The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever or Why I Love J. Kenji López-Alt

The Internet is full of recipes claiming to be the Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever.  There are fake Mrs. Fields’ cookie recipes, old family recipes, bald rip-offs of the Toll House Cookie recipe from the back of the chocolate chip bag and many, many recipes of dubious, unknown pedigree.

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Most of these recipes yield cookies which are mediocre to barely satisfactory.

What if an experienced food scientist with very strong opinions about what makes the perfect chocolate chip cookie set out to create the ultimate incarnation of this treat? What if he baked over 100 batches of cookie to find the perfect recipe? What if he went through 32 lbs. of flour and made over 1,500 cookies?

Enter J. Kenji López-Alt.  He has absolutely nailed it. These cookies have the perfect balance between crunchy edges and chewy centers. Browning the butter before adding it to the dough really accentuates the richness and nuttiness of the cookies.  And the little touch of kosher salt on top gives little bursts of bright flavor as you chew them.

López-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer at Serious Eats and former editor of Cook’s Illustrated. I first encounter him when I was searching for a recipe for authentic Tacos al Pastor at home.  His recipe and the detailed explanation of how he developed it was invaluable in developing my own technique.  Since then I’ve used his beer cooler sous vide method on bison and dry aged rib-eyes and many other recipes.

The results have been uniformly excellent.

I won’t reprint the cookie recipe. You can find that here.  I highly recommend you read the story behind his quest for the perfect cookie, too.  Half food science tutorial, half lab notebook, you’ll learn a lot about baking from it.

A Couple of Lessons Learned

I have several batches of these cookies under my belt now and I’ve learned a couple of things about working with this dough.

The dough rests overnight in the refrigerator. López-Alt claims this makes them brown better and results in a higher, chewier cookie.  I haven’t tested that claim myself.  I’m willing to trust him on this one.

One consequence of the overnight rest is that the dough is quite cold when you start baking.  López-Alt designed the rest of the recipe (oven temperature, etc.) for that cold dough.

I’m currently down to one small oven (I’m starting to remodel my kitchen) which can only handle one tray at a time. That means it takes me a while bake four trays and that gives the dough time to come up to room temperature.  The first time I made these cookies the ones from the last tray were significantly thinner and crunchier than those on the first two trays.

Lesson - Return the dough to the frig between trays and give your baking sheets plenty of time to cool before you scoop out the next tray-full.

As I mentioned above, López-Alt sprinkles a tiny bit of kosher salt on the cookies as they come out of the oven.  Personally, I love that. Both how it looks and how it tastes.

My family, OTOH, thinks it makes the cookies too salty.

Feel free to omit that flourish if your family feels the same way.

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Homemade Blue Cheese Dressing

Most bottled blue cheese dressings are disappointing.  They rarely have enough of the blue cheese tang I love.

This blue cheese dressing is an exception.  It’s got a great balance of flavors. Since I’m making it myself, I can use the strongest blue cheese I can find. I can also put as much as I want in it.  It goes great with my Toasted Buffalo Chicken Ravioli.

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Recipe – Serves many

1/3 plus 2 TBS creme fraiche or sour cream
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tsp Worcestershire  sauce
1/4 tsp dry mustard
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced and bruised or grated on a micro-plane
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 to 4 oz blue cheese, to taste

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Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.  Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.  1 day is better.

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Toasted Buffalo Chicken Ravioli Recipe

Saturday I perfected my Toasted Buffalo Chicken Ravioli recipe.  It took me four tries to get it right, but it was worth the effort.  They’re spicy and crunchy. Paired with my home made blue cheese dressing, they are awesome.

Next time there’s a big sports party in the neighborhood, I’m bringing these. (Yes, I know the NCAA championship was tonight. I don’t like basketball, so that doesn’t count.)

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The recipe for these is actually very simple.  The hardest part of developing this dish was getting the texture of the chicken right and figuring out a way to highlight the combination of Frank’s hot sauce and blue cheese, when not everyone in my family likes blue cheese.

For this batch, I decided to leave the blue cheese out of the ravioli entirely.  Instead, I beefed up the blue cheese content of the dressing.  That way I get all the blue cheese bite I want and the rest of the family can eat their with Ranch dressing.

Ranch dressing on Buffalo anything? It’s sacrilege, I know. The things we do for family.

I started by dicing two ribs of celery and sauteing it in butter. Then I skinned the chicken thighs.

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I saved the skin, thinking I would make chicharrons to crumble over the blue cheese dressing.  I ran out of time this time.  I’ll try it on the next batch.

I salted and peppered the thighs generously and browned them in a cast iron skillet.  Then finished them in a 350° F oven.

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After they cooled enough to handle, I pulled the meat from the bones and diced it finely.  About 1/4 to 1/8″ pieces.  You don’t want any big lumps. Those would make it hard to fill the ravioli.

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Then I mixed the diced meat and celery with Frank’s hot sauce.   That’s all there is to the filling.

I recommend making this the day before.  Making the pasta dough and filling and frying the ravioli takes a lot of time.  If you try to do all this in one evening (like I did), you’re going to be eating late.

I used the pasta dough recipe I learned from Craftsy’s Homemade Pasta class taught by Giuliano Hazan.  It was much more helpful than the hands-on class I took at Sur la Table. That class was crowded and rushed.

I’ve also taken Craftsy’s Artisan Bread class taught by Peter Reinhart. Both were very good. I recommend them.  I was worried that an on-line class won’t work for something like handling dough, just because it is so dependent on feel.  But both classes were very helpful.

Buy them when they’re on sale and both of them will only set you back 40 bucks.

If you don’t want to spend that, there are a ton of ravioli videos on YouTube.  This one is pretty thorough.

The dough is just flour and eggs, kneaded together.

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You can use your stand mixer or food processor for this.

I do it by hand.  I have enough automatic stuff in my life.  It’s nice to take the time to do something by hand every now and then.

Either way, you’ll end up with enough dough to make many raviolis.

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After letting the dough rest, I rolled it out and used my ravioli form to fill the pasta.  Using the form keeps the ravioli a uniform size and shape. That makes it easier to fry them consistently.

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Make sure you pack the cups of the form tightly with the filling.  Any air trapped in the ravioli will expand as soon as they hit the fryer, causing the ravioli to balloon up.

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Once the filling and dough are ready to go, it doesn’t take long to fill dozens of ravioli.

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I used an egg wash and Italian bread crumb breading.  Sorry, no pictures of that.  It’s very hard to operate the camera when your hands are covered in breading.

I used my Dutch oven to fry them.  They cook quickly, only about a minute or so.

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Recipe - Approximately 36 ravioli. Serves 6 to 10 as appatizers

2 ribs celery, diced into 1/8″ pieces
2 TBS unsalted butter
4 Chicken thighs, skinned
1/2 cup Frank’s hot sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 TBS vegetable oil
5 eggs, room temperature
11 1/2 oz (approx. 2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 cups Italian bread crumbs

Pre-heat oven to  350° F.

Saute celery in butter, over medium heat, until celery is softened.  About 5 minutes.  Set aside and allow to cool.

Season the thighs with salt and pepper.

In an oven proof skillet, heat oil over medium high until almost smoking.  Add chicken.  Saute thighs until very well browned. About 2 minutes. Flip and brown the other side. Thighs should stick to skillet at first, but release from pan when they are browned.

Transfer thighs to oven.  Bake until thighs hit internal temperature of 160° F.

Remove thighs from pan and allow to cool.

Remove meat from thighs and dice to 1/4″ to 1/8″ chunks. Mix with Frank’s and celery.

This step can be completed the day before.

Using 3 eggs and flour make the pasta dough with which ever method you’re most comfortable with.

Allow dough to rest fo 20 to 30 minutes. Using a pasta rolling machine, roll out to thin sheets a little more than twice the length of your ravioli form.  On my Kitchenaid, setting 6 is about right.

Stuff filling into 1 1/2″ ravioli.

Whisk remaining 2 eggs in a flat, shallow bowl.  Place bread crumbs in another shallow bowl.

One at a time, dip ravioli into egg. Shake excess egg from ravioli and coat completely with bread crumbs.  Place ravioli on a lightly floured baking sheet.

Heat oil in an electric fryer or heavy deep pot to  325° F.  If using a pot, use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature.

Working in small batches (4 to 6 pieces), fry the ravioli until golden brown.  About 60 seconds.  Flip ravioli about half way through frying.

Serve with homemade blue cheese dressing or (shudder) Ranch.

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Toasted Buffalo Chicken Ravioli

It’s taken me four tries, but I think I’ve finally gotten this right.

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Toasted Buffalo Chicken Ravioli with homemade Blue Cheese Dressing.

I got the idea when I went looking for interesting things to put in ravioli and stumbled upon this guy’s recipe for Buffalo Chicken Ravioli.  I thought that looked good, but why boil them? They’re begging to be breaded and deep fried.

I tried a couple of different fillings, just chicken and Frank’s , Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip and a combination of chicken, Frank’s and Blue Cheese.

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I settled on just chicken and Frank’s. I really enjoyed having the Blue Cheese in the ravioli, but not everyone likes Blue Cheese.  Serving the homemade Blue Cheese dressing on the side makes the ravioli appealing to everyone in my family.

I’ll write up the recipe tomorrow. Right now, I have to clean the kitchen and start prepping for tomorrow’s dinner.

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Bison Sous -vide

Bison is a low-fat meat that is hard to cook without drying it out.  Sous-vide is a technique for perfectly cooking even the most challenging cuts.  Seems like a match made in Heaven.

Except I’ve never cooked bison before and I’ve never done anything sous-vide.  Plus, I don’t even have a sous-vide machine.

But my son wanted to try bison and I wanted to try sous-vide. So tonight we had Bison Sous-vide.

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Those are two 12 oz. bison rib-eyes cooked a perfect, uniform medium rare through the whole steak.  I’m almost embarrassed to tell you how easy this was.

I wasn’t going to drop $400 on a sous-vide machine just to experiment. Instead, I used Serious Eats’ sous-vide in a beer cooler technique.  Just fill a small beer cooler with 135° F water, submerge the steaks in it for 45 minutes to an hour and finish them in a blazing hot cast iron skillet.

You’ll set off your smoke alarms, but it will be worth it.

 

Start with the bison.  I got these at The Meat House in Fairfax.  They are very well marbled.  They’d be great for beef steaks. For bison, they are amazing.  I probably could have grilled these without too much risk, but I had my heart set on trying something new.

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I don’t have a vacuum machine either, so I used a trick from the Serious Eats video.  Place the steaks in individual quart sized zip lock plastic bags.

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Don’t bother trying to suck the air out of the bags.  There’s an easier way.

Next you need some way to keep the two steaks from touching each other in the water bath.  You want the water to freely circulate around the meat so it warms evenly.

I tied two cooling racks together to form a V and put them in the bottom of my cooler. Then I put two Coke cans filled with hot water in the V to keep the steaks from sliding down to the bottom.

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I filled the cooler about 3/4 full with hot tap water.  My water comes out of the faucet at just under 130° F so I was almost at the right temperature  I added about two quarts of boiling water. That got me to the 135° butter zone.

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Now comes the trick for getting the air out of the bags. I couldn’t get a picture of that because it took two hands. But it’s easy.

Just zip one bag almost closed and slowly submerge it in the hot water.  The pressure of the water will force the air out of the bag.  Once all the air is out, but before any water gets in the bag, zip it closed and repeat with the other bag.

Believe it or not, at this point I’m cooking steaks.  That’s all there is to it.

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An hour later, the temperature of the water and the bison had equalized at 127° F.

Note: A real sous-vide machine lets you hold the meat at temperature for hours, allowing you to prep the steaks far in advance of mealtime. You can’t do that with this method.  Without a continuous input of heat, the temperature will eventually start to drop and you risk bacterial growth.  Only use this method for an hour or so, then take those steaks straight to the skillet.

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Perfect! I’m just south of medium rare.  I can sear the hell out of these babies without over cooking them.

Turn on your exhaust fan and open the windows for this part.  I generously seasoned the meat with salt and pepper and heated some vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet until it was smoking. The I added the steaks and dropped little pats of butter between them.

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About two minutes later, I flipped the meat and seared the second side.

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My god, those are beautiful.

I let them rest while I finished the asparagus and garlic bread.

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This might become my go to method for cooking steak.  I used to use the reverse sear method.  That works very well, but it takes up a lot of space on the grill.

Heating the meat to just under medium rare sous-vide would allow me to prepare the rest of the meal on the grill while the steaks warmed. Then I could crack up the heat on the grill and finish them off there.

I’ll try that next time.

Recipe – Serves 4

2 12 oz bison rib-eyes
1 tsp course ground or kosher salt – I used Himalayan pink salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 TBS vegetable oil
1 TBS butter, cut into small pats

Cook the rib-eyes sous-vide, as described above.

After an hour, remove steaks from the bags and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat oil over high heat until smoking.  Add steaks. Drop pats of butter between steaks.

Cook one to two minutes.  Flip and repeat on second side.

Let rest five minutes.  Cut and serve.

 

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My Pledge

I posted a slightly different version of this in another forum on April 1st.

In just 60* days, I will reach my 21st** birthday. Taking stock of my life, I realize that, among other things, I could really stand to lose 25*** pounds.

So I am publicly committing that between today and May 31st*, I will not eat or drink any refined carbs or sugars unless I have personally prepared the dish from scratch myself.

That means if I want to eat an entire pepperoni pizza, I can. I just have to start early because my dough recipe takes 10**** days.

There’s a heavy price to this commitment. Unless I cure my own, no bacon for 2* months. I realize me saying I’m giving up bacon on April Fools Day is cause for suspicion. I swear I am as serious as a heart attack.

Another price, my brewing gear has been packed up since before my daughter was born. It would be impractical to get it back out, brew, bottle and age a batch of beer just for this. So I’m going on the wagon for 2* months.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

* Base 10
** Base 26
*** Base 20
**** Base 2

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Camping with Gunther

I’ve forgiven Gunther for the Angel Hair Incident. To show him that all has been forgiven I took him camping this weekend. We went to the Wolf Gap campground in the George Washington National Forest with the NOVA Trail Dogs.

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We arrived at the campground Friday afternoon, so I had to make something for diner. Maybe marinade some pork for Moo Ping over the campfire. Or cooking a steak caveman style directly on the coals.   Or maybe taking a Dutch oven and making chili.

What did I, a master of fire and grilling, end up doing?  Leftover Chinese takeout. :-(

The week got away from me. I didn’t have time Thursday to shop or prepare anything, so I just grabbed the Chinese on my way out the door.  That was something of a let down.

OTOH, Gunther had dog food for dinner, which he seemed to enjoy.

Friday evening/night we did the Big Schloss hike.

Big Schloss

Big Schloss is a 4.4 mile out and back hike with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. We left around 5:45 pm. It took about 1 1/2 hours out and just over an hour back.

The first .8 miles is up a 10% grade. That is steep enough to leave you panting and sweating, even in 45° F weather.  After that, the trail mostly levels out. The ground was rocky though and there was still a lot of snow in places, so footing was tricky. That made the whole hike challenging for us two-legged types.

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The dogs had no such problems.

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The moon was almost full so the plan was to hike up early in the evening, watch the sun set, then hike back by moonlight.

That didn’t work out so well.  It was very cold and windy on top of the ridge. It was also cloudy.  That spoiled the sunset and dimmed the moonlight.  I used my head lamp on the way back down.

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Gunther and I have done many hikes with NOVA Trail Dogs. This, though, was our first camping trip.  Gunther was wary of tent at first. He gave me a “We’re sleeping in that thing?” look. I had to coax him into it at bed time.  He settled down quickly and slept peacefully the whole night.

What a night it was!  The temperature dropped into the low 30s. I don’t think it got below freezing, but it was close. The wind really kicked up around mid-night, howling through the trees and shaking the tent something fierce.  I managed to stay warm with my thermal long johns, down sleeping bag and a thermal bag liner.

Gunther managed to stay warm by being half Labrador.  I got worried about him a couple of times during the night, so I tucked him under his dog blanket.  Both times, he shook it off quickly and went back to sleep.

Around 3:00 am, the front that was generating all the wind blew over and the temperature climbed up to around 50° F. That made sleeping a lot easier.

Most of the rest of the group were there through Sunday. We only stayed through Saturday morning. This being Gunther’s first overnight, I was reluctant to commit to two nights. Plus I had some obligations with the kids Saturday morning.  Gunther and I got up around 7:00 am, broke camp and headed home.

Gunther must have loved the trip, because he refused to get in the car. I had to lift him into it so we could leave.

The Trail Dogs do several camping trips every year. This one went well enough I’m looking forward to a multi-night trip next time.

And on that trip, I’ll have all sorts of amazing camp food to write about.

Promise.

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