Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inspired by The Chocolate Chip Bandits

the bandits, circa 1954: meet Jell-o & Chocolate

There has to be a special name for someone who opens a Jell-O box, consumes the sugary contents and then glues the flaps back together so it looks like new.  And there certainly is a name for people who eat almost every last morsel of a package and replace it on the shelf looking like it was never touched.  My mom knew that in our house packaged food on the shelf might not actually contain any food by the time she got around to opening it. 
Once in a while my mom bravely brought home bags of chocolate chips.  Eventually, she learned to avoid disaster caused by the ever adorable chocolate chip bandit duo and their nightime pantry raids.  Only phantom chips remained in a bag that looked unopened (read: glued).  Not one to be thwarted, she turned those into nut cookies with extra nuts.  She knew after that to make the cookies right away when she brought the chips home – otherwise she had to tote them into her bedroom overnight to keep the chocolate safe.  
My mother slept with chocolate.  And people wonder where I got my chocolate obsession from?
While she was a master baker when it came to all those heirloom Jewish family recipes that were inside her head, she was not as well versed when it came to reading and executing actual written recipes.   I have little memory of those chocolate chip cookies which means that I didn’t enjoy them or my brothers ate them all before I got a chance to have any.  I’d wager the later.
I was a preteen when a brand new little bakery opened up across the street from school.  The chocolate chips were gooey, and the cookie was soft in the middle and snappy on the edges.  The caramelized brown sugar was probably a little too sweet, but to a kid, that was just fine.  The vanilla was pure unlike the fake stuff my mother used because it was cheaper.  And the abundance of chocolate chips was regal. 
The discovery of these perfect little goodies occurred at the same time I lost my mother.  My home, the house of doom, as I called it, was now a place full of grief and silence.  The Ad Man spent the first part of that year of mourning, literally sitting in the dark with a continuous chain of odiferous cigarettes providing the only light in the room.  He tried to be a good dad and step up, but his depression weighed more than both of us.  Dinner was usually a time of more solitude though we continued to eat together.  He cobbled together meals from Veg-All and some sort of meat, cooked until it dragged itself into the sink for relief.  Veg-All apparently can be served in so many more ways than it ever should. 
At the end of the mourning period, the Ad Man started dating, leaving me alone many nights.  To appease his parenting guilt, he gifted me with all kinds of strange items that he thought a preteen girl might like.  I assume that he was getting these ideas from his dates who had never met his geeky daughter.  Otherwise I might wonder how he ever knew that young girls coveted things like Tiger Magazine, or pony tail/barrettes or troll dolls.  My hair was short, blunt, curly and always barrette-less.  I never read anything but Mad Magazine or books.  Troll dolls, however, were a hit. 
The last gift before he remarried was the baby pink short trench coat that although very trendy for the time, was not my color, type, or size.  I wore it anyway because the pockets were like tiny backpacks.  I could stash almost half a dozen bakery chocolate chip cookies in them and bring them home sight unseen.  Eventually it got to be way too small because I ate too many cookies.  The poor pink trench got retired the day after I loaded it with my cookie treasures and was smacked silly on the way home.  I had a couple of shoe prints on the back of the coat where the angry bullies had kicked me.  Apparently, having spent my spare change on cookies rather than giving it over, made them angry.  I offered the bakery bag but they wanted money rather than freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  I was seriously mystified at that logic.  The Ad Man just about had a heart attack when he noticed the foot prints and then he found the cookies and had a tiny bit of a stroke.  He had been clueless about how I could possibly be getting chunky on Veg-All, 7500 ways. 
The coat and my daily walk through the bakery on the way home were both retired from that day on.  I had minders watching me long enough that I gave up.  But I never forgot those cookies.  
Those cookies became the ones by which all others are judged.  I spent years trying to get it just right.
Fortunately, one day, quite by accident I found a recipe that came amazingly close to the real deal.  I was taking a chocolate class (oh, surprise) from Alice Medrich where she was also signing books.  I ran back into the store to buy a couple, and one was her Cookies and Brownies book.  Anything that had cookie in the title was a safe bet.   And to my surprise, there was the answer.  The way to make spectacular chocolate chip cookies is not in the ingredients list, although you ought to use the best ingredients you can find.  It is in the technique.  When I smell them baking in the oven, I am a happy girl again.  At least now I don’t keep cookies in my pockets.  I’ve learned to share.  A little bit.

 Chocolate Chip Espresso Cookies - Gluten Free
(adapted from Alice Medrich’s Cookies and Brownies)
  • 2 ¼ cups gluten free flour or all purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon xanthan gum (if using gluten free flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon finely ground espresso (decaf!)
  • ¼ cup of lightly toasted unsweetened coconut shreds (optional)
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • ¾ cup white sugar  
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 2 cups of (bittersweet) chocolate chips
  • ¾ cup of chopped lightly toasted pecans
In a bowl, combine the flour, xanthan gum, salt, baking soda, espresso and mix to incorporate.  Add the (optional) coconut and mix once more. 
Meantime, in a large saucepan over medium low heat, melt the butter.  When completely melted, stir in the brown sugar and mash any lumps until it is smooth.  Then mix in the white sugar and remove from heat.  After thoroughly combining, let it sit for about five minutes without touching the pan.  Mix in the eggs first, one at a time until incorporated.  Then add the flavorings.  Add the dry ingredients and mix well. 
Let the whole thing sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before you mix in the chips and nuts.  If you add the chips too soon, they will just melt into the batter.  Stir in the chips and nuts.  Scoop (large tablespoon size) onto silpat or parchment lined cookie sheets about ½ inch apart.  Flatten slightly with a fork. 
Let them sit for about an hour. 
Preheat oven to 350.   Bake about 7 minutes and rotate the sheets.  Bake about 5 minutes more until very lightly brown.  Keep watching.  Underdone is better than the other option.  Let them cool on the baking sheet.  Store in a tin.  Cookies keep for about 5 days if they last that long! 
 Notes:  Use the best chips you can find.  It makes a huge difference.  Scharffenberger bittersweet chunks are great.  See’s chocolate chips are actually quite good and large.  Ghirardelli bittersweet are very good, too.  Be sure to store them in a tin – the container store has them for a reasonable price.  Tins are mult-use tools for the kitchen and nothing keeps cookies fresher.  To refresh them, just place on a cookie sheet and pop them into a preheated 350 degree oven.  Turn the oven off once you place the cookies in there.  Time it for ten minutes.  They should be perfect once again, and an added bonus: the chocolate will be gooey. 
Bon app├ętit

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