie in the US] and dip them individually in Chocolate Ganache [see recipe, below]," suggests Hamel.

"Put a little Christmas sugar decoration - a half an inch across; a Santa head or something like that - in the middle of each cookie. You give those for presents, and people love you," she says with a smile. "They're so good, and they look beautiful."

Beyond providing much-appreciated homemade gifts, baking cookies can create lasting memories in families, Hamel believes.

"Cookies are a wonderful thing to do with kids," she says. "Everybody loves them and you can pick out some very, very easy recipes. Let your kids have some memories of cookies they helped make themselves, instead of cookies coming out of a package from the store. The kids will be so proud of themselves for making something."

Key Lime Bars in Coconut Crust

CRUST

2/3 cup brown sugar
1-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract (optional)
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

FILLING

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
1-3/4 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/3 to 1/2 cup Key lime juice, or fresh lime juice; to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Spread coconut evenly in a single layer on a baking pan to toast it. Check after 5 minutes to see if it's golden. If not, stir and return to the oven for a few minutes more.

Increase oven heat to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch light-colored aluminum pan.

To make the crust, combine all the crust ingredients in a medium-size mixing bowl. Mix until the mixture is crumbly. Set aside 1 cup of the crumbs and press the remainder into the bottom of the pan.

Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, until golden brown.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until soft. Add the sugar and salt and beat until well blended. Stir in the 3 tablespoons flour and beat in the 4 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the lime juice, mixing until smooth. Pour the filling onto the crust.

Bake the bars for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with reserved crumbs and bake 10 minutes more, until set around the edges but slightly wobbly in the middle. Remove from oven and cool at room temperature for 1 hour. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Slice into 24 bars.

Strawberry Cheesecake Bars

CRUST
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
FILLING
2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup strawberry jam (or other favorite flavor)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch light-colored aluminum pan.

Make the crust by mixing together in a medium mixing bowl the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and butter. Stir in the pecans. Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the crust is set. Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes.

For the filling: Beat the cream cheese and sugar together until smooth. Gently mix in the vanilla and eggs. Spread the filling over the crust.

Stir the jam or warm it slightly to make it spreadable. (If very lumpy, use a blender to smooth it.) Spoon the jam into a small plastic bag, snip off one corner, and spread lines of jam the length of the pan, about 3/4 inch apart. Use a table knife to lightly cut across the top of the filling, from side to side, at 1-inch intervals, through the jam rows.

Bake the bars for 20 to 22 minutes, just until the filling is set. The middle should wobble slightly. Remove from oven and run a metal spatula around the edges to loosen the filling. This will help prevent it from cracking. Cool 1 hour at room temperature and then refrigerate until chilled and firm. Cut into 24 bars.

Brownie Variations

Start with your favorite brownie recipe, or even use a packaged mix, and then dress it up by adding chips - chocolate, peanut butter, or white chocolate - to the batter before baking. Or, about 10 minutes before the brownies are supposed to be done, sprinkle a topping such as chopped nuts or crushed toffee over the top.

For a tray of impressive brownies, frost a batch with Chocolate Ganache, fill the center with chocolate mints, or swirl with the taste of cheesecake.

CHOCOLATE GANACHE

1/2 cup heavy cream (whipping cream)
1 cup chocolate chips or chopped semisweet chocolate

In a microwave-safe bowl, or in a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream until you see wisps of steam beginning to rise from it and tiny bubbles around the edges. Add chocolate chips to the hot cream and stir until smooth. At first it will seem soupy, but keep stirring; it will become thick and spreadable.

MINT-FILLED BROWNIES

Prepare batter for brownies to fill a 9-by-13-inch pan. Lightly grease pan and pour half of the batter into the pan. Place 12 thin mints or peppermint patties on top of the mixture, and then spread with the remaining batter. Bake as directed in your recipe.

CHEESECAKE SWIRL

2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1/4 cup heavy cream or sour cream
2 large eggs

Prepare brownie batter to fill a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Beat cream cheese in medium bowl until no lumps remain. Add sugar and extracts, blending until smooth. Stir in the cream and eggs, mixing until well-blended.

Spoon three-quarters of the brownie batter into the lightly greased pan. Spoon the cheesecake batter over, smoothing it. Draw a table knife through the top third of the 2 batters, gently swirling to make a nice design.

Bake in oven preheated to temperature specified in recipe, adding 5 to 10 minutes to the total time. They are done when the top is set and the edges are puffy. Cool to room temperature on a rack and refrigerate.

- All brownie suggestions and and cookie recipes on this page are adapted from 'The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,' The Countryman Press.

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