This month, How to Eat – the series exploring the best way to enjoy Britain’s favourite foods – must start by making a full and frank public apology.
In 2013, HTE declared that (trigger warning: rank stupidity) cookies were: “Big, brash US interlopers – oversweet, over here and utterly dysfunctional.” HTE would like to sincerely apologise for what it now realises was an inflammatory and offensive attack, not just on American food, but on everyone with taste buds. That sentence does not represent the column that How to Eat now is and it hopes to move on from this uncharacteristic misstep.
While not seeking to excuse such kneejerk anti-Americanism, HTE would urge you to remember that the early 10s were – the country then drowning in a sweet-’n’-greasy wave of US-inspired “dude food” – a very stressful time in British food writing. It seemed every dish would soon include a Man v Food mountain of pulled pork and bacon jam, washed down with a freakshake. HTE was lashing out at boorish excess. Cookies got caught in the crossfire.
It didn’t help that, back then, HTE’s cookie experience was largely limited to pretty mundane, mass-produced versions. Now many serious bakers are making astonishing cookies, and HTE has been haunted by its offhand dismissal every time it eats one. In fact, it now accepts the British biscuit – diminutive, dry, one-dimensional, chocolate-deficient – is pretty drab compared with an XL cookie’s rococo complexity. Biscuits are black and white TV. The cookie is Imax.
Sure, they can get over elaborate. Some cookies literally crumble under the weight of their own outrageous ambition. But How to Eat is converted. Consider these words its marshmallow-topped mea culpa*.
*Only minus the marshmallow. HTE hasn’t totally lost it. Yet.
Defining our terms …
is necessary because, both in the US and Britain (where any chocolate chip biscuit presumptuously calls itself a cookie), the term is fuzzy. To clarify, a cookie should be around 10cm in diameter and a good 1cm+ deep at its chunkiest. Befitting its name – derived from koekje, meaning ‘little cake’ in Dutch – the cookie should also be generously packed with ingredients. Imagine a glittering geological seam hiding nuggets of nutty gold, sweet pockets of dried fruit and underground reservoirs of (semi-molten) chocolate.
A good cookie will also be incredibly buttery (not so much rich in fat as obscenely wealthy), lightly crisped at its edges and yet moist, gooey and chewy in its interior. It should be dense but pliable. Where British biscuits are brittle and arid, crumbs held together by stiff upper-lip determination, the cookie is relaxed, self-confident and flexible.
How to achieve those cake-adjacent textures, clear flavours and layers of caramelised depth in your cookie is hotly contested. As J Kenji López-Alt has written for Serious Eats: “Cookies are fickle and the advice out there is conflicting.” However, there is loose consensus over the wisdom of using, variously: some brown sugar (inherently moist and helps trap moisture); egg yolks over whites; bread flour to create more elastic gluten strands; and browned butter, which you can try melting before adding to your dough. Which should be chilled overnight. Or not. The debate rolls on …
A cookie is not a pizza. It is not a platform. A little drizzled sauce or, if safely secured, flecks of chocolate or nut are acceptable on top. But most of the cookie’s flavourings should be buried inside. Otherwise, sticky with caramel, loosely festooned with everything from Smarties to granola or teetering with marshmallows, the cookie – its surface somewhere between a rocky, inhospitable planet and a studded leather face mask – can become difficult to handle and eat.
Good things to put in cookies
Quality chocolate in varieties dark to milk: not pre-packaged chips but exciting, unevenly chopped chunks.
Other hazelnut chocolate spreads are available, but Nutella.
(Salted) caramel sauce.
Raisins, sultanas, dates, glacé morello cherries.
Lotus Biscoff sauce.
Stem ginger, used with restraint.
Nuts soft enough that, used in small quantities (whole, flaked or crushed pecans, cashews, walnuts, pistachios etc), will add a complementary accent to your cookie rather than, as too many nuts will, turning it into an earthy, worthy mouthful.
The above are mutually sympathetic ingredients from a broadly similar flavour palette, which will benefit from some arresting contrast, modulation or inversion. Flaked sea salt intensifies flavours in a bracing way, while dried cranberries, citrus zest or even roasted rhubarb offer tart punctuation. Any more than three flavours is confusing overkill.
Bad things to put in cookies
Marshmallows. It’s like hitting an edible airbag full of cotton wool.
All but the tiniest amount of honey for depth. In any greater quantity this floral bully imposes a one-note flavour on all foods.
White chocolate: the devil’s work.
Mint chocolate, that perennially unwelcome chocolate-toothpaste hybrid.
Alcohol, the ruination of many desserts.
Mixed spices on a cinnamon-nutmeg tip. Christmas is over, thankfully.
Nougat: culinary plasticine.
Hazelnuts, peanuts and whole almonds? All too hard.
Proprietary sweet brands which, from Maltesers to Rolo, are designed as self-contained snacks. They were never meant to be embedded in cookies where they create textural clashes (eg Twix or KitKat pieces forming dry patches of double or triple-layered biscuit overload).
Dried apple, apricot or banana: who are we trying to kid, here? There are no redeeming nutritional benefits to the cookie.
Nauseating before 9am, the cookie is not breakfast. It is not a meal at any time. It is a snack. A de facto elevenses or afternoon tea item, enjoyed with a bucket of tea on gloomy afternoons that need a boost. Otherwise, it is an evening dessert.
Process and equipment
A biscuit might be eaten over the sink, your cupped hand or rushing around trailing crumbs like Hansel and Gretel. The cookie, far richer and sickly if wolfed, should be lingered over – breaking pieces off over a five-to-20 minute period – and, preferably, eaten off a plate. This is not a matter of cleanliness per se. Your cookie will create a lot of debris which you want contained in one place, to later collect with a wet finger. That final sweep of cookie crumbs is one of this snack’s most pleasurable phases.
You dunk biscuits because they are too dry. A cookie does not need moistening. On the contrary, if you dunk a cookie (high fat content, soluble embedded pieces), it quickly becomes structurally unstable and oddly gluey – a thick indefinite sludge rather than a shiny theme-park of edible attractions.
Some suggest the solution is to dunk cookies in cold milk which HTE will not entertain because a) it is not a small child, b) milk does nothing to transform the flavour of the cookie and c) due to the friable nature of the cookie, bits of it are still liable to fall off into your milk. Plus, who drinks milk for fun?
Frequent partners, often to each other’s detriment. In particular, the addition of cookie dough to ice-cream (claggy, gritty, provocatively sweet), is one of modern food’s many revolting quirks.
A little crumbled cookie is OK as an ice-cream topping. But sticking a whole cookie in there, like a wafer, is too much of too many good things which, beyond sugar content, have little natural affinity. For example, any chocolate in your cookie will be unable to melt smoothly in ice-cream’s sub-zero clutch. It will taste like gravel.
For engineering reasons, it is also wise to avoid using cookies to create ice-cream sandwiches. Sandwiching soft ice-cream between stiff biscuit in a way that is convenient and pleasurable – the sandwich must maintain its structural integrity but the cookie must be softly yielding – requires a degree of food science knowhow way beyond most home cooks and pro chefs. The Maxibon is a stroke of genius (see also: its spiritual US cousin, Chipwich), but most DIY cookie sandwiches are disastrous.
If you must sandwich something between two cookies, make it something adhesive (jam, Nutella, dulce de leche), rather than something that will frequently burst free in comedic squirts (ice-cream, whipped cream, mascarpone).
Tea! Tea! Tea! Strong tea, tannic and iron in its strength. Black coffee (not creamy white) may offer a bitter contrast to your cookie, but it lacks tea’s thirst-slaking, palate-cleansing powers of refreshment. Tea is the obvious reset button when dealing with super-sweet, fat-loaded cookies.
So, cookies, how do you eat yours?