The Art of Ku-Ki-Do
The quest for cookie perfection began the first time we lived at West Point, in 2001, when I started baking about three dozen every Tuesday afternoon for “our” OCF cadets. That kind of repetition either inspires boredom or experimentation. At first experimentation was born of poor grocery planning coupled with an aversion to last-minute grocery runs with three toddler boys who approached the aisles of the commissary like a pack of baby goats.
Eventually, a few seriously sumptuous batches emerged from my humble oven and the process of fine-tuning became a healthy obsession that continues to this day. The first objective was “The Chocolate Chip” and after about twenty tweaking sessions with different combinations of equipment and ingredients I got to the point where I could consistently turn out blue-chip specimens. From there, I began the process with other varieties, all of which are my very favorite on whichever day I happen to bake them. And, on rainy afternoons with aging dried cranberries or other equally odd ingredients staring me down, I like to audition new ideas for the lineup.
I share my recipes without keeping any secrets, but often get accused of holding something back – which is crazy! Believe me; I would never sabotage the process of cookie creation! Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what I do differently, but method is obviously important. When I show people the process, they can and do figure out how to make cookies that turn out just like mine. Thus, the idea of a blog with pictures was born.
When I started this blog I came up with the corny black apron idea and I’ve been awarding them – via blog posts – to friends who make great Ku-Ki-Do ever since. If you want one send me cookie pictures!
Cookie Philosophy 101
Before discussing methods or ingredients we need to get a few things on the counter.
Cookies are not supposed to be health food. I’ve tried that deviant approach on my children and it just isn’t pretty. Cookies are supposed to be good for you – mentally, not so much physically. Moderation in quantity is the key to calorie control. Moderating the caloric content of the ingredients you dump into the mixing bowl is the path to mediocrity and self-deception which leads to overeating stuff that isn’t worth what it’s going to do to your waist line. So, take a deep breath, break out the butter and do it right. Think: quality and control.
I believe in nice big cookies. They’re just better. Less scooping, fewer trips in and out of the oven, better overall shape and texture, not to mention that saying you ate two sounds a whole lot better than six.
I also believe in big batches. If you’re going to all the trouble of mixing and measuring, why not have something to show for your effort, which leads me to the next critical philosophical issue.
Cookies are supposed to be shared. With a big batch you can feed crowds and take generous plates to your neighbors and save a reasonable number for your own family. If you do it right, you only eat 2-3 out of each batch yourself, (with the possible addition of one eaten in the form of dough) and you don’t compromise the landscape of your own hips with leftover dozens.
The Mixer: You need a REAL mixer. If you can mix your cookie dough by hand; you’re either quite a woman (with a wooden spoon that would strike fear into the hearts of small children) or you’re not getting the dough stiff enough. It requires some serious horse power to make the stiff dough necessary for shapely cookies.
I happen to love Kitchen Aids. I’m on my second one now. This is Darth Mixer. I keep thinking of making him a cape. If you want the full story on Darth, click here.
Baking Stone: I use a baking stone because it offers more forgiveness when you forget to set the timer. Metal pans turn out black bottoms at the slightest overheating because they conduct heat so much more readily than the air in the oven which is touching the rest of the cookie. The stone on the other hand, isn’t a great heat conductor, but it is a great heat holder which is what you want. My husband, the scientist, is cringing at my vocabulary I’m sure, but what I mean to say is that the whole process stays stable on stone. Funny, what’s built upon a rock…
Timer – If you’re as distractible as I am, then one loud enough to track you down in the laundry room and remind you that you have cookies in the oven is indispensible.
Oven Thermometer: You have to know your oven and it’s worth a minor investment in an oven thermometer if things don’t seem right. During my experimentation days at West Point I had a deranged government employee oven that would randomly heat to a different temperature from the dial – and not by predictable percentages. In a very aggravating way, it taught me the importance of temperature. I began to live with a thermometer on the middle rack and work with the moods of the appliance. What else can you do?
Scoops and Spoons Spatulas: For years I used a spoon and my fingers to shape the balls of dough. Now I use a scoop and my fingers, but honestly I don’t think it makes that much difference. You shouldn’t need a spatula very much if your butter is firm enough (see next post) but once in a while you have to shove around ingredients that are straying from the mixing area. A nice stiff, flat rubber spatula is what you want for this job.
Cooling rack – Probably just as essential as a real mixer, but doesn’t have to be fancy.
Mixing Great Ku-Ki-Do
The procedure for cookie dough is basically the same whether you’re making chocolate chip, snicker doodles or even roll-out sugar cookies.
1. Cream the butter and sugar – which just means mixing them together, but BEWARE – the state of the butter makes a big difference in the outcome.
The Butter has to be the real thing and FIRM! Soft butter leads to flabby cookies that resemble pancakes. The butter should barely give when you press it with your finger and it should try hard to hold its shape, even when it meets with the blade of your real mixer. I pull sticks straight out of the fridge and microwave them in their wrappers at 50% power for approximately 10 seconds per stick. Obviously microwaves differ, but it’s better to error with butter that’s too cold. It may hold out for a few extra seconds but the real mixer will eventually win.
(Note: If you’re harboring traitorous thoughts of substitutions at this point, it’s time for you to find a new Ku-Ki-Do Master. Margarine is an atrocity in cookies. Butter flavored Crisco can fill a gap in certain circumstances or if you’re a little short on butter, but you’ll have to live with the waxy consequences. Don’t even talk to me about applesauce unless it’s September or we’re discussing muffins.)
Sugars: Don’t skimp! These are cookies after all. Try to use the right kind and amount of brown sugar. There’s a texture difference based on the combination of sugars. The absence of brown sugar when it’s called for leads to a brittle texture. I’m okay with the texture difference in some cookies, but in others, you need to stay on the chewy end of the spectrum and leaving out that hint of molasses that comes with the brown sugar zaps the chewiness.
When the butter is stiff enough, the mixture of butter and sugar should turn into a big lump that doesn’t really look “creamy” at all. (I recommend a little taste at this point! You never know when the simple mixture of butter and sugar will take on new complexities and you wouldn’t want to miss it.)
2. Add the Eggs: If you don’t have large or extra large eggs, then add an extra white from a third egg for every two of a smaller size. Eggs have a big impact on texture and density – they help with fluff. (BTW: cage-free organic works best for the chickens involved.)
Once the eggs are mixed with the butter and sugar, you finally achieve a texture that I would consider “creamy”.
3. Dump in the Dry Ingredients: I know this is where I’m supposed to say something about sifting, and leveling and gradually adding as you go, but that’s not what I do. I plunge the measuring cup into the flour bin, fluff a bit, scoop out loose pile, then jiggle the contents until it levels itself (more or less). Then I dump it in the bowl, and go for the next cup. Half-cups are totally eyeballed and it all goes into one big pile with the salt, baking soda, etc… on top.
4. The Final Mix: Here’s where the kitchen can get really messy. Real mixers have an impressive dust flinging radius so I usually use a technique that I picked up from my “bread sewing machine,” which is to pull the start lever forward for a second, then quickly turn it back off so that the blade only makes about half a turn. I do this several times until the flour is starting to work into the cream, then I go to longer bursts and eventually, when the flour shower danger has passed, let it run. Another method that works equally well is to drape a towel over the whole project and let the dust billow under the makeshift tent until it all settles down.
Finished dough should pull itself into a lump and give up clinging to the bowl. If all of the ingredients are mixed and the dough is still sticky, then gradually add more flour until it’s right… UNLESS… you didn’t follow the directions about keeping the butter stiff. If your butter started out too soft, then get ready for cookie flavored pancakes.
If you’re adding chips or nuts, they go in after the dough is finishted.
5. Ku-Ki-Do Balls: I think they should be the size of golf balls. I line them all up on the counter at once on a piece of wax paper and cover the ones that are waiting with a clean towel so that they don’t dry out. Don’t shape cookies while you’re putting them on the stone or some will burn on the bottoms.
Kitchen Catwalk Cookie Recipes
Chocolate Chip – my “blue-chip” recipe
Sugar Cookies – with a corny take on a Christmas Carol
White Chocolate Chip – A great breakfast cookie
Molasses Sugar Cookies – My personal favorite.