What happened to my cookies?

Deconstructing a Snickerdoodle recipe to avoid pitfalls and achieve the perfect cookie.

The Pastry Chef's Baking
Snickerdoodles, made perfectly.

The greatest enjoyment I get from writing my blog is being able to share the recipes I've tried, how they turned out, what I think of them and what, if anything, I would suggest to make them better. It absolutely makes my day when someone tries a recipe I've blogged about and enjoyed it for themselves. It also absolutely distresses me when someone tells me they tried something but "it didn't turn out" like mine. For the longest time, I just didn't get it. I posted the exact same recipe I followed, I talked about what I did and, depending on the recipe, what mistakes I made that people shouldn't do so they can avoid the problems I had with something and make theirs better than mine.

In trying to do an autopsy, so to speak, on my friends' and relatives' baking mishaps, I started to ask more detailed questions to get to the root causes of the problems: What ingredients did you use? How long did you bake it? What did it look like when you took it out of the oven? What did your batter or dough look like? What pan did you use? Did you preheat the oven? The varying answers I got made something really clear to me: it's not just about the recipe, it's also about the technique. I've blogged before about some simple baking tips so I won't repeat those here. But I will add further to the list and, for this post, in the context of cookie making.

Some weeks ago, my friend Karen was baking batch after batch of cookies but was dissatisfied with her results as they weren't coming out the way she wanted them to. In making chocolate chip cookies, the different recipes she tried either weren't spreading like she wanted or they were too dry. The dryness was easy to remedy as I discovered she was baking them until the middles were done. Oh no. For chocolate chip cookies and anything of their texture, bake until the edges are done and the middles are just barely not doughy-looking anymore. They might puff during baking but you want the middles to sink when they cool. That'll give them their chewy and moist texture. If you bake until the middles are done, the cookies will be dry. So that solved the problem of the chocolate chip cookie. In Karen's own words, "oh the middles are supposed to sink!" Yep, that's right.

But bear in mind this doesn't hold true for all cookies because it really depends on what type of cookie you're making. Once Karen had conquered the chocolate chip cookie issue, she moved on to Snickerdoodles and was trying this recipe from Magnolia Bakery, a cookbook I have and a recipe I've also tried before. They weren't turning out like she had made them before at a friend's place: The cookies weren't spreading and they were coming out either too dry or too underdone. I couldn't diagnose the issue virtually so I went over to her house to watch her in action. The best way to help someone is to have them do it themselves and observe what's happening.

As near as I can tell, Karen was doing everything right: All her ingredients were at room temperature when she started, she mixed correctly according to the recipe, and she had chilled the dough before baking it. Yet something was still off. The only thing I corrected in her mixing of the dough was to teach her the dip and sweep method in measuring the flour. You never want to tamp the flour down in the measuring cup. You'll end up with too much flour, too stiff of a dough and dry cookies. Karen didn't make this mistake but in general, you also want to add the dry ingredients in 2-3 parts, not all at once, so that you can incorporate the dry ingredients well into the dough or batter and let the dough "come together".

We ended up taking out the cookies on the slight side of underdone to try and avoid the other cause of dryness besides too much flour: overbaking. The cookies were fine when we took them out of the oven but we left them on the hot cookie sheet while we focused on another batch of dough. I had forgotten one basic rule of cookie making: Cookies will continue to bake on a hot cookie sheet even after they're out of the oven. Subsequently, the first batch we had left on the cookie sheet baked up a little more than I would've recommended. Easy remedy to that is to leave them on the cookie sheet for only a couple of minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack to finish cooling.

The basic nature of a snickerdoodle is they tend to be more cakey and not have a chewy-dense-moist texture like a chocolate chip cookie. It's not to say they're automatically more dry than a chocolate chip cookie but you do have to factor in the type of cookie you're making as well in order to gauge its success. We ended up with a batch Karen was happy with and she was assured her cookie making skills were fine.

From "The Magnolia Bakery" by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon for sprinkling

In a small bowl, combine the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, milk, and vanilla and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Wrap the dough tightly with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving several inches between for expansion. (I recommend leaving extra room between these cookies because they spread more than most.) Sprinkle generously with the cinnamon sugar mixture. Bake for 12-14 minutes.

Cool the cookies on the sheets for 5 minutes, and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Related post: Baking Tips

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