It’s considered a hard and true fact in the food world that baking is a precise discipline and that cooking–sauteing, roasting, salad-making–is looser, freer, more of a vehicle for personal expression.
Why does that always have to be the case? Isn’t it possible that, if you know a thing or two in the kitchen, you can whip up a batch of cookies with as much freedom and joie-de-vivre as you might employ while making am omelet? I decided to challenge the status quo yesterday by making a batch of cookies without following a recipe.
My thought process went something like this: I make Martha Stewart’s chocolate chip cookies all the time. I make lots of other cookies too. The basic formula goes something like this: butter is creamed with sugar (brown, white or a combination). Eggs are added. Dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt) are added and then the cookie fillings–chocolate chips, walnuts, dried cranberries, etc.–are mixed in quickly so you don’t overdevelop the gluten.
Clearly, then, I should start with butter and sugar. I preheated my oven to 350 F and into my stand mixer I added two sticks at room temperature and 1/2 a cup of dark brown sugar and 1/4 cup of white sugar (this was just a feeling about sugar, not anything I had memorized):
I creamed that until it was light and fluffy and the sugar was fully incorporated and then I added two eggs:
I mixed those in well and here’s where things got interesting. I didn’t have a clear memory about how much flour goes into cookies: so I added one cup of white flour and one cup of whole wheat flour (just because I was running out of white and had a whole bunch of whole wheat). I added one teaspoon of baking powder and 1/2 a teaspoon of salt:
I mixed that in just until incorporated and then I scratched my chin and thought about flavor possibilities. I saw an apple. I saw a lemon. I thought “APPLE PIE COOKIES” and brought some cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to the party.
I grated in about 1/2 a teaspoon of fresh nutmeg, added a spoonful of cinnamon (about 1 teaspoon) and a tiny pinch of cloves. I added the zest from the lemon and about half of the apple peeled and chopped into cubes.
Now when I mixed those in I tasted some of the cookie batter and realized that it was too buttery and not enough like a cookie dough. So I added another half cup of flour, blitzed that in and tasted again. Perfection.
I shaped the dough into cookies and flattened them on to a parchment lined cookie sheet:
Into the oven they went and I started to worry. “Adam, what are you thinking? You think you can just mix up butter and sugar and eggs and flour and throw in some spices and some lemon zest and some apple and you’ll have cookies? Who are you kidding? These are going to suck.”
20 minutes later, that demon in my head was eating his words. These are my finished improvised cookies:
Keep in mind: I made these without a recipe. I didn’t even consult a regular cookie recipe to riff on it. I just felt my way through the process based on my Martha Stewart cookie memories and these cookies–while not by any means perfect–were totally tasty. Because I used so much baking powder (next time, I’d use 1/2 a teaspoon instead of 1 teaspoon) they were more cake-like than cookie-like. I didn’t mind that.
More importantly, because I made these cookies without a recipe, I’ll know intuitively next time how to change it up. I’ll continue to experiment–maybe I’ll try an egg and an egg yolk instead of two eggs (like Martha does), maybe I’ll add baking soda AND baking powder, maybe I’ll do all white flour next time. The point is, I got so much more out of this experience baking without a recipe than I would baking with a recipe. And the cookies weren’t a replication of someone else’s kitchen work, they were an expression of how I was feeling at a particular moment in time. Which is why baking by the seat of your pants is a totally worthwhile endeavor, no matter what the food pundits say.