THE Hot Cookie

The other night, I took my first drive through San Francisco’s Castro District. Even though I missed the store front of Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera shop, one business that I did spot was appropriately called Hot Cookie. I didn’t go in, but easily eyed the red and white briefs hanging above the counter from my car. Apparently, if you give boys in the Castro District some snicker doodle cookie dough, they transform it into male anatomical parts. How festive.

And, if you travel further south, you will eventually end up in Palo Alto where Debbi Fields opened her first Mrs. Fields shop in 1977. (And, in the real South, Insomnia Cookies sells fresh hot cookies from trucks that are cleverly parked outside of bars and other late-night eateries.) The northern California region, meanwhile, is one hot cookie zone. It’s where I’ve perfected my own chocolate chip cookie.

One fateful night, about a year ago, I discovered the recipe for divine chocolate chip cookies on the back of a bag of Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips. (Why did this take me so long?) Not too long before I attempted this recipe, the New York Times published an article and recipe for chocolate chip cookies that asserted they were “perfection.” Molly at Orangette made the “bold statement” that they were the best she’d ever eaten.  Those are some bold statements, but not everyone has the patience to wait three days for a batter to mature to its peak form. Nor, do they want to hunt for fancy chocolate disks, or fèves, when most grocery stores only stock Nestlé Tollhouse and Ghiradelli morsels.

I am sure these cookies turn out as wonderfully as its testers hail, but believe me when I say that a perfect chocolate chip cookie can be achieved by simply following the recipe on the back of the bag. I turned out a generous batch for co-workers and my boyfriend who did not hold back in declaring their satisfaction. (After finishing her first, Jill says, “I could die and go to heaven after eating this” where she would no doubt meet Ruth Graves Wakefield and her perfect batch of cookies.) Heck, even Monica on Friends pursued Phoebe for her grandmother’s recipe which turned out to be the one on the bag. So, there’s something to be said for taking the simple route.

There’s also something to be said for mixing a package of instant vanilla pudding into the chocolate chip cookie batter: it’s brilliant. A co-worker turned me onto this unsuspecting secret ingredient a couple of weeks ago. Intrigued, I immediately searched the internet for a recipe. I found a few versions, but oddly enough, none of the recipes I pulled called for an amount of pudding mix that’s available at the market. One said 102 grams, another ordered a 4-serving package. The closest I could find to either of those options was a 96 gram, 4 1/2 –serving mix.  I went with that; and wow, I’m glad I did.

First, I always under bake my cookies because I prefer soft, chewy rounds as do most normal people I know. Under baking requires a heaping dash of faith because after 9 to 10 minutes at 375, the cookies are doughy and not, well, completely cooked. The edges should be firm, though, and a golden brown hue. This time, however, I worried I was overly premature in pulling them out of the oven. But, subscribing to my belief that under-baked cookies need time to settle, I let them sit over night.  The next day, you’ll find the chocolate chips burrowed within rich sediments of toffee-brown layers that are warm on the tongue.

“Do you have any leche?” Jonathan asked, stalking the fresh batch of his favorite cookie from the couch. He devoured three cookies within minutes. I admit that I cannot stop until I have had two.

These cookies are an indulgence that rank in the same class as a couple of dark chocolate truffles with a glass of red wine. Or, to keep things humble, it’s as if you walked up to a Mrs. Fields counter for a mouth-watering fresh cookie. There’s something commercial about this vanilla pudding version – flavorful and fluffy.

After a couple of weeks of disappointing dishes – a bland parsley pea pesto, runny tomato bacon sauce, and soggy lingonberry tartlets – it’s encouraging to know that I can still consistently turn out a blue-ribbon batch of chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Fields, you might want to watch out, there might be a cookie truck with my name on it.  Beep beep!

Vanilla Pudding Chocolate Chip Cookies

I pulled the bare bones of this recipe from a comment chain from a website I located in my search. I fiddled with it based on the Ghiradelli recipe I adore. It was an experiment with surprisingly welcome results.  This recipe should make 3 dozen cookies. However, since I generously baked tablespoonfuls of batter, I managed to produce only 32 cookies, which is plenty if you ask me.

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

1 cup butter, softened

¼ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 96-gram package of instant vanilla pudding

2 eggs

1 12-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl and set aside. In another, larger, bowl cream the butter with the sugars until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.  Add vanilla and pudding mix until smooth and creamy. Beat eggs one at a time. Gradually add flour mixture, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl as you mix it in. Stir in chocolate chips, taking care not to over mix the batter. Scoop rounded teaspoonfuls of batter and place onto an ungreased baking sheet, about 1-2 inches apart. Bake for 9-10 minutes. Once out of the oven, let cookies set on baking sheet for about 10-20 minutes before removing and setting on a wire rack to cool.

Mellow yellow made magnificent

When I found out he hated pie – hated, mind you – it felt like a sharp jab, WEC style, to the rib cage. But, my heart sank down to my knees when I learned that my boyfriend favored yellow cake over any other kind of dessert. Even worse, he said he loved the boxed-mix cake and canned frosting. He’s a simple guy, with simple taste, he defends. Most desserts are so overwhelmingly sweet that he will take one bite and double over because of a side-ache.

I quizzed every guy I knew after this revelation and found that most of them were fans of the yellow cake, too. What?! How did I miss that memo?

There’s nothing fancy about yellow cake and chocolate frosting – especially when it’s from a box. Sure, it’s reliably always yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but there’s no wow-factor. No marzipan draped over it. No halo of whipped cream. There might be a sprinkling of multi-colored sprinkles. But, that’s ok, I’ve now accepted.

So, in celebration of Jonathan’s birthday a month ago, I wanted to lovingly bestow upon him a yellow cake with chocolate frosting made from scratch. As tempting as the $.79 boxed-mix special at Safeway was, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and pushed back my sleeves and got to work on the recipe for “Best Birthday Cake” posted by Smitten Kitchen on her site.  It was my first cake from scratch.

Everyone’s favorite culinary blogging queen raves that her recipe produces a cake that is “consistently plush.” Maybe when it’s fresh out of the oven it’s “consistently plush”?  Perhaps, I’m the exception here, but my cake was dry, crumbly and dense.  It wasn’t horrible, but fighting a mass of grainy crumbs isn’t a pleasant dessert experience either. I had banked on presenting a perfectly luscious yellow cake where each bite sits on the tongue like a fluffy little pillow, inducing a dreamlike state.

Instead, after serving a crowd of five my seeming success, I took a bite – and another bite – of my own piece and my spirits immediately sank. No one said anything about the cake. Chewing and silence. And, no one finished it either. It was a disaster. I cursed my ambitiousness, and I cursed that recipe. My mind weighed every possible culprit that may have contributed to its fall.

I am not going to exaggerate when I say I turned into a drama queen over this foible. I shed a tear or two, and I swore I would never make a yellow cake from scratch again. My boyfriend pleaded that mistakes were the only way to learn and that I had to try again. No, I pouted, thinking that I didn’t make mistakes. COMPLETE DIVA.

But, a few weeks later, a persuasive and seemingly reliable source on the science of baking encouraged me to try again. (It also helped to hear my boyfriend say he wanted me to make him another cake.) I had checked out Shirley Corriher’s 544-page beast called Bakewise from the Sacramento County Library. While short on pictures, it provides problem-solving hints for those common baking hiccups. Collapsed soufflé? Lifeless puff pastry? Dry cake? I felt like a girl exasperated by her limp hair who perks up when she sees the Bump-It commercial for the first time. Internally, I jumped for joy: could I redeem myself with Corriher’s Magnificent Moist Golden Cake?

Turns out I only have one strike on my scratch cake belt because this recipe produced exactly what it promised: a moist golden cake. I wouldn’t charge that it’s magnificent, but it’s a major improvement over the first scratch cake I made. The method for achieving this plush consistency was rather unusual in that it instructs you keep the butter below room temperature and that if the bowl should ever get warm during the creaming process you should stick it in the freezer for 5 minutes in order to keep the temperature of the butter from rising. Also, you incorporate whipped cream into the batter before pouring it into the pan. This all contributes in keeping the cake light and airy, according to Corriher’s trials and errors. Overall, this book is quite something for those constantly searching for answers to their baking mishaps. It’s clear after one chapter on cakes, that this is an investment that no kitchen is complete without it.

While I could probably get away with buying the boxed-mix for any future occasions or cravings, the additional whipping and creaming all for a yellow cake is worth the bragging rights and worth making someone feel special on a big day or even just a Sunday. There’s no guy out there who wouldn’t inhale a slice or two with that pizza. He’ll be one happy camper.

Magnificent Moist Golden Cake

Since I don’t have permission to reprint the recipe here, I am going to urge you to seek out Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise at your local library. Here, in Sacramento, the libraries boast an extensive collection of new releases – from cookbooks to DVDs. It feels like Christmas when you find out your favorite new title is available on loan. I’m a zealous advocate for utilizing the library (it’s free!), so take the opportunity to preview a book or movie you’ve been eyeing without spending a dime.  Case in point: Bakewise.  Check it out!