The Cookie as Teacher

I don’t bake a lot of cookies, I think maybe because I’m a diabetic, but I do recognize their value to cooks as an educational tool.  Why?  Well, let’s start with their commonality – there’s no one who doesn’t know what a cookie is – even those who call them biscuits still know what you mean when you say ‘cookie’.  That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone knows what a cookie is made from.  For many, the cookie is a mystery, not worthy of investigation or further thought beyond that required to select one brand from another at the neighborhood grocery.

But the cookie’s real value as an educational tool lies in their simplicity – just as good bread is defined by a minimal number of ingredients -flour, water, yeast and salt- so too most cookies have only a basic few key ingredients -flour, sugar, and shortening.  And it is my contention that within those few ingredients lies a world of knowledge and educational experience for the emerging baker or cook – for depending on the ratio of those few ingredients, and how they are used in the construction of the cookie, an amazing diversity of types and kinds of cookies can result.

You may know exactly where I’m going with this discussion – or not – but regardless, allow me to provide an example of the three basic cookie types which depend on the ratios of these three ingredients.
More flour, less sugar and shortening = cakey type cookie.
More sugar, less flour and shortening = chewy type cookie.
More shortening, less flour and sugar = shortbread type cookie.

There’s much to be learned here, about how each of these basic ingredients works to effect the end result of whatever it is we seek to be cooking – my point is that the role that sugar, for instance, plays in a sauce, may not be so evident, since it is much more subtle, but it still will make a difference, and the skilled cook may have learned a good deal about sugar’s role from the simple cookie – and that knowledge is then transferred to the creation of many other dishes which utilize sugar as a component part.

And it is this kind of knowledge which helps to make competent cooks, and cooks which don’t need the constant reinforcement of a ‘recipe’ to be able to put dishes together.  In fact, I think it is this kind of knowledge which begins to make cooking and baking the joys they should be – with freedom comes creativity.

Having said all that, I now would like to put that knowledge to work.  As I mentioned above, as a diabetic, I try not to be baking a lot of sweet, sugary things – however, I’m not above seeking out alternatives, because I’ll admit I share a sweet tooth with most other Americans, who I fear are addicted to sugar – but I’m one of those who believe in the toxicity of sugar, even beyond the role it plays in the issues of diabetes.  So, I often look to taking my knowledge of sugar’s role in baking, and trying to find alternative ways to make those goodies without sugar.

The world of artificial sweeteners, and even those ‘natural’ non-sugar sweeteners, is one of controversy and political intrigue – and it’s also a world of strong public opinion.  Many potential users who may benefit from the use of artificial sweeteners wouldn’t be caught dead using them.  Many are turned off by the taste -or aftertaste- of them, and simply feel the price of benefit is too high.  And many others are convinced, even without governmental or university research attesting so, that the day will come when artificial sweeteners are found to cause cancer and other bodily harm.

Although I share the opinion of those who object to the taste of many artificial sweeteners, my taste buds have adjusted to the point where I can use them effectively without even noticing their negativities.  I think the key to accomplishing this is to train your taste sensitivities to less and less of a sweet taste – over time, this is possible – in fact, in my case, today I find many sugar based desserts to be overly sweet, and there are many things I eat and drink without sweetness, even though the rest of the world does not.

The artificial sweetener I use most is Splenda (Sucralose) which is created by changing the molecular structure of glucose by replacing three select hydrogen-oxygen groups on sucrose (table sugar) molecules with three chlorine atoms.  Splenda has been subjected to much testing, and those tests are ongoing, and has been found to be easily metabolized in the body – it is flavor stable up to 450 degrees F (232C) – and I personally think it has the most natural sweet flavor of all the artificials, but then, my taste has adapted and sensitized to it.

Perhaps you are among those who object to the chemical makeup of Splenda – if so, I’d suggest you investigate Stevia, which is a natural sugar alternative.  It too is heat stable to over 400 degrees, and has little aftertaste – and since it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, very little is needed when used.  Here in the U.S., Stevia has had a rough ride, and as yet does not have full FDA approval and can only be sold as a ‘dietary supplement’, and not as an ingredient in commercially available foods – strange for something which has never been shown to be harmful in studies and has been used extensively in many parts of the world for many years.  I have not used Stevia much in my baking, but I surely intend to do so.

Another thing you learn when you begin changing some or all of the sugar in a recipe is that sugar does far more than simply make things sweet – it adds color and volume, and contributes to the structure – so if you leave it out, you’ll soon learn what happens when you do!  Most of us learn by experience, so it’s OK to go right ahead and do it – and learn.

One of my favorite cookies is oatmeal – and I especially enjoy the chewy kind.  Just my luck!  I probably like the chewy ones because those are the ones I can’t have.  But I also like shortbreads a lot, which is what we’ll get if we simply replace the sugar in the following favorite oatmeal cookie of mine, a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, those champions of recipe objectification! (Yes, they are money-hungry, and Kimball is the ultimate ego-maniac – but they still do good work.)  And if I’m going to look for a good sugar free cookie, I’d much rather start with a recipe for a good sugared variety, and adjust it, than trying to find a decent sugar-free one among the mountain of mediocrity on the web.

So, take a look at this one, and my suggested changes, and then join me in My Notes below the recipe as I continue the discussion.

The Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie
(recipe adapted from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook)

Ingredients:

  • 1¼ c all purpose flour
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp salt (or more)
  • 1¼ c old-fashioned oats
  • 1 c chopped walnuts or almonds (toasted at 350F for 10 mins.)
  • 1 c dried sour cherries (or cranberries, raisins or any other dried fruit)
  • ¾ c semisweet chocolate chunks or chips (I use dark chips and liked the result)
  • 1½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1½ c packed brown sugar, golden brown (or 1/3 cup white sugar, 1/3 cup Splenda, and 1 tsp molasses)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure:

  • Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.
  • In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a smaller bowl mix together oats, walnuts/almonds, cherries and chocolate chips.
  • On medium speed, beat butter and sugar in a stand mixer until creamy and smooth.
  • Add the egg and vanilla and take speed down to medium- low to beat for not more than a minute.
  • Decrease mixer speed to low, slowly add in the flour and beat until just blended, 30 seconds.
  • Incorporate oat mixture and mix on low until just combined.
  • Stir the dough one last time using hand to integrate all ingredients.
  • Take ¼ cup measure from the dough and roll roughly into a ball shape. Repeat for approximately 16 balls. (or make smaller balls!)
  • Place balls on baking sheets.
  • Press down each ball until flattened to thickness of 1 inch. (? – seems too thick to me)
  • Set sheets in upper middle and lower middle racks of oven.
  • Bake for 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway between, edges will be golden brown but the center will be soft and slightly mushy.
  • Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, this ensures a final cooking on the pans themselves.
  • Transfer cookies onto wire racks to cool completely.

See, the bottoms browned nicely.

My Notes:  The recipe above (without parens) is the original America’s Test Kitchen recipe – if you’d like the full sugar version, use that one.  But if you share my concern about sugars in our diets, you may want to consider reducing the amounts you eat – a good way to do that is to desensitize your taste buds to sweets – I’d suggest you can do that in any recipe by simply cutting the amount of sugar by half, and then dividing that ‘half’ between sugar and Splenda – I think this works because the taste of Splenda is more intense than is sugar itself, and so it seems sweeter – once you begin doing this, you’ll find you can use less and less Splenda and still get the same sweet taste.

Actually, the cookies in my pics above were made with no sugar at all – and only 1/2 cup of Splenda – but if you have not yet baked with Splenda, I’d suggest you simply reduce the amount of sugar used, rather than eliminate it entirely – and that way you can teach your taste buds to adjust to less and less sugar.

One last note, watch out for hidden sugar, such as in my chocolate chips here – you can find sugar-free chips, but in my area, they are strangely expensive – a better option is to buy bulk sugar-free chocolate and chop it into chunks – this makes for a beautiful effect in your cookie!  Frankly, I know dried fruit is loaded with its own sugars, but these are complex carbs, and the body processes them much differently than it does simple sugars – besides, the dried fruit has a load of other beneficial nutrients, so the calorie jolt may be worth it.

Enjoy, and learn too.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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18 Responses to The Cookie as Teacher

  1. Glenda says:

    First things first. I was just reading Christine’s blog at foodwinetravel.com.au and I came across this little snippet: ‘Did you know the word cookie comes from the Dutch word koekje, meaning little cake?’ Isn’t that interesting?
    What I want to know is: When did you guys stopped calling biscuits, biscuits (as the English do) and started calling them cookies? And what was the impetus for the change? Has it got anything to do with the Dutch?
    Next question: How much is 1½ sticks of butter?
    Third question: How come you guys haven’t gone metric like the rest of the world?
    You are dead right when it comes to the basic formula for biscuits. I have a book called ‘1 Dough 100 Cookies’.
    BTW: your biscuits look jolly good, I might give them a bash. They look easier than ciabatta:)

    • drfugawe says:

      Whoa, so many questions! re the biscuit thing, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the American reluctance to adopt many of their prior English cultural customs and even language can be traced to the ‘falling out’ between the colonists and the Brits – don’t know that for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised – and at the same time, I think the Dutch were a strong cultural influence (they did give us New York City!), and gave us several important culinary terms – pancake for another. You know, nations often display the behavior of children – so it was time for America to reject all things British.

      Over here, a pound of butter comes usually cut into 4 sticks – so a stick is 4 oz (1 1/2 sticks = 6 oz) sorry, I usually do put my recipes in weights, but I was lazy with this one, and just picked it up from the website – please forgive. The metric thing may just be another example of the American ‘authority’ problem thing – it’s also proof that we’re not as smart as we think we are – in fact, we’re not even smart enough to know just how dumb we are! I think when a culture begins to look on ignorance as sophisticated and fashionable, it’s the beginning of the end – Sad!

      • Glenda says:

        Ok, I have been doing a bit of research (cough, cough). I happen to have the Shorter Oxford Dictionary here. “Cookie, Sc and US 1730. [Du koekje dim of koek cake.] In Scotland a baker’s plain bun; in US a small flat cake with, or (locally) without, sweetening.”

        Now you are going to love this. I also have the Macquarie Dictionary at hand (It’s the Australian Dictionary). Now, I know this, but you may not…
        ‘Cookie 1. Chiefly US, a biscuit. 2. Colloq. a person: a smart cookie, a tough cookie. 3. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Colloq. that’s how things are.’

        Yep, in Australia, a cookie is a person. I just love it:)

        • drfugawe says:

          Yes, very interesting – but I’m not aware of anywhere in the US where a cookie would not be sweet – to my knowledge, an unsweetened cookie would be called, a cracker. and yes, a cookie is well known over here as slang for a person.

          I too love these language variations and derivations – fascinating research – good work!

  2. Sandee says:

    These cookies were wonderful! John made them for a tea party I had and my friends loved them; they were rich and full of “stuff”; each bite was a different experience. (They already think I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have John as my personal chef. I agree.)
    Glenda, Americans are reluctant to change anything that we feel is working. As an elementary teacher, many years ago we geared up to make the switch. At school we used only metric-speak, our math was done in metrics; in short, we were ready. Then it never happened. It just sort of faded away. To quote John, “We are a nation of fools.”
    I’ll leave the techinal stuff to John to explain, I’m just the scullery maid. ;-)

    • drfugawe says:

      Thank you, dear. What casual observers often overlook in our domestic agreement is that I’m just doing exactly what I love to do – I love being able to cook and bake, and if San also loved it too, we’d have real trouble! And although I’m sure she doesn’t ‘love’ cleaning up behind me, I think she’s willing to do that to avoid having to do the other kitchen stuff.

      She is my salad girl at meal time, and quite skilled at it (if at times a bit heavy-handed with the dressing) – sometimes I have trouble biting my tongue with the desire to bark out directions, but she is patient and gracious in spite of all that.

      Yup, we have a good symbiotic relationship.

  3. sugar is that funny thing, the more I have, the more I want. And if I cut it out altogether? Strangely enough the world doesn’t end and I’m more than fine, (but there is not a lot of fun in that.)

    • drfugawe says:

      Careful Brydie – I’m sure sugar has an addictive edge – but I can’t disagree, much of life’s best memories are closely tied to sugar, aren’t they!

  4. Joanna says:

    I would like a plate of your cookies right now. I may have to make them, find the cup measuring thingy in the drawer. My problem (being a non cup user) is that I have no way of looking at your recipe and judging how much sugar to fat to flour is in it. So, sadly (cough, weep for me) I will have to make them to find out just how sweet and addictive they are. I have bought some of that Stevia blend sugar to try, as I fall into the ‘hater of sacarine’ category. It is very expensive compared to regular sugar. I do like the idea of cookie as teacher, I need more lessons :D

  5. drfugawe says:

    Sorry about the cup thing – I do know better – just being lazy. I am forced to buy Stevia in a heath food store, or on the web – and it seems very expensive – but one uses so little of it at a time (a fraction of a teaspoon!) that it really is not expensive – but how much you use depends on your own taste. I really should use it more for cooking/baking.

    • Joanna says:

      Hey it’s your blog and I never do cups on mine so I am equally ‘lazy’. I was making fun of myself really. I have copied out the recipe and am going to make this am! By the way…. This is the product that has been recently launched in the UK, (by an American co) it still might have too much sugar in it for you though http://www.lightatheart.co.uk.

      Straying off topic here….. I wondered, and perhaps you might know, if you roast vegetables, add hot water to flour etc, all these things make the food sweeter in the mouth… so does this make the foods less friendly to people with diabetes? as presumably it changes the carb makeup to a sugar in some way (I’m not very science orientated). Also the dried fruit thing, presumably they are very high in concentrated sugars. I know that everyone with diabetes has a different way of managing their diets and their needs, it just seems so enormously complicated.

      • drfugawe says:

        Oh, that’s a nice Stevia based product (but I like to make my own mixes – always less expensive). If it’s a US based company, I bet they’re gearing up to the US govt changing policy on Stevia and then they’ll be all ready to go here too! Yeah, I really do think that Stevia is the way to go.

        Yeah, this diabetes thing is complex – once upon a time I had a good doc who enjoyed getting into discussions with me on med issues – and he told me that he thought that the endocrinologist, among medical doctors, had the most difficult job due to the complexity of issues they dealt with – and yes, every diabetic is different, and she/he handles foods differently – I have never feared sugar to the point of exclusion, but I also try to make my small intake of ‘sugars’ to be of the complex carb type – that same doc as above used to tell me, ‘All fruit is fine, but fruit juices are not, except in small amounts’. I include a lot of dried fruits in my diet, and they don’t seem to make trouble. To the diabetic, the general rule is complex carbs are less nasty than are simple carbs (such as refined sugar) because the body processes it differently – so I just try to avoid anything that’s been processed. So if you’re a diabetic, it’s much better for you to do your own cooking and baking.

  6. Joanna says:

    Munch munch – they were delicious ! Even though (as I emailed you) I did everything in my power to mess up the recipe. Thank you dear Doc :)

  7. Pingback: The Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie | Passion Fruit Garden

  8. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc I made these again. Yum, yum. My Brother-in-law, who is diabetic, ate at least 6. He deserves to be sick tomorrow

    • drfugawe says:

      Ah, yet another reinforcement to keep up this blogging thing! Thank you, amiga (do you guys get to practice your Spanish down there? – we, of course, are becoming a Hispanic nation, which is just fine with me – after all, they are responsible for Obama’s reelection!).

      • Glenda says:

        Hi Doc, I would turn Mexican if it meant keeping the right wing loopy loops out of power but it would do no good in Autralia. I don’t think we even have a Mexican community here. I, most certainly, have never met a Mexican. The top nationality for refugees in Australia are Afgani, Ski Lankan and Iraqi and, would you believe, I just read that the biggest number of illegal immigants in Australia is from the US!! They are followed by the British, Chinese and Malaysian. They come out on holiday visas and never go home!!! If it is on the net, it must be true:)

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