TThe first time I baked cookies myself (peanut butter, at age eight), I knew I wanted to keep baking. I just had to figure out how.
Neither of my parents cooked, so we didn’t have a blender, cookbooks, or cake pans. My only guide was one of my favorite aunts – everyone’s favorite aunt – who seemed to have a box of crispy, tender, and steaming blueberry muffins in her stuffed hands every morning we went.
During one trip, I perched on a stool next to her as she smashed eggs and poured sugar into a bowl, all without measuring. She picked up a handful of flour and mixed, and maybe sprinkled some more. When I asked her how much she added, she said, âOh, just the right amount. As she slowed down her punches, I asked why. She replied, âBecause it’s almost ready. “
My aunt’s style of cooking by feeling became my goal, as did her ability to feed us effortlessly. Now when I cook for my family and friends, or develop recipes professionally, what motivates me is the urge to nurture when things are going well, to comfort when things go down and to give. hope and joy when all that comes up begins to converge.
It means keeping the dishes simple. But simple doesn’t mean boring.
Sometimes the most delicious form of a dish is to cut off the excess and refine the balance. Ease can mean streamlining steps that require time better spent with those you feed (or leave you with too many dishes to wash). It is also about exchanging meticulous techniques for flexible fail-safe techniques.
Cooking is often touted as a daunting science: if measurements aren’t scaled to the nearest gram and precise steps aren’t followed, then inedible disaster will occur. It is also assumed that you need a stand mixer. I love mine as I imagine I would love the James Bond Aston Martin if I had it. Brilliant with a powerful motor, my blender can do all the fancy things. But it’s not necessarily the best tool for learning the art of baking.
Skipping the blender and working by hand lets you experience the tactile joys of the process – and understand how easy intuitive cooking can be. You want a blender to whisk a dozen cloudy egg whites and a food processor to grind the nuts into powder, but, to mash a high proportion of butter into flour, like you would a short dough, you must use your fingers.
Think about shortbread. Press it into a mold and you have a pie crust. Crush it into crumbs, add some nuts and oats, and you’ve got the apple crisp cookie and granola filling. Squeezing dry ingredients into butter lets you experience how flour meets fat, learning how to stop as soon as you feel everything forming a sandy, soft dough.
This same knowledge – detecting when dough comes together by touching it and adjusting it accordingly – also applies to oatmeal cookies and chocolate chips. The oats absorb the liquid like a sponge, so a touch of cream in the mixture keeps the cookies from drying out. But too much air blown into the wet ingredients can make the cookies mushy. Mixing with a wooden spoon helps melt the butter and sugars until creamy and beat the egg until its golden streaks disappear, feel the resistance of the dough and push harder against the pockets stiffer, and to incorporate the chocolate and oats with a sweetness that no machine can duplicate.
The result of this muscle mixing? Cookies that manage to be both delicate and robust, crispy on the edges and caramel chewy and tender in the center.
Making these foolproof candies – alone, quietly, or with other hands big or small to help – can be a therapeutic experience. There is fun in scratching the sticky bits and pieces off your fingers, something fundamental to working with other than snap keys and glassy screens. And if you’re afraid to cook – or just don’t feel like pulling out your blender – you’ll find confidence and joy in the kitchen with these easy desserts.
This hot dessert can quickly satisfy any craving for sweetness, especially if you forgo peeling apples, which adds a nice bite to the crunchy toasted filling and juicy, flavorful apples. Pick a variety of apples, then adjust the amounts of sugar and lemon juice to find the right tangy balance for the garnish. Or customize your crunch using your favorite spices and nuts. The dessert tastes especially comforting straight out of the oven, with the caramelized apple juices bubbling around the clusters of hazelnut cookies, but it’s equally good cold for breakfast the next day.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 1/4 hours
71g all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon of sugar
Â¼ tsp. 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg, or a combination
teaspoon of fine sea salt
84 g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1.5 cm cubes
116g pecans or chopped walnuts, or a combination
28g old-fashioned oatmeal
For the apples:
1 to 4 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Â½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg, or a combination
teaspoon of fine sea salt
1.4 kg of firm apples preferably, with a mixture of pie and sweet pie (8 to 10 apples)
1 to 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
1. Prepare the filling: rub together the flour, the two sugars, the spices and the salt in a medium bowl. Stir in butter and nuts to coat, then pinch butter into dry ingredients until no lumps of flour remain. Add the oatmeal, gently rake and press into the butter mixture to form peanut-sized crumbs. Freeze while you prepare the apples. The breadcrumb mixture can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
2. Prepare the apples: heat the oven to 190C. Use 1 tablespoon of sugar for all the sweet apples; 2 to 3 tablespoons for tart apples or a mixture; and 4 tablespoons for all the tart apples. Combine the sugar with the flour, spices and salt in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or other heavy oven-safe frying pan.
3. If desired, peel the apples. Cut into 1.5 cm pieces, removing seeds and pits. Add to the pan and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice for the tart apples and 2 tablespoons for the sweet and sweet pies. Mix until evenly coated, then spread into an even layer. Crumble the frozen crispy mixture on top (there will be holes).
4. Bake until filling is golden and apples are tender and bubbly, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 15 minutes on a wire rack before serving hot, warm or at room temperature.
Oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies
These have a distinctly home-made taste: much smaller than the giant, thick bakery-style discs and more delicate, with just enough buttercream to bind the chocolate and oats together. Mixing by hand results in cookies that are crispy on the edges and tender in the center. These can be mixed and baked in under an hour, but the dough balls can also be wrapped in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to a month. You can cook them frozen, although they will need a few more minutes to turn golden.
Makes: 2 to 3 dozen cookies
Time: 40 min
100g all-purpose flour
Â½ teaspoon of baking soda
Â½ teaspoon of fine sea salt
114g unsalted butter, softened
94g packed brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 tablespoons heavy cream or milk
2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
134g old-fashioned oatmeal
189g semi-sweet chocolate chips
63g pecans or chopped walnuts (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 180C. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Combine the butter and the two sugars in a large bowl with a wooden spoon until creamy. Beat the egg until incorporated, then stir in the cream and vanilla.
3. Add the flour mixture and stir gently until no more flour remains. Add oatmeal, chocolate chips and nuts (if using) and fold until evenly distributed. Using a tablespoon or small cookie spoon, loosely pick up a rounded ball of dough and place it on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough, spacing the balls 5 cm apart.
4. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 1 minute, then transfer the cookies to the wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Â© The New York Times