Saturday, April 26, 2008

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies -- Alton Brown style

Chris is in the midst of a love affair (he calls it a man crush) -- a love affair with Alton Brown, which is much better than a love affair with Rachel Ray (annoying) or god forbid, Martha Stewart (pure evil.) I know I have had my own love affairs over the years as well, most recently Dorie Greenspan and the Pastry Queen, so I understand.

This love affair has resulted in a lot of Good Eats episodes on our DVR (they usually play three reruns a day -- few of which we have actually seen since we didn't watch the show much until recently) and purchasing the three books that Alton has out right now -- one on cooking, one on baking, and one on kitchen equipment.

I don't mind Alton. The quirky format and cheesy props from Good Eats have grown on me, and I enjoy learning some of the science behind the food. Naturally his book on baking was very intriguing, and I didn't hesitate to start flipping through it once we got it home. Lots of great science going on with individual ingredients, how they react to each other, and what each one brings to a recipe... very cool. One thing that is very clear in the book though, is that Alton is not a baker -- he states that several times throughout -- and makes it clear that when he first started baking, the techniques and methods were very difficult and frustrating for him.

The way he writes his recipes and talks about the methods and ingredients seems very stiff to me -- like he never quite got comfortable with it all -- exactly the way I feel on the rare occasions I attempt to make dinner on the stove. I'm not quite sure what it is, but the recipes and instructions don't feel like they flow... I'm not even sure how to explain it properly.

One example is room temperature butter. As we all know, it's a very arbitrary instruction that most books use. I keep all of my butter in the fridge (one of the cats likes to lick it if we leave it out and cat spit does not belong in cookies) and since I never think to get some out 45 minutes before I plan to bake something, I usually nuke it for a few seconds (20 seconds for 2 sticks) to get it to the right consistency. Alton says that he always gets his butter out at least 30 minutes early, and then uses a probe thermometer set to 65 degrees so he knows exactly when his butter is the right temperature. That just seems to... prissy to me... to exact... to something. (which is ironic of course because bakers are usually considered much more exact and prissy than cooks...)

So, flipping through the book I was curious if his methods really made that much of a difference. First off though, you should probably know that Alton and I have not had a great track record. After watching a Good Eats episode on biscuits last year, I tried one of his baking techniques on my usual batch of buttermilk biscuits and ruined the whole thing. I also recently tried his pie crust and failed with that too (although I blame that mostly on my own pie crust shortcomings and I do plan to give the recipe another try sometime.)

The book does not have a lot of recipes to begin with, but I quickly settled on Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. They mix up quick and I knew I could freeze the extra cookie dough for some other time -- and a good thing too, because the batch is huge. One thing I could not do was weigh the dry ingredients -- I don't have a scale yet -- but I measured using my best baking measuring discipline (fluff the flour, spoon carefully into the measuring cup and smooth the top without packing it down), then I "sifted" the flour, baking powder and cinnamon together with the food processor, which is his preferred method.

I also didn't want to wait 45 minutes for my butter to come to room temp, so I popped the butter in the microwave. The recipe called for 5 sticks (did I mention it was a HUGE recipe?) and I checked it after 20 seconds, but knew it wasn't quite done yet so I nuked it another 10 seconds. After eyeballing it and relying on my gut instinct, I called it good. Out of curiosity, Chris stuck the thermometer in it and it was 64 degrees -- just one degree colder than the 65-70 degree window that Alton claims is the perfect temp for working butter. (Ha!)

The only other thing that was kind of different from a normal recipe was to whisk the eggs and the extract together and slowly pouring those into the creamed butter and sugar. Easy enough. Of course, that's also a lot of dishes for a batch of cookies -- food processor, mixer, bowl for the eggs, another bowl for other liquid ingredients (this recipe didn't call for any, but still...) Okay, now I'm just picking...

So, after all this talk... how did they turn out you ask?


I portioned 6 cookies per half-sheet pan (the pan of choice for Alton) using my normal cookie scoop. He wanted the cookies baked for 15-17 minutes, which seemed like an awful long time to me, so I rotated after 6 minutes and pulled them out after 11 (more of that gut instinct at work.) The cookies were very dark brown and flat around the edges... almost burnt really (see the picture below). So I double checked his scooping technique and it turns out he uses a 1 oz scoop (2 tablespoons) while the scoop I used was much smaller -- only 2 teaspoons of dough per cookie.

Easy enough to fix. I just measured (carefully) 2 tablespoons for each cookie and baked again. Once again I rotated after 6 minutes though, and pulled them out after 11. There were still some dark edges, but they didn't flatten and spread on the edges quite as much, and the flavor and overall texture was much, much better with the proper amount of cookie dough. I can't imagine baking them for a full 17 minutes though...

But even with the bigger cookies, they still weren't all that great. Yes they were good -- but it's a huge batch and I was frustrated with the spreading edges which burned easily... plus, "good" doesn't quite cut it in my kitchen for repeats. There are too many recipes and too little time for me to repeat merely okay...

I'm actually not going to include the recipe here -- mainly because the way Alton has his book set up is unique and his instructions are very specific -- I'm too lazy to type the recipe in a way that would fully explain his techniques, and I'm afraid that even if I tried I would mess it up, and I wouldn't want to do that to somebody else's very carefully planned and thought out recipe.

I probably won't be using his book much for actual baking -- science explanations and advice on kitchen equipment -- yes, but not for recipes. However, if I have to cook something on the stove that isn't some part of baking (*shudder*) -- I wouldn't hesitate to turn to his cooking book since it's a realm I'm much more uncomfortable with.


kimberleyblue said...

I love Alton - it's a shame your cookies didn't turn out as good as you expected.

I do agree that he can be frustrating in his prissiness, but it's also taught me a lot that's helped. I guess I just pick and choose what I listen to from him!

biscuitpusher said...

To be fair, Chris has had some success with Alton recipes. We had his oven baked pork spare ribs which were very good, and his buttermilk pancake recipe is a regular Sunday morning breakfast around here. Plus the filling for the no pan pear pie came from Alton, and that was very good too.

Anonymous said...

I have that book, and have made his buttermilk pancakes (good) and scones (not really sconey). I sometimes do the mix extract and egg together. . .I think I read it somewhere other than his book. I definitely don't sift his way, I hate cleaning the food processor.

biscuitpusher said...

I hate cleaning the food processor too, plus with a small kitchen it's a pain to get out and put away. The only time I see myself doing it (as with the lemon cookies) is if the processor is already out for some reason and I think sifting will make a significant difference in the results of whatever I'm baking.

Anonymous said...

the one i had tasted just fine, but then....COOKIES!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the head's up. I was just about to try that recipe and you have saved me at least an hour on a rare Saturday that I can devote to cookie making. Plus, the tips about the butter and microwave was great.