Are you a cook or a baker? There seems to be a never-ending debate on this culinary dichotomy.
For me, I relish the accuracy and science of baking, where measurements, technique, and thoroughness are so important. Part of the appeal to me is the exactness, while the other draw is my sweet tooth (or a mouth full of sweet teeth – I think I have way more than just one). Of course, there can be room for deviation and creation; however, this is within the limits of the chemical reactions of wet, dry, leaveners, etc. There is the possibility of adapting recipes with different extracts, spices, nuts (or not), and/or chips of varying chocolate-ness (or not, like butterscotch or peanut butter or that imposter, white chocolate). However, a framework of a recipe is necessary.
Cooking v. baking and the recipe for chewy brown sugar beurre-noisette cookies
On the other hand, I do like to cook and throw things together. What could be more fun than combining vegetables and various other ingredients for a stir fry or a new sauce? This free-wheeling creativity of cooking can be daunting for the precision-obsessed bakers – just like the exactitude of baking and strict technique can be intimidating for those who like to cook.
Whether in print, online, or on television, America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) and Cook’s Illustrated are synonymous, in my opinion, with rigour in both cooking and baking. Their experimentation, thoroughness, and scientific approach to testing variations, techniques and ingredients ensure fail-safe recipes. Often they are classics, e.g., how to grill shrimp to perfection – the precise times and temperatures are strictly delineated. Their chewy chocolate chip cookie, which is the best I have ever made in this category (and I have an entire book, The Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie, from the 1980s, which did not yield one recipe as stellar as ATK’s).
One nice surprise from ATK, however, is the occasional smash hit of a new recipe. I was intrigued by the Soft and Chewy Brown Sugar Cookie they had featured on PBS a few years ago. This has become a favourite of mine and many friends, as the cookie has a supple chewiness, with a slightly crisp edge, but the depth of flavour is both old-fashioned yet contemporary with the dark brown sugar and beurre noisette or brown butter, if you prefer to de-Frenchify cooking techniques. In this recipe, a first on my blog, I have not modified any of the ingredients, given how memorable the recipe was the first time (though I have thought about dipping them in dark chocolate – just half-way, no need to be gluttonous, now, is there?).
So for a casual Friday night dinner over at our friends, A and J, I wanted to bring a not-too-fancy but spectacular dessert. This certainly fills the bill.
Soft and Chewy Brown Sugar-Beurre Noisette Cookies (from America’s Test Kitchen)
14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks) or seven ounces
1/4 cup granulated sugar (about 1 3/4 ounces)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar (14 ounces)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons (about 10 1/2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Heat 10 tablespoons butter (five ounces) in six-inch sauce pan over
medium-high heat until melted, about two minutes. Continue to cook,
swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has
nutty aroma, two to four minutes. Remove skillet from heat and transfer
browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining four tablespoons
butter into hot butter to melt; set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven
to 350 degrees. Line two large (18 by 12-inch) baking sheets with
parchment paper or non-stick mat (e.g., Silpat). In a bowl, shallow baking dish, or pie plate, mix granulated sugar and 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, rubbing between fingers, until well combined; set aside. Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder together in medium bowl; set aside.
3. Add remaining 1 3/4 cups brown sugar and salt to bowl with
cooled butter; mix until no sugar lumps remain, about 30 seconds.
Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula; add egg, yolk, and
vanilla and mix until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape
down bowl. Add flour mixture and mix until just combined, about one
minute. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no
flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed.
4. Divide dough into 24 portions, each about 2 tablespoons,
rolling between hands into balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Better yet, use a 1 ½ tablespoon ice cream scoop to creat balls of dough.
Working in batches, toss balls in reserved sugar mixture to coat and
set on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about two inches apart, 12
dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but it will
take 3 batches.)
5. Bake one sheet at a time until cookies are browned and still
puffy and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies
will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), 12
to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Do not
overbake – OR ELSE.
6. Cool cookies on baking sheet 5 minutes; using wide spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature.
Technique and Tips
1. Avoid using a nonstick skillet to brown the butter. The dark color of the nonstick coating makes it difficult to gauge when the butter is sufficiently browned.
2. Use fresh brown sugar, as older (that is, the solid as a rock clumpy stuff) brown sugar will make the cookies too dry.
3. Checking Doneness
Achieving the proper texture—crisp at the edges and chewy in the middle—is critical to this recipe. Because the cookies are so dark, it’s hard to judge doneness by color. Instead, gently press halfway between the edge and center of the cookie. When it’s done, it will form an indent with slight resistance. Check early and err on the side of underdone. Really, it is better to be half-baked than over-baked, in this case.