Science and Art in the Kitchen
by Debbie Epstein
Routine in cuisine is a crime.
~ Edouard Nignon
discovery and experimentation
My Double Chocolate Mint Cookies are the best cookies in the universe. This is not bragging; it is true. I challenge you to bring me a better cookie. Why are my cookies so good? I have a secret ingredient—I bake with love. I also have fabulous recipes.
I was preparing afternoon tea at a bed and breakfast one day when my life was forever changed. I looted the cabinet where the little Godiva chocolate mints used during turndown service were stored. I was munching happily away on these treasures when I remembered I was making double chocolate cookies. I threw a handful of mints in the batter and—Light bulb! Loud music! Joy!—I discovered the best cookie ever.
When I started producing mass quantities, unwrapping hundreds of the chocolates was neither fun nor economical. I called Godiva and asked if they could sell me unwrapped chocolates. Not an option. I tried Ghirardelli chocolate mints, which were good, but not the same. I experimented with a cotton ball soaked in mint extract steeping in the chocolate bin. I experimented with a plethora of mint oils, essences, and extracts. After countless batches, I finally found an oil-based peppermint extract which worked out beautifully. The dough needs to taste almost overwhelmingly minty to get a perfectly flavored cookie. Oil is much stronger than water and mellows while baking.
Baking is a science. It can take years of laboratory testing to get it right, and once the formula is developed you must follow it exactly. Success is partly a result of chemistry: how ingredients react to one another and the ratio of liquids to solids. Other factors are also important, such as the way you measure ingredients (i.e., with measuring cups or by weight), the size and type of pans you use, the temperature of your oven, the purity of your ingredients, and, most importantly, your religious use of the timer.
A few years ago, my friend Lynne came to visit and wanted some of my famous cookies. I put a tray of cookies in the oven, set the timer for nine minutes, and told her that these cookies bake for EXACTLY nine minutes. Not a minute more, not a minute less. "All you have to do is remove the cookies from the oven exactly when the timer goes off," I instructed her. Assuming that she would follow my directions, I hopped in the shower. As I was toweling off, I asked her if she had removed the cookies after exactly nine minutes. She didn't. And guess what? They were not perfect. They were not mine. An extra minute or two changed the entire texture.
Fat content is also important for texture as well as flavor. I received a delicious sample of some gianduja chocolate. Trying to make chocolate hazelnut cookies, I followed the same recipe for the double chocolate cookies and simply substituted the gianduja chocolate for the semisweet. The cookies were greasy, flat, and not very good. I learned that gianduja-flavored chocolate has a much higher fat content, which means less fat should be used in the rest of the recipe. In my second batch, I dramatically reduced the butter and increased the flour. The results were dry and crumbly. The next batch I used less butter, one less egg, and I left the flour the same. They were much better.
improvisation and imagination
Where baking is a science, cooking is an art. Unlike baking where you must measure precisely, I can't imagine measuring 1/8 teaspoon of pepper or using only one clove of garlic. Cooking recipes are a springboard to your creativity. I believe in following the recipe the first time and then personalizing it with various flavors and ingredients. The permutations and combinations are endless. In fact, my friend Melisa never makes a dish the same way twice.
Many of the recipes in my family are more like theories—that is, you use a little of this, a little of that, and then just keep tasting until it's right. Mashed potatoes are a very good example. The basic recipe calls for cooking potatoes until they are soft, and then adding butter, milk, salt, and pepper. I have found that cooking the potatoes in chicken stock imparts a lot of flavor. I usually add garlic to the cooking liquid. The garlic may be roasted, raw, diced, or minced depending on how I feel that day and what I am serving the potatoes with. I like to add cream cheese, goat cheese, sour cream, or buttermilk to add creaminess and then either jalapeņos for spice, horseradish for heat, basil for earthiness, or more garlic for just plain goodness. I have been known to sprinkle in bacon and cheddar cheese for the ultimate in decadence.
This year for Thanksgiving I decided that Mashed Root Vegetable Puree sounded fancier than Mashed Potatoes. Of course I had never made this before and didn't know the difference between a parsnip, a turnip, and a rutabaga. I cooked them separately, mashed them, and stirred them into the potatoes. I was skeptical for the first few bites, but the leftovers on Friday tasted wonderful. The flavor of the root vegetables was subtle and different, yet tasty.
Several years ago I decided to make Tortellini Quatro Formaggi to impress my new roommate. I arrived at the grocery store without my trusty shopping list. Heaven forbid. I knew I needed Parmesan, mozzarella and fontina, but couldn't remember what the "G" cheese was. I thought it might be Gruyère, but it turned out to be Gorgonzola. Later, I found some Gorgonzola and decided to add the Gruyère anyway. The result was so delicious that now I make Tortellini Cinque Formaggi.
Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter Cookies
Yields 1–2 dozen cookies
Ed. note: Despite our pleas, Debbie refused to reveal her recipe for Double Chocolate Mint Cookies, but she did agree to share this special recipe instead.
These cookie treats are extremely rich, sweet, and sinful. One of my customers named them "The Bomb." The original recipe for the cookies themselves came from Gourmet magazine. I tweaked the recipe to my liking and then decided that dipping them in chocolate would put them right up there with the Double Chocolate Mint Cookies.
Peanut Butter Cookies
1 cup peanut butter (chunky or creamy)
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place all ingredients into mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth.
Using cookie/ice cream scoopers, shape dough into balls and place one inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. You can make the cookies as big or as small as you want. Flatten cookies with tines of a fork to make a criss-cross pattern.
Bake cookies on middle rack in oven for 10–12 minutes, or until puffed and slightly browned. Let stand on cookie sheets at least 10 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.
You can store cookies in an airtight container in the freezer up to 2 weeks before dipping.
16 ounces (or more) semisweet chocolate, melted
8 ounces roasted salted peanuts, diced
Dip cookies one at a time completely in melted chocolate, shake off excess, and place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle immediately with diced peanuts.
Let cool completely, at least 2–3 hours at room temperature, or place in freezer for 1 hour.
Note: For maximum freshness, these cookies should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
Tortellini Cinque Formaggi
Yields 4–6 portions
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
5 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled
4 ounces fontina, grated
4 ounces mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
4 ounces fresh Parmesan, grated
4 ounces fresh Gruyère, grated
1 pound fresh tortellini, cooked al dente and drained
freshly ground nutmeg to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
Melt butter in medium-size saucepan over medium heat.
Stir in flour and cook 1 minute.
Gradually whisk in milk. Cook, stirring constantly until lightly thickened to the consistency of cream.
Whisk in Gorgonzola, fontina, and Gruyère. Cook, whisking constantly until cheeses are melted.
Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
Stir in mozzarella and Parmesan until everything is melted and gooey.
Sprinkle with paprika, top with more Parmesan, and serve.
Debbie Epstein is the owner of Debbie Does Dinner, a full service catering company specializing in delicious homestyle cuisine, located in San Francisco, California. Baking is in Debbie's blood; the original Betty Crocker was her ancestor. Debbie's mother reports that "cookie" was Debbie's first word.