Does anyone else remember the Friends episode "The One with Phoebe's Cookies?" Let me break it down for you. Short version- Monica tries to replicate Phoebe's grandmother's cookie recipe, and hilarious hijinks ensue. The particulars of the episode aren't that important. The important part is why Monica spent days slaving away in the kitchen in an effort to duplicate the Madame Neslee Toulouse recipe- she wanted to be the mom who baked the best chocolate chip cookies.
I can relate. When my daughter was born I had elaborate fantasies of meeting her at the door after school in a freshly pressed apron, perfectly coiffed hair, and a tray of ice cold milk and delicious fresh baked cookies. I also had elaborate fantasies of murdering the rooster next door in Wile E. Coyote fashion every time he woke me up from the 20 minutes of sleep I was getting a night, but that is a story for another time.
Although a southern girl by birth, I did not grow up in a house dedicated to food as many southerners do. My mom, although a fine cook, had neither the patience nor the creativity to be a baker. She does, however, make an awesome pot roast (love you, Mom. Don't be mad.) There were plenty of sweet teeth and sugar addicts in our family, but our satisfaction had to be got via Oreo, Hostess, and Chips Ahoy. On a special occasion we even made some cookies from the famous Pillsbury cookie tube. Although, usually the tube was consumed raw way before it ever had a chance of making it into the oven. So, needless to say, there was no multi-generational cookie recipe to be handed down to me like some priceless family heirloom. So I set out on my quest to find the Ultimate-Oh-My-God-My-Mom-Makes-the-Best-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies-In-the-World recipe.
At this point in my life I considered myself to be an adequate/moderately decent cook. I had mastered the art of following a recipe for the slightly more complicated meal du jour. I still struggled, and still do, with the more simple items like scrambled eggs (dry and tasteless), grilled cheese (burned and stuck to the pan), rice (dry and crunchy), and pancakes (doughy and stuck to the pan). But somehow I could almost effortlessly pull off an amazing veggie lasagna, chicken cacciatore, Filet Paulette, and even Beef Wellington. So I figured as long as I had a recipe to follow, what could go wrong?
Well, there was the time I set a small oven fire. (To this day there are still remnants of flour residue on the bottom of my oven that my husband threw on top of the fire to smother it.) Many times I forgot to add an important ingredient. (Eggs and baking soda are surprisingly important to cookies, as it turns out.) On more than one occasion I have dropped an entire pan of cookies because I burned myself pulling them out of the oven (5 second rule, they still tasted pretty good once you knocked the cat hair off of them.) I have forgotten to set the timer and burned many a batch. And once, just once, I completely forgot to turn the oven on ( I blame that one on sleep deprivation and that damn rooster!)
And all those recipes, all those disasters, all those calories, have helped me reach a few important conclusions:
1. The first ingredient whenever you're baking (or cooking) should always be LOVE. Seriously, I put my heart and soul into every batch of cookies I have ever made. I love giving the gift of home-made sweets to someone, especially if they've been feeling down or stressed, or just to let them know Ive been thinking of them.
2. Necessity is truly the mother of invention. I have learned that fat is fat in any recipe, be it butter, oil, crisco, or margarine. Try applesauce if you're out of eggs. Make your own buttermilk with lemon juice and milk. If you've run out of some important ingredient, don't panic. Odds are there's a way to work around it.
3. Plan ahead. This keeps you from running into the above issues and makes the whole experience less stressful.
4. Don't worry about fancy equipment. Cookies that I've mixed by hand with a wooden spoon taste just as delicious as the ones that I made with my kitchenmaid. (And I should know- I've licked that wooden spoon hundreds of times.)
5. ALWAYS make more than you think you need. You will lose lots of cookies to taste tests. You'll want to give some away, and you will definitely want to keep some for yourself.
6. Experiment. Be creative. Taste Test.
7. Take advantage of the options that are out there. Sign up for an on-line baking class. Check out Pinterest. Browse some cookbooks. If you have a friend that is an amazing cook/ baker, ask for his/her favorite recipes. Watch some Food Network.
8. Never get discouraged. Keep trying. If something turns out wrong, throw it away and start over. Take it as a learning experience.
I am not, nor will I ever be the best baker in the world. I will never have my own cooking show or cookbook, but that was never my goal. My goal was to make amazing food for my family that they love.