There seems to be many recipes for cookies here on e2, and there is a good reason for that: everyone likes cookies, and the variations on them are endless. I too enjoy cookies, but being what I am, I never use a recipe when making cookies. I don't even use measuring cups. The truth is, if you are paying attention, cookies are pretty hard to mess up, although making truly great cookies takes a bit of art and science. My cookies seem to be well received at Horace Phair, being one of my great traditions there. (The other tradition is for me to accuse everyone of being "bourgeois nihilists" and to stomp and flounce home).
Now, speaking of me stomping and flouncing, I always will stand up for one of my chosen doctrines, constructionism, when allowed to do so. I think that instead of using recipes, people should understand and piece the concepts behind great cookie baking so that they can improvise based on their nativized ability. Below is a list of the basic concepts of cookie making, that allows you to stretch and bend the path of baking, without coming to a disaster:
- Sugar vs. flour: This comes down to a conceptual question about what the cookie is for. Are cookies sugary, buttery confections that melt in the mouth? Or are cookies for the stomach, being thick and full of fiber, closer to being a roll than a candy? My own sympathies are towards the second position, but of course it should not be overdone, and the first is acceptable as well. It is, literally and figuratively, a matter of taste. Adding more flour to your cookies, or adding other nutritious, thickening ingredients like peanut butter, almond butter or oatmeal changes the role of the cookie in someone's eating experience. It also, needless to say, changes the baking process. As cookies get too lumpy and thick, they will not bake evenly. But unless you go to extremes with this, this is an easy enough continuum to figure out. It also brings us to our second point:
- Wet vs. dry ingredients. This is where having a recipe can be helpful, because adding ingredients on the fly can disrupt the overall consistency of the cookie dough as it goes to be baked. I start with a wet mix of egg, brown sugar and margarine and then add other wet ingredients, and then add the dry ingredients. If too many wet ingredients are added, it may be hard for the dough to stick together. I have added many things to the wet ingredients: honey, wine, tea, vanilla yogurt and in most cases, it is easy enough to counteract the surplus fluidity with another handful of flour. Again, those who are truly reckless can inject too much liquidity that any amount of flour can not hold it together, but this is still easily enough avoided. There is also a question of whether it is better to melt the butter, to mix it with a blender or just to mix it by hand. The first option gives a different consistency to the finished cookie, but is not something that is, as they say, a deal breaker. The overall consistency of the cookie dough leads us into:
- Time and temperature. Cookies usually cook best from 325 to 375 F, and should be taken out of the oven at the earliest point that they can hold together. Most people appreciate a cookie that is soft and moist when eaten, and since cookies tend to dry and harden after being taken out of the oven, they should be taken out as early as possible. On the other hand, some people like a bit crisper of a cookie, and the just-slightly burnt bottoms are to many people a sign of an authentic cookie. So this is also a matter of taste, and even if you were to decide totally on what your ideal cookie looks like, it is not easy to hit just the right moment. I think the window for removing cookies from the oven may be as short as 30 seconds to 1 minute. Of course, even if you don't hit the perfect instant, a good cookie will be a good cookie. I do think that time and temperature is the hardest part of cookie making to hit.
- How crazy do I get? Cinnamon, check. Nutmeg, check. Cayenne Pepper...no. Once you have the basic structure of the cookie established, it is time to think about ways to spice them up. Some spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, are obvious enough. Others, like almond or lemon, are a bit more exotic. And some things just shouldn't be done. I have never attempted to put a savory spice into my cookie dough. I am sure that somewhere their lies a great recipe for celery seed and garlic cookie dough, but I personally wouldn't attempt it. Especially since there are so many other fruity, sweet flavors to experiment with. Also, be aware that some tastes trump others. Nutmeg and vanilla are both strong tastes. But put a single drop of peppermint extract into your dough, and that will probably be all anyone tastes. Also, you may not want to add any ingredients to your cookie dough that could leave your friends in the hospital.
This is, I believe, the basic dynamics of making cookies. With these simple parameters, a four-dimensional model of cookie complexity can be built and experimented with at your ease. Good luck, and remember to share