"Cookies," says Seen Arcari, presiding over her new state-of-the-art kitchen in Walnut Creek, Calif., "are the heart and soul of baking."
That's so because almost everybody has a cookie recipe that is, well, their own little thing, the Fresno native and Chez Panisse chef tells her afternoon cookie-baking class.
"But, you have to have the time to do this," she warns her students. "You can't rush good cookies."
Before she rolls up her sleeves and creams the first batch of butter and sugar for the three-hour marathon session, Ms. Arcari shares her essential baking tips -- bits and pieces of baking lore that folks might not know or might have forgotten if they've been out of the cookie habit.
* Measure dry ingredients in metal cups and wet ingredients in glass measuring cups. Occasionally, it's essential to weigh ingredients.
* Heat your oven for 20 minutes before baking in it. An electric or gas oven, says Ms, Arcari, goes through three cycles as it heats. The first cycle calibrates the oven to 20 degrees beyond the desired temperature. When the second cycle kicks in, the oven temperature will fall 10 or so degrees below the desired temperature. The third calibration heat cycle is the charm.
* Use unsalted butter, unsalted nuts, regular (not sea or kosher) salt, pure vanilla extract and European chocolate.
* Use bleached flour because of the lower protein content in the flour.
* Be sure your baking powder is no more than a year old.
* Unless otherwise instructed, bring all ingredients to room temperature.
* Although you may not be able to manage it, try to bake fresh batches of cookies on clean, cool cookie sheets.
* Line your cookie pans -- Ms. Arcari recommends industrial-weight jelly roll pans -- with parchment paper (check your supermarket), and your cookies will never stick or burn.
* To create your own "cushioned" pans, double-pan your trays of cookies.
L * In the oven, rotate cookie pans midway through the baking.
* Cool the cookies for a minute or two before sliding them onto racks.
* Do not store crisp cookies with soft cookies or the firmer cookies will lose their crispness.
Here is a potpourri of cookie recipes from her class:
Raisin cornmeal cookies (zaletti)
Makes about 5 dozen cookies
3/4 cup currants or dark seedless raisins, soaked in rum to cover
4 ounces (one stick) plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose bleached flour, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons for the currants
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons fine yellow cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Soak the raisins or currants in the rum at least 30 minutes and drain. Beat the butter and sugar together in a mixer bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Sift in 1 1/2 cups of flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt, and mix well. Toss the raisins with 1 to 2 tablespoons flour and stir into the dough.
Shaping: Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. Roll into an 18-inch log, about 1 3/4 inches thick and slice the log at 3/8 -inch intervals. Using your fingers, pat and shape each piece into a diamond or oval, about 3 inches long. Place about 2 inches apart on a buttered baking sheet (they puff and spread as they bake). Or roll into logs, chill, then cut into rounds.
Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned, 12 to 15 or sometimes 20 minutes.
Panellets, traditionally served on the All Saints holiday, Nov. 1, are perhaps the most popular single confection in Catalonia, the region of Spain around Barcelona.
Makes about 24 cookies
1/2 pound Idaho or other baking potato
2 1/4 cups almonds, blanched and roasted
2 cups sugar
2 eggs yolks
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/3 to 1/2 cup all-purpose bleached flour
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups unskinned, not roasted hazelnuts, coarsely crushed
Pierce potato and microwave for 10 minutes. Allow to cool, peel and put through a ricer or medium sieve. Pulverize the almonds in a food mill, mortar and pestle or food processor. In a large bowl (or processor bowl) mix the potato, almonds, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, and lemon rind. Add a small amount of the flour and blend well. Add enough flour to give the dough a firm consistency, like marzipan. Depending on the moisture content of the potato, it might be necessary to add more flour.
Shape the dough into balls 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Dip the balls into beaten egg whites, roll in the hazelnuts, then bake at 375 degrees on a lightly buttered cookie sheet for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the nuts have turned golden brown.
Bones of the dead
Makes 12 dozen cookies
2 cups unblanched almonds
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
a few drops of almond extract
2 cups all-purpose, bleached flour
powdered sugar for dusting
Toast the almonds lightly in a 350-degree oven and cool them. Chop them fine by hand or in processor. Mix together sugar, lemon juice, baking powder and salt. Add the eggs and almond " extract and beat with a mixer until spongy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the flour and almonds.
Roll the dough into ropes the thickness of a fat pencil and cut them into 2-inch lengths. This will make cookies about 2 1/2 inches long by 1 1/4 inches wide when they are baked. Space the cookies 3 inches apart on a buttered baking sheet and bake in a 300-degree oven for approximately 15 minutes or until very lightly browned. Cool on a rack, then dust with powdered sugar.