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Defying the laws of baking

My mama used to have a recipe she affectionately called a "dump cake," duly named because you just dump everything in the bowl and mix. Everybody knows you don't just dump your ingredients in a bowl. You must cream your butter and sugar, then add your wet and dry ingredients alternately at various increments so as to produce a light and fluffy cake. The same laws apply to cookies, even if you don't want them light and/or fluffy. Most of the roll-out cookie dough recipes tell you to mix your ingredients in a certain order then it says something like add 6+ cups of all purpose flour. And you are supposed to know how much equals (+). Even after I started teaching everyone how to bake, I would tell beginners to achieve a perfect consistency and not continue to add flour to the mixture by way of the counter top. So, perfect is often a range somewhere between 6 and 7 cups of flour, depending on humidity, and temperature of ingredients among other factors.

Then came a serendipitous discovery. One day I was requiring a reluctant teenager to mix up some dough for me because I was in a bind and had a million cookies to frost and I subscribe to the paradigm that if I feed and water you on a daily basis, you owe it to me to be helpful. She groaned, complained and finally commenced slinging ingredients into the bowl. I was preparing myself to get all kinds of mad and show her how her attitude affects cookie dough when to my surprise, she mixed a bowl of PERFECT dough. So perfect, in fact, that I was rendered silent (the second miracle in one minute). Surely it was beginner's luck or the favor of God or some other kind of fortune that rarely befalls me. She did it again, and again, and again. In all kinds of weather, using ingredients at various temperatures.

Since I have started teaching others to bake, I have come to appreciate how many of you love yourself some EXACT MEASUREMENTS. If I could get exact measurements to render a perfect dough every time without variation, I might strike GOLD. So, I now tell my students to dump all the ingredients in the mixing bowl and STIR. Once there is no danger of catapulting flour all over your kitchen cabinets, increase the speed to mix. You will know that your dough is perfect when you see a dough that will mop itself off the edges of the bowl and form a soft ball. How perfect is that? Most recipes instruct the baker to refrigerate the dough for 1-2 hours before you roll out but I am personally not equal to that kind of workout. Do you know how hard it is to roll out COLD, stiff dough? Me either, because I am not going to do it. I much prefer to work with my dough while it is soft like fresh play-doh.

Rolling out soft dough is a beautiful thing! You just place your rolling sticks on the counter and you roll out between two sheets of parchment. There is no flour flung all over your counter tops creating a big mess to clean up. Your first cookie and your last cookie are exactly the same. You will understand this if you have ever had your first round of cookies spread (they go in looking like a reindeer and come out looking like a moose) or your last cookies become dry and crunchy from all the flour that was added every time you rolled out more. Baking is really one part great recipe, one part tips and techniques, and one part dumb luck.....I mean serendipitous discovery.


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