In Search of the Perfect Cookie – Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies

Lately, I’ve been struggling with baking the perfect cookie, which in my opinion is a slightly chewy cookie that’s crispy on the edges. How could something so simple be so difficult to accomplish?

In my first attempt, I ended up with cakey cookies, probably because I tried to substitue butter with oil and applesauce and was too lazy to break out my hand mixer.  Although they tasted good, they weren’t the right texture. I then realized that my laziness and attempts at being healthy weren’t going to get me what I really wanted.

Determined to bake the perfect cookie, I searched the internet for answers. My research taught me that the creaming the butter and the sugar was an essential part of cookie baking. Through creaming, pockets of air are created in the butter, which helps the cookies rise. Also, the type of fat (i.e. butter or shortening) is critical. Butter helps the cookies spread more since it has a lower melting temperature than shortening. Another important component is the type of sugar used. Apparently, using brown sugar results in more chewy cookies while white sugar results in more crispy cookies. Brown sugar retains more moisture during baking, which yields softer cookies. Furthermore, the amount of ingredients that hold moisture (eggs, flour, and sugar) affect the crispiness of the cookies. Who knew cookies were the perfect example of how much of a science baking is?

After educating myself in the ways of cookie baking, I decided to try again. Since I was adamant on baking the perfect cookie, I didn’t take any shortcuts. I used a whole stick of butter (which made me cringe a bit) and searched all over the kitchen for my misplaced hand mixer. I wasn’t going to let laziness be my downfall again. I carefully followed the recipe, making sure to cream the butter and sugar to the right consistency. I had diligently followed the recipe’s instructions to a T, until I realized there were no chocolate chips in the house! After fighting with myself on whether or not running to the nearest Safeway was worth it, I decided to make do with white chocolate chips I saw laying in the cabinet. After a bit more searching, I found macadamia nuts and voila, I had macgyver-ed my way out of a sticky situation… literally. So, after deciding to make white chocolate macadamia cookies instead, I finished making the batter and spooned out a sh*t load of cookies. Now came the hard part. Baking the cookies fully without burning them. For some reason, this is the part that always seems to trip me up whenever I bake. Ovens can be finicky and if you don’t watch them, they can ruin all of your hard work in a minute. The first batch turned out just fine, browned but not too much. Thinking I had gotten the hang of it, I mistakenly left the second batch in a little too long. Although they didn’t get burnt, they did brown a lot, so much that they looked like gingersnaps instead of white chocolate cookies. Despite their color, they tasted delicious. Much crispier than the first batch, which were chewier on the inside but still crunchy on the edges.

And with those cookies, I had finally accomplished baking the perfect cookie. However, I was still not completely satisfied. A few weeks ago, I came across a recipe for chocolate chip cookies using coconut oil. After finally buying a jar of coconut oil from Trader Joe’s, I knew I had to try to bake those cookies.

Again, I followed the recipe diligently (which is usually uncommon for me). Since I didn’t have any coconut extract, I left it out. And still wanting to be healthy, I reduced the sugar to only 1 cup and used white whole wheat flour instead. After learning my lesson from those brown, but not burnt cookies, I watched the oven carefully and took the cookies out once they were slightly brown (figuring they would brown some more once out of the oven due to heat conduction). These cookies weren’t nearly as chewy and didn’t spread as much, perhaps due to the coconut oil. They were still crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The cookies had a slight coconut taste, but not too strong.

On my quest to bake the perfect cookie, I realized that cookies really aren’t as simple as I thought. Often I ignore cookies, having eaten so many in my life so far and being able to make them as a kid. However, cookies are just as difficult to perfect as any of those fancy French pastries or desserts. Along with my new appreciation for the cookie, I realized that you can’t use shortcuts to get what you really want and that failure is almost always inevitable, but it’s also what makes success as sweet as the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

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Bunch of brunches

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Brunch has become a regular Sunday event for me and my friends. It’s one of the best ways for all of us to come together, cook and bake, and enjoy each other’s company. It’s also a great excuse for me to cook something creative. A few months ago, my friend Lin and I started looking at fun brunch recipes, from glazed avocado poptarts to savory breakfast pizza. I clicked from site to site, pinning brunch recipes for later. That weekend, I tried my hand at empanadas, which turned out beautifully as I mentioned before. Other dishes that morning included breakfast pizza topped with tomato, mushrooms, and baked eggs, a dutch baby pancake, and zucchini fritters.

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The next weekend, we hosted our first weekend for prospective grad students accepted into our department. We all used it just as another excuse to cook and bake. Lin bought 3 dozen eggs, two Costco packages of butter (aka 8 lbs of butter), two Costo sized bags of cheese, and tons of potatoes. We managed to use most of it up in cooking up stratas, frittatas, and lots of biscuits. Our classmate Jacob baked over sixty buttery biscuits that would make any Southerner proud. To contribute, I baked two loaves of quick bread using leftover beer as a leavening agent and banana muffins. Needless to say, our homemade brunch was a success and garnered many compliments. However, despite our amazing brunch, most of the students who visited that weekend didn’t end up choosing Berkeley for grad school. But I suppose they ought to be choosing a school for other reasons than amazing food.

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Two weeks ago, my friends and I spent the weekend up at Napa in my friend Rachel’s grandparents’ house. It was a beautiful weekend filled with amazing weather, delicious food, and lots of wine. And again, we cooked up another awesome brunch. On the menu were buttermilk and bacon waffles (Rachel was so excited to use her new waffle maker she just had to bring it on the trip), sourdough french toast, goat cheese and asparagus omelets, and of course, mimosas!

Thanks to my friends, brunch has become much more than just a meal for me. It’s become an event in which we all express our creativity through cooking and baking new dishes; in which we all come together as a team and family; and in which we enjoy one of life’s simplest gifts: each other. Corny, I know, but true.

Challenging myself

At times I wonder why I chose the path I did. Before starting grad school, I had this rather naive and earnest outlook, thinking my life would continue on the linear path to success and greatness. As long as I tried hard, I’d get to where I’d want to end up. That philosophy seemed to work for undergrad. However, that’s one big difference between undergrad and grad school that I’ve learned this past year: in undergrad, you know exactly what to do to succeed: study hard and do well in class; in grad school, you have no idea what you’re doing. And for me, a person who likes to know what’s expected of her, this has been one of the most difficult things to deal with. Everyday I question whether I’m doing enough or what I’m doing is right. This doubt then leads me to wonder why I chose such a path. Why am I putting myself through this, to become a better person or just to torture myself?

I do similar things when I choose baking projects. In high school, for my French class, we could get extra credit for baking a French dessert for Christmas: either buche de noel or croquembouche. I’d say up late into the night trying to perfect those desserts, only to roll up a cracked genoise or burn my sugar coating. The one thing that I’ll always remember thinking from those experiences: “Man, French desserts are hard.”

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Having learned my lesson from those near all-nighters just baking, I’ve tried to choose rather simple, straight-forward recipes to try. I often bake quick breads because of their simplicity. However, my ambition has gotten the better of me several times. One time in particular, I stayed up till 2am making empanadas. But I should mention that I did start at 11pm. The recipe wasn’t that difficult; it was just time consuming. I’m sure if more than one person was doing it, the process would have gone much faster.

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But in the end, it was all worth it. Once I had finished baking, I took the piping hot empanadas to my friend’s house for brunch and they were a hit! The crusts of the empanadas were flaky, buttery, and golden. The spicy sweet potato and black bean filling had a depth of flavor. Everyone praised the empanadas, and even my friend’s boyfriend, who is quite the foodie chef, complimented my beautiful crust. Right then, I realized that all of that work was worth it. All of my efforts and hard work that night had made people happy and that reward was so satisfying to me.

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And perhaps that’s why I’m putting myself through all of this work in grad school – to gain the skills and knowledge so that I can help the world and make a difference. The ability to create new knowledge and spread it throughout the scientific community actually excites and motivates me. And the satisfaction I’ll obtain in the end will make all of that hard work and suffering worth it.

Bitten by the Baking Bug

Recently I’ve been “baking up a storm” as one of my housemate says when she sees me in the kitchen, once again baking. For some reason, lately I have the urge to bake almost everyday. It’s a good way to relax and take your mind off things, not to mention it’s also an awesome way to procrastinate doing homework.

I have my classmates to thank for motivating me to cook and bake more. Being in a class of people who all love to cook and bake as well as throw dinner parties and potlucks has given me countless opportunities to cook and bake. Being in Berkeley, with its amazing grocery stores (Berkeley Bowl), has also made me enjoy cooking more.

I’ve always been a follower of several food blogs and know the blogosphere quite well. Some of my favorites are “use real butter” and “smitten kitchen.” But I’ve never really had the urge to blog and document my own cooking and baking accomplishments until now. So, here are some of the things I’ve whipped up and baked in my kitchen for the past four months. Hope you enjoy!