Wednesday, April 18, 2007

ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough

So, peeps, I remain very much in denial. Never mind that I shall be without internet access in two days. Never mind that I have no hotels booked for anywhere I plan to visit in Spain. Never mind that I haven't packed a single box in preparation for the movers.

Why pay attention to such minute details when there are experiments to be conducted? I had to bring something in for the two anklebiters munchkins visiting work today. So, did I go for the tried and true and bake a batch of something I knew to be infallible? Where is the fun in that sh*t?

Instead, I thought about how sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult to determine. Chocolate chip cookies seem like the most basic of all baked goods in the universe. And yet, I always find myself less than satisfied with the results. Partly, I think this has to do with the idea of simplicity. When you consider something to be basic or simple, though, you basically become ignorant to how it can still require some thought. More importantly, you forget to push yourself to look for the challenge. Because, man, if one thing's for certain, it's that there's always a challenge.

None of the recipes I've ever turned to in making chocolate chip cookies have really resulted in what I was after. Even my most trusted cookie book had failed to really hit the mark. Still, when you're baking for little kids, you really need to go for what they know. Of course, because I was dealing with such a basic concept, I figured I could fiddle with the ingredients and everything would just magically work out.

Any good chemist knows you shouldn't alter too many variables at the same time. You'll never be able to tease out what ingredients contributed to what characteristics. But I was feeling brazen yesterday, and so, I actually changed two things instead of one. In full disclosure, I've had some experience with one, so it wasn't as bold a move as I'm making it out to be.

The first thing I did was replace half of the granulated sugar in the recipe with maple syrup. I know that sounds weird, but I've done it before, and maple syrup (the pure stuff) actually lends a nice, muted sweetness to things. It also allows for a more chewy product, and I prefer soft cookies to the brittle kind. The second, more radical move, was to replace the baking soda with baking powder. I know it seems like a relatively minor change, but that was the real experiment I was conducting.

Feeling matter-of-fact about it all, I popped the first batch in the oven. When they came out, I had a transient panic attack. The cookies had spread out at the edges and crisped brown, while a big blob remained in the middle. They were completely baked, and they tasted okay, but the middles tasted a bit like cake, and the edges were too crispy and burnt. This picture is actually not even enough of a reflection of how badly they turned out, because it's not three-dimensional and doesn't give a full sense of how mound-like they appeared:

when it all falls down

By that point, it was almost 10 pm. I surmised that the baking powder might have been too bold a move, but I wasn't going back to make another batch. And then I started to feel really conflicted. I wasn't going to bring in these misshapen mounds to the mini-visitors. But I also didn't like the idea of meeting them empty-handed. So I started thinking about what else I could do at that point. It was getting late, but I also had nothing to lose with dough to spare.

So I scooped out a batch onto the pan, and flattened the dough out with my palm before putting them into the oven to bake. Because... why not? And let me tell you, that sh*t worked, because the rest of my cookies looked like this:

with a little perseverance you can get things done
I know one of those cookies looks like it isn't fully baked, but it's actually just my crap photography skills. These are the first chocolate chip cookies I've made that have stayed soft and chewy, without underbaking, that tasted okay. Don't get me wrong, they could still use some improvement. And I know this all probably seems tedious and boring to the outside observer. But I really can't express how excited I was, sticking a note on the recipe with the variations I'd made and the result.

And best of all, I did get the mini-visitors totally hopped up on sugar. After visiting my office, one of them had a complete hissy fit in the lobby of our building, proclaiming that he was "tired of saying hello to everybody!" My work here is done.

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