I started baking at six, the same age I first climbed onto a horse. I was too short to mount a tall gelding unaided, and in the kitchen, I didn’t realize that what I wanted to make first – cookies – were among the most challenging of any sweet.
But at my first gymkhana, when I pitched out of the saddle as we went over the little jumps in the scurry competition, someone picked me up, brushed me off and put me back in the saddle. And when I first picked up a mixing bowl and wooden spoon, my mom was there to interpret the cookie recipe’s instructions. But addressing failed cookies has taken baking many batches and reading extensively about ingredients, and how they work.
At their simplest, cookies are composed of fat, flour and sugar. They require the best ingredients: simplicity magnifies the good and not-so-good, and when a cookie fails, there is nowhere to look beyond the makings and the means. Understanding those truths undermines the old platitude that bakers are born, not made.
Butter is bakers’ most popular fat because, like chocolate, its melting point is close to body temperature, creating lush mouth-feel. Added benefit: it tastes good. Home-rendered lard is utterly devoid of water content, as is shortening. Butter, on the other hand, contains about 20 percent water, and some margarines are more than 50 percent water: in the oven, water converts into steam, so cookies made with fat high in water (or with more than a spoonful of added milk or liquid) will be soft and puffy-cheeked.
How fat melts influences a cookie’s profile: butter goes from rock-hard to puddle in minutes, so butter-based cookies flatten in the oven. Some bakers blend butter and vegetable shortening so that cookies hold their shape without losing butter’s great taste.
Sugar is bipolar, contributing tenderness and crispness while colouring the cookie. The type is crucial: glucose, in corn syrup, colours more than sugar does, and forms a crustier cookie. White sugar’s sucrose, low in moisture, reverts to crystals, making a crispy cookie. Honey, high in fructose, which absorbs moisture from the atmosphere, makes cookies that soften after baking, as does brown sugar.
High-protein Canadian all-purpose flour makes dry, crispy cookies that hold their shape, but are flatter and darker in colour than cookies made with softer flours, such as cake and pastry flour, which are noticeably lower in gluten. Gluten-free flours are grist for another day’s mill.
So the next story will be about cooking by the book, but first let’s eat some cookies with your mutton buster.
Candied Lemon and Rosemary Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Michele Genest’s recipe in The Boreal Feast (Lost Moose/Harbour, 2014). These are very good keepers, and their flavour improves as they mature. Makes about 50 cookies
candied lemon peel:
water to cover
½ c. sugar
1 cup butter [at room temp]
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ – 2 ¾ cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. minced fresh rosemary
sugar for sprinkling
Set the oven at 375 F. Line several baking sheets with parchment. Use a sharp knife to remove the lemons’ zest [yellow peel] and pith [white]. Trim and discard the pith. Slice the zest into strips. Place in a small pan and cover with water, bring to a boil, drain and repeat twice. The third time, add the sugar and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Simmer until the lemon is tender, adding water as needed when the syrup gets thick. Remove the peel and cool, then chop finely. Reserve the lemon syrup for use in beverages or cooking.
Beat the butter at high speed, scrape down the bowl, then beat in the sugar. Add the egg and vanilla. Mix in the flour, baking soda and baking powder, rosemary and lemon zest. Form dough into 1” balls. Space on baking sheets and gently flatten with the palm of your hand. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until golden. Cool on the tray. Store in a tin lined with wax paper at room temperature.