Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Cookie Party by the Numbers

One of the things my friends enjoy the most about the Cookie Party is the sheer quantity of baked goods that gets created.  So, here are some statistics about this year's party-that-wasn't:

  • Total cookies 2020: 3441 (quite a bit lower than usual due to expected poor turnout in light of the coronavirus scare; the norm is between 4,000 and 5,000)
  • Different types of cookies made (also significantly lower than usual, because I knew some of them wouldn't travel well): 23
  • Total flour: 45 lbs.
  • Total sugar: 24 lbs.
  • Total butter: 22 lbs. (88 sticks)
  • Total chocolate: 14.25 lbs.
  • Total Gladware needed to store the cookies: 59 "XL" containers
  • Total care packages shipped out: 91
  • Total length of my receipts from the Post Office: 194.5 inches (that's over 16 FEET!)

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Note About Baking with Friends

I am a perfectionist.  I have spent the better part of the past 15 years trying (and mostly failing) to internalize my mentor's favorite saying: "The perfect is the enemy of the good."  Hey, at least knowing is half the battle, right?

The Cookie Party is very important to me.  Not only do I enjoy the baking and the hosting, but the pure joy on the faces of my guests makes the whole week of hard work completely worth it.  However, it also makes me extremely cautious about anything that might threaten the future of the party.  For example, I am absolutely fanatical about hand-washing and sterilization of all surfaces that might, even indirectly, touch my cookies.  I'm equally strict about allergens (see previous post about nut cookies).  Anyone who can't be equally strict about these things is not permitted in my kitchen during Cookie Party Week.  So I have always been wary of accepting any help - both because it felt like cheating and because I was concerned that they wouldn't live up to my standards in the kitchen (I think several friendships have been dampened by my repeated instructions to wash their hands again!).  However, I'm also a very social person, and a full week of baking alone is actually a little sad for me - while I love dancing around the kitchen singing at the top of my lungs as I pour the next cup of sugar into the bowl, I also get pretty lonely by about Day Three.

So last summer, when my friend Caitlin asked if she could help me run experiments for a new cookie I wanted to create, I agreed.  To my great joy, Caitlin was every bit as precise and careful as I hoped, the experiments proceeded quickly and efficiently, and it was actually a heck of a lot more fun!  I even offered for her to come back and join me during Cookie Party Week.  This invitation was a first.  I was nervous.  I was worried I might lose a day of productivity.  Luke was worried that I might lose a friend.

As it turned out, I had a blast!  We made hundreds of cookies together and I even trusted her to help me with decorating some of them, too.  And although I did get distracted at a few points because I was chatting and nearly ruined a batch, she was there to catch me and, together, we stayed on track.  The day was both productive and genuinely fun, and I'm excited knowing that she'll also get that feeling of pride when people compliment our cookies.  And it didn't feel like cheating at all - it was still my recipe, still under my supervision, and still definitely up to my standards.  Besides, this party is really something I do as much for myself as for my friends and family, so I ought to have plenty of fun along the way!

So, on the whole, I would deem this a great success.  Caitlin, thank you for bringing the party to my cookies, and for giving me some much-needed company in this crazy process!  And who knows, maybe this will become a trend in future years...

Sam's Mad Scientist Mode: Hawaiian Honeymoon Crinkle Cookies

This one's for you, Luke!

For our honeymoon, Luke and I went to Maui.  He had spent some time in Hawaii with his family when he was a kid, but I had never been to Hawaii before.  And our honeymoon was absolutely magical!  After 18 months of stressful wedding planning, suddenly the only decision we had to make each day was whether we were in the mood to be adventurous or to be pampered.  I have so many fond memories from that trip - hiking Haleakala at sunrise, discovering Ululani's shave ice (my go-to combo on that trip was wedding cake and cotton candy with a snow cap and macadamia nut ice cream), a rental car with a robot guide with a beautiful Hawaiian-accented voice built into it that we couldn't turn off who would cut into our conversation at odd intervals with historical facts about the part of the island we were passing at the time, nearly dying (twice) en route to the Dragon's Teeth, Ululani's shave ice, snorkeling (for the first time ever!), hiking a "hidden" trail in the Io Valley, getting Luke the bougiest chicken soup ever when he got sick (from Morimoto Maui, which happened to be our hotel's restaurant), photographing crabs at sunrise, the Hershey's-Kiss-studded lava cave and red Ti maze on the Road to Hana, the 30-foot-tall bamboo forest we hiked through, Ululani's shave ice, searching the entire island for a new camera when the above-mentioned crabs spooked me and I dropped my beloved camera in the sand and then finally convincing Cosco to sell us the most absurd, white-leather-encased replacement without opening a Cosco account, Ululani's shave ice...

Anyway, back to the story at hand.  Our honeymoon was wonderful.  We were finally truly alone, with no one asking questions and no one expecting to hear from us, and SO much Ululani's shave ice!  2019 was our fifth anniversary, so for my law school spring break, we decided to head back to Maui to celebrate.  This trip was equally wonderful, but also very different - jam-packed with exquisite meals, a wonderful luau, Luke indulging my desire to know the name of every single bird that flew by and even stopping at a book store with me to buy a book of Hawaiian birds...So when I came home, I knew I needed to invent a new cookie - one that would capture my memories of Hawaii and our adventures there.  I decided to create a Hawaiian Honeymoon Crinkle Cookie, with the beautiful purple hue and subtle taste of taro, macadamia nuts (I love you, Ululani's!), and a drizzle of icing to provide a hint of sweet and tangy guava.

I'll also note that taro is actually poisonous when it's not processed properly.  While I trust my skills in the kitchen, I'd rather not take risks like cooking with poison when I'm in Cookie Party mode!  So to avoid such risks, I decided to use a processed form of taro to make sure I could skip those first few steps and trust someone else to do the scary part.  I decided that taro pancake mix would be a pretty trustworthy starting point, and a few days later, Amazon delivered several bags of Mochi Taro Pancake Mix to my door.  My experiments last summer, aided by a friend who wanted to see my mad-scientist work in action, went swimmingly well - we ended up with a perfect crinkle cookie encasing a whole macadamia nut, exactly as I had pictured it.

But let's face it, folks - marriage is hard work.  So is inventing a new cookie.  Sometimes it takes a few tries to get things right, and sometimes things just go wrong.  The first hint of trouble in paradise was that the brand I used for my experiments last summer is currently on hiatus - they'll apparently be available again soon, but not in time for the Cookie Party.  Most of the other taro pancake brands I could find only need you to add water, unlike the one I had originally used, so my ratios would now be off and I would have to completely reinvent the cookie from scratch again, which is NOT something you want to be doing while also trying to fit thousands of cookies into a single week!  I did the best I could, but the ratios inevitably ended up being slightly off, and it turns out that I should have refrigerated this new modified dough for a couple of hours prior to baking.  The end result is that instead of being the round crinkle cookie I had imagined, these look more like the Hawaiian volcanoes - wide, shallow mounds with sloping sides.  However, the taste is still there and still brings me right back to Maui, so perhaps the volcano shape is its own version of perfect after all...

If you squint at it for a minute, you might see that I positioned
these cookies in the shape of a plumeria blossom...

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

One of Sam's "That deserves to be a cookie!" moments...

Sometimes, I see something out in the world and I think, "That's wonderful.  That deserves to be a cookie!"  One of those moments happened last year at the Bryant Park Holiday Market.  I was wondering through the stalls (like I always do) and struck up a conversation with a vendor (like I often do), and a lovely man named Austin offered me a taste of the maple syrup he and his wife make themselves up in Vermont.  I'd never had a shot of straight maple syrup before, but it was downright divine!  Hands-down the best maple syrup I'd ever had.  And I thought, "That deserves to be a cookie!  Nay, that must become a cookie!"  When I told him that, and then explained that my concern was that you need to add a LOT of maple syrup to a dough to get the flavor to really come through strongly enough, he pointed to a different bottle in his stall, the Grade B syrup, and explained that it has a much more intense flavor.  After tasting that one, I knew this was going to end well.

So I set out to make the perfect maple cookie.  This was not my first foray into this arena.  When Luke and I first started dating, he mentioned in passing that he really enjoyed maple syrup.  Eager to please, I decided that this must be his favorite thing in all the world, and I decided to bake for him to show what an amazing girlfriend I could be.  Back home, I scoured the internet and my mom's stack of old cookbooks and found a handful of recipes that sounded promising.  The first was...not good.  More cake than cookie, and very little flavor (one of those where you had to be told what flavor the thing is supposed to be before you can discern any hint of such flavor).  Then I made a different one that I deemed worthy of presentation to my new beau, and off I went to the City to deliver them.  I got about 50 feet from the door to Luke's building, and started getting nervous - Would he like them?  Would he be impressed? - and was so caught up in my thoughts that I oh-so-gracefully tripped on an uneven sidewalk tile, bursting open the Tupperware and dramatically spilling cookies everywhere (they were frosted, too, so they were now covered in dirt and gum and who-knows-what-else), eventually ending up in Luke's apartment in tears (decidedly less impressive than showing up with perfect baked goods).  When I eventually got over my heartbreak and baked a fresh batch of cookies, Luke declared them "ok" (and also gently explained that maple syrup was a flavor he enjoyed, not his absolute favorite thing in the whole wide world, so maybe I should feel free to make other flavors too).  In fact, I gave up on maple cookies for a long time - by the time I peeked into Dorset Maple Reserve's stall at Bryant Park, it had been around a decade since my last attempt.

Armed with my big jug of Grade B maple syrup and triumphantly declaring to Austin that I would do his syrup justice, off I went to my kitchen.  I spent days poring over every maple recipe Google could show me, searching for the perfect starting point.  I knew I wanted this cookie to be the antithesis of my original experiments - crispy and intense, not soft, cakey, and bland.  Eventually, I found a recipe for a vanilla snap that I thought I could work from, and a helpful post about which other wet ingredients to substitute out for a cup of maple syrup when making maple muffins, and the experimentation began.  This cookie, unlike its pale predecessors, doesn't hide its true self - the second you pick it up, the whole world suddenly smells like maple syrup, and the flavor is intense, yet mellow and homey and nostalgic.  There is no mistaking the flavor of this cookie.  And an added bonus: your entire house smells like maple syrup for a few hours after you bake them.  Austin, I hope you agree that I've done your syrup justice!

The #1-Rated Cookie of the Cookie Party 2019 was...

If you're wondering why I baked three cakes last night, here's your answer: Last year, I really wanted to make cake pops, but it's the Cookie Party, and a normal cake pop doesn't really work with that theme.  But when I have an idea, I will find a way to make it work.  So I took my Funfetti Chocolate Chip Cookies...and stuffed them with Funfetti cake!  Voila, cake pops at the Cookie Party!

These cookies are wonderful.  I've heard them described as "my childhood dreams come true" and "joy on a sheet pan."  The cake keeps the cookies soft for as long as it takes for you to finish the batch (albeit they disappeared pretty quickly last year), and Funfetti is one of my (and apparently everyone's) favorite cake flavors.  Last year, I stuffed half of them with Funfetti cake and half with chocolate cake.  Per popular demand, this year is focused on the Funfetti-on-Funfetti action, with just a handful of chocolate-stuffed cookies to round out the plate.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Menu Thus Far...

I've been asked this question many times, so to satisfy those of you who are curious and to give a little teaser for what's to come this weekend, here's the menu thus far (remember that I'm not even halfway through my baking time yet!):

  • Springerle: A very old, traditional German cookie flavored with anise
  • Rosemary Butter Cookies: One of my favorites; these consist of a classic butter cookie jazzed up with some fresh rosemary and encased in a sugar bark.
  • Lemon Meltaways: These cookies are basically made of confectioners' sugar precariously held together with butter, so it dissolves the second you bite into it leaving behind a tart kick of lemon.
  • Cardamom Spritzgeback: A delightful, bite-sized vanilla cookie with an earthy hint of cardamom to spice it up - literally!
  • Whipped Shortbread Spot Cookies: These bring me back to my childhood - my family used to go to the bakery on the main drag in Long Beach, Long Island, and bring home a box of "spot cookies" which never survived the day.
  • Peanut Butter Compost Cookies: Soft, crumbly, and loaded with goodies like crushed Oreos, pretzels, potato chips, and M&Ms
  • Peanut Butter Kisses: A classic, creamy peanut butter cookie topped with a Hershey's Kiss
  • Pistachio Cherry Meltaways: A perennial favorite, bringing together the resinous, flowery flavor of pistachios with the tart sweetness of maraschino cherries (both of which contain hints of almond-esque flavor), with a texture that dissolves in your mouth
  • Dolci di Noci: A newcomer this year, consisting mainly of pulverized walnuts with a touch of sugar and egg.  One taste-tester declared that it tastes like the filling of a pecan pie...which is perfect this weekend is Pi Day!
  • Shortbread Spirals: A eye-catching new *twist* on a classic shortbread.
  • Gluten-Free Cake Batter Cookies: Invented in a pinch upon learning that a close friend was suddenly eating gluten-free and was convinced she'd never eat a delicious dessert again, these cookies are coaxed out of a box of cake mix, a box of pudding mix, and just some oil and eggs to hold them together - and they're positively addictive!
  • Sugar Cookies: The classic; this year, they're shaped like the scales of justice to celebrate the fact that I was admitted to the New York State Bar as a practicing attorney exactly a week ago!
  • Vanilla Meringues: Light and airy, these are absolute heaven to me.  They have a satisfying crunch on the way in and melt in your mouth, leaving just a memory of vanilla behind on your tongue.
  • And there's one more that's partially made - I just took three cakes out of the oven.  If you're curious as to how a fully-baked cake becomes a cookie, stay tuned for more to come tomorrow!

Cookies make the world go round...and round and round and round...

One of the most visually striking cookies I make each year is also a fairly basic one - plain old shortbread.  It's actually not very sweet, so for those of you who think there's such a thing as too much sugar, this one might be perfect for you.  The trick is what you do with the dough after it's been made - the hard part is rolling the doughs out super thin and stacking and rolling and coiling it into what eventually becomes a beautiful cookie that makes you look like a professional baker.

This cookie is definitely not for beginners or children if you're trying to make perfect, tight spirals, but the good news (from experience) is that they taste great no matter how sloppy they look!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Perhaps my favorite cookie ever...

Normally, when people ask me which cookie is my favorite, I dodge the question.  That's sort of like asking a mother to name her favorite child.  But if I were forced to give an answer, the Rosemary Butter Cookies would probably win.  (Shh, don't tell the others!)  This also happens to be one of only a few cookies that have been in the lineup since the very first Cookie Party - it's a staple in my home, and a favorite among my friends.

These cookies are crisp, but dissolve in your mouth, and they have a sugar bark that ensures that every bite is just a touch sweeter from the moment you make contact with the cookie.  They're absolutely delicious, they keep for at least two weeks at room temperature without changing their texture, you can make the dough well ahead of time and stick it in the freezer until you need it, and maybe the best part about them is what gets left behind when the cookies are gone!  That rosemary-scented sugar bark tends to crumble a little as the cookies and the container get moved around.  I love to pour the crumbs into a tiny pinch bowl with a tight lid and keep it around - it's the perfect topping for vanilla ice cream!

A Cautious Love of Nut Cookies...

The days that I make nut-based cookies are known (affectionately) in my kitchen as "Poison Days."  That's because my little cousins (and a large handful of my friends) have a nut allergy.  From the very first iteration of the Cookie Party, I've taken allergens very seriously.  I bake all of my nut cookies on designated days to avoid cross-contamination, I use separate equipment wherever possible, and I put any shared equipment through the dishwasher overnight (after a thorough hand-washing as well) before making any non-nut cookie.  It also makes the sourcing of my ingredients more complicated - every single item gets checked for allergen notices, and those that don't contain clear information need to be checked online.  I also store nut cookies separately from the rest, in a different part of my apartment, and I serve them in a different area as well.  My fear of ever being the cause of any pain for my cousins motivates me to be as vigilant as I possibly can.  Finally, I also try to limit the number of nut cookies on the menu, often only serving 6 or so (out of around 30 total recipes), so a nut cookie really needs to be special to earn a slot.  In recent years, I've also added gluten-free and vegan cookies to the mix, and I do my best to make sure that every Cookie Party guest can find something delicious to make them smile.  It takes a little extra planning, but it feels so good to see someone discover a new favorite dessert.

All of that said, I do recognize that a good peanut butter cookie can be a heavenly experience.  The first peanut butter cookie on the menu today is plain, old-fashioned Peanut Butter Kisses - the recipe is adapted from the recipe that's printed on the back of large bags of Hershey's Kisses.  Next up after that is a Peanut Butter Compost Cookie that comes to the Cookie Party courtesy of Chef Ralph Tamborra, a master dessert chef and gingerbread wizard who I met during my time at Google.  This recipe is a joy to make - these cookies are soft and crumbly and nearly impossible to mess up, and it also happens to be the only recipe I've ever used that's already scaled up to Cookie Party levels.  After that come Pistachio Cherry Meltaways (a perennial favorite) and a newcomer this year, Dolci di Noci (a crispy, chewy walnut cookie that has only three ingredients!).

After that, every surface, dish, and piece of baking equipment gets scrubbed thoroughly before any other cookies can be made.

PB Kisses

PB Compost Cookies

Dolci di Noci

Pistachio Cherry Meltaways
(I swear it's not mint chocolate chip ice cream!)

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Working on my presentation game...

In past years, I've often wished I had the artistic talent to make cookies that looked as good as they tasted.  This year, I took a chance on a new cookie and a new technique to try to remedy that.

Springerle are a very old and very odd German cookie (they've been traced back to at least the 1300's and are traditionally flavored with anise) that is unlike any other I've ever baked.  Not only does it involve beating the eggs for over 40 minutes (!), but you also dry the dough for 24-48 hours prior to baking the cookies, and they're apparently "best" after 3-4 weeks!  On the plus side, they can hold very intricate designs flawlessly, and although they're very impressive as they are, you can also hand-paint them to create a truly beautiful work of art.  Plus, the fact that you can (and should) bake them ahead of time means that you also have plenty of time to decorate them before it's crunch time getting ready for the event where you're serving them.

Today I made...

For anyone trying to make your day a little sweeter, you've come to the right place!  Today is the first day of baking for my annual Cookie Party.  What is the Cookie Party, you ask?  Well, it is not a cookie exchange.  I take a full week off from work and bake around 4,000-5,000 cookies, and the Cookie Party is the culminating moment when my friends, family, and colleagues join me to sample the goods, to mix and mingle, and to smile for an hour or two, no matter what else is going on in our lives.  Why would I put in so much time and effort on cookies?  Think of that moment when someone walks into a room with a plate of freshly-baked cookies - picture the look on everyone's faces as they get a whiff of warm butter and melty chocolate chips...I live for that look.  Making my friends happy makes me happy, and that makes a week of hard work totally worth it!

Many attendees of the Cookie Party have asked over the years for me to document the week-long baking marathon that precedes the party, and this year, for the first time, I'm making their wish come true.  The first cookie of the week to be completed is...drum roll, please!...Cardamom Vanilla Spritzgeback cookies.  These cookies are both crispy and chewy, with an earthy mix of vanilla and cardamom to give a little intrigue to an otherwise fairly basic vanilla cookie.  They're made with a cookie press, and given the timing of this year's party, I went with a mix of green shamrocks and pink spring flowers.

More updates to come...stay tuned!