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, 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, 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, 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 by Mindy Segal with Kate Leahy)
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
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.
April 8th, 2015 at 6:32 am
Wow! Great review. So much opinion – as it should be! Helpful info @extra-large eggs, flour measuring, and then subtle insight on the trendoid styling. I will now be on the look out for *a bunch of crumbs that don’t belong there* when perusing food photography! Love your take on the tattoo. And, of course, I agree with you that the recipes matter most. Jam cookie recipe looks like a winner.
April 8th, 2015 at 7:21 am
Thanks for the review, Tim! I was on the fence about buying this book and you’ve pushed me over the edge. Like you, I’ve been to Hot Chocolate a million times and loved every experience and dish, but was concerned about that translating into a cookbook for the “home” cook. Glad to hear that the book is a success and I can’t wait to try some of the recipes you’ve described.
April 8th, 2015 at 8:10 am
This sounds really amazing! Does she give an explanation for not giving weight measurements? I feel like that needs to be come standard. By the way, do you like Joanne Chang’s Flour?
April 8th, 2015 at 8:25 am
Sold. Sold sold sold sold sold. Thank you for the thoughtful and thorough review. (Did I mention sold? Because SOLD.)
Mary @ Blossom to Stem says:
April 8th, 2015 at 8:33 am
I’m in love with this book. I understand your problem with the design aesthetic, but it doesn’t bother me. I guess I like that the cookies have the appearance of something that could actually be produced in a home kitchen. And while it will certainly feel dated whenever the prevailing aesthetic changes, I find something charming about things feeling of their time. (I do find the extra-large egg thing weird, especially since it’s tougher to find extra-large eggs from local farms. I’d also rather just scale everything than worry about imprecise measuring spoon techniques.)
What I love most is the feeling that these recipes are actually new and original without feeling gimmicky and make me think about the potential of cookies in news ways (cookies with smoked almonds? why didn’t I think of that?). I also appreciate the expertise Segal brings to the techniques (like explaining why a pastry roller is useful for shortbread).
April 8th, 2015 at 8:50 am
“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…” This could have come from my own head (and I confess, almost verbatim what I said about this and many other books as they’ve crossed my threshold). They’re largely great books from talented cooks, so it’s especially a shame that knowing the book process, most cooks are neither book designers (obvs) or have much say in the way their books are packaged. But it does feel like we’re overdue for a design refresh. At least personally, I like to remove the rusty spoons and antique dental tools from the table before eating. Then again, we’ve established that I’m boring. :)
April 8th, 2015 at 8:54 am
All- Thanks for being such great commenters. I really do think I have the best people reading my blog and am grateful for it.
Sara- I do have both Chang books. I like them, but for some reason I don’t find myself using them very often. Should I be? What do you like?
Mary- Agreed. I just bought a pastry roller and am surprised by how useful it has been.
April 8th, 2015 at 8:57 am
LOL, Deb. Major LOL.
Nancy in NJ says:
April 8th, 2015 at 11:20 am
Thanks for the great review! I had pre-ordered this book based on the cover photo alone (my bad, I know). Truth be told though, I’m a cookie-baking fanatic so it didn’t take much to sell me. Did you actually follow her instructions with the scoop method of measuring the flour? I never measure that way anymore so I’m a bit concerned. From J. Chang’s book Flour, try her hazelnut, milk chocolate cookies (can’t remember the precise name). I add tons more chocolate and hazelnuts and they are to-die-for! One of these days when I have a house full of people to help eat them, I’ll make her sticky caramel buns. Keep up the good work!
April 8th, 2015 at 11:29 am
Thanks, Nancy! Yes, I did use her scoop method to measure flour. It worked just fine but made me anxious. It seems even less predictable than the scoop method (how much pressure am I putting on flour?!). Honestly, I just really wish all baking books included weight measurements. It would solve SO many problems. I was surprised this one didn’t since it is from a professional bakery, and presumably recipes were written that way. Anyway….
April 8th, 2015 at 11:37 am
Interesting that she chooses to use extra large eggs, scoops the flour, and doesn’t provide weights. I excel at cookies and from your descriptions, it appears that I’ll have to get this book asap. Years ago, my sister and I wouldn’t buy cookbooks that had only one recipe per page. Of course, there also wasn’t a full page photo of each recipe. Many were without photos, but we tried them based on their descriptions.
April 8th, 2015 at 11:51 am
What’s the cover cookie? It looks delicious. Looks like chocolate, which I know isn’t your favorite.
April 8th, 2015 at 12:10 pm
Louise, I think you are really going to like this book. The cover cookie is some sort of rocky road craziness. Even as someone who doesn’t care about chocolate, it looks spectacular.
April 8th, 2015 at 1:58 pm
Sounds like a great book! Regarding the FLOUR measuring technique – I wish ALL cookbooks and especially baking related books would include the gram (and or ounce) weight of ingredients. Inexpensive scales are readily accessible in stores and on line for those that don’t already have one and as everyone who uses a scale knows, measuring by weight eliminates ALL the guesswork. Cup measurements can still be given too, along with a particular technique such as this one for flour. As a professional baker who has been involved in creating recipes (with weights) for a book for home bakers, I realize it takes longer to formulate each recipe when ingredients are weighed but the end result is a big plus for those wishing to use a scale.
April 8th, 2015 at 2:09 pm
You’d already talked me into buying Cookie Love with this review, and then I clicked around in the Amazon preview and spotted smoked chocolate sables and leopard print cookies. I’m so in!
So odd about the extra-large eggs though – does she say why?
April 8th, 2015 at 3:08 pm
C’mon American people, use weights in your recipes. I am in the UK, but was born and raised
in the USA and not using a scale to bake would be a terrible idea to me now. And, how do egg sizes compare over there compare to here? I don’t think we have beer nuts here….!
April 8th, 2015 at 3:13 pm
You definitely do not have Beer Nuts, Catherine. I actually have no idea how eggs sizes compare, that’s a great question. I bake from British books regularly though and have never had a problem. I assume our regular (large) eggs are the same.
April 8th, 2015 at 9:03 pm
Heh, I was just mulling over whether to buy this book or not, so your review has been very timely. On my to-buy list, thanks! :)
April 8th, 2015 at 9:29 pm
Tim, thank you so much for the brilliant review which made me buy the book – despite lack of weight measurements in any baking book filling me with intense rage. I adore the book – couldn’t agree more with her on salt as absolutely essential to bring out flavour in sweets – but why oh why do these massively gifted US pastry chefs insist on driving us to distraction with their volume measurements? Surely it’s not something they’d use in a professional kitchen???? And on that note I’m coming out at 145gr = 1 cup of AP flour by her method. Does that sound about right? Anybody? Help?
April 9th, 2015 at 3:19 am
I’m one of those quiet readers, but I had to say your work is very appreciated in the often ridiculous world of food blogs. I know this is a place I can come to to run away from trends and pretentious sh*t. And now I’m going to order the book because it sounds phenomenal.
April 9th, 2015 at 6:13 am
@Evie – 145gr is about right for 1 cup of AP flour. I saw your note and went to the kitchen and scooped a cup of flour. It weighed 148gr. : )
April 9th, 2015 at 8:10 am
Thanks, Louise! And thanks, Rebeca. : )
April 9th, 2015 at 8:19 am
I will definitely be making these. Cream cheese pastry is so perfect with blueberry. Have you tried Ottolenghi’s blueberry galette?
SUSAN HERRMANN LOOMIS says:
April 9th, 2015 at 8:31 am
You make the book sound so mouthwatering, and cookies…they’re such a source of pleasure and nostalgia, and there are great tips in this book which you’ve thankfully passed along! Thanks.
April 9th, 2015 at 9:24 am
Paul- I haven’t tried that recipe, yet. It sounds like I should.
April 9th, 2015 at 10:25 am
Louise: you are a star. Thank you so much.
April 9th, 2015 at 6:05 pm
From Flour, I really like the pineapple upside down cake, the banana bread (though it needs longer in the oven than the recipe calls for –it is very moist), and the brioche recipe (super clear and detailed). I also love the narrative and her voice. I haven’t looked at Flour Too.
April 10th, 2015 at 4:33 pm
I never ever ever knew that egg size really mattered. HA!!
Kyla Rose says:
April 11th, 2015 at 1:42 pm
goodness gracious I love you and all your posts! Thank you for always taking the time to write something worthwhile..yours is one of the first food blogs I started to follow and I’ve kept up with it ever since. This book sounds stupendous can’t wait to check it out!
April 14th, 2015 at 8:03 pm
Kyla! That is so nice to hear. Thanks for taking the time to say it.
April 14th, 2015 at 8:53 pm
Fantastic, USEFUL cookbook review, per usual. Had the pleasure of dining at HC a few times when we lived in Chicago. I don’t own a cookie cookbook (yet)… this might be the one.
April 15th, 2015 at 11:05 am
This is the one, Ashley. Although when Dorie Greenspan’s is released, that will also be the one.
April 15th, 2015 at 1:41 pm
By the way, Tim, do you have Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours? It’s fantastic and I think you would love the golden corn cake (I made it with brown butter rather than clarified and I could not stop myself from eating it; also reduced the sugar ever so slightly and upped the salt just a little). Her rice flour chiffon is terrific, too, as is the corn flour chiffon!
April 23rd, 2015 at 4:15 pm
Thanks for this Tim. I bought the book, and have really, really enjoyed baking from it. The goat butter shortbread is amazing. Again, thanks, because this wasn’t on my radar until your review. It’s replaced the Alice Medrich book as my favorite cookie book.
Morgan Hagemeyer says:
April 29th, 2015 at 2:23 pm
I am making the chive blossom vinegar that you wrote about in 2012, I know forever ago. Do you remember if you had any applications that were really successful?
/ You inspired me to check this book out from the library. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
/ I like your blog a lot.
April 30th, 2015 at 10:07 am
Morgan! Sorry for the delay. I use that vinegar in any application you’d use another vinegar. Salad dressing is great. Tossed with some cucumbers. Splashed on eggs. etc…
June 12th, 2015 at 3:34 pm
I will check this book out for sure. I have both of the flour cookbooks and loved the Boston cream pie, coffee ice cream, the pastry recipe for chicken pot pie was delicious and worked the first time, (never happened before). I made the brioche and worked perfectly. Try the potato and red bell pepper tortilla, and the spicy three bean and corn chili.
March 12th, 2016 at 1:05 am
I’ve loved following Lottie + Doof for YEARS, and I am a huge Mindy’s Hot Chocolate fan (we live in Oakland, CA now but previously Chicago) and my husband and I frequently ate at Mindy’s, always ordering dessert. :)
I appreciate your genuine, thoughtful review of the book and I’m so inspired to order it now. That strawberry lambic jam needs to get in my belly asap.