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Sunday, April 14, 2024

I Baked ‘Fabulous Modern Cookies’ With My Mom—and She Approves

I love cooking with Mom. Food is a big thing in our family, but my cooking and so much of how I think about it comes straight from her. She's a better, more intuitive baker than I am by a long shot, so when I found a cookie cookbook that blends science and creativity, I timed my review testing to line up with a trip home to see her.

I'd discovered the book thanks to Jill Lightner, a food-writer neighbor who also runs a little free bakery in front of her Seattle home. Her story had me intrigued about the authors, Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, a couple who work for the Centers for Disease Control at their day jobs and have also written the esteemed cookbook The New Pie.

Cookbook recipes for cookies can feel like a tired space: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, snickerdoodle, thumbprint, repeat. In the duo’s new book, Fabulous Modern Cookies, they mix it up. Here's an example: Not only do their chocolate chip cookies use brown butter, it's "bronze butter," a trick they borrowed from Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, where milk solids are stirred into the melted butter as it browns on the stove, supercharging the characteristic nuttiness and giving the cookie a crazy-good, long-lasting flavor.

Mom looked at the combination-to-be of eggs, butter, sugar, and vanilla and, while the instructions offered leeway, said, “Put that in the stand mixer, it's gonna get gruesome if you mix that by hand.”

We moved on to lemon cheesecake rollouts, a sort of creamy shortbread cousin. I pulled out the scale and hoped it would be a great way to get her, an imperial-measure, cups-and-quarts kind of gal, into measuring by weight.

"I have a big rolling pin," she pronounced, setting it on the scale as I recalibrated my hopes and dreams. "It weighs 1,236 grams."

Measuring by weight can produce fantastic, consistent results and, since you’re often pouring ingredients directly into the bowl you’re mixing them in, it cuts down on cleaning; there won’t be any measuring cups to wash, for example.

The next day, I made infinity brownies with my nephew Eli who, at 13, is into cooking and is especially curious about timing and temperature in a recipe. The "infinity" part of the brownies is that, by cooking in a water bath known as a bain-marie, it keeps crispy edges from forming, so you get wall-to-wall fudge.

The first signs of big success with the book came when my dad, who's not known for his sweet tooth, kept strolling into the kitchen like he was looking for the dog leash or rooting around for lost keys. Only later did we realize that with each trip he'd scooped out a chunk of brownies.

Next, Mom and I switched to "escapes," aka piña colada oatmeal cookies, with an entry that features a history of the drink in the headnotes. Normally, a cookie with a name like this wouldn't be my bag, but Taylor and Arguin feature roasted pineapple chunks, shredded coconut, and dark rum. (I couldn't bring myself to go full Malibu, so I got Myers’s.) This was another one where Mom's cool hand was very helpful. Toward the end of baking, I'd peek in the oven and get a little uncertain about how much longer they needed, and she'd look over my shoulder and say "three more minutes" and be right on the money.

We got into a groove after that, making  little coconut cookies that sandwich guava preserves thickened with Instant ClearJel, a modified starch that's often used to firm up fruit-pie filling. Maybe it was the brand of guava preserves we used or that we could have used more starch, but it still squished out the sides, which was a fantastic excuse to go open-faced and double our guava intake. The fruit was a perfect foil for the cream of coconut and coconut flakes, tartness dancing with sweet and crunchy. It wasn't everyone's favorite, but those of us who loved it really loved it, giving it top marks on the fabulousness scale.

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I did find a few things I wished for more of in this book, mostly revolving around planning ahead. You should always read through any recipe through before executing it, but for those of us who sometimes just skim the text before diving in, breaking that bad habit before cooking from this book would be a good idea. The piña colada cookies, for example, have a "make ahead" graphic that points to the pineapple you'll need to roast, but it’s on the last page of the recipe. And if you're like me, it'll slow you down to discover that toasted coconut is listed as an ingredient, something the fantastic Ali Slagle refers to as "hiding work in the ingredient list." In the authors’ take on madeleines, chilling the batter overnight in the fridge is nonchalantly mentioned in the middle of step three. While the cookies in Fabulous are invariably worth the effort, some clearer flagging of stuff that needs extra time would have been welcome. Finally, if using the word cream as a verb gives you pause, this might be a more complex book than you want.

Those madeleines went over big. Just pulling them out of the oven to cool, I noted a lovely sheen to their exterior, something I'd never achieved in baking, and doing so reminded me of a bundt cake Mom used to make. It made me feel like a pro. The authors’ spin on the classic is giving the cookies what they call "bright lemon" flavor, which comes from both lemon juice and zest in the batter. My wife, Elisabeth, who often takes half-bites of what I'm making when I'm product testing, picked one up, then looked at me funny when I opened my mouth.

"Oh you want a bite," she asked, smirking. I got my own.

One happy surprise was the savory cookie section, the kind of thing that is used as padding in another book, but here it’s stuff you might make more than once. We made pierogi party bites, a mixture of baked potato, flour, onion powder, butter, cheddar, and milk, all rolled into a log, sliced into coins, then cut into D shapes. Browned in a skillet, these were inhaled way before we sat down to dinner.

"These are genius," said Elisabeth, swooping in for one. I didn't even bother waiting for "my" half of her cookie. I just got my own.

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