Monday, September 20, 2010

There will always be cookies

The blog may have been skipped last week, but I can assure you that there were cookies - there was also a 1/2 ironman distance triathlon that got the best of me so I'll take the opportunity to blame the lack of blogging on the subsequent attempt to recover.  And if you're wondering what one must do to recover from such an event, the answer is 'nothing.'  And I mean nothing! To the point where standing, watching TV, or showering all amount to monumental tasks, and you can forget about those routine 'daily activities of living' like cooking a meal or driving a car.  But the good news is that a week out from the event seems to have me back to a semi-normal state.. and what a bargain I got:  'Only'  7+ hours of suffering during the race (when I could've taken as long as 8 1/2 hours) plus a good three days of serious recovery afterward and just think, I could've spent MONTHS properly training for it instead ... yup, quite the deal I got there! 

So about the cookies, well I'd had my eye on a plain chocolate cookie but the Martha version I found had a ridiculous amount of butter so I kept looking and found version through Cooking Light, Cocoa Fudge Cookies, that I think came out really good. The biggest problem being that they were a bit 'too' good - great chocolate flavor and a fudgy texture means that the 'light' thing kind of goes out the window after you down a half dozen of them!  But as the recipe notes, along with all of the reviewers, this was a simple cookie that was really good.  Thank goodness!  Given my physical state after the triathlon and my mental state after last week's lemon cake mix cookie fiasco I needed 'simple & good.'

I also sent along a batch of light Banana Pecan Biscotti to Gilda's club.  I thought they were tasty in a 'it kind of reminds me of banana bread' kind of way, but perhaps a bit too uh, "crunchy."  Which is my way of saying I over baked them the second time so I'm seriously hoping no one cracked a tooth!  My cop-out on that is that Biscotti not only are supposed to be hard, they also should be dunked in coffee or tea, or in this case "soaked" ... for several hours! Sorry about that ....

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cheaters Never Win!

Well sometimes they do, but eventually they caught...anyone remember Ben Johnson? Floyd Landis?  Tonya Harding? or of a different nature, Tiger Woods?  Lucky for me, I think the consequences often depend on the severity of the 'cheat' - so no public humiliation or jail time for me. My guilt is barely there, I mean, I know I said I cheated last week by letting some other guy scour the globe and determine the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. But I think I just said it for dramatic effect, since it's really no big deal - from the get go I had every intention of following the recipe of someone else rather than creating my own.  And there's probably as many 'Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes' as there are Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes - since 'the best' is matter of individual taste - so it really was just more of an 'educated guess.'

So that said, when I picked out a recipe for this weeks cookies, I REALLY felt like I was cheating. Why, you ask?  Well because it was a recipe that wasn't going to end up with a cookie 'made from scratch.'  I have to tell you that I'd been eying these cookies since January - I mean look at 'em:

Don't they look delicious?  Like a light lemon cooler - a nice size and a bright yellow only all that artificial coloring can create! And it looks great with the crackled powdered sugar - described as 'crispy on the outside with a chewy center.'  In case you haven't noticed, I'm a sucker for a good lemon cookie.  But up until now I've resisted this particular cookie -  for the sole reason that the dough is derived from a boxed cake mix! egads! say it isn't so!   If I gave into pre-packaged & processed ingredients, what would be next?  It's only a step away from packaged dry cookie mixes, and if gave into that could refrigerated slice & bake cookie dough be far behind? And once I give in to that, well I might as well just pick up a bag of Chips Ahoy! No, it just didn't seem right.

But this past week, well I was considering it.  It might save me some time in my time crunched week. It might buy me a few extra hours sleep as I futilely try to train for an endurance event. Maybe if I didn't link to the recipe, if I didn't tell anyone, they wouldn't have to know that I took a shortcut.  Or maybe, if it was delicious enough, no one would care - they'd be glad for the short cut - happy to see a NON-Martha Stewart recipe and one where you didn't have to fly to Europe for some special ingredient.  Maybe, if you're busy enough, and nice enough and it really tastes good, well maybe it's ok to cheat.  The end justifies the means and as long as everyone has a great cookie, all would be forgiven. Nice in theory, not so much in practice.

To put your mind at ease, let me say this weeks cookies were Chewy Orange Almond Cookies and  White Chocolate, Blueberry Oatmeal Cookies (both light).  But that's not what I started out with.

Well, the orange almond cookies didn't change, but the repeat of the White Chocolate, Blueberry, Oatmeal Cookies started out as a double batch of  Easy Lemon Drop Cookies made with 2 boxes of Duncan Hines Supreme Lemon Cake Mix, eggs, some fresh lemon zest & juice, and like most boxed cake mixes - vegetable oil.  I think that may have been my undoing - I had checked the date, but will confess it smelled... a little, well 'strong.'  I don't use a lot of vegetable oil - in baking or otherwise - so I didn't think much of it.  But even after the cookies baked, they just seemed 'off' - and I'm not about to make anyone sick on my cookies - unless it's just from good old fashioned gluttony - if they polish off the whole basket, well that's their fault.  To be honest, I did eat two of them and was  not the least bit sick the next day - but they definitely were NOT delicious - they weren't even close to being 'good' ... I mean I don't even think I'd serve them to my family and they usually get all of my 'mistakes' (whether they know it or not! :)

So into the trash they went, but in my wisdom, seeing a new, unopened bottle of  vegetable oil in my cupboard, I think - let's try it again.  Since I also happened to have a box of Betty Crocker Lemon Cake mix in the cupboard - I told you I've been thinking about these for awhile!  So I decided to give it another shot - thinking maybe I can use a single batch for either Ronald McDonald House or Gilda's Club.  Now this time I know all of my ingredients were fresh - but that cake mix - well it wasn't spoiled, but it was definitely BAD!  Have you smelled Pledge lately?  If I had served this batch you would've been tasting it!  The fake lemon in these made the aroma so bad no one in their right mind would want to eat one - well except the baker to taste test and i can confirm - YUCK!  I seriously had to brush my teeth to get rid of  the gross industrial lemon flavor.  Maybe the first cake mix with the second new bottle of oil would've worked, but seeing how I was mercifully all out of lemon cake mix and it was approaching midnight and I was still short about 7 dozen cookies - well, fool me once, fool me twice, but you can't fool me three times!  Eventually I learn.

It was time to regroup, go through my ingredients - which according to my nieces and their little running joke, "ingredients" is all I have in my house - no actual food just things that might some day, if one knew how to cook, become 'food.'  Well for starters - fruit and vegetables ARE food, and regarding the cookie ingredients, well they don't seem to mind so much when I leave them extras every Wednesday morning, but I digress.

So I started surveying my cupboards and flipping through my recipes - I passed on doing a second cookie with nuts, but then pulled out a bag of dried blueberries - perfect!  It may be the second time around, but a nice chewy Oatmeal Cookie, with bursts of sweetness from some Ghiradelli white chocolate chips and the unexpected intense flavor of the blueberries, and all for under a hundred calories? Definitely 'perfect' - I guess third time's a charm, but just wish it didn't have to come 3 hours after I should've been done.

I knew that cake mix thing was a bad idea ... see, it's true, cheaters never win!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Climbing the Cookie Mountain

When you say 'cookie' I'd be willing to bet that 95% of Americans think of one thing ... right?  C'mon, be honest, what popped into your head?  This - right? 
A Chocolate Chip Cookie. 
Perhaps the other 5% is split between the Oreo and some off-beat concoction they remember from their childhood, but for the majority of us, 'cookie' is synonymous with 'chocolate chip,' and there's not a lot of folks who don't preface that with 'Toll House.'  If you've had a homemade chocolate chip cookie lately, then you know why they're so popular, simply put, they're delicious.  Not only are Chocolate Chip Cookies among the greatest things ever created, but so is the unbaked dough.  I don't know a lot of people who would forgo the risk of eating raw eggs when they're conveniently wrapped up in a big gob of raw cookie dough!  Ok, some might give pause these days, given the recent egg recall, but even that isn't reason enough to deter me. Maybe, just maybe, if I lived in Iowa, but beyond that? Well,I think we all know it's well worth the risk!

So if you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that up until now I've fiercely avoided baking a Chocolate Chip Cookie - and with good reason.  It's a no win situation.  My chances of making 'the best chocolate chip cookie you've ever had' is impossible. Why do you think I've sought out the obscure?  I mean I'm sure the Marathon Cookies were by far the best cookie you all had with Great Northern Beans!  Even the Root Beer Float cookies, which tasted nothing like a root beer float, was still probably the best Root Beer Float Cookie you've all ever had, right?  So now your onto me.  I make a cookie with zucchini in it and what could you possibly compare it too?  I spend weeks perfecting French Macarons when no one has ever even heard of them before (but they have now! :) and suddenly I'm a pro.  Yup, pick the right kind of cookie and it's pretty easy to impress ... who's to know any different?

But Chocolate Chip?  If you've EVER baked a batch of Chocolate Chip Cookies, or ok, if you've ever eaten 'a batch' before they had a chance to bake, then please stand up - see? I thought so - you all can sit down now.  And I'd even venture to say that you take pride in your CCC - that you have a secret ingredient that makes it different from how your Mom or your neighbor makes them.  They're the 'snowflake' of the cookie world, all the same, but all just a little different - and everyone likes their own the best.  Considering this scenario, why would I possibly set myself up for such a fall?

Well, I knew early on that I this day would eventually come and I could only avoid it for so long.  Every week I'd find yet another 'Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie' recipe with rave reviews to add to my growing database of chocolate chip cookie recipes.  I was trying to cover all the bases, of course there was the traditional: Toll House, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury Bake Off; and the infamous: Neiman Marcus, Martha Stewart, Mrs Fields; then there's Alton Brown's The Chewy vs. The Thin vs. The Puffy and a few that are just ridiculous: Lexi's Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies (no you read that right, 1 lb of butter for 30 cookies, yikes!) and let's not forget that in a pinch one can always just go buy a 'roll' of Toll House cookie dough at the grocery store - warm out of the oven, I'd think those might even pass the test.

The thing is, I'm sure they're all delicious, and I'm sure there's another 10 great recipes for every one I've listed above and likely another 100 variations of each.  (For the record though, I'm going with the "straight chocolate chip" variety - no nuts, no fillings, no dipping, no fruit - just chips and cookie dough).  How could I possibly choose a cookie that could impress, actually scratch that, sometimes in life we have to be realistic in our expectations, so for this go round, all I really want is for it to be 'good' ...ok, 'really good.'

So how does one go about finding the best, er uh, a 'really good' chocolate chip cookie recipe? We'll I guess I could've scoured the country sampling cookies or baking test batch upon test batch of these recipes - both have an element of fun that I envy, but unfortunately I have a job and could not possibly run or workout for enough hours in the day to justify the calories that would be involved, so instead ... I cheated.  I let a writer at the NY Times, David Leite, do my homework for me and then followed his lead.  Now, I wouldn't automatically trust the conclusions drawn by a NY Times food writer, after all, when it comes to taste it is often 'too each their own' and I'd prefer to judge for myself.  But when he determined the best chocolate chip cookie recipe was from someone referred to as 'Mr Chocolate' and is the renowned French Pastry Chef and Chocolatier Jacques Torres, who's hosted cooking shows such as: "Decadent Desserts," "Chocolate," "Passion for Chocolate," and one of my favorite cooking shows ever "Dessert Circus," well, I figured he was onto something.

(anyone remember this PBS series from when he was head Pastry Chef at Le Cirque?)

(Even the Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe has a few different versions - for full disclosure:  The links to the cookie recipes represent two slightly different versions - the one in the blog is the original as presented in the NY Times, the one I used is in the recipe list from the Martha Stewart the proportions are all very similar, with the big difference being the Martha Stewart presented version used slightly more flour and did not require refrigeration - this version also made about 8 dz 3" cookies.)