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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fresh From the Oven

(Originally published in The News Review on September 1, 2015)

Recipes links: My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies, Cranberry-Walnut Oatmeal Cookies, and Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies


Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon...” Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten.

I've baked thousands of cookies in my lifetime. You could call me a cookie-baking fanatic. I haven't yet reached Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour threshold to master the craft, but I practice passionately. When cookies are requested, I'm the first to volunteer. For scouting events, class parties, school lunches, church activities, board meetings, potlucks, picnics, funerals, weddings or daylong hikes, if cookies are called for, I'm your gal.

I bake cookies when I'm happy. I bake cookies when I'm sad. I bake cookies when I'm stressed (and then stress about how many cookies I ate). I bake cookies when I'm procrastinating and when I'm nervous. As I type this, I'm anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandchild, who is past her due date...and I'm baking cookies.

Cookies are always best while they're still warm. With a well-stocked pantry, I can have a dozen cookies in the oven in five minutes flat. I rarely bake the whole batch at once. I scoop the dough onto wax paper-lined cookie sheets, freeze until firm and then store in plastic bags. 

A fresh plate of cookies is always a welcome gift, but that's not the only gift-giving option. For Father's Day and his birthday, I keep my dad supplied with a variety of frozen cookie dough balls so he can bake them himself whenever the craving strikes.

My daughters are old enough to remember my brief foray into “healthy” cookies, made with prune purée and applesauce to replace the fat. It was the early nineties and butter was the enemy. I quickly decided that “real” homemade cookies are one of life's simple pleasures, an indulgence I'm not willing to give up.

Tips for baking the very best cookies

I use unsalted butter in my cookies. Many butter manufacturers add flavoring to unsalted butter to mimic that of cultured cream. If that bothers you, two brands made without added flavoring and available in local stores are Kerrygold and Rumiano. Kerrygold is imported from Ireland and rather expensive. Rumiano butter is made in Crescent City, California and costs about the same as other national brands.

Use good quality chocolate chips. I'm a compulsive label-reader. If vanillin (synthetic vanilla), or “natural flavors” is listed in the ingredients, I put them back on the shelf. I like Ghirardelli and Guittard chocolate chips.

I always bake cookies on unbleached parchment paper. Each sheet can be used many times; just wipe it off with a paper towel, if needed, and store it on the cookie sheet between uses.

Frozen cookie dough balls take a bit longer to bake but there is no need to defrost them first. I bake dough balls at 350 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes in a standard oven or 10 minutes using the convection setting.



Cranberry-Walnut Oatmeal Cookies
This is my favorite cookie to take along on hikes. The combination of dried fruit, nuts, oats and sugar(!) gets me up those hills. I always bring plenty to share.

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.** Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

With an electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugars and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and blend well. 
 
In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and sea salt. Add to the creamed butter and mix just until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated. Stir in the oats, walnuts and cranberries.

Drop by tablespoons or a small cookie scoop onto parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 1 minute on cookie sheet then transfer to a wire rack.
 
*You can make a whole grain cookie by using whole wheat pastry flour in place of the all-purpose flour.

**If you have a convection oven, preheat it to 325 degrees and bake cookies for 9 minutes.
Makes about 5 dozen cookies.


Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies
(with or without chocolate chips)

This is adapted from my mother-in-law's recipe. Rosemary was the first person I met who used whole wheat flour in her baking and peanut butter that had to be stirred.

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
1 cup natural peanut butter, creamy or chunky
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups (1 pkg.) semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.*  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add the eggs and peanut butter and mix until well-combined.  In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add to peanut butter mixture just until all the dry ingredients are fully incorporated.  Stir in chocolate chips, if using.

Drop by tablespoons or a small cookie scoop onto parchment-lined cookie sheet. (No need to criss cross with a fork.) Bake at 375 for 9 to 11 minutes, just until center is puffed and beginning to set**. Remove from oven and let cool on the pan for one minute before transferring to a wire rack. 

*If you have a convection oven, preheat it to 350 degrees and bake for 8 minutes.

**This makes chewy cookies.  If you want them crispy, increase baking time by one to two minutes.

My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

A cookie-loving friend once shared a recipe that was said to be for Mrs. Fields® famous chocolate chip cookies. I was never able to find it in any Mrs. Fields® cookbook, but I've adapted the recipe over the years to make what I consider perfect chocolate chip cookies, soft and chewy with crispy edges. This makes a huge batch of dough and the recipe is not easily halved, as it calls for three eggs. Bake a dozen or two cookies and freeze the remaining balls of dough for the weeks to come.

3 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated white sugar
1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 pkg. (10 oz.) Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Chocolate Chips
1 pkg. (11.5 oz.) Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Chips
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.* Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a heavy-duty stand mixer, cream together the sugars, softened butter and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix well to combine.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add to the creamed butter and mix just until all of the flour is incorporated and there are no dry spots. Add the chocolate chips and nuts (if using) and mix briefly to distribute.

Drop by tablespoons or a small cookie scoop two inches apart onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges begin to brown. Remove pan from oven and allow cookies to cool for one minute, then transfer to a wire rack.

Makes 10 to 12 dozen cookies, depending on size and whether or not you add nuts.

*If you have a convection oven, preheat it to 350 degrees and bake cookies for 8 minutes. For frozen dough balls, increase baking time to 10 minutes.



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