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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sweet Secrets

I like to bake cookies. More specifically, I usually bake cookie bars. One day years ago, I wanted to make cookies but didn't want to stand around forever taking pans out of the oven and putting more pans back in. So, in my laziness, I decided to bake them in a cake pan. Everyone loved them that way, so I just kept on doing it. Luckily for me (she says in a slightly sarcastic tone) there are a few people out there who like to eat cookies. Let me tease you, cookie eaters, by naming just a few of my flavors. Mint chocolate chip. Oatmeal cranberry spice. Toffee chip. Oatmeal chocolate chip. Oatmeal butterscotch. And the more labor-intensive peanut butter or peanut butter chocolate chip. And for those of you who live near me, I know one of your favorites is Chocolate Christmas Dream.

Cookies can be made in so many ways and so many flavors. Over the years, I have come up with many variations. I have given out recipes many times. Oh, you fortunate ones...I am about to tell you some sweet secrets, because it isn't just about the recipe. And for those men who think they may as well quit reading now, don't. You can make cookies too. Many great chefs and pastry chefs are men, after all.

Rule number one: use real butter. I don't think I have ever made cookies with margarine. I always use nice, soft butter. Unless there is a real health concern, I think that butter is necessary for good cookies. Lots of those spreads have water in them, so your cookies just won't come out the same if you use them. And, hey, you wouldn't put water in the gas tank of your car, now, would you?

Rule number two: only use real vanilla extract. If the bottle says imitation vanilla flavoring, don't buy it. There is a reason why it is cheaper than real vanilla. It just isn't as good. I was pretty disgusted when I read the label of an ice cream that sells in the local grocery stores for about six dollars for a half-gallon (for my Hungarians, this would be about 1400 HUF for 2 liters of ice cream) and saw that it was made with imitation vanilla. It made me feel better about not being able to afford to buy it. If possible, get Mexican vanilla. If someone you know is going to Mexico, ask them to bring a bottle home for you.

Rule number three: you've got to follow the recipe. Baking, whether cakes, breads, or cookies, is a science. It isn't like making a pot of soup where you can just throw things in according to what you feel like and come up with a masterpiece. Make sure you use the right amount of eggs, flour, and so forth, or you might end up with a hideous cookie-flavored gravy. Although it might taste good with ice cream...

Rule number four, the most important of them all: bake with love. I truly believe that your mood affects the outcome of whatever you create in the kitchen. I have made hundreds of batches of cookies. I know some of the recipes by heart. But even after baking so many, I have made mistakes and had to throw them out. Maybe I was distracted, or cranky, or just plain tired. And then I forgot an ingredient or measured something wrong. You are one of the ingredients of the cookies you make. If you're going to use the best butter and vanilla, why not use the best you? Your friends and family will not know what makes the cookies so delicious. They will be tasting the love you put into them.

Now, if all of these tips don't help you out, you can always do what some of my friends do. Their sweet secret is telling me they just don't know how to make cookies; can I teach them? Hey, I have your scam figured out. But if it makes you happy to ask me to show you how to make cookies for the sixth time, I'll gladly play along. And that's my sweet secret.