What is in a cookie?
There’s flour, of course, and butter and sugar and eggs, all webbed together more or less permanently by a big plastic paddle, and some torque.
It can get more complicated, though. There’s air, if you look closely. The flour could be whole wheat, like mine, and there could be impossibly big chunks of melty, drippy chocolate, along with salt, and – wait, what’s that spice? Or ginger, pounded and dried and secreted in, along with a hint of saffron. Or maybe moisture, in the form of a swollen oat.
(And, truth be told, in this batch, somewhere, there’s probably a cat hair. Jack tried to stick his paw in the mixer while it was whirling around.)
But that’s not what I mean at all.
The real question is What’s in a cookie that makes it so good to give? It certainly can’t be its nutritional qualities – unless you’re Michael Phelps, you probably don’t need the calories. (Charmian’s right; That Globe and Mail piece on Phelps is hilarious.)
Watching a cookie leave home certainly isn’t the sort of thing that instills calm in an addicted baker. One more cookie out means one less cookie in, and goodness, it’s only cool enough to turn the oven on for so many days in August. One can’t be too strict with inventory.
But still, the giving’s the best part, in my book. In one cookie, you can say I’m thinking of you, and I know you, and If something bad happens, you better not fucking die, because I need you.
Okay, so mostly, yesterday, I wanted to say the latter. My husband’s away for work, which for him means sleeping in an RV next to a beach, where he’s installed instrument upon instrument into the sand in the tidal zone. (Jim’s an oceanographer.)
I don’t really know what those shiny things all do – sure, I have a decent general idea, and I know they’re very expensive and prone to breakage. But when he waved good-bye on Tuesday morning, all I really knew for sure was that he’s going to be very wet for two weeks.
Jim likes getting wet. The way he tells it, there’s nothing dangerous about his fieldwork, and to some extent, in my brain, I believe him. (Here, it’s probably fair to mention that when it comes to safety, I can be slightly dramatic. I’m the type of person who starts concocting outrageous crash scenarios the second I sink into an airplane seat. He’s the kind of person who falls asleep before takeoff.)
But I am decidedly not an oceanographer, which means that what sounds completely sane to him doesn’t really work for me.
(Case in point: Saltwater. The fact is, I don’t even like the ocean all that much. Lake water? Totally fine. But saltwater gives me the heebie-jeebies. Always has. Water isn’t supposed to be sticky, if you ask me. My heart does a little rollercoastery thing when I stick my head all the way under, like I’m swimming in something that might cause an allergic reaction.)
Still, I decided to visit yesterday. First I was going to bring dinner, but weather and work interfered, and it was 6 p.m. before I even thought about driving north. I decided I’d bring cookies.
I started heading toward a big man of a cookie – a brawny specimen, the kind no one could eat in one bite. (The cookie David Leite printed in the New York Times a few weeks ago was the obvious best choice, especially given that I haven’t tried them yet, but please, who has 36 hours? I had one hour.)
So I planned: There would be chocolate, for certain, but given that my husband’s a fan of desserts that bite back, I veered way off the traditional path, straight for the Thai chilies leftover from the soup I’d made a few nights before. Then that chocolate chocolate espresso cookie from last summer popped up in my brain, and you know what I did? I went for a walk. Just took the dog, and let that KitchenAid’s gaping maw have a bit of a time out, slacked wide by itself for a few moments, because who wants a cookie with chocolate and espresso and Thai chilies (and ginger and lemongrass, if I’m really being honest about what I’d planned)? Seriously.
By the time I’d calmed down, I was heading toward big ginger chunk cookies, lumpy with pieces of crystallized ginger and coconut. But at T minus zero, when I was about to stir the chewy bits in, something stopped me: The batter was so lovely-looking, smooth and unfettered. I skipped the pieces and parts, and made – gasp! – what’s essentially a gingered sugar cookie. It’s thin and delicate, and straight from the oven, it shatters and dissolves in the mouth, like the kind of dream you can feel yourself losing as you wake up. Maybe think of it as a gingersnap that’s lost a lot of weight.
The truth is, it’s quite the opposite of the cookie I wanted to bring. Not even the least bit brawny. I piled the first batch into a plastic container – these cookies belong in fancy clear plastic bags, I tell you, with ribbons and stickers – and it seemed so wrong.
An hour later, our dinner plan had hit a bump, and we were eating Chinese food in a gas station in Conway, WA. (I’d hesitate to say it was good, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.) I handed Jim the container.
First, he was thrilled. Cookies. Then he opened it and sort of tipped it sideways, like he was looking for the real cookies, or the other halves of the ones I’d brought.
Okay, I admitted. So I made the wrong ones.
These are not cookies for fieldwork. They’re cookies for shoe shopping, or afternoon tea. They’re the kind of bites you have to slip into a purse that has structure, so they don’t get smashed.
I had a flash of my beloved, stranded on the island with his instruments, wasting away because I’d failed to stir in the chocolate chunks.
But does it matter, that I got it wrong?
Maybe even the girliest cookie has the je ne sais quoi to stand up in the stomach, when a person is in dire straits, and help do what needs to be done.
Or maybe any cookie, no matter its form or content, has the je ne sais quoi to make the giver feel a little bit better, simply in the giving.
Here’s a delicate take on a gingersnap that’s the exact opposite of “manly.” Perched next to a cup of tea or an impossibly elegant scoop of sorbet, the cookie is more of a culinary accessory than actual sustenance – and like the perfect pair of earrings, it’s probably what your guests will notice first. For full shattering appeal, serve the cookies right when they’ve cooled – after a few hours, they become chewy (still good, but less fragile).
For a bit of adventure, try using a flavored salt – I used Ritrovo’s “Saffron and Salt,” which gave the cookies an earthy, fragrant aftertaste without actually making them taste like Indian food.
TIME: 35 minutes active time
MAKES: About 8 dozen small cookies
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt (or flavored salt, such as saffron salt)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two heavy baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon baking mats, and set aside.
Whisk flours, ground ginger, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl, and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using a hand-held electric mixer), cream the butter and both sugars on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time on low speed, beating well after each addition and scraping down the inside of the bowl with a plastic spatula as needed. Add the fresh ginger. (The dough may look a little curdled – that’s okay.) Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture in three additions, mixing on low speed until just combined, and scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary. Beat again for a few seconds on high, until fluffy.
Using a 3/4” ice cream scoop or two small spoons, drop the dough (it will be soft) in 3/4” balls about 2” apart on the baking sheets. (I fit 15 per sheet.) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through, or until the cookies are browned and crisp at the edges. Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
P.S. 9/2/08 I just discovered that my oven is running extremely slow. This recipe may require less oven time. If you give them try, please let others know how long yours take!