Cookies have the tendency to get tossed aside as ordinary. Their familiarity makes them seem to be the kind of simple baked treats that could practically make themselves. If only.
Extraordinary baker, Alice Medrich, has proven otherwise. With the release of her 8th cookbook, Medrich pays passionate tribute to the cookie, and the art and wisdom behind making them divine. In Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies, Medrich shatters any notion that cookies are simple and uninspired and instead celebrates them for their physical and sensual appeal.
Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy is Medrich's journey to perfecting the cookie, in all its glorious forms. By exploring new flavors, playing with the modern palate, and re-imagining the most treasured of classics, Medrich's work reflects a more current culinary flair and breathes new life into the universally-beloved baker's dozen. She serves up her familiar macaroon and then spins it exotically into Spicy Carrot Masala Macaroons. Recipes are as comforting and true as Chocolate Chunk Cookies and as elegant as Cardamom Caramel Palmiers.
I should note that this collection of cookies is no ordinary cookbook. It's sectioned by cookie texture, with one dedicated to 'Crispy,' one to 'Chewy,' and so on. And it's extremely user-friendly, too. Just browsing the pages in the “Gooey” chapter, for instance, I was taken by the way Medrich not only perfectly articulated the spirit, the beauty, and the unique flavors of each chewy cookie, but the way she shared her seemingly limitless knowledge about best baking practices for that specific cookie riff. In explaining the methodology behind each and every variety, the reader gets a sense of the delicate nature of pastry creation. She's essentially holding the home baker's hand through the mixing, the stirring, and the browning in the oven. Medrich's passion is palpable.
And for those individuals with special dietary needs, Medrich has them covered. She offers gluten-free, dairy-free, low fat, whole grain, and even Weight Watchers point calculated recipes. There's hardly a thing I could think to add inside the binding of this cookie jar...err...book. She has completely covered everything from the proper measuring of ingredients to the most common questions she's asked, to the baking equipment she finds most useful.
Very recently, I was lucky enough to speak with Alice Medrich myself. She was as lovely as I'd hoped a person I admire so deeply to be. Going into our conversation, I was a cookie lover. But through hearing Alice speak so warmly, so fondly, so passionately about what I had believed to be a simple cookie, I've emerged with special reverence. Read on to find out more about Medrich's inspiration, her beginning in baking, and the cookie recipes she can't live without.
When and how did your passion for baking begin?
In the '70s, when I was twenty years old, I had just moved to Paris with my husband and the landlady who owned my little flat made me chocolate truffles for my birthday. It was an epiphany for me. They were rich, intense, and divine, and different than the ones I'd had in American because they were made with egg yolks and sugar rather than cream.
When I left France to come back to America, as a going away gift, I asked my landlady for her chocolate truffle recipe. After that, I had made the recipe my own and while going to grad school in Berkeley, California, I approached the owner of a little charcuterie asking if I could perhaps sell the truffles there. He accepted and so began my career in baking, which eventually led me me opening up my own bakery.
In your book, I found so many wonderfully inspired, innovative flavor combinations. Where does your inspiration for new recipes come from?
Cookies are a familiar subject. Everyone knows them. But cookies don't seem to get the same level of attention from chefs and bakers that other desserts do, and I think they deserve more. I think we need to reimagine them, to have fun, and to infuse those traditional recipes with our own modern culinary sensibility.
I like the idea of updating classics. I start with the familiar and branch out. You can take a cookie as basic and simple as a snickerdoodle, and instead of dusting it with cinnamon and sugar, dust it with cardamom infused sugar.
So many recipes that I see nowadays seem to be more more more- covered in caramel, then in marshmallow, and then ganache, and on and on.. How do you feel about this sensory explosion? Is there a such thing as too much?
I've always thought there to be a such thing as “too much.” But it's funny, because I did worry for a bit that I hadn't included enough ooey gooey in this cookbook. I see caramel and oozing creations everywhere- even a food editor friend of mine noted that caramel was all over the place- and I think ooey gooey gets old and kind of boring.
I believe strongly in always staying true to my own sensibilities and the flavors I love.
What do you find is different between making a cookie kid-friendly versus a more adult-friendly cookie?
Well, I don't know that there needs to be much differentiation between kid and adult cookies, because they're so lovable, but I will say that cookies in general seem deceptively simple and quick. Recipes tend to lull people into thinking that they require no precise skill or attention to detail. But cookies really do need precision in many ways. They're mini pastries, after all. You notice how much precision is required in baking a recipe when you take, for example, the recipe that's printed on the back of a bag of chocolate chips. If ten different people make that same recipe, each and every batch will taste uniquely different.
I see that you have cookie recipes that appeal to special dietary restrictions- like the dairy free or the wheat free cookies. Was it challenging to create a perfect flour gluten-free flour blend? Had you had any experience with gluten-free baking before?
I hadn't had any experience with gluten-free baking, but I really found it to be a wonderful process. I absolutely love a challenge. In fact, it's what I do best as a pastry chef. Taking a set of parameters and then creating something within those is fun and rewarding at the same time.
Creating a flour blend that works in my cookie recipes allowed me to experiment and to be more creative than I was used to. And the best part about it is that, largely, gluten-free baking and cooking is a new area to work in; it's not a completely trodden path.
You also have a great selection of low fat recipes. What are your thoughts on healthful baking- like replacing fats with other substitutes like applesauce, and using alternative sugars?
Years ago I wrote a cookbook, Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts, and it won the James Beard Cookbook Award of the year. Not low fat cookbook of the year, not special diet cookbook of the year, just cookbook of the year. My point is, I don't believe in substituting or replacing fats or sacrificing taste and texture. It's not about replacing or removing those ingredients, it's about rejuggling and shifting. I only use real ingredients, whole and lovely ingredients in different combinations and varying amounts, because I want there to still be an intense pleasure that comes from the finished product.
What are the 3 baking tools you find most helpful in baking?
- A digital thermometer for accuracy in temperature when baking
- A few good quality, heavy, light-colored aluminum cookie sheets
- A kitchen scale for accuracy when measuring ingredients
Do you think you would be able to pick your 2 favorite cookies? And if you had to pick your favorite texture, which would it be?
It's hard to choose favorites, but I think texture-wise I'd say crispy is my favorite. One really fantastic crispy recipe that is doable for most people is my Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies because they have all of that rich toffee, browned butter, and caramel flavor, but with a less traditional texture than most chocolate chip cookie recipes. They shatter dramatically when you bite them, and have such a delightfully large, paper-thin flat shape.
The other one of my favorite crispy recipes that I think most people would like and find doable, though they're a bit more finicky, is my Coconut or Sesame Sticks. The flavor and texture combined are wonderful.
A special thank you to Alice Medrich for taking the time to share her wisdom and love of baking, as well as her beautiful cookbook with me!
photos courtesy: 1st Thing I Reach For