Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Conundrum.

I have been baking chocolate chip cookies since I was old enough to read the back of the Nestlé Chocolate Chip package, or at least old enough to don a pair of oven mitts and gingerly pull a hot tray of cookies out of the oven. As time passed I got better at measuring ingredients, beating butter with sugar until light and fluffy, forming neat balls of dough (ok, they were irregular blobs) with two spoons. Much later I switched to dark chocolate chips; later still, I started using bars of bittersweet chocolate, hacked into little chunks by hand. I learned that this was most easily accomplished with a serrated bread knife; I learned that you wanted the butter to be warmer than fridge-cold but not room-temperature-soft, that I liked a higher proportion of brown sugar to white.

My favorite chocolate chip cookie is the one I make all the time, now, from Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe. I make it with bittersweet chocolate chunks and measure the dough with an ice-cream scoop, and they come out (if I've scooped correctly and left enough space between the mounds of dough) nearly perfectly round. They are thin and chewy, caramelized around the edges, still soft in the very center. I bake them often, or sometimes just make a batch of dough to divide up and freeze, so I can have a few warm, freshly baked cookies whenever I want. They don't often last long. I am always seeing new recipes to try, recipes that call for browned butter or disks of chocolate or chilling the dough for 24 hours in the fridge, recipes that promise the perfect ratio of crisp-chewy-soft. Somehow I always come back to the same one, though, my thin, chewy golden cookie.

Then I have friends who spend days, weeks, perfecting their own recipes. They play with the balance of sugars, of leavenings, of flours. Baking times and mixing methods. They take time to note every subtle change, every difference, marked in terms of two tablespoons more or less of one thing or another. L. brings us two examples, one that resembles the kind I make myself, all crisp-chewiness and caramelized sugar, and one that is more perfect-looking, thicker and more evenly baked, round and smooth, the magazine-cover cookie. I prefer the other one. "But it's ugly!" my friend wails. "I don't care!" I yelp back. Ah, this is the crux of the matter. Ugly is good. Ugly says handmade, with love. It is childhood, small hands scooping dough with a pair of teaspoons, dropping bits on the floor and on the counter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rachel Dinner.

R. has a list of food she hates - beef tendon, pâté, tongue, and stinky cheese of any kind. Her friends decided to throw a dinner in her honor, with all those items on the menu. Isn't it wonderful to be loved? A menu evolved - red-braised Taiwanese beef noodle soup with soft tendon, beef-tongue tacos, and a blue-cheese cheesecake. There was fresh guacamole and sesame scallion bread, to provide backup in case R. couldn't actually manage to eat any of the food we had so lovingly prepared. I brought a frozen peanut-butter-and-bacon pie, because another friend, L., hates peanut butter the way vampires hate the sun. (The Bela Lugosi kind of vampire, not the Edward Cullen kind, although R. does sparkle, with her love of glittery things).

The party slowly pulls itself together as people arrive bearing food. R. clutches a box of Cheez-Its - her contribution, along with several bottles of wine - and perches nervously on a stool. L. arrives and unwraps two kinds of pâté and a beautifully packed cheese that has a piercing smell not unlike ammonia. I should probably admit that I grew up with a healthy fear of smelly cheese, with a deep loathing for blue cheese in particular. It was not until recently that I managed to appreciate, or perhaps I should say gained the ability to choke down, anything stronger than the semi-soft Port-Salut that my father always bought to eat with a hearty country loaf of bread, for breakfast, or perhaps a sharp, aged Cheddar. Even now, blue cheese is not something I leap for with anything resembling eagerness, but rather accept as something that insists on invading my frisée salad.

I try the chicken liver pâté, addictive when spread on those crunchy, golden, olive-oil slicked toasts. Then some of the coarser, more country-style pâté from the Swinery, before I venture towards the cheese (the lovely wooden container says "Le Grain d'Orge, Affiné au Calvados," whatever that means). The taste of the cheese is softer and mellower than you might expect from the biting stench, always a pleasant surprise. I have some of M.'s red-braised pig's ears, cooked slowly until soft - none of that cartilage crunch here - and almost gelatinous, sweet and delicately spiced. We eat taquitos, crisp tortilla rolls filled with beef tongue and garnished with all sorts of delicious things (neatly arranged in plastic boxes labeled with masking tape and a Sharpie; M. is either OCD or graduated from culinary school, or both).

The taquitos (christened "tongquitos" by our lovely hostess' equally lovely husband) are my favorite of the night, but then L. brings out her beef noodle soup. Red-braised, my favorite kind; it has a deeper, more complex flavor than the kind I throw together on a weekday afternoon, warm and spicy without being hot. It is like the beef noodle soup of my childhood, but better. Homemade is always better. Finally it is time for my nemesis, a blue cheese cheesecake. A cloud of pungency hangs over the cake pan, like the fog of stinky tofu in the streets of Jiu-Fen. Like the cheese we had earlier, it doesn't taste as strongly as it smells, which personally I find a fortunate occurrence.

Lastly, there is my frozen peanut-butter-and-bacon pie, rich and creamy, salty-and sweet, with the crunch of peanuts and the chewiness of caramelized bacon. I love it, but I wouldn't necessarily make it with bacon next time; it could stand alone, or perhaps with some bananas sliced in, a drizzle of chocolate on top. Next time.