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Cookbook Review: Cookie Love

There are a lot of cookbooks written by professional chefs who seem to have no memory of what it is like to cook at home. They often include complex recipes full of ingredients that are only available foraged from the forests of Northern California. Some of these books are perfectly lovely books and can be enjoyed for other reasons, but they’re unlikely to get much use in my kitchen. They’re aspirational, which I’m okay with—sometimes. More often, I want a book I can and will use regularly. On the other end of the spectrum there are books specifically designed for home cooks that include uninspired recipes for things like chocolate chip cookies or roasted chicken. Apparently, they’ve never heard about the internet. It is some seriously boring stuff. The current cookbook landscape leaves one feeling a bit like Goldilocks, looking for just right.

Mindy Segal, Chicago’s most iconic pastry chef, released her first cookbook, Cookie Love, this week. Segal is a James Beard award-winning (and frequently nominated) pastry chef who has been pushing sweets at Hot Chocolate [1], her restaurant/dessert bar, for the past decade. I learned to love pastry at Hot Chocolate. I lived near the restaurant for years and was a frequent and enthusiastic patron. The sweets she made were progressive and exciting, as well as totally satisfying and familiar. She never served a dessert so weird that you could not relax and enjoy it; her focus was on pleasure. She used salt and acid and temperature in her desserts, the way a savory cook might (and the way all pastry cooks should!). It lead to some incredible stuff. I have often hoped she would write a book—I was desperate for her secrets. About a year ago I learned that a book was finally happening, and that it would focus on cookies, the uncontested highest form of dessert. A food writer I admire, Kate Leahy [2], signed on to write the book with Segal. She has past experience translating the work of chefs to the home kitchen. Their book, published by Ten Speed Press [3], turns out to be exactly what this Goldilocks has been looking for.

The book is divided into chapters based on different cookie types (bar cookies, shortbread, etc)—kind of a choose your own cookie-plate adventure. The range and variety of cookies is truly impressive, and it is what stood out when I first flipped through the book. The recipes are universally appealing—they are cookies after all. These are the kind of recipes that get me hyped up to get in the kitchen and bake. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks baking from the book. I intended to test three recipes and somehow three became six. I can’t stop. Segal and Leahy have created a cookbook that manages to speak to home cooks and their experiences, while not treating them like idiots. They also have given us the tools to make really amazing cookies.

I started with Segal’s Snickerdoodle (or as she calls them: Any Which Way But You Will Never Lose Snickerdoodles). These primary school favorites are transformed using a simple seasoning technique Segal employs throughout the book: a combination of kosher salt and flake salt. It creates a well-salted cookie (kosher salt) with slightly irregular pops of saltiness (flake salt). It makes the eating of the cookie an adventure, and really elevates this sweet and cinnamony American standard. It is the sort of simple technique that is taught throughout the book, and the first of many indications that Segal (and Leahy) were thinking about home cooks. They’re not just giving us recipes, they are educating us along the way and providing us with techniques that will not only work in their recipes, but in any recipe we try.

I am a sucker for thumbprint cookies, and was immediately drawn to the Peanut Butter Thumbprints with Strawberry Lambic Jam. The jam is another great technique recipe in which fruit is first macerated, and then cooked down with a small amount of sugar and a healthy dose of a berry lambic. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes of stirring at the jam pot, and has changed the way I think about small-batch preserves. The jam stands alone, and is worth making and spreading on your morning toast. I’m going to be experimenting with this method all summer. In the cookie recipe, the jam fills the center of a peanut butter dough that has been rolled in crushed Beer Nuts. It’s a recipe that I find intellectually satisfying (beer jam + Beer Nuts), as well as delicious. The recipe instructions for this cookie are a good example of how thoughtfully and precisely written the recipes in the book are. They describe a technique for forming the thumbprints that is simple, but allows the home cook to have some of the uniformity and finesse of a pastry cook. In fact, all of the dough-handling techniques described in the book are clear and lead to beautiful finished products.

I also made Goat Butter Shortbread (which might be my favorite shortbread ever), a Raspberry and Rose Rugelach (as good as it sounds), and some Honey Walnut Bars (a salty/sweet fantastyland). They were all superb. They are better than any other cookie recipes I’ve found–modern, exciting, smart. I will make every recipe again. The recipes also all work exactly as directed, and the recipe instructions make you confident you are doing things correctly. I’ve baked a lot of cookies in my day, and to randomly pick a half dozen recipes from a book and have them all be winners, is something very special. It’s unprecedented in my experience with baking books.

The recipes are where the book really shines, and that’s as it should be. But I also enjoyed reading the headnotes to each recipe. They give you useful insight into Segal’s process or the origins of the recipe. The voice of the book is charming and friendly; you’re happy to spend time with the authors. They make a point of encouraging you to experiment and have fun with the recipes. Segal is not a dictator, she is a mentor. The final chapters of the book are especially successful. These chapters cover topics like pantry ingredients, kitchen tools, and “tricks of the trade” (a mini-master class in baking). These sections in cookbooks can be a real bore, but here they stand out and are full of information, insights, and techniques that you’ll use again and again.

There are a couple of unusual decisions that warrant mentioning. Extra-large eggs are used throughout the book, a deviation from what has become standard (large eggs) in recipe writing. So, you have to buy eggs specifically for this book. Kind of annoying, but not a big deal. Segal also suggests a technique for measuring flour that goes against everything that home cooks have been taught for at least the past decade. It has become the standard that when measuring flour, you spoon it into your measuring cup and level it off with a straight edge. It is a lesson taught in the vast majority of baking books published in this country and  I see it on televised cooking shows regularly. It is How You Measure Flour. Instead, Segal has you actually scoop the flour out with the measuring cup and then level it off. It means that your cup of flour using her method weighs significantly more than a cup of flour using the more common method. These two choices are notable for their deviation from the norm, but I was able to look past both once I started eating the cookies. I do worry it will get in the way of some home cooks who think egg size doesn’t matter (it does) and who do not read the fine print and are short on flour in every recipe. Their fault, I guess—the instructions are clear. Regardless, these are small details, and not things I would categorize as problems with the book.

The one place where the book falls short, is in its design. Though it is technically well-executed, it all feels pretty generic. The book looks too much like the type of food blogs that have become ubiquitous in recent years—weathered wood, rusty old spoons, and an over-abundance of crumbs. I think this style started off as a nod toward the authentic—cooking is messy and imperfect! Which was an understandable response to the high-gloss fakery of the food styling that preceded it. But through its over-use it has come to signify the inauthentic, it simply looks like trends—and tired trends, at that. Remove the delicious-looking cookies from these photographs, and you are left with some weird abstract spaces, a bunch of crumbs that don’t belong there, and some creepy old ice cream scoops. Of course my own dislike of the aesthetic is subjective, and isn’t really the problem. The problem is that the design does not reflect or support the content of the book (other than in a documentary way). The text is so authentic, creative, and specific, but the design could have been for any cookbook about anything written by anyone, 2008-the present. Where is Segal in those images? Not literally, but how do the images reflect a real person, a real kitchen, real stories? The photography and styling are unintentionally at their most successful when Segal’s tattooed arm happens to appear in the frame. The specificity of her flesh makes you realize how desperate you are for something that feels like it belongs to the author, or to real life.

But for all of the recent talk about the importance of cookbook design, it rarely ruins a great text or saves a terrible one. It certainly can’t stand in the way of the brilliance of this book. For me, Cookie Love is the proverbial instant classic that will help home bakers get one step closer to baking like a pastry chef thanks to the lessons these recipes teach us. By giving us something that manages to be both aspirational and attainable, Segal and Leahy got this one just right.

I’m including the recipe for Blueberry Kolachkes with Orange Blossom Almonds, it wasn’t an easy choice. I divided my batch of cream cheese dough in half so I could try two cookies from the chapter on kolachkes and rugelach, I suggest you do the same. The only note I would add to these is that they really are best the day they are made. Because the filling in these uses a starch to thicken it, they have a higher moisture content than the rest of the jams used in Segal’s cookies. It means they get softer much faster. But oh, the glory of them on the day they are made! (Pro tip: if you have leftover blueberry filling, or almonds, they are both delicious on a bowl of yogurt!)

 

BLUEBERRY JAM KOLACHKES WITH ORANGE BLOSSOM ALMONDS (from Cookie Love [4] by Mindy Segal with Kate Leahy)

FILLING
4 cups (1 ¼ pounds) fresh or frozen blueberries
⅓ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
2 teaspoons tapioca starch

COOKIES
1 recipe Classic Cream Cheese Dough, divided in half and chilled
1 extra-large egg white, lightly beaten

ORANGE BLOSSOM ALMONDS
3 cups untoasted sliced almonds
½ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Pinch of sea salt flakes
3 to 4 teaspoons orange blossom water

To make the filling:
Combine the blueberries, sugar, orange juice, and orange blossom water in a bowl and let macerate for at least 4 hours at room temperature or cover and refrigerate overnight.

Set aside 2 tablespoons or so of the blueberry juice in a small bowl. In a high-sided, heavy pot, heat the fruit mixture over medium-high heat until the juices start to boil. Simmer briefly. Whisk the tapioca starch into the reserved blueberry juice. Stir it into the fruit mixture, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer to a storage container and refrigerate until completely chilled, approximately 1 hour.

To make the cookies:

Put a sheet of parchment paper the same dimensions as a half sheet (13 by 18-inch) pan on the work surface and dust lightly with flour. Unwrap one dough half and place on top.

Using a rolling pin and a pastry roller, roll the dough half into a rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border from the edge of the parchment paper. If the edges become uneven, push a bench scraper against — he sides to straighten them out. To keep the dough from sticking to the parch-ment paper, periodically dust the top lightly with flour, cover with another piece of parchment paper, and, sand-wiching the dough between both sheets of parchment paper, flip the dough and paper over. Peel off the top layer of parchment paper and continue to roll. Repeat with the second dough half. Stack both sheets of dough on top of each other and refrigerate until chilled, approximately 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a few half sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly coat with nonstick cooking spray.

Invert the sheets of dough onto the work surface and peel off the top layer of parchment paper. Using a 2-inch (or comparable) square cookie cutter, cut out the kolachkes. Reroll the scraps, chill for at least 20 minutes, and cut out more squares.
Using an offset spatula, separate a square away from the rest of the dough. Put a generous spoonful of blueberry jam diagonally across the center of the square, from point to point, keeping the other corners free. Fold the empty
corners over the top so they overlap and pinch them closed. Place on the prepared sheet pan and repeat with the remaining squares, spacing them on the pans 1 inch apart. Brush the tops with the egg white.

To make the Orange Blossom almonds:

In a bowl, mix together the almonds, confectioners’ sugar, and sea salt. Add just enough orange blossom water to ensure that all of the almonds are damp but not soaking. Generously pile the almonds on top of the kolachkes.
Bake one pan at a time for 15 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for another 7 to 10 minutes, or until the nuts are golden brown. If the nuts begin to brown too much before the rest of the kolachkes are baked, lower the oven temperature. Let the cookies cool on the sheet pan for 1 to 2 minutes. Using an offset spatula, transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining pans.

Kolachkes can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

CLASSIC CREAM CHEESE DOUGH

1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium speed for 5 to 10 seconds. Add the cream cheese and mix on medium speed to combine, 10 to 15 seconds. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until aerated, approximately 3 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.

On medium speed, add the vanilla, mixing briefly until incorporated. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour and salts.

Add the flour mixture all at once and mix on low speed until the dough just comes together but still looks shaggy, approxi-mately 30 seconds. Do not overmix. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. With a plastic bench scraper, bring the dough completely together by hand.

Stretch two sheets of plastic wrap on a work surface. Divide the dough in half (each half will weigh around 14 ½ ounces) and place a half on each piece of plastic. Pat the dough into rectangles, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until chilled throughout, at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.

Reprinted with permission from Cookie Love: 60 Recipes and Techniques for Turning the Ordinary into the Extraordinary by Mindy Segal with Kate Leahy, copyright © 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.