In the first stages of making these cookies, they came out rock hard and I knew I had some work to do. The cookies needed to be edible but they also needed to be able to withstand a trip across the country. This is when my culinary education comes in handy. Altering the ingredients in a recipe can be daunting since baking is an exact science, which is why it takes many trials and discarded batches of dough to get it just right. However, when you know the function of each ingredient in the recipe, it becomes much easier to change things around.
I'll address the ingredients that I use in my cookie recipe:
~Flour, the most prevalent ingredient, contains proteins, which form the gluten structure during mixing. Think of kneading bread dough when you want to form that "gluten window". This is why those recipes always say, "don't overmix!" lest you end up with one tough cookie.
~Sugar is not only a sweetener but also keeps the cookie moist because of its hygroscopic properties (absorbs moisture from the atmosphere). Sugar also contributes to the browning of the cookies because it caramelizes during baking.
~Butter or any type of fat is known as "shortening" in baking because of its ability to shorten those aforementioned gluten strands, which makes the cookie tender.
~Egg yolks contribute flavor and assist in browning while egg whites act as a binder and help give the cookie its structure.
~Salt enhances flavors both sweet and savory.
~Baking powder acts as a leavening agent by releasing air bubbles into the dough during baking but also weakens the structure of the cookie.
I'm sure that there are percentages and ratios that pertain to each ingredient in baking (in fact I think I have those numbers in an old notebook around here somewhere) but it's much more fun to know the functions of the ingredients and use trial and error until you get the recipe just the way you like.
Another factor to take into consideration when baking is your geographical location. The humidity and altitude will have an effect on the end product. When I moved from New York to Chicago I had to go through the process of changing my recipe all over again!
Creating the flavors of the cookie is the fun part. I use orange zest, vanilla beans, and cardamom, which are reminiscent of my childhood. Experiment with flavors and try something unconventional like lavender or lemon with basil until you find something that suits your taste.
And remember that sometimes the best ideas are born from mistakes. I’ve learned that by experience!