September 17, 2019

Oatmeal Cookies, Unabaker Style, A Post-Production Summary

You've executed the formula, witnessed the results, and enjoyed the product with family or friends; what now? Well, it's a good habit to take a moment to review one's notes and observations made during or subsequent to the process. This normally takes the form of a short summary of the project, any specific observations you might have had during the process or scaling, mixing and baking. Did you make any alterations, ingredient changes or methodological tweaks. Are there any worth considering for "next time"? Using the print out of the formula, perhaps you made some casual notes in the margin provided as you were proceeding. A binder to store formulas and one's notes is a good idea. This is the beginning of your "kitchen guide".

A regular feature of my four decades of self studies has been recording, analyzing and summarizing results. Comparing what I did to similar formulae from other sources. Since 2005, using my calculation format as a tool for doing side by side comparisons, has made the analytical phase of recipe and formula development so much simpler. Seeing the structure of a formula in it's baker's percentages, it becomes so obvious when you compare two or three or more different formula from reputable sources which have been recorded using The Unabaker's Formula Calculator; how they each differ in increments of ingredients or by using a different flour, flavoring, leavening agent or other ingredient change. As one's understanding of an ingredient's effects upon the process, development and finished product, you begin to recognize, and perhaps even anticipate a product texture and result prior to making it. One can make deductions about what Chad Robertson's baguette formula versus Raymond Calvel, Ken Forkish, Jeffrey Hamelman, or whoever your favorite baker may be. Having done such comparisons, you've positioned yourself to devise your own. It's the essence of creativity. Nothing comes out of the blue. We profit from the experience and wisdom of those who've done it before, and we build upon that. As Isaac Newton observed, we stand upon shoulders of giants. Chad Roberson is a phenomenon, and for good reason. His story is interesting, his efforts and evolution as baker, and his products and his ability to teach his methodology outstanding. Yet, part of his story is about, absorbing the wisdom and the vision of his mentors.

I will try to make a habit to publish my mid-process notations, and other thoughts that arise during and after in the form of a Post-Production Summary of each test bake.

In the case of the Oatmeal Cookies, Unabaker Style, and having produced this product many times the short summary is as follows: delicious with a notable World Well-Being Coefficient. This formula yields a cookie with slightly crispy exterior, a chewy interior crumb with rich, buttery, nutty, fruity, sweet and sour counterpoints. The brown sugar adds a bit of slightly burnt caramel. The spice comes through nicely; the vanilla as well. The addition of the brandy (a substitution made for the specified rum) doesn't impact the palate particularly, but it's presence has an added interest factor that sometimes causes people like young cooks to think it's kinda cool, so there's value in that. What might make for a more impactful application of the brandy (other than drinking it)? Well, suppose we macerate the fruit in the brandy for 30 minutes to soften it. Then, added at the finish, and given a gentle mix, just enough to blend them in without mashing them into fudgy smears; it's an interesting tweak worth a bake test.

As noted, the cookie has a nice chewy interior, but a slightly crispy exterior as well; effected by virtue of various temperature moderations made, but also due to an added period of holding time in the powered off oven as it's temperature subsided. This was the only significant methodological change made from the given instructions. It is not crucial to the end product; merely experimental. The variations made from specified baking temperatures illustrate that a formula is a "guide", not a rule. While baking is a precise cooking method, there is wriggle room, but it also pays to use slightly lower bake temps at first, especially using an unknown (or cheapo) oven.

Some Proposed Ways To Tweak It

In addition to the potential flavor boosting tweak by the maceration of the fruit as mentioned above, textural changes to the product can be effected variously. Additional eggs will, of course, give it a more "cakey" texture. Some humans are known to prefer this. When baking for a specific audience, it's useful to know their preferences, and to play to these for the greatest level of world well-being, not to mention possible personal acclaim. Using no eggs in the formula will do the opposite; usually a dependably crispier product. The bottom line is: eggs are not essential to being a cookie, even if in some preparations they are intrinsic.

Increase the fat content, and the cookies will spread a bit more, and thus, being thinner, be a bit crispier too. A cookie that spreads more also tends to bake quicker, so be on the lookout as always. Substitute white sugar for the brown sugar, and crispiness increases as well. Brown sugar has more moisture since it contains some of the sugar cane's molasses yet. And, without changing a single thing, the formula can be made to yield crispier cookie simply by shaping it thinner prior to baking, or by making it a bit thicker it will be chewier inside, less crisp outside. Another common trick is to lower the oven setting after the cookie achieves desired surface coloration. Lower temps tend to dry out a baked product, thus you can create a crispy effect quite readily. 140ºC (290F) does it. Of course, this ploy requires a lengthier bake time, perhaps an extra 5 minutes.

Altering the chemistry of a formula by changing amounts of leavening, starches, fats or sugar, has obvious implications for cooking time and temperature, and, if you don't really know much about baking, likely ominous implications for world well-being. Altering portion size or thickness of portion has time and temperature ramifications as well. A thicker cookie needs a slower oven in order for the interior to fully cook before the exterior browns excessively. A thinner one can be cooked hotter, thus highlighting crispiness further. Cooking hotter does not necessarily mean a darker product. Time and temperature go hand in hand in baking. A hotter oven requires a shorter duration. A slower oven, longer duration.

Knowing one's oven is crucial. Since I was testing this recipe, I did 4 cookie portions per batch, and used my little toaster oven. Nothing special, it's a cheapo cheapo unit sourced at a local shop. It handles stuff like this well, but as it's actual interior temperature versus the dial setting is unknown, I set the controls slightly to the cool side of the instructions given. I also decided to bake the two batches with slightly modified settings.

Batch 1

Scaled: 56grams, shaped by hand 5cm diameter.
Oven Setting: 180ºC, bake time 8 minutes. Tray rotation, then the
2nd Oven Setting: increased to 185ºC, bake time 4 minutes.
Oven off: cookies rest inside, 10 minutes.
Result: medium golden brown after baking with obvious color enhancement from using brown sugar; no discernible color change as a result of the extended, oven-off holding period.
Texture: slightly crispy outside, chewy interior.
Flavor: rich flavor of butter, cinnamon, vanilla with nice highlights from sour cherry, sweet raisin, and toasted walnuts. The walnuts paired notably well with cherries.

Batch 2

Scaled: 56grams, shaped by hand 5cm diameter.
Oven Setting: 185ºC, bake time 12 minutes, tray rotation after 6 minutes.
Oven off: cookies rest inside, 5 minutes.
Result: medium golden brown after baking; no discernible color change after residual rest period.
Texture: slightly crispy outside, chewy interior.
Flavor: rich flavor of butter, cinnamon, vanilla with nice highlights from sour cherry, sweet raisin, and toasted walnuts. The walnuts paired notably well with cherries.

No marked change in external appearance, caramelization or flavor between the batch cooked slower versus that cooked hotter. It was the same result. Their textural qualities were virtually identical.
My intuition would be to make more radical changes to bake temperatures to really test the limits of the formula.

Some Ingredient Tweaks

Flours: Substitute pastry flour or cake flour. Either will work fine. If all you have is bread flour, then use a mix 3 parts bread flour, 1 part potato starch, cornstarch, or rice flour to soften the protein content.

Grains: The addition of rye was just an idea, and since I had the ingredient, why not? I imagined to counterpoint rye's natural sourness versus the inherent sweetness of oats, and also, featured with the sour cherries, a buttress. No doubt, if dispensed with, the flavor would be a bare difference. One might inquire, why put it in if it doesn't make a difference? There's an old stand-by rule of thumb that "a difference that makes no difference is no difference". Thus the skeptic might say it's just a complication for no good reason. To which, the intrepid multiply award-winning Chef would say "I'm gonna give it a try anyway, and see". What if?... is sometimes the beginning of wow! And, sometimes not, but how can we know the difference, or the no difference unless we try? In any case, on a practical level it serves to illustrate to the tremulous novice that adjustments can be made without screwing up the whole thing; simple ones being the most successful. So, if you had not enough oats, but had some rye or some rolled wheat, and the locals really clamored for cookie, would you listen to the skeptic, or would you think like Unabaker, and reach for rye, or even some dried potato flakes?

Sugars: Use all white or all brown if desired, but with slight changes to finished taste and textures expected as a result. Otherwise, no real change to bake time or temperatures will be required. As adjunct sweeteners, not replacements, I've used molasses, honey, maple syrup, golden syrup, corn syrup, and even sweet soy, which is mostly molasses in any case. Palm sugar is an excellent choice, and, as it's not so expensive where I live, it's a Unabaker staple. I advise getting the harder block type, not the softened version. It can be stored at room temperature and won't mold; the softened stuff will.

Fat: Butter blend or margarine both work ok. Taste varies one to the other, but with no appreciable change to product texture to be expected. Butter has a lower melting point, thus the "melt in your mouth" factor changes a bit, but I'm not sure one can really detect this so much when mixed in a cookie dough. The flavor will be the main point of difference; butter tastes richer, humans are known to like it. The other notable characteristic of butter which makes using it better is that it is plastic at room temperature; it doesn't separate into oils. Handling margarine or butter blends means you'd better make sure it doesn't soften before you mix. Not a big deal if it does, but worth noting. Using other than butter is a flavor changer, but also a cost savings. Many butter alternatives are trans fatty, so consider your choice carefully.

Flavorings: Vanilla, maple, rum, almond extracts, hazelnut paste, nutella; it's a matter of experimentation and choice. It really doesn't improve the product to use crappy flavorings. Get the real stuff. Imitation is nasty. Vanilla beans are best. Don't discard the pods after scraping out the bean paste. Put them in a canister of sugar, and you'll have vanilla sugar. Cover them in your favorite liquor, and you've made an interesting vanilla extract. Bring them to a simmer in cream, then allow to cool overnight before straining; vanilla cream. Throw some into a pot of simple syrup; vanilla syrup.

Spices: Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, five spice, star anise, ginger, mace; any of these can be used. Obviously some of these are non-traditional flavor profiles for oatmeal cookies, but this doesn't mean it won't be tasty, but it does constitute a bake test when you stray. Such as star anise, ginger or allspice might be more thoughtfully used if in smaller amounts.

Nuts: Macadamia, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts; all good. Price points will vary considerably; walnuts and almonds are cheap (as nuts go), hazelnuts can be, whereas pecans and pine nuts, not so.

Dried Fruits: Currants, raisins, golden raisins, dried fig, sundried cherry; all will work well. What about candied ginger, or other exotics? Hmm, I don't know. After a point, it seems to me that Bakers Gone Wild might be a bit much. Perhaps we ought to be making an entirely different cookie; Candied Ginger & Cashew Butter cookies? Cardamom Snickerdoodles? Tamarind Ginger Snaps? One of the charms of oats is it's humility. Sometimes, humble is quite enough.

Liquor: Rum, brandy, whisky; all good, or none at all. Substitute a bit of milk, or buttermilk, a bit of yogurt, or apple juice, pear juice, prune juice; all quite ok in the same proportion.

With most cooking, exploration is part of the fun. A lot of interesting changes can be made by switching out ingredients as noted, but retaining basic baker's percentages especially regarding, flour, sugar, butter, egg, salt and leavening is a prudent course. A little more liquid than called for, i.e. more rum, or brandy, or whisky is fine; so too, a bit more flavor extract.

Some items that aren't featured in Unabaker's cookie formula that might prove to be intriguing bake tests include: sesame seed, black sesame, flax seed, chia seed. Can you think of others? The question isn't why, it's why not?...and the answer is: let's find out. It's only cookie, it's not that big of a deal if it turns out less than stellar, but a good rule for doing bake tests is to do a scaled down formula yield. Thus, one of chief virtues of The Unabaker's Formula Calculator can quite easily scale things down.

How to Save Money Making Oatmeal Cookies

Well, honestly, flour, oats, margerine, white sugar, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and vanilla is an oatmeal cookie. No nuts, no fruit, no butter, no liquor, no egg; there you go. Cheap, tasty, simple.

If you just have to be like Unabaker, but even cheaper than him, then just use less fruit and nuts, or cheaper fruit and nuts, or skip buying a lotto ticket, or save by walking to the store. I could go on. The point is spend the money where it counts the most. Expensive flour is not necessary. Good vanilla extract, not imitation flavor, is.  Butter, not margarine, is. Buying the most expensive sugars, salts, flours, fruits and nuts is optional if you have the cash. Regular old table salt, sugar, supermarket quality flour; it's all ok, and works splendidly.

If this was part of a course in Baking, an assignment might be to use The Unabaker's Formula Calculator to devise your own cookie formula, then conduct a bake test, recording your observations, to include portion sizing, shaping dimensions, bake times, temperatures, and the resulting characteristics and flavor evaluations. And of course, to bring me a sample to judge.

Another assignment might be to use only the most wonderful ingredients one can locate: organic this and thats, the purest of sea salts, the finest of sugars, the best of the best of nuts, hand foraged by extra virgins, the rarest of all the spices, fruits dried according to secret, ancient practice by essential virgins; every ingredient a story. Then, compare it to ones made using supermarket flour and oats, regular old eggs, sugar, salt, and nuts. Use the exact same formula proportions and methodology for each batch, mixed and baked the same way, allowed to cool, then mixed together so you can't tell the ones from the others. See if you can actually taste the difference; identify the ones tinged by a virgin's sweat.

Sometimes, we want to do the right thing, and sometimes we don't really know what the heck that is. For a large portion of suffering humanity an oatmeal cookie is a luxury. Being indulgent is not an option.  Am I saving the world by making the oatmeal cookie as expensive as it can possibly be? Do I even deserve the finest oatmeal cookie that's ever graced a table? It's kind of a ludicrous aspect of gastronomy that so much of it is focused upon sheer indulgence, and not enough upon how to make more people happy, not just gratify myself. Some of the world's most famous gourmands were just gluttons. Much of what I did for a living for 40 years; feed the fabulously wealthy. Even wealthy folks suffer, so I'm not saying don't feed them. I'm just saying, a really good hot dog made properly, or a really good loaf of bread is a rare enough treat. There's no shame in treating one's self, nor in practicing moderation.

Finally, if you're entertaining being a chef, then I'd add one further assignment: do a recipe costing of this formula, and then figure out a portion cost. Don't know how to do that? Hmm, I should write about that sometime I guess.

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