Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Cookie Legacy

My mom is a chemist.  When I was young, this caused me some consternation.  I didn't think of myself as math or science minded, and I wanted to make her proud.  I didn't excel at numbers, Erlenmeyer flasks and graduated cylinders bored me, and my grades came with effort and not ease like in the language arts.  After high school, I dismissed science with a wave of my hand and set off to study music.  I chose a program that didn't have room for any science classes.  I knew my place in the universe, and it was in the arts.

Thankfully, with time comes perspective.  I understand now that an artist can't avoid the sciences any more than a scientist can avoid the arts.  And I also understand why my mom, and probably most of us, love chemistry.

Stress baking is nothing new.  Debbie Perelman of Smitten Kitchen wrote a piece for Martha Stewart Living in which she talked about dealing with the anticipation of childbirth by making brownies for the labor and delivery nurses.  In the movie Julie & Julia, Julie Powell is making a chocolate pie and says, "I love that after a day when nothing is sure . . . you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick.  That's such a comfort."

There is comfort in absolutes, and there are absolutes in chemistry.  I can't control how people act towards me.  But I can control the ratio of flour, sugar and butter in oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  I know that the lemon in a lemon meringue pie naturally fights with the bonding agent and has to be proportioned correctly.   And knowing that the temperature of the butter affects the quality of pie crust and biscuits makes me feel just a little bit more in settled.

I used to be an absolute dunce when it came to making cookies.  I didn't like to eat them and I didn't like to bake them.  I had no idea what I was doing, but now I do. Did you know that refrigerating the dough for 36 hours causes the oils in the butter to break down and absorb more of the salt and sugar?  It's chemistry.

Thursday, I had a bad experience at work.  It was exacerbated by the soup I had spilled down my front at lunch.  As I spent the afternoon giving my side of the story, I was always conscious of the streaks of crusty soup on my clothes.  So when I went home, I pulled out the mixer, the unsalted butter, and the chocolate chips and made oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies.

A calm settles over me when I'm baking.  I am reassured by the predictability.  And I feel close to my mom seven hundred miles away.  Because in the sifting of flour and leavening and the creaming of cold butter and sugars, I know I understand her better than I did fifteen years ago when I was so anxious to make her proud.  I better understand the wonder that chemistry has for her, and I'm grateful to share that wonder with her in the kitchen.  It is in these little things - not my bachelor's in music - that I begin to really know my place in the universe.

The recipe comes from here, and I saw it first here.  Here's the recipe as I made it:

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of unsalted butter
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (Original recipe calls for 2 teaspoons, but I'm using some seriously strong vanilla these days.  Thanks, Charise!)
2 3/4 cups of rolled oats
2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips

If you're going to bake the cookies immediately - preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream the butter and sugars until smooth.  Add vanilla and mix to blend.  Add eggs one and a time, mixing at medium speed until thoroughly combined.  In a small bowl, combine the first four ingredients (all the dry ingredients except the oats and chocolate chips).  Slowly add to mixer and beat until just combined.  Add rolled oats and chocolate chips and mix with a spatula until combined.  

Refrigerate at least one hour and up to 48 hours.  (Obviously, you can skip this).

Place generous spoonfuls of cookie dough on your prepared sheet and flatten with your hand.  Bake for 10-12 minutes.  It was 12 minutes for me - but my spoonfulls were pretty generous.  You want to remove them with the edges are starting to brown but the middle is still a little undercooked.  Let them sit on the cookie sheet for about 3-5 minutes then remove to a cooling rack to completely cool.


  1. I wish I knew more of the chemistry behind baking. Maybe you and your mom should write a book about how it all works!

    1. What a good idea! My mom would have to do most of the work, though. She knows way more than I do. I'm still learning - and limiting my knowledge to basic things like cookies.

  2. I wish I understood the chemistry better too. I merely follow recipes and often wish I understood the "why" better.

    I think you've found your place in the blogging world too: I love these posts that combine delicious cooking with precious memories from growing up Judge and, of course the Elizabeth you've grown to be today too. Your blog is always fun reading and often sends me to the kitchen!


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