Close your eyes for a second. Think about the last time you made cookies. Or cake. Or brownies. Imagine yourself assembling the ingredients – creaming the butter and sugar, sifting the flour, incorporating the vanilla and mixing in chocolate chunks. As you eat a spoonful of your magical cookie dough elixir – no doubt closing your eyes and exhaling a satisfied "mmmmmm" – you know that these cookies are going to be great. Maybe they'll even change the landscape of cookie-dom, filling your house with the irresistible aroma of melting butter, caramelizing sugar and ooey-gooey chocolate along the way.
What happens next? Your precious cookies are baking right along. All is going according to plan until you take them out of the oven. The cookies aren't the fluffy, moist, chewy morsels you've dreamed of. Instead they're tough, dry and deflated. A little bit like your spirit.
Blah...flat, dry cookies.
It's okay. We've all been there. But thankfully after this past weekend, I'll never have to go to that dark place again. How is that possible, you ask? Because I was fortunate enough to spend some time at LA's Bakelab, an art-meets-science-meets-baking haven founded by an artist, a molecular gastronomist and a pastry chef. Except in this case, they're all the same person: Kristin Feuer, Bakelab's pastry chef and owner. And thanks to Kristin's generosity, all our cookies can be fantastic from here on out. Keep reading for her enlightening tips and tricks.
Kristin working her magic inside the Bakelab
So why was I there? Celebrating National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day, of course! I accepted an invitation to celebrate a day devoted to the granddaddy of cookies with Kristin and her partner in cookie crime, Jill. Celebrate we did, tasting our way through a variety of Bakelab's "Big & Chewy" lemon, ginger molasses and peanut butter cookies, chocolate chip cookies and the bakery's latest creation, iced oatmeal cookies.
Bakelab's "Big & Chewy" sugar-coated Peanut Butter cookies (cut into quarters).
Bakelab's original Chocolate Chip cookie, cut into quarters.
Bakelab's latest creation: iced oatmeal cookies.
Kristin and her partner, Jill, are not only meant-to-be Bakerella's (the Baker's clog definitely fits), they're effusive, warm and live and breathe all things flour and sugar. Learning from previous stints at Providence and Clementine, Kristin's modern interpretations of signature desserts – from pink coconut snowballs to homemade S'mores to root beer float cupcakes – reflect her passion for modern art and baking. Her "lab" produces custom cookies, cakes, cupcakes and bars that achieve a retro feel without being cliche, featuring clean lines, simplicity and a respect for the details. Her talents as a graphic artist and photographer shine through on Bakelab's website (filled with her very own sketches), custom aprons, button-down shirts and edible, custom fondant stamps decorating cakes and cookies.
Clockwise from top left: Jill & Kristin in Bakelab's shirts & aprons; Bakelab's signature concentric ring cake design; chocolate & vanilla snowballs; Devil's food cupcake with edible fondant stamp.
But back to the cookies. Kristin's cookies are like none I've ever tasted. After loading a small plate full of samples and pouring an ice cold glass of organic low-fat milk (hey, something had to be low-fat that day!), I sank my teeth into the "Big & Chewy" Ginger Molasses cookie.
At first glance it was a pretty thick cookie, so I immediately anticipated a somewhat tough bite. I couldn't have been more wrong. It was so light, so fluffy and so moist in the center with such an intense gingery-molasses flavor, I just couldn't believe my taste buds. So I took another bite. And another. It just kept getting better.
My Bakelab "sampler" platter.
The same thing happened with each and every cookie. The other "Big & Chewy's" include Lemon Sugar and Peanut Butter. Rolled in sugar not one, but TWO times to ensure a crackly, crunchy crust, both flavors were incredible; easily the best I've ever had. Then came the Iced Oatmeal, new on Bakelab's menu for Father's Day. Age-old Mother's Oatmeal cookies have officially been shamed.
Bakelab's Father's Day Cookie Box
Before we all suffered the inevitable sugar crash and burn, Kristin took us into the kitchen to demonstrate her technique for making and baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Listen up; in Kristin's words, these are the tips that the back of the chocolate chip bag doesn't tell you. While she says "I have a deep, intimate relationship with my cookies. I know what they're doing in the oven," not all of us are that lucky. So if you want to change your cookie-baking destiny and never suffer another flat, burned or tough cookie again, these tips are for you.
Clockwise from top left: Chocolate chip, ginger molasses, oatmeal raisin and lemon sugar cookies.
1. Creaming the Butter and Sugar: Don't cream them any longer than about 1 1/2 minutes (even though the chocolate chip bags tell you to cream for 3 minutes). Too much air from over-creaming equals a flat cookie. Kristin looks for when it starts to get smooth and creamed.
2. Incorporating Vanilla and Eggs: Add the vanilla before the eggs. The snottiness (I know, gross but true) of the eggs sticks to everything and prevents the vanilla from adhering to the butter and cream. Fat needs flavor, but if you add the eggs first, the vanilla flavor won't properly incorporate into the butter (aka fat).
3. Beating the Dough: Beat the dough for a quick "one, two" count just beyond the point where the flour is incorporated. You'll make a little more gluten (aka structure) that results in plumper cookies.
4. Aging the Dough: Just as bread dough develops flavor as it rises, chilling the dough overnight allows subtle nutty and toffee characteristics to develop. You can pre-portion the dough in scoops, freeze them and store them in a Ziploc freezer bag or Tupperware container for a few months.
5. Baking the Dough: Baking the dough when it's frozen allows the protein in the flour to set up before the fat melts out, yielding a very plump cookie. In other words, it's basically a race to the finish between the flour and the butter. The butter wants to melt and flatten out the cookie, while the flour wants to set up the cookie's structural integrity. When dough is baked at room temperature, the butter wins and flattens out the cookies. The flour doesn't have a chance. When baked from frozen, the butter and flour work in harmony.
6. Removing the Cookies: Pull the cookies from the oven when there is still a pale circle of dough in the center of the cookie. It will keep cooking on the sheet pan even when out of the oven, so you'll get a nice caramelized edge and wonderfully soft center.