Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies

For the past several days, my mind has been consumed with thoughts of a tragedy playing out thousands of miles from where I write, in chaos on the shores and in the towns and villages of Japan.  I've been wrestling with whether or not I should approach this topic and, if so, how to do it in a way that is fitting and respectful.  Does such a way even exist?  I see the footage and look at the photos, unable to comprehend that kind of destruction, and the realization that I can do nothing is profoundly frustrating.  It seems somehow selfish to be writing about food and life and daily doings when the lives of others have been so abruptly and horrifically transformed.

While I sit in the warmth and security of my apartment, cup of tea in hand, others see only refuse and desolation where their homes once were.   I cook an evening meal for myself and Matthew while others wander the streets in search of lost loved ones, no roof over their heads and no food to fill their stomachs.  I call my family and check in with friends overseas, all of whom are fine, while others grapple with the awful news they had prayed never to hear.  It is a horrible lesson in the frailty of humanity and our desperate need for something beyond our fragile, earthly existence.

At the same moment that these terrifying events are taking place in Japan, I am in my Oklahoma kitchen, baking.  While I enjoy cooking and the fruits of that endeavor, baking has always been my solace, my haven, my comfort zone.  When the cares of the day or the worries of the world weigh heavy on my mind, I find ease and reassurance in the folds of an apron and the stirring of a wooden spoon.  Somehow, these familiar gestures steady and stabilize me in the midst of a spinning world.  Quite apart from the usually delicious things it produces, I love the process of baking; the small, repetitive motions, the familiar stages and the interactions of ingredients, the pleasant aromas as everything comes together and the knowledge that, at the end of it, I have created and accomplished something, even if that something is only a freshly-steaming loaf of bread or a platter of still-warm chocolate chip cookies.

My kitchen is nearly bare, in preparation for our move next week, but I have so much in comparison to so many others.  It makes me wonder at how easily we become complacent, satisfied with the comfort and ignorance of our easy lives, and what a great tragedy it takes to make us sit up, take notice of our blessings and be grateful.  And I am grateful, so grateful that my family is safe, my loved ones have been spared and that I live in a place and time that permits me to pursue a life full of things I love.

As the soft, familiar dough of chocolate chip cookies takes shape in the bowl in front of me, I thank God for these things and pray for those whose lives have just changed, irrevocably.  I wish that I could send them these cookies, not that they would ease their suffering in any measurable way, but simply so that they would know that others have noticed it and that many prayers and thoughts are with them and their struggling nation.  It's a little gesture that seems feeble against the scale of this human tragedy, but the reality is that there is little more we can do than pray for the rebuilding and restoration of their lives, while resolving to be grateful for the blessings of our own.  So if you make these cookies, enjoy them, savor the process and the few normal moments of life and spare a moment for those surrounded by suffering, for whom the daunting process of rebuilding and returning, somehow, to some kind of 'normal' has yet to begin.

Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies
adapted from this recipe by Alton Brown
(I chose this as a base recipe because it actually calls for bread flour, which is all I have, but the browned butter and other changes are my own)

2 sticks (or 1 cup) butter, unsalted
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk (I used skim)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 cups semisweet chocolate, chopped (to taste)

Preheat oven to 375 ° F.  In a small saucepan over low to medium heat, melt butter, stirring occasionally, until browned.  This will probably take several minutes and the butter may foam as the milk solids separate - don't worry, this is normal! Just watch for the first sign of caramel brown color and then remove the butter from heat.  It will keep cooking if you leave it in the saucepan (and burt butter tastes acrid and horrid!) so I usually remove it to another container or the mixing bowl at this point.  Allow the butter to cool.

While the butter is cooling, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda into a large bowl and set aside.  Pour the melted butter into a large mixing bowl and add the sugars.  Cream together until well blended.  Add the eggs, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined.  Gradually add in the dry ingredients (about 1/2 cup at a time) until thoroughly mixed.  Do not overwork or dough will become tough (bread flour has a lot of gluten so overworked dough will yield slightly 'bready'/cakey cookies).  Stir in chopped chocolate by hand.

Chill the dough and scoop onto a non-stick or parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing ample space between cookies (about 9 cookies per sheet).  Bake for 8-12 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from baking sheet, allow to cool and store in an airtight container.  Share with loved ones or those in need of home-baked comfort.

Some tips:  As I said before, this recipe was born of a need to bake and a poorly stocked pantry so it may be a little different from the usual chocolate chip recipe - it still yields delicious cookies.  This was my first time using brown butter in a cookie and I think it makes a nice addition, contributing a denser, chewier texture and a rich, buttery flavor that makes this simple cookie a little more sophisticated and much more comforting.  The brown butter flavor was very pronounced in the dough (not that I'm advocating eating raw dough - do as I say, not as I do!) but got a little lost in the cookies fresh out of the oven.  It's interesting, then, that it reappeared in the cookies we ate the next day.  I can't believe I'm saying this, since I usually like my cookies straight off the pan, but I think this variety was actually better a day after baking.  Perhaps that makes them ideal for sending to loved ones or those in need of a rich buttery, chocolatey pick-me-up.

The bread flour makes for a very chewy cookie but also means that these cookies can easily become cakey.  Since I'm a fan of gooey, chewy cookies, I had to be careful not to over mix the dough or over bake.  If you like them lighter and cake-like, just let your mixer run a little longer.

I baked some of the dough immediately, chilled some for a few hours and some overnight.  While I didn't notice a huge difference with the overnight dough, I did see a big change between the instant gratification cookies and the chilled dough.  I'd definitely recommend chilling, covered, for at least an hour or two if possible.

Watch the time because these cookies go quickly once they start to brown.  I accidentally over-baked a batch but I was glad to see that, though they were a little more bronzed than their just-baked cousins, they still kept their soft texture.  It seems to be a pretty resilient recipe - which is good for a comforting cookie with a big job to do.

This post linked up at:
Sweet As Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday

1 comment:

  1. These sound wonderful. I'm glad you explained the advantage of the browned butter- I plan to try them soon!