Curious Cook: Evolution of a cookie — or, Darwin was right

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“Yeah, but I didn’t know the cookies would be so good!” — my boss, when I offered him his seventh cookie.

He said, “Keep them away from me!”

“But when I said I was thinking of baking some cookies and bringing them to work,” I replied, “you said that it was a good idea.”

The truest test of a chocolate chip cookie is what it tastes like sans chips.

I learned this very important piece of wisdom when I was in elementary school, living in Puerto Rico.

We lived on a very small military base, and sometimes our commissary ran out of items before the supply transport came to restock our little corner of the island. So, very often there were no chips available.

But we still made chip-less cookies. And after the first bite it was painfully evident whether each particular cookie recipe was a dud or a stud.

A tiny morsel of chocolate should not be forced to redeem a mediocre cookie. It’s like having a kid to prop up a failing marriage. It’s not fair, it won’t work, and it ain’t right. That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on a shard of chocolate or a brand-new human.

This particular tastes-really-good-without-chips cookie recipe came from a People magazine interview with the caterer of Seinfeld, the hit TV comedy from the 1990s. It called for mocha chips, but they were impossible to find in a pre-Amazon world, so I used any other add-ins that struck my sweet tooth. The original also had too much butter, not enough flour and consequently ran all over the baking sheet. I tinkered until the ratio was right.

When I began keeping vanilla beans in my pantry and discovered the unexpectedly nutty flavor of brown butter, I added both to my cookies. I sent some studded with milk chocolate chips and dipped in caramel to my child at sleepaway camp.

Once they’d eaten them, the campers requested another batch, but this time with no chips or dips. They were a huge hit. The kids named them “vanilla explosion” cookies, and I’ve been making them sometimes naked (the cookies, not me) and sometimes full of other stuff ever since.

I took my basic chocolate chip cookies to work because I was afraid I’d frighten them with the naked version — my coworkers have very traditional palates.

Thanks for your time.

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Vanilla explosion cookies

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, browned with vanilla bean, cooled and re-softened

2 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 vanilla bean

3 1/4 cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Malden salt or other large flaky sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)

Cookie instructions:

Split the vanilla in half, scrape out the insides and set aside. Put butter and empty vanilla pod into a small skillet and melt, then brown, watching carefully that it doesn’t burn. You want the final butter color to be akin to caramel. Once browned, pour butter into a small bowl and place in fridge to cool and harden, stirring occasionally to suspend the solids. This can also be done days in advance. A couple hours before making cookies, set brown butter on counter to soften.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees (make sure the oven is HOT when the cookies go in). In a stand mixer or by hand, mix butter, sugar, and vanilla bean innards. Add eggs, one at a time until thoroughly combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Mix together wet and dry ingredients. Put dough in fridge for one hour to stiffen. Once you’re ready to bake portion dough and place on parchment covered baking sheets, leaving plenty of room for them to spread out (6-8 cookies per sheet for larger, and 10-12 for smaller cookies). Flatten dough with a small plate to ¼-inch thickness and sprinkle each with a little flaked salt if desired.

Make the cookies any size you like, baking all one size together. A large cookie bakes for 10-12 minutes, a bite-size cookie may only need 7-8. Bake until golden brown, the longer they cook, the crispier they’ll be. Makes about 3 dozen large cookies.

These cookies are a terrific texture to use for ice cream sandwiches. Banana ice cream makes a tasty frozen take on banana pudding.

*The cookies I took to work today had 1½ bags of Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips. You can use whatever type of chips and add-ons you like. You can add dried cherries and toasted pecans. Chocolate chunks and pretzel pieces. I once added semi-sweet chips and a whole bag of sweetened coconut — they were a cross between chocolate chip cookies and coconut macaroons. You could add diced apple and bacon pieces.

My personal fave is the double doozie: a shameful amount of buttercream is sandwiched between two cookies.

The point is to make the cookies your own. The naked cookie, while delicious by itself, can be a canvas.


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