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Tales of the Testers, failed-cookie edition

Why is this chef smiling? Keep reading. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

As promised earlier in the week, I’m ready to admit defeat concerning several cookie recipes that, for various reasons, did not make it into the final 25 this year. Some were a little more challenging than they needed to be. But that’s why we test, with good-natured volunteers from inside The Post and beyond. I have to hand it to a special, hyper-interested baking band who retested without complaint and got their samples to us during the fall so we could photograph the cookies in our studio. What they baked is what you see on the great cover (and online) designed by Food’s art director, Marty Barrick.

First, some thoughts on the butter poll of a few days back: The vote totals, though meaningless to those who take the business of surveys seriously, made it to 847 and 850 on the two questions. So I’m impressed, and thanks for taking the time to click those radio buttons. And the results, though unscientific and not statistically valid, ran along the lines of what I hoped to be true. In affirming by an almost 2:1 margin that yes, you do use unsalted butter when recipes call for it, you were telling us that you follow recipes – at least the butter parts – as written. This is music to a recipe editor’s ears.

Those who clicked the buttons also claim to use unsalted butter for baking about twice as much as salted butter and way more than a nondairy substitute. We usually call for unsalted butter in any recipe, baking or otherwise, because it’s amazing how much of a difference it makes in the nutritional analysis. None of us needs extra sodium these days, and as AWCE blog-faithful FairlingtonBlade commented on Dec. 7: Unsalted butter allows for greater control. If you find the taste lacking, think back to your first gulp of 1-percent milk. See? You can get accustomed to just about anything as long as there’s a good reason.

So. Tales.

The rate of return on recipes from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s “Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar” was poor. Macadamia Ginger Crunch Drops had an appetizing name and baked up without a hitch. They made the cut. But Fruity Oat Bars got a unanimous thumbs-down from kids and adults alike. “Tightly packed with energy like a flying fist!” said the headnote. We said, “Crumbly hunks with sticky bits!” People did not wish to further explore the initial bites they took, if you catch my drift.

The Peanut Butter Chocolate Pillows didn’t make it that far. As pictured in the book, they looked like well-formed mounds of chewy goodness – that whole Reese’s filling-inside-chocolate oeuvre. But that’s not how they turned out. The worst part, says the tester, was shaping the cookies. The peanut butter filling had to be rolled into small balls, to be encased in a thin layer of chocolate dough. By the time the tester had formed a couple of the cookies, her hands were coated a la Exxon Valdez. With me, she used the word “dripping.” But she pressed on. She baked half the recipe, sensing doom. The chocolate dough “was alarming,” she says. It called for black unsweetened cocoa powder, an unusual and rather expensive ingredient we just happened to have on hand from a Post Magazine recipe. It made the color combo look Halloweeny, and the dough slid down the mound of filliing just enough to approximate the look of black fried eggs. Definitely not pillow material. A couple of adjustments, another try, no better result. Moving on.

Another tester attempted the simplest recipe in “La Maison du Chocolat: Timeless Classics With a Twist,” by Gilles Marchal. Pretty fancy stuff in this new thin volume, beyond the artistry of most home kitchens. The Double Chocolate Macarons failed at key points, including the deal killer wherein the smooth batter that is “glossy and forms ribbons” should be piped into neat mounds that hold their shape. Oh no they didn’t, again and again. Next?

Good Housekeeping came out with two petite volumes just in time for the holidays: “The Great Christmas Cookie Swap Cookbook” and “The Great Bake Sale Cookbook.” These are from the folks who assume that home bakers use salted butter, yet fail to mention in those two volumes that even recipes calling for added salt also mean “salted butter” where the words “butter or margarine” appear. Not so Great.

The Cappuccino Triangles from the “Bake Sale” book sounded delicious, and the recipe did produce its advertised yield and gave an attractive nutritional analysis. But the directions left out the sugar, vanilla, extract and eggs listed in the ingredients. (Good Housekeeping! I guess anything’s possible.) Whole-Grain Gingersnaps from the “Cookie Swap” book seemed too good to be true. They were, and kinda reminded us of dog biscuits – not that we eat those on a regular basis. Remember, taste is subjective. You may love them; someone did, or they wouldn’t have been included in the lot, right?

I’ve saved the best for last, because it was the most fun – for me, not the tester. Chef-restaurateur Michel Richard graciously sent us two chocolate cookie recipes. Before they were scooped up, he withdrew one recipe on grounds that it was not good enough. So the tester gave his Hazelnut-Chocolate Chip Graham Cracker Cookies a go. The recipe was problematic, right down to the part where the chilled, compact log of dough was to be sliced and baked. The chocolate chips within made it nearly impossible to make a series of clean cuts. And the cookies baked to a crumbly mess. And so on.

The chef was in France for a while in the fall. When he returned, he answered my battery of questions good-naturedly, adding: “Why don’t you come tomorrow morning and we’ll figure this out together?” Let’s see…baking one-on-one in the kitchen at Michel Richard Citronelle…heck, yeah.

A preview of the chef's handiwork. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

The next day, the chef looked over the recipe, stroking his beard. Where did you get this, he demanded. (The name of his restaurant was at the top of the printed recipe page. Just kidding.) We kibbutzed about pets and artwork. He showed me watercolors that will go into a new cookbook he’s working on. Turns out he’s been painting since he was 10.

Then he consulted, in low-voce French, with his pastry chefs and agreed: The recipe was not quite right. He clarified the bit about the chocolate chips. They were not chips, per se, but pastilles that sit atop each cookie – applied just as they are pulled from the oven -- and were not folded into the dough at all. He remembered to include the step of sprinkling the hazelnuts with sugar before toasting them, which lends a slightly caramelized dimension. (Loved that.) The nuts were not ground as fine as the graham cracker crumbs, which gave the cookies a better texture. He reduced the oven temperature and decreased the baking time. The diameter of the logs of dough was corrected to yield small disks, and the yield of the recipe increased. Because the cookies don’t spread so much, he placed more than a few dozen on a single, Silpat-lined baking sheet.

Voila! Perfect cookies, exactly what he’d had in mind. I brought back a few samples so the tester had something to shoot for. Even then, she made them in half-batches to clear up a “too-buttery” characteristic that was solved by a little extra baking time. Call it the difference between a professional convection oven and what the rest of us have to work with.

Well, that’s enough for now. Is it still December? You may have a baking disaster to share. Here’s where you can do it. We’re listening.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  December 10, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Michel Richard, Tales of the Testers, cookies  
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Next: Notes from a 'Top Chef' party


I had a Christmas baking disaster 4 years ago. Not cookie related, but a lesson none-the-less. I decided to make loaves of cranberry-apple bread to give as gifts to my family. I started in November, finding recipes and testing and tweaking them. I settled on my own version that was a mismash of a few recipes. It was wonderful, moist and flavorful. I had been using gala apples in all the tests. When it came time to shop for the ingredients to make the 15 or so loaves, I noticed that golden delicious apples were on sale. I thought they tasted about the same as the galas, so they would be fine.

I bake all these beautiful loaves and wrap them and give them as gifts. I also baked a couple extra to keep for myself. The day after Christmas, I go to have a slice of the bread a can't understand why it is so dry and crumbly. I secrectly hope it is only MY loaf that is awful. I call my mom, who assures me it tastes great. But, finally admits it is "a little crumbly." I nearly faint and have the distinct urge to call all my family, explain that the apples were different and offer to make another loaf. Instead I resign myself to the reality that everyone will tell me they loved it, but politely throw it away.

THE LESSON: If you are going to go through the trouble of testing a recipe and want to recreate it, don't change any of the ingredients!

Posted by: SweetieJ | December 10, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Amen to that.

Posted by: benwickb | December 10, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I make chocolate chip-cherry cookies every year. This year, a friend is soy-allergic, so I found soy-free chips. Not easy. They weren't mini-chips, as called for, so I ran them through the food processor. I got slightly smaller big chips and chocolate dust. I put it in the cookie dough. The dust melted and caused the cookies to spread. And they were 60% chips, so less sweet than usual. The resulting cookies weren't as sweet, but ok once they cooled. Not as pretty as usual, because the melted chocolate turned the cookies brown. They are usually faint pink. *sigh* But they're edible!

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | December 14, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I'm LOOKING for a recipe. An Italian neighbor used to make these every Christmas. They were positively addictive, and she'd never give me the recipe.

I don't know whether to call this a "cookie" or a "confection"; it's a loose wad of candied fruit (the regular glaceed stuff you buy in the plastic tubs), held together by what feels and tastes like an almond-scented meringue. There MAY be a little flour in there. The fruit stays tender, so it obviously isn't baked for very long.

Any suggestions? Thanks.

Posted by: heinpe | December 14, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Not a cookie disaster, but a bit amusing. I was tasked with bringing salads for a picnic a dozen or so years ago. From my newly purchased salad book, I made a German potato salad (still love that) and a tossed salad...

...the night before...

I came home from work the next day and discovered that the vinaigrette had the effect of collapsing the salad under everything I piled onto it. Fortunately, I lived near a supermarket and ran out for a fresh head of romaine . I tossed everything together and wound up with a hit! The wilted lettuce had picked up a lot of flavor and the fresh head had a good crunch to it. If I have time, it's my go to salad.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 16, 2009 6:23 PM | Report abuse

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