Mindy Segal has this great look she gives you, a look that says, "What are you, a *#%$ idiot?" It is her default look, and pretty adaptable: She can deliver it with a smile, or a frown, with an air of puzzlement, or a hint of generosity. It is a reassuring look for the author of a just-released cookie cookbook, because it says, even to someone as inexperienced with baking as myself: Look, if you can dress yourself, you can, with a smidge of patience and some common sense, bake a decent peanut butter thumbprint with strawberry lambic jam.
But then "Cookie Love," this first cookbook from the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and longtime owner of Chicago's Hot Chocolate restaurant, has a warm, down-to-earth, hand-holding familiarity about it. Gone is the famously acerbic, prickly Segal of Chicago restaurant lore, and in her place, an approachable, self-deprecating casualness. As part of her chocolate-chip cookie recipe, Segal notes that she can't bake a decent oatmeal-raisin cookie. One of her tips is prosaically labeled: "How to Dip a Cookie in Melted Chocolate." That thumbprint recipe suggests using Beer Nuts. A shortbread recipe takes Folgers crystals. And how did she get her brownie recipe? She bartered with the pastry chef of the old Lakeview Supper Club.
Her edge isn't gone.
It's just more playful. The following is an edited, condensed version of a longer interview.
Segal: I know what you're going to ask me.
A: "Why cookies, Mindy?"
Q: No, I was going to ask if you ever baked for a school bake sale?
A: I never have. My mom used to. She makes this Yum Yum Coffee Cake, and I have been remaking it my whole life — I add bananas and a cheesecake center and do a different streusel. She made that for bake sales a lot. She also made cookies from a box that were so good. This is a cliche, but one of my earliest memories was her aluminum bowl, her wooden spoon and actually looking over the counter as she baked.
Q: OK, now the obvious question: What is your favorite recipe in the book?
A: That's actually tough. The better question is "What do you like to make?" And so I will say, cookies suit different moods. But if you have a perfect snickerdoodle — crispy on the outside, smooth on the inside, with a hint of cinnamon or sugar — then I can't stop eating them. And I love the hot-fudge rugelach in the book.
Q: What mood is a snickerdoodle mood?
A: Premenstrual? Stoned and I want to eat a lot? Maybe that mood? The fun thing about making cookies is they are not always perfect. Sometimes mistakes are made and something great comes out of it.
Q: Why "Fig Segals"?
A: Because "Fig Newtons" would have gotten me sued. And we take black mission figs and cook them down with honey and red wine or port, and I don't think that's a Fig Newton.
Q: Tell me about the dream bars in the book.
A: Well, that's actually not my recipe. Basically, my mother's friend Phyllis Grossman was a phenomenal baker (and gave her mother the recipe). I have had that recipe forever. When my staff cuts off pieces and puts some in their mouths, I say: "Wait! Understand that this is one of the most addicting things you will ever taste. Take a bite, and there is no going back."
Q: Is there a learning curve to this book?
A: I didn't think about it until I was writing, but I wrote it in a progression. You start with drop cookies, then go to shortbreads, then sandwich cookies. It's designed so that if you can make chapter one, you are ready for chapter two. I wouldn't point at any recipe and just make it. It's not for the skilled pastry chef.
Q: When do you know there are too many ingredients in a dessert?
A: I am a caramel-malt-butterscotch-milk-chocolate-smoked almond girl. So I don't know. I love all that (expletive). That said, restraint is one of the virtues of being a great chef. See, I have great quotes, and that's one of them. But no, actually I'm not kidding about restraint.
Q: It's a fine line with desserts, between cloying and clever.
A: Yes. Balance! Restraint! But then, to understand balance takes a maturity you have to arrive at.
Q: Is there an ingredient that's overused in pastries?
A: You know what you should ask me: Is there an ingredient that's underused? There is: salt.
Q: Why salt in cookies?
A: "Why?" Seriously? If you don't understand the importance of salt and, say, vanilla extract in baking, you don't understand balance or baking. There's another quote! A Mindy Segal quote. Write that (expletive) down.
Prep: 60 minutes, plus chilling time
Bake: 23-25 minutes
Makes: 30 bars
These bars from "Cookie Love" (Ten Speed Press, $24.99) by Mindy Segal have a cakelike base and crunchy meringue topping. The bars can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (64 percent to 66 percent cacao), melted
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 extra-large eggs, separated, at room temperature
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
Invert a baking sheet; spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Line the top with parchment paper. With an offset spatula, spread the melted chocolate evenly across the parchment. Place the baking sheet in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch rimmed baking pan (a quarter sheet pan) or glass baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; line with parchment paper, leaving 1 inch of overhang on the long sides.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium speed, 5-10 seconds. Add the granulated sugar; beat until mixture is aerated, 3-4 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.
Add the water and vanilla to the egg yolks. On medium speed, add the yolks, one at a time, mixing briefly until the batter resembles cottage cheese, about 5 seconds per yolk. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to bring the batter together. Mix on medium speed to make nearly homogeneous, 20-30 seconds.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Add the flour mixture all at once; mix on low speed until the dough just comes together but still looks shaggy, about 30 seconds. Do not overmix. With a plastic bench scraper, bring the dough completely together by hand.
Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Using a rubber spatula and then your fingertips, press the dough into the corners of the pan and smooth the surface.
Remove the chocolate from the freezer; break it up into shards. Scatter the chocolate shards across the surface of the dough; press into the dough. Cover the top with plastic wrap, pressing down through the plastic to smooth the top. Refrigerate until the dough is set, at least 20 minutes or overnight. (If refrigerating the dough overnight, refrigerate the egg whites as well, letting them come to room temperature before proceeding with the meringue.)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and a pinch of kosher salt on medium speed until frothy, about 45 seconds. Add the brown sugar; whip on medium-high speed until shiny peaks form and the meringue holds its shape, 2-3 minutes. Spread the meringue evenly over the chilled dough.
Bake, rotating the pan halfway through the baking process, until the meringue resembles a lightly toasted marshmallow, 23-25 minutes. It will start to crack on the sides but should still be slightly soft in the center, and the bottom layer should be cooked through but still pale, not golden brown. (Do not overbake or the shortbread will be too crumbly to cut.) Cool completely in the pan. Once cool, refrigerate until chilled.
Lift the bars out of the pan using the parchment handles; transfer to a cutting board. Cut the bars lengthwise into 3 strips. Cut the bars crosswise into 10 strips to make small, rectangular bars. Serve the bars at room temperature.
Nutrition information per bar: 151 calories, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 133 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
PEANUT BUTTER PEANUT BRITTLE COOKIES
Prep: 45 minutes
Bake: 12 minutes per batch
Makes: 34 cookies
From "Cookie Love" by Mindy Segal, who writes, "My cookies are a little flatter and crisper than most. The surface gets these great crinkles, so you don't need to press the tines of a fork to make crosshatch marks. Skippy is my usual choice for creamy, sweet-salty peanut butter." The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Dough can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light muscovado sugar or light brown sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 extra-large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup cane sugar
Peanut brittle, see recipe
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter briefly on medium speed, 5-10 seconds. Add the sugars; beat until the butter mixture is aerated and pale, 4 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together. Add the peanut butter; mix on medium to combine thoroughly, about 1 minute.
Crack the egg into a small cup or bowl; add the milk and vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salts, baking powder and baking soda.
On medium speed, gradually add the egg, milk and vanilla to the butter mixture. Mix, 5 seconds. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to bring the batter together. Mix on medium until nearly homogeneous, 20-30 seconds.
Add the dry ingredients all at once; mix on low until the dough comes together but still looks shaggy, about 30 seconds. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to bring the batter together. Mix on medium, 10 seconds. With a plastic bench scraper, bring the dough completely together by hand.
Transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap; wrap tightly. Refrigerate overnight.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a couple of rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
For the coating, put the sugar in a shallow bowl. Using a 3/4-ounce (1 1/2 tablespoon) ice cream scoop, portion the dough into 12 mounds; roll them into balls. (Alternately, use a large spoon to portion dough. You will make about 12 cookies per batch.) Gently coat each ball completely with the sugar. Space the balls well apart on a baking sheet. Press a couple of peanut brittle shards into the top of the rounds.
Bake, 8 minutes. Rotate the pan; bake until the tops are barely set and the edges are lightly golden, 4-5 minutes. The cookies will firm up as they cool, but they still will be chewy. For crispy cookies, bake 7-9 minutes more after rotating the pan. Let the cookies cool completely on the pan. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Nutrition information per cookie: 139 calories, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 152 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: about 2 cups of large shards
From "Cookie Love" by Mindy Segal; keep the shards large to on in the cookies. Depending on the humidity, peanut brittle keeps for at least 1 month in an airtight container.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup raw or dry-roasted, skinless peanuts
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Line a rimmed baking pan (half sheet pan, 13-by-18 inches) with a silicone baking mat or foil sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
In a 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat, dissolve the sugar, water and corn syrup. Stir in the peanuts with a wooden spoon; cook, gently swirling the pan, over medium heat until a light caramel forms, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the butter, salt, baking soda and vanilla in a bowl. When the syrup reaches the light caramel stage, pour the contents of the bowl into the pot. Remove from the heat and stir. The baking soda will darken the caramel. (If it looks too light still, put it back over the heat for a few seconds.) Spread the brittle onto the baking mat. Let it harden and cool. Once set, break into shards with your hands.
Nutrition information per 1/4 cup serving: 145 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 168 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
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