December 3, 2010

Cookies Easy As 1-2-3

The holiday season is in full swing, there's snow on the ground here in East Tennessee, the wind is howling like a banshee, and it's below freezing. It must be time for cookies!

If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you'll know that a preferred reference is Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. He devotes an entire chapter to 1-2-3 Cookie Dough:  1 part sugar + 2 parts fat + 3 parts flour = excellent cookie. I decided to make three different cookies by varying the 1-2-3 Cookie Dough by adding flavors and making flour and sugar substitutions. I made small batches, based on a stick of butter (4 ounces), that yielded about a dozen cookies each. Want more? Use the ratio, Luke.

Let's talk about butter for a moment. The primary flavor of these cookies is butter, so don't use anything less than the best you can get. Ruhlman suggests that salted butter is okay, but I disagree for two reasons. First, if you use salted butter you have no control over the amount of sodium in your cookies. Each manufacturer of butter uses a different quantity of salt in their butter, and some vary seasonally. Secondly, salt is a preservative. Manufacturers add salt to butter not to improve flavor, but to extend shelf life. Unsalted butter doesn't last long, typically three months, so what you buy is reasonably fresh. But salted butter? It can be several months before it leaves the factory.

Another important success factor when making cookies is cold. Chill your cookie sheet before and after filling it. Chill your cookie dough before and after rolling or cutting it. Ideally the dough will go from refrigerator or freezer to hot oven directly.

Alright, now for the recipes.

Vanilla Cookies
2 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter
6 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon Tahitian vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla paste
pinch Fleur de Sel

Cream the butter and sugar, add the salt and flavorings, then add the flour. No mysteries here, just basic cookie making. Don't have Fleur de Se;? Use kosher salt. Only have Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract? Fine. However....

Water content of butter varies, as does the water content of flour and the ambient humidity. You might find, for example, that that simple ratio produces a sandy mix rather than a dough. Don't panic. Just add up to a tablespoon of cold water as you mix and the dough will come together. Dough seems a bit sticky instead of too dry? Add pinches of flour until the dough is right.

If you're going to make round cookies, form the dough into a nice log. If you're going to roll out the dough to cut or otherwise shape cookies, make a disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator. You can leave it there up to 3 days if you want, or throw it in the freezer for up to a month. When you're ready to bake, proceed, thawing first if necessary.

Bake in a 350° oven until done. On my baking day flattish cookies took 15 minutes and ball-like cookies took 20 minutes. If you like them softer, use less time. Harder cookies take more time. Adjust for altitude. Safe baking means check them at 10 minutes and use your best judgement from there. These cookies have no eggs so they can be eaten and enjoyed safely raw, so don't worry about it.

Chocolate Cookies
2 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter
5½ ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
½ ounce Dutch process cocoa powder
½ teaspoon Mexican vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
pinch Fleur de Sel

Cream, mix, blah blah blah. You get the point.

What's with all those vanillas? Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is the standard flavor and aroma we're all accustomed to. Tahitian vanilla is much more floral and fragile, so I use it in vanilla things for the bouquet. Mexican vanilla is a stronger, spicier flavor that holds up well when use in combination with other flavors. Use what you have. I freely admit that I'm a food geek. Don't get me started on salt.

If you want to impress the neighbors with your mad cookie skills or simply have some cookie geek fun, roll out both vanilla and chocolate doughs, lay one on top of the other and press lightly, then cut strips of the same width and stack them. Turn the stacked dough sideways and cut into squares or rectangles. You'll probably need to press the doughs together to make a tight seal. If you do it right, you end up with cookies like those at the top. If you do it well, you'll end up with cookies that look better than those.

Pecan Cookies
1 ounce granulated sugar
1 ounce dark brown sugar
4 ounces butter
1 ounce toasted pecans, finely ground
5 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
pinch Fleur de Sel

I formed these into balls and baked them for 20 minutes. I made the mistake of not weighing the pecans until after I'd toasted and ground them, so I had ground toasted pecans left over. I rolled the balls in the leftover pecans before baking. It was a good mistake.

See how easy it is to change the cookie flavor? Mix different sugars or flours, alter the fat if you wish, add some flavorings, and you have the cookie you want without buying another cookie book from Martha.

Wait, what to do with all those mixed up vanilla and chocolate scraps? Casually make a log, wrap, chill, cut, and bake.

Next: cordials.


  1. I am currently reading Ratio and just read the cookie section yesterday. I really really like the look of your vanilla/chocolate scrap cookies...they look like cool Mayan cave symbols or something (even though the Mayans didn't live in caves, you know what I mean). Awesome!

  2. Hate to admit it after all my effort on the other cookies but I think the scrap cookies looked the best.

  3. This is good information Gareth. I'm not much of a baker but have never thought about a cookie being as simple as a 1,2,3 formula. I'm hoping to have time to bake this weekend. I'll be referring back.