COVID-19 Baking Diary: Cookies
We’ve done too much baking for one post, so this one’s all about cookies!
#COVID19 #quarantine #cooking #baking #recipes #homecooking #homebaking #cookies #cookinginspiration #CooksIllustrated #MilkStreetKitchen #chocolatechipcookies #peanutbuttercookies #oatmealchocolatechipcookies #oatmealcherrychocolatechipcookies
Based on what we’re seeing on social media, and what’s flying off the shelves at the grocery store, people are doing a lot more baking these days. Bread, cakes, cookies, you name it; we’re all discovering a secret affinity for the joy of baking.
Baking is the perfect activity. You can stay busy and even feel somewhat productive, but there’s a meditative element too. Working with your hands – especially when you don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer – is somewhat therapeutic.
As we mentioned in our previous post on quarantine cooking (main dishes and condiments), all the scary news and fears around how COVID-19 is affecting everyone have made us less inclined to read a book or sit still. And since we delved back into baking during the most recent snow storm, we picked up where we left off and went from there.
Since we’ve done so much baking, there’s simply too much for just one post. So, this post is all about cookies! And just for you, we have photos, recipe tips and suggestions, and resources for Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter Cookies, and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (plus a tasty variation). Since we like to tinker with recipes, we’ll share the results of that too.
LET THE COOKIE BAKING BEGIN!
Baking cookies is a good place to start. The ingredients are fairly reasonable to work with – even if like us, you don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer. Also, unlike a cake, you can see the whole cookie as it's baking in order to determine doneness. We’ve been done in many times by the silly toothpick test for banana bread, so having more visual cues with cookies makes it so much easier to not overbake them. Plus, cookies freeze well and they’re easy to share with friends and family.
To freeze cookies, cool them after baking, throw them in an airtight freezer bag, and store them in your freezer. To share your homemade cookies, make sure you observe proper social distance guidelines while COVID-19 is still an issue. Who knew that sharing cookies would be like an exchange of contraband in a spy movie? Just picture two people in trench coats and fedoras meeting in an empty parking lot; one drops a bag of cookies and walks away and then the other person picks up the bag and walks away in a different direction. Cookie noir, anyone?
Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
We used to buy The Cookie at Metropolitan Market, a super-rich and decadent chocolate chip cookie. While this is delicious, we wanted to save money by making our own batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Since we don’t have a stand mixer, this recipe from Cook’s Illustrated called “Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies” appealed to us as it’s specifically made by hand-mixing everything. Also, using browned butter sounded fancy. These are quite delicious, and we enjoyed sharing them with our swim team friends – before COVID-19 closed our gym.
If you want to add a little flair and intrigue to these cookies, top them with a pinch of fleur de sel or some other fancy course sea salt just before baking. The salt looks pretty and it adds an interesting layer of flavor and contrast to the cookie’s sweetness.
This was our favorite cookie until we started making oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (see farther below).
Peanut Butter Cookies
One of us loves peanut butter, the other is indifferent. So, the peanut butter lover requested peanut butter cookies. As it turns out, these are tricky to make. First, all that peanut butter has a lot of oil, which makes the cookie dough kind of crumbly. Second, it’s really hard to pack a lot of peanut butter flavor into these cookies.
We tried this recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies from Cook’s Illustrated. The cooking wizards there came up with these 2 approaches to add more peanuty flavor: 1) use a full cup of chopped roasted peanuts, 2) use a full cup of peanut butter. While we’ve had a lot of lame peanut butter cookies that missed the mark, we’re happy to report that this recipe is a keeper. That being said, we couldn’t resist tinkering a bit.
Tips to add more peanut butter flavor:
1. Fresh peanuts: the above recipe calls for 1 cup of peanuts that you chop in a food processor. We use a bit more than a cup and prefer the flavor of Planter’s dry-roasted peanuts.
2. Peanut butter: the above recipe also calls for a cup of extra-crunchy peanut butter. We use a bit more than a cup and have had more success by combining crunchy and creamy peanut butter. If you use just crunchy peanut butter, the cookie dough has too crumbly of a structure. (As a side note, the best batch we’ve made involved using what was left of 3 different kinds of crunchy peanut butter, plus some creamy peanut butter.)
3. Peanut butter chips: Thanks to a friend we met while at a food and cooking conference (and whose baking adventures we enjoy following on Instagram), we learned this trick: add Reese’s peanut butter chips to the dough. We know, it sounds crazy, but it works. We don’t add these to the dough. Instead, we grab hunk of cookie dough, press the chips into it, and then form the dough ball (or whatever your desired shape is). If you follow tips 1 and 2, you can skip this one if you’re not a fan of these peanut butter chips. You’ll still get plenty of peanut butter flavor.
Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
As the days blend into weeks during quarantine – and it’s hard to remember which day of the week it is – we don’t recall why we baked these in the first place. Perhaps we found a bag of oats in our pantry? Who knows? However, this is our favorite cookie that we’ve baked so far.
This recipe for Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies from Cook’s Illustrated is a keeper. We love the flavors in this one and the chewy texture from all the oats. And we loved this recipe even more after tinkering with it (which shouldn’t come as a surprise).
To make this cookie even more delightful, we suggest these changes:
1. Use darker chocolate: While this recipe calls for semi-sweet chocolate chips (~44% cacao), we vetoed this and instead opted for bittersweet chocolate chips, which are about 60% cocoa. The bittersweet chocolate has a more complex flavor and pairs better with the sweetness of the cookie dough. Both Guittard and Ghirardelli offer good options that you can find at the supermarket.
2. Swap out the nutmeg for other spices: We tend to add more garlic and spice to most things we cook, so it came as a surprise to us that we found the nutmeg in this overpowering (even though it contains only ¼ teaspoon). While this recipe calls for nutmeg instead of other spices like cinnamon, we decided to find a different approach. We scrapped the ¼ teaspoon nutmeg and changed this to ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice – yes, more spice but more of a better kind of spice. Pumpkin pie spice is a great combination of flavors meant for baking (including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves) and because it’s a mix, there isn’t one spice to overwhelm these beautiful cookies. Also, using a spice blend allowed us to increase the amount of spice without making the cookie taste like a scented candle or potpourri. Phew!
3. Use high-quality oats: Much of quarantine cooking or baking revolves around making the most of what’s on hand. The first time we made these, we had a bag of extra thick oats from Bob’s Red Mill, so that’s what we used. This turned out to be fortuitous, because the extra thick oats make for a wonderful chewy texture and great flavor in these cookies. We only bake these cookies with extra thick oats now.
4. Add vanilla: We added between 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of it. Even if you don’t like vanilla ice cream or vanilla-flavored desserts, trust us. The vanilla does this magic trick of enhancing all the other flavors in a good way. We learned this by watching an episode of Milk Street Kitchen where they made Tahini-Swirl Brownies and extolled the virtues of baking with vanilla. That brownie recipe is delicious, BTW!
If you freeze these cookies, don’t eat them straight out of the freezer – they are too hard and the flavors are hidden. Instead, zap one of these cookies in the microwave for 20-30 seconds and then another 20-30 seconds for a revived and delicious Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie.
However, a frozen cookie is perfect for a bike ride or hike. Simply throw one of these cookies in your bike bag or backpack, and it will defrost by the time you’re ready to eat it.
Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
We always enjoyed this style of cookie at the Volunteer Park Café. If you live in Seattle or visit Seattle, check this place out. This café is in a beautiful and historic neighborhood in Seattle that’s filled with 100-year-old houses with lovely gardens. On top of that, it’s by Volunteer Park, a fabulous park designed by the same people who designed Central Park in New York (the Olmstead brothers).
Back to the delicious cookie at Volunteer Park Café. The tart dried cherries go well with the sweet cookie dough and the bittersweet chocolate chips. For our version, we tried to add dried cranberries to the above recipe for oatmeal cookies, but the dried cranberries were too sweet. So, we did a little research and came across the tart Montmorency cherry. You can find dried Montmorency cherries at both Trader Joe’s and Costco.
To make these cookies with dried tart cherries, make the following changes to the original recipe:
Add ¾ cup dried tart cherries.
Reduce the chocolate chips to about 1.25 cups or less. (The original recipe calls for 1.5 cups.)
A NOTE ON OVENS AND BAKING KNITTY GRITTY
We always use parchment to bake cookies. It is so much easier to lift the cookies off the tray when they're on parchment. Plus, this makes for easier clean-up afterward. Instead of buying a roll of parchment, we prefer using a pack of pre-cut 11x17-inch parchment sheets. Just grab a sheet, put it on the tray, and put the cookie dough on the parchment.
We bake one tray of cookies at a time. While many recipes – including the ones we reference above – suggest baking on 2 trays and rotating them between racks half-way through, we prefer not to do this for 3 reasons:
It’s easier to pay attention to one thing and one tray of cookies at a time.
The top rack and lower rack have different temperatures. It’s harder to cook or bake when you add more variables to what you’re making.
Every time you open the oven, you let the hot air out. In other words, all the tray switching will lower your oven's temperature. (And the oven is open for twice as long when you’re futzing with 2 trays.)
We rotate the cookies half-way through the baking time. This allows them to cook evenly in case the front and back of the oven vary in temperature. And yes, as we stated above, opening the oven does suck some of the heat out of your oven; however, it’s good keep an eye on what you’re baking as opposed to solely relying on a timer.
We have a gas oven that does convection and we often use the convection setting while baking. We’ve read articles that argue that convection really doesn’t do a whole lot unless you’re cooking large cuts of meat for a long time. However, we like the idea of the air circulating around our one tray of cookies.
BACK TO QUARANTINE AND POST-QUARANTINE BAKING
Thanks for reading and happy baking. While we’ve baked much more than cookies with all this time at home, we’ll feature that in future posts. Stay tuned.
In closing, let’s take a moment to high-five ourselves for trying new things and for baking many things for the first time. While it hasn’t been perfect, we’ve learned a lot and now have a much better snack to eat during bike rides: homemade Oatmeal Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies instead of a pre-made packaged energy bar that tastes and looks like a brick.