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Where Chemistry Meets the Kitchen: Cookies

This is not a discussion about the frontiers of candy versus cookies versus bars versus cakes. Aunt Toby is saving that for another time. Today’s discussion has to do with one type of cookie, and what makes that cookie ‘work’ versus other sorts of cookies.

It all comes down to fat. Or, rather, fat that is solid at room temperature versus fat that is either semi-solid at room temperature or liquid at room temperature. This is actually, in its own way, the same exact discussion and issue that is the foundation of pie crusts, biscuits, filo and other forms of puff pastry and so on. Everyone have their notebooks at the ready? Good.

For a nice, neat overview of fats, go here: Fat
The ‘money quote’ though on fats is this: Fats (fatty acids) which have what are referred to as long chains (that is, they have more connections with carbon and hydrogen atoms) have a higher melting point and yield more energy because there are more connections being broken up. At the same time, because in saturated fats, the carbon and hydrogen atoms are paired (so that there are no dangling carbons or hydrogens lollygagging around), the fatty acids can arrange themselves in a very efficient and closely packed stack – this gives them a physical stability in terms of all temperatures up to their melting points. That’s why they are solid at room temperatures. One of the interesting chemical and physical characteristics of baking with solid fats (such as butter and lard) is that because of this stacking characteristic; even when you bake them, they maintain their physical structure for a very long time before the fat will melt into the baked goods. This is how flaky pastry, pie crust, biscuits, etc. are achieved: The fat in the dough maintains its structure just long enough to hold the various layers of the dough apart. They get ‘set’ by the baking and the fat then hits its melting point and becomes part of the baked good.

So, where does cookie meet chemistry here?

Depending on how you like your cookies, the choice of fat in the recipe can completely help or defeat you. Aunt Toby, for years, despaired of ever making a decent chocolate chip cookie until I was advised by a coworker, when I described my problem (constant shattering), to divide up the fat in the recipe and do one half as butter and the other half as….vegetable shortening. Hunh? Although my coworker only knew from HER baking experience that mixing vegetable shortening would make the cookies more ‘flexible’ (if you like your cookies chewy and soft, this is where you get the chemical structure to do it, plus the relationship between the fats and the amount of sugar you are using), and they would not shatter when lifted off the baking pan with a spatula. On the other hand, if you like to make Christmas/cookie cutter cookies, flexible is not what you want.

Here is an example of a cookie (and I admit that this is my first time through with these cookies). I was reading someone’s comments regarding ‘sinful pleasures’ at the holiday time and how she can only get a certain cookie product from Trader Joe’s at Christmas. This was described as TJ’s version of the famous and ubiquitous chocolate wafer cookie (not only national brands but also seemingly every large grocery store chain has their own versions of these, but we will all know them as “O” cookies, to protect the innocent). Now, this holiday version of the cookie has ground up peppermint candies in them and this lady just doted on them. I went wandering around looking for a recipe for said cookies – no luck. But I did find various versions of ‘the O cookie’ and decided to give the whole thing a shot.

Now, in your mind’s eye (or mouth as the case might be), recall ‘the O cookie” – shape, flavor, mouth feel, cookie texture. Right? Got that? The chocolate wafers are relatively hard and crunchy; the filling is vanilla flavored.

Filling is filling, but how is the wafer texture achieved? Go back to the top and read again. If we want to reproduce that same crunch, we’ve got to use a fat that is solid at room temperatures; otherwise, we’ve got a ‘cakey’ not a cookie.

My recipe, courtesy of goodness knows how many blogs and sites on the internet:
Oreo(tm) cookies from scratch
Cookie Ingredients:
• 1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
• 1/2 C unsweetened cocoa
• 1 t baking soda
• 1/4 t baking powder
• 1/4 t salt………………………….I did not use salt
• 1 C sugar
• 1/2 C plus 2 T butter, room temperature
• 1 large egg
1. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda and powder, salt, and sugar.
2. Beat in the butter and the egg. Continue mixing until dough comes together in a mass.
3. Take rounded teaspoons of batter and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet approximately 2 inches apart. With moistened hands, slightly flatten the dough. (I found that while the dough wasn’t sticky enough to roll, I could press it flat with my hands like the recipe said and then use cookie cutters to cut perfect circles. If you just care about the taste, then there is no need for the cookie cutters. Also, remember this is a chance to get creative and use all kinds of cookie cutters.)
4. Bake for 9 minutes at 375 F. Set on a rack to cool.

I played it strictly by the book here – but I doubled the recipe and only used two sticks of butter. I found that I needed to add some water at the end in order to get the dough to come together properly. I added several teaspoons of water, one teaspoon at a time. The issue might have been the temperature of the dough – our kitchen is pretty chilly.

In terms of a filling, I went out on a limb and did a standard cream cheese frosting:
1 big block of cream cheese or Neuchatel cheese
4 cups of sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. Vanilla flavoring
Beat hard until combined and fluffy. Since you want this to set up in the cookies, we don’t want a really fluffy icing, but then again, we don’t want something that is too stiff either. You mileage may vary in terms of needing to add more sugar to this. The amount of filling per cookie depends on the actual baked size of the wafers; I ended up using about a half of a cutlery-drawer teaspoon in each cookie. That’s enough to fill the cookie and not squeeze out when you put the other cookie on top.

So, how did this work? Well, it worked like a charm and frankly, one of the secrets to this whole ‘non-shattering’ cookie thing is using parchment paper on the baking sheets. Great stuff and definitely worth it; I would not try to substitute waxed paper for this. But it saves on having the wash up the baking sheets afterwards.

The 9 minutes is exactly right. No trying to figure out or fudge it. Take the baking sheets out at 9 minutes (I did one sheet at a time), put out to cool and take off the wafers and put on a rack. They set up and get hard and crispy right away.

This dough definitely is not something that I could roll out and use a cutter for. It was great as a ball cookie dough, though. I rolled about a teaspoon (the one in the cutlery drawer; not the one that you use to measure ingredients with) of dough between my hands and then pressed out each ball into a circle using a spatula and put them on the parchment and baked. Worked really well. If someone has a great chocolate-roll-out-and-cut cookie recipe, that would probably work much better if you want to use a round cutter. By the way, the standard size of ‘the O cookie” is about 1.5 inches across.

Now, let’s have some fun. One of the things I found when I searched around on the Internet for ‘the O cookie’ is that there is this whole industry surrounded home confectionary and baked goods that involves doing things with ‘the O cookie”. There are businesses out there that make molds and forms so that bakers can make ‘chocolate covered’ ‘o cookies’ etc. It’s amazing. But once I made these cookies, just for kicks, I got some of the meltable candy wafers (these come in various colors and flavors and I’m sure there are millions of people out there who know about this and who use them all the time; I missed the memo) and did a little bit of decorating the cookies. I dipped, splotched, and generally had fun; someone with far better eye and practice than I can produce some really great confections with these homemade (and better made, too, I might add, since there are no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup or whatevers in these) cookies.

And what about the Trader Joe’s cookies? Ah – well, since I’ve never had them, I had no guidelines, so I took some of the green and white mints, put them through the blender to make a fine powder and mixed that in with some of the filling. It made the filling a little bit stiffer – if I’d had peppermint flavoring or peppermint liqueur, I’d have put a teaspoon of that to loosen the filling up a little bit and give it even more ‘minty freshness’. As it is, the comments from my judges (the DH and The Boy) were that you could tell they were minty but it was not a flavor that was ‘in front’ of the product, if you know what I mean.

This is also NOT a quick item to do. So, if you are stuck indoors this winter with kids who are over 5 years of age and want an activity that will be fun, educational, and keep them occupied for several hours (with some incentive at the end of eating them), this is a great project.

Bon appétit!

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One Comment

  1. mamafitz says:

    king arthur flour has the trader joes recipe. you want black cocoa to get that nice dark color.

    here’s the faux-reos recipe:

    ~sigh~ i <3 king arthur flour. :)

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