Takeaway

That’s the way the cookie crumbles

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on December 21, 2018 Published on December 21, 2018

ILLUSTRATION: DIPANKAR

The most adaptable and forgiving of baked treats, cookies are just right for Xmas

Much of my day is spent in a world dusted with magic, adventure and icing sugar — a happy outcome of writing books for children. But whenever the doorbell rings or my daughters need to be saved from a spider the size of a mustard seed, I return to reality without regret.

Except in December.

There’s something about early winter that makes ordinary life feel wrong. Unsatisfying. Urgently in need of sparkle and spells.

Perhaps it’s the promise of new beginnings. Perhaps it’s the carols that follow us from shop to shop. Perhaps it’s the strings of fairy lights twinkling through the wistful, grey evenings. Whatever the reason, it’s a time of year when I wish that reality could resemble a picture book — one that is filled with sugar plum fairies and glass baubles; crackling fireplaces and snow-fringed windows; enormous cakes and tantalising cookies.

Which looks rather unlikely. Sugar plum fairies are pretty scarce where I live. And instead of snow, my window opens onto a wheeze-giving haze with an Air Quality Index of 267. But there’s one thing I can do.

I can bake. Or, at least, I can attempt to bake.

Admittedly, I’m not a natural. The harsh heat of the oven does nothing to improve my mood and migraine during the 10 hot months of the Mumbai year. And the thought of mince pies, Yule logs and gingerbread houses paralyses me for the remaining two.

This year, though, I’ve hit upon a happy compromise. We’re going to toodle down the road to the bakery-from-heaven for our marzipan-stuffed stollen, plum puddings and star-topped mince tarts. And then we’re going to roll up our sleeves, weigh out the flour and make those other essential components of the holiday season — cookies.

Not just the sugar cookies traditionally associated with Christmas, but brave variations that will take care of the bits and bobs lying about the fridge all year. A packet of fading M&Ms; those unloved bars of milk chocolate in a house of dark-chocolatarians. A tray of assorted bonbons that’ve started to ooze pale orange and vivid lavender fillings. And, if I’m feeling really venturesome, those pizza-flavoured cashews, chunks of dried guava and pistachio-balls that landed up during Diwali and are preventing the fridge door from shutting.

This cookie project will come with multiple advantages:

Cookies are the most adaptable and forgiving of baked treats. So instead of heading to Crawford Market for more fridge-filling ingredients, I can just head to my fridge.

We will have an endless supply of goodies during the hungry winter holidays. (Even if some of them come with an unexpected hint of tomato and oregano flavouring.)

We will enter the New Year with a clean and orderly fridge that actually shuts at first attempt. Which — while I’m no expert on the subject — is probably good for our feng shui.

The grand plan is to welcome the holiday season with the aroma of melting butter and cooking fruit; sizzling chocolate and caramelising sugar. To fill jars with chewy cookies and crisp cookies, star-shaped cookies and saucer-sized cookies, cranberry cookies and salted caramel cookies. (And also dried guava and chocolate with mystery fillings cookies. But we shan’t dwell on those for the moment.)

Meanwhile, all the food sites that I subscribe to are in the throes of an enormous cookie-crush. “It’s the baking season,” they announce and dispatch recipes for Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies and Top-Rated White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies, Peanut Butter Blossoms and Grandma’s Spice Cookies. The news stories are full of cookie swaps and celebrity-fave cookie recipes. Not to forget a Cookie Walk held in Virginia, during which 14,000 cookies were baked as part of a grand, fund-raising bazaar.

Clearly, today cookies are as ubiquitous as ‘Jingle Bells’, Bing Crosby and reindeer horns. But this wasn’t always the case. At least not in the Mumbai of the 1970s. As a little girl, I pined for cookies but ate biscuits. Monaco biscuits and Glucose biscuits from crackly packets. Nankhatais and flaky kharis from the big tin trunk of a persuasive peddler. Sometimes, for a very special treat, we got Bourbon biscuits with a layer of sweet chocolate cream and a sprinkling of sugar.

But I yearned for chewy cookies studded with chocolate chips and chunky nuts. After all, that was what the characters in movies, books and comics consumed. What my American cousins dunked into milk for an after-school snack. What Jughead munched by the dozens. And what Barbie would probably have nibbled on while she sunbathed in a ruffled bikini.

So you can imagine my teenage joy when a popular food brand announced that it was launching a range of cookies. I sighed every time I spotted the tantalising advertisement and drove Modern Stores batty with my eager enquiries. Then one day the shopkeeper answered in the affirmative. The long-awaited cookies had arrived.

I bought three flavours even though they were expensive. My mother was disapproving, till I pointed out that the packets were big. At home we unveiled the treat with much fanfare, and gulped when we realised that there was more packing material than eating material in the box. Then it was time for the first bite.

I bit — and then I frowned.

“Is it yummy?” my brother demanded.

“Hope it’s worth the price,” my mother remarked.

“Ummm,” I hesitated. “It actually tastes like a fat biscuit with coconut in it.”

To be fair, this should not have come as such a blow. After all, a cookie is just that — a biscuit by another name. Wikipedia maintains that crisp cookies are called biscuits and chewy biscuits are called cookies. And who’s to decide exactly where the boundaries lie?

Cookie story

The story of the biscuit-cookie seems to have begun in Persia around 7 AD, soon after that part of the world came under the spell of an irresistible new ingredient — sugar. Food historians believe that cookies were born when bakers used small amounts of cake batter to test the temperature of the ovens. Soon these little test cakes became popular in their own right — because they were both toothsome and practical.

The hard, dry, energy-giving confections were easy to store and carry on long journeys. They reached Europe during the Muslim conquest of Spain, and soon spread through the continent and made their way into all manner of cookbooks and menus. In fact, the word cookie comes from the Dutch “koekje”, which means small or little cake.

A 1596 cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel features one of the earliest recipes around. It is familiar and unfamiliar in equal measure: “Take fine flowre and good Damaske water you must have no other liqeur but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of eggs and a good quantity of Suger, and a few cloves, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serve him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a spoonful if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke unto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your oven be well swept and lay them uppon papers and so set them into the oven. Do not burne them if they be three or foure days olde they bee the better.”

All bake: The food sites are in the throes of an enormous cookie-crush in the festive season   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Two hundred years later, an American cookbook writer named Amelia Simmons provided a recipe for Christmas Cookeys — which had to be baked six months in advance and then put into an earthen pot in a cellar so that they could gradually soften.

In general, this was a time of glorious experimentation across the US, when coconuts, oranges, cereals and other ingredients were mixed into conventional cookies. Many creations were given whimsical names such as Cry Babies, Kinkawoodles and, of course, Snickerdoodles.

It was later that the Chocolate Chip Cookie — which could be the US’s greatest contribution to world cuisine — came into being. Ruth Wakefield, who ran the popular Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts, announced the birth of the Chocolate Crunch Cookie in her Tried and True cookbook in 1938. It was an instant hit — and a year later Wakefield gave Nestlé the right to use her recipe and the Toll House name in exchange for a dollar.

Wakefield later said that she never did get that dollar — but she did get eternal fame as the inventor of a modern masterpiece.

In an article on the chocolate chip cookie, The New Yorker wrote that it “kept reproducing itself in copious and unexpected ways. There came the Chipwich, the Taste of Nature Cookie Dough Bite, and the Pookie (a pie coated with chocolate-chip-cookie dough). Perhaps none of these variations was more culinarily or culturally significant than the début, in 1984, of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream at their Burlington, Vermont, store. The idea came from an anonymous note left by a customer and was soon in high demand in their neighboring outlets... By 1991, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough replaced Heath Bar Crunch as the company’s bestselling product.”

Meanwhile, the cookie continues to evolve in ways that are wonderful and bizarre. You can try your hand at Maple Glazed Apple Crisp Cookies, Chocolate Chip Potato Crisp Cookies and Lemon Lime Basil cookies. And if you want to be seasonally correct, you can make an Oreo Cookie Christmas Tree or Sugar Cookie Truffles or Melted Snowman Cookies.

Or you can save yourself the trouble and nip across to Sweetish House Mafia or Oh Dough or all those cookie boutiques out there. Foodie fortunes have changed in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi — and we no longer have to make do with fat biscuits that taste of coconut.

Incidentally, my quest for a taste of the chewy, yummy cookie ended in Los Angeles where I went as a student. The first time I stepped into a supermarket in the US I headed for the cookie aisle (much to the disapproval of my sensible roomie, who was stocking up on salt and onions and butter).

SHABNAM MINWALLA   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

After much dithering, I bought a packet of Pepperidge Farm White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookies. That night, we cooked with the salt and butter and eggs that Gopa had amassed. Then we had a White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookie each for dessert. And I finally felt I had arrived in the land of Nancy Drew and Snoopy and Archie.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

 

 

Standard cookie dough

 

Here is a recipe for standard cookie dough. You can use this as a base for many variations.

Ingredients

  • 225g butter, softened
  • 375g brown sugar
  • 50g powdered sugar
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 400g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda

Methods

1 Beat the butter, brown sugar, powdered sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Sift the flour and baking soda together. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Spoon tablespoon-sized blobs onto a greased tray and bake at 170C for 12-14 minutes until the cookies start to brown at the edges.

2 Variations:

  • For peanut butter cookies, you can use peanut butter instead of butter
  • Or you can add 300-400g of crushed and chopped chocolate for Chocolate Chunk Cookies
  • Or about 200g cranberry and 200g of white chocolate chips for Cranberry and White Chocolate Cookies.

 

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Published on December 21, 2018
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