By Nancy Newberry
The holidays are here – it’s open season on cookies, and I have a bird dog’s nose for a good cookie. I have standards: most cookies should be crisp outside, tender, even succulent inside. Unfortunately, altitude can shoot that standard full of holes. Every cookie recipe I made last year – save one – turned out rock hard and dry.
So in comes the idea of a Cookie Exchange, and I take this to mean two things: first, we’ll talk about how to hold a Cookie Exchange party. Then, we’ll take the concept further: Cookie Exchange as Exchange of Ideas and Culture.
Holding a Cookie Exchange party is simple: Email or call your friends, co-workers, or members of any group that you meet with. Invite them to bring a large batch of their favorite cookie (generally ½ to 1 dozen for each attendee, plus a dozen to taste during the party), with copies of the recipe to share, and set the time and place. Provide some backup zipper bags and paper plates for taking cookies home.
It’s also nice to offer something salty to snack on, cheese, nuts, or olives, to counteract the sweet. Each person bakes one kind of cookie, and goes home with many kinds, a maximum variety for a minimum of work.
I have been the unacknowledged Queen of the Exchange, and this is how: My secret weapon is the homeliest cookie on the plate, my home state cookie, a dark lump called The Michigan Treasure Cookie. The concern on my fellow bakers and decorators’ faces says, “Really? That cookie doesn’t look very festive! I kinda thought you were a better baker than that.” Then they taste them. An explosion of chocolate and dark cherry changes a lot of minds. And guess what – this is the one cookie I’ve made up here at 7200 feet that works!
I’ve also been playing with New Mexico’s favorite cookie, the biscochito, and my first attempts did not match the outrageously good version I found early last summer at the Socorro Farmer’s Market. They had the altitude problem: hard and dry. All the recipes I read, online and in cookbooks, were nearly identical, too, with the same proportions of flour, fat, sugar, and eggs. The only variation was in the choice of butter or lard as the fat ingredient. So I decided to work up my own version, with the help of my favorite culinary hunting guide, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen.
McGee says that at high altitude, because air pressure is lower, the bubbles created by leavening break faster and more easily, so I decided to reduce the amount of baking powder. Water boils at a lower temperature up here, so the moisture leaves a cookie before it is really cooked. I made three other adjustments to counter this effect: I increased the egg, reduced the sugar, and raised the oven temperature by 25 degrees F. In addition, I performed one more experiment for you: I made one batch with lard, the traditional fat, and one with butter.
I belong to the Michael Pollan school of thought that says that butter and lard are both good for you, because they are traditional fats that humans have eaten for a long time.
The results: Both biscochitos rose nicely, were crunchy outside, and maintained a moist center. I’d say the cookie made with butter is a great sugar cookie, but not a true biscochito. Those made with lard had the signature sandy texture of my first biscochito experience. I think the hunt’s been a success.
So this is what I have to offer you: two tested recipes for great cookies, and my best tips for managing high-altitude cookie baking. I’d love to hear from you, too: what works for you? Shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ll publish good hints, great cookie recipes, and ideas in a future column.
Biscochitos With Altitude
Makes: 1 ½ dozen small cookies
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
½ cup lard or butter
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon anise seed, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon brandy
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
Cream the lard or butter and the 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar until smooth. Stir in the anise seed, egg, and brandy. Stir in the flour mixture, working quickly to make a soft dough.
Whisk together the 3 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Roll the dough out to 1/3-inch thickness on lightly floured surface, and cut into small shapes with a cookie cutter. Dredge the cookies in cinnamon sugar, and place 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake until the bottoms of the cookies are pale golden, about 11 minutes. Remove from oven; cool completely on a wire rack.
Michigan Treasure Cookies
Makes: 3 dozen
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups dried sour cherries
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chunks or chips
Additional granulated sugar to roll dough in before it bakes.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt; set aside. Beat the butter, 1 cup granulated sugar, and brown sugar in a large bowl at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, beat in the flour mixture, 1/3 cup at a time, until it is all used, scraping the sides of the bowl between additions. Stir in the chocolate chunks and cherries. Cover the dough and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll chilled dough into golf-ball-sized balls. Roll the balls in granulated sugar; place 3 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Gently press with the bottom of a glass to flatten slightly.
Bake in the preheated oven just until cookies are set, 13 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven to cool for 5 minutes; transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Nancy Newberry arrived in Magdalena from Seattle about a year ago, where her DIY food exploits are, while not quite legendary, pretty daring. She has worked in coffee shops and deli kitchens, cooked for camps and field trips, and worked as a site producer for the #1 Food and Entertainment website on the web, Allrecipes.com.