Tuesday, April 14, 2009

City Kitchen Chronicles: Pecan Cookies and Baking Conundrums

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

In terms of my current cooking confidence, I wouldn’t say that I’m scared of baking. For cooking (as opposed to baking) I’m an improviser, but I enjoy the recipe-following of baking. It’s been thoroughly impressed upon me that baking recipes must be followed precisely – the balance of flour, fat, liquid, and leavening is a science, and not a place for uninformed tinkering. When I get the chance to bake, I enjoy it.

I took one such chance last week, making cookies for my dad’s Passover seder. (The seder is the Passover dinner. “Seder” means order, and, when observed thoroughly, it’s a run-through of over a dozen steps – bless the wine, wash your hands, eat the green vegetables, bless some more wine, bless and eat the matzah, recount the ten plagues, etc.) I’d stumbled across what looked like an easy, tasty recipe, and I’m discovering that I really love sharing food I’ve made, the making and the sharing. It warms my heart.

So, anyway, this recipe. I realize that as it’s flourless (and simple) it doesn’t really fall under the whole DON’T ALTER THE BAKING RECIPE thing. I mean, not that it would work as well if messed with, but it’s not a cake. But this was an occasion to learn a different baking lesson: read the Epicurious comments, and listen to them.

This recipe has 17 reviews, ranging from four forks to zero. Let’s look at a few:

After making this and having it spread into one giant mess, I realized the egg whites need to be beaten to soft peaks. What a waste of expensive pecans.

Great cookies! I beat the egg whites until they held a peak but were not stiff or dry. The batter spread but puffed up during baking. My husband always prefers something with chocolate, so I melted chocolate chips and made sandwich cookies with the melted chocolate in the middle. They were enjoyed by all.

There is something wrong with this recipe. I tried it twice and wasted all my ingredients. The batter spread into one big mess. After reading other reviews perhaps the egg whites need to be beaten until stiff. I hope you can advise.

… I had a little batter left over after the first batch and I made much smaller cookies i.e. a very level tablespoon. For some reason these cookies did not flatten out the way the larger ones did.

…Ok, so I have now made these cookies 3 times. I have whipped the egg whites and only lightly beaten them. Either way had no impact. The trick to these cookies is the parchment paper.

…Recipe should be more specific about what to do with the whites.

Do not bake them for the time recommended, as you will end up with burnt cookies (which I did). For the second batch, I turned the oven down to 350 and baked them only 10 mins. You really have to watch them.

Okay, there’s obviously something tricky going on here. I decided I would make a sort of test run batch for a potluck the week before Passover. If things went well, I’d make them again for the seder.

And things did not go well. Mostly because I pretty much followed the recipe, rather than heeding the comments. I baked the cookies on parchment, but they still spread. I beat the egg whites until foamy (the recipe doesn’t specify anything beyond “lightly beaten”) rather than until they made soft peaks, and the cookies were flat. I baked at the recipe-specified 375, and they burned.

By the time the last sheet of test-run cookies went in the oven, I’d turned down the heat, so at least they weren’t burning, but they were not what I’d call a success. I almost didn’t tackle them again for Passover, but what cookies weren’t burnt were, although ugly, pretty dang tasty.

So the day of the seder, I gathered my ingredients, revisited the comments and reviewed my experience, and set to work. And I ended up with a pile of delicious, unburnt cookies that were only mildly ugly. I could convince myself they were lacy rather than pockmarked. I consider this a success.

But let’s look at how many changes/clarifications are necessary to make the original recipe work:
  • Change oven temp from 375 to 325.
  • Adjust baking time from 15-17 minutes to “just watch them.”
  • Clarify that “lightly beaten” is actually “beaten until they form soft peaks, and then a bit longer for good measure.”
  • Emphasize that parchment paper is necessary to make these cookies work.
  • Form cookies from teaspoons of batter rather than half-tablespoons.
Oh, also, because my mostly Dominican neighborhood doesn’t stock Kosher for Passover ingredients in the supermarkets, I made these with corn starch rather than potato starch. That doesn’t change the recipe or the cookies other than making them not actually Kosher for Passover.

My dad’s seder was a very lax place.

Crunchy Pecan Cookies
Makes about 35 cookies
Adapted from Gourmet/Epicurious

1 ½ cups pecans
1 cup sugar
¼ cup corn or potato starch
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon
3 large egg whites

1) Pre-heat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (I think a silpat might work for this, but an unlined baking sheet will probably be bad news.)

2) Chop 1 cup pecans.

3) Combine remaining ½ cup pecans, sugar, starch, salt, and cinnamon in a food processor. Pulse until until "finely ground," but not long enough so it becomes pasty.

4) To a large bowl, add egg whites. Beat them with a hand mixer until you get soft peaks. (Err on the side of overbeating.)

5) Gently mix food processor mix into egg whites, then stir in the chopped pecans

6) Drop teaspoons of batter onto baking sheet with 2” space and bake until cookies are lightly browned, 12-20 minutes. (Eyeball it.) Slide parchment off the sheet and on to a wire rack. Once cookies are completely cool, remove them from parchment.

7) Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. (They age well, getting nice and crispy the next day. Just make sure they’re totally cooled before sealing them up.)

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Cookie
62.3 calories, 3.6 g fat, $0.14

1 ½ cups pecans: 1233 calories, 128.5 g fat, $3.75
1 cup sugar: 774 calories, 0 g fat, $0.50
¼ cup corn starch: 122 calories, 0 g fat, $0.05
¼ tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
¼ tsp cinnamon: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
3 large egg whites: 51 calories, 0.2 g fat, $0.70
TOTAL: 2181 calories, 128.7 g fat, $5.02
PER COOKIE (TOTAL/35): 62.3 calories, 3.6 g fat, $0.14


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