Crumbs of comfort come in many forms. First it was sourdough keeping our hands and minds busy, as well as tummies happy. Then we turned to sweetly soothing banana bread. Now, cookies are bringing contentment as we continue to bake our way through challenging times.
A search for “cookies” on Google yields an incredible 10 billion results, and more than 23 million posts on Instagram are tagged #cookies. But I’m not surprised these chewy morsels are incredibly popular right now. Less extravagant (or so they seem) than cakes, cookies deliver a few modest bites of sweetness. They also offer endless possibilities for shaping, decorating and flavouring, so most cookies can be adapted to a baker’s personal taste. What’s more, the aroma that fills the kitchen as they bake is incomparable.
So, what’s the difference between a cookie and a biscuit? To some people the terms are interchangeable. But to my mind they’re distinctly different treats. Cookies, the name used in America, imply something richer, softer and chewier than the crisper biscuits the British traditionally dunk in their tea. America developed its world-famous cookie tradition thanks to generations of immigrants from all over Europe who took their recipes for flat, sweet baked confections with them. In fact, cookie evolved from the Dutch koekje, meaning “little cake” (biscuit, on the other hand, derives from the Latin panis biscoctus, which translates as “bread twice cooked”).
American cookies flourished in the Thirties with the arrival of the electric range in many home kitchens. This modern appliance allowed for cookies to be baked at the all-important precise and consistent temperature. After this “there was no stopping the march of the Cookie Monster”, according to The American Century Cookbook.
Although cookies come in many shapes and forms, they generally fall into two categories: drop cookies and refrigerator cookies. The former are made with a soft batter-like dough spooned on to a baking sheet, and spread out in the heat of the oven; the latter are made with stiffer dough that needs to be chilled before baking.
The butter in cold dough takes longer to melt than that in room temperature dough, so the cookies keep their shape better in the oven. It really does make a difference. They might take a little longer to prepare, but the advantage is you can make them ahead and bake when you feel the cookie urge. Just roll the dough into a log, wrap in cling film and keep in the fridge or freezer, then cut into slices for baking. Or roll out the chilled dough and stamp into shapes with cookie cutters or a glass dipped in flour (some bakers find it easier to roll out the dough first, and then chill it, but you will need room in your fridge for this).
The texture of cookies arises from just a few key ingredients, the proportion in which they are used, and the way they are combined and baked. Butter, the most common fat to use, delivers flavour and makes them tender. Flour helps provide the structure. A higher ratio of flour to water (eggs usually provide most of the moisture) gives a crumblier texture, like shortbread. A higher proportion of water to flour produces a cakey texture, or a crispy, crunchy one if cooked for longer.
Many cookies are made with plain or strong flour, but including some wholegrain flours, like spelt, adds a nutty flavour (some baking experts suggest substituting no more than 30 per cent of the flour for wholegrain to avoid dense cookies). Replacing some or all of the flour with finely ground nuts creates a coarser and more fragile texture. Sugar delivers much more than sweetness; it helps form the structure and texture of cookies. The science is complex, but brown sugars tend to make cookies moister, softer and chewier than white. And they certainly add a delicious caramel flavour.
Below I offer you a range of recipes, including a basic dough that you can adapt with your favourite flavours. Enjoy them warm from the oven for one of life’s great pleasures.
How to achieve perfect cookies
- If you’re following a recipe for the first time, try baking a single cookie first to make sure you have the oven temperature right. All ovens vary and yours might not be the same as whoever tested the recipe.
- Turn the tray halfway through the baking time to ensure even cooking, as most ovens have hot spots. If you’re baking cookies on more than one oven shelf, swap the trays around too.
- Adjust the thickness of your cookies and the baking time to your taste. Thicker dough and/or a shorter baking time will yield softer cakier cookies. For crisp cookies slice/roll more thinly and/or bake a little longer.
- When making cookies from a log of frozen dough, don’t defrost it first. Slice and bake from frozen.
- Replacing the sugar in a recipe with a different sort can completely change the way the cookies turn out. If possible, substitute a small amount first and if it works well try more in the next batch.
Sue Quinn is the author of Cocoa: An exploration of chocolate, with recipes (Quadrille, £25). Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk