Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Best Recipe (so far) in Amanda Hesser's NYT Cookbook: Flat-and-Chewy Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Last month, I received a lovely gift from my dissertation advisor for finally(!) completing my manuscript: The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, meticulously compiled by Amanda Hesser, a renowned NYT food columnist. After receiving it with grateful excitement, I imagined Kathy, who is a very petite woman, schlepping down 1st Avenue towards Momofuku Noodle Bar with this monolithic, red brick (as I write this, Hesser's book competes with Bittman's How to Cook Everything for space on my cookbook shelf, both books standing proudly in their crimson jackets). 
Over our fried oyster buns and charred octopus appetizers, Kathy dished on the merits of Hesser's book. The book is no mere collection of recipes; it literally traces the evolution (and backslides - ambrosia salad. What the hell?) of the American culinary landscape, including recipes in the late 19th century (deviled crabs from an 1878 recipe, for example) submitted to the Times. As anticipated, the early recipes took a lot of guesswork, since they were about as vague as they can get. 

An example: 

Crullers (1878)

One pint sour buttermilk, nearly the same white sugar, half pint butter and lard mixed, three eggs, one teaspoonful soda, flour to make a light dough; warm ingredients. 

Um... how much butter? How much lard? How much flour? Dump them all together? You can imagine the kind of work that went into testing out these older recipes. This kind of recipe writing isn't totally extinct; whenever I call my grandmother to ask for the exact measurements in her pancit recipe, which, by the way, is very complicated, she becomes annoyed with me, expecting me to know! 

Hesser's book is a delightful read, but not all the recipes included were good. Asparagus alla Fontina was good, although too salty with the amount of prosciutto the recipe calls for. The Corn Chowder was okay, but not memorable. One recipe called for a strange combination of ingredients for a vinaigrette, which did not win too many diners over. The Florentine cookies were a hit at a party, but they need to be kept cool since they melt as soon as they are exposed to heat or humidity. 

My absolute favorite recipe is Hesser's flat-and-chewy chocolate-chip cookies. I have an undeniably sweet tooth, and this salty, buttery, chewy cookie gratifies my sugar cravings. This is also a winner with David, in sharp contrast to Jonathan's absolute indifference. Easy to understand, when sometimes it feels like this finicky toddler subsists on oxygen and crackers. 

I will share the recipe here, but I've made some slight changes after testing it a handful of times. 

Flat-and-Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 30 cookies

My attempt at plating. I'm a minimalist.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons of baking soda
1 tablespoon kosher salt 
       not Morton! I use Japanese sea salt, which holds more moisture and adds texture
8 ounces unsalted butter, softened 
       back when I was young and stupid, I didn't think using salted or unsalted butter made a difference. Boy, was I wrong! 
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups chopped bittersweet chocolate (chunks and shavings) 
       I don't use baking chocolate; I process chocolate candy bars in the food processor for uneven "chips" and "dust"
2 cups chopped toasted walnuts (optional)
       I hate nuts in my cookies, so I've never done this.
1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

2. Cream the butter and sugars together until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Add the flour mixture all at once and blend until a dough forms. Fold in the chocolate and nuts, if using. Chill the dough. She suggests overnight, but leaving it in the fridge for at least 3 hours did the trick for me.

3. While the dough chills, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Roll 1 teaspoon* lumps of dough into balls, then place on baking sheet and flatten to 1/2-inch-thick discs spaced 2 inches apart. You must keep the dough in the fridge between batches, otherwise you'll end up with sticky palms and shapeless, stubborn lumps of cookie dough. Bake until the edges are golden brown, 11 to 13 minutes.** Let cool slightly on the baking sheet, then transfer to a baking rack.

*her original recipe says 2 1/2 tablespoon lumps of dough, which spread out too far, resulting in conjoined cookies. Reducing the lumps to teaspoonfuls makes pretty little discs. 
**originally 14-16. My oven does the trick in 11 minutes.