Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Good Cookie

With so many celebrity chefs on television these days, it seems that there are as many ways to measure the skill of an individual as there are channels on the tube itself. Infinite.

But to my mind, there is one supreme test of culinary skill. While it can be done quickly, it doesn't have to be done in exactly thirty minutes. While it can be eclectic, it doesn't have to be quirky or even inventive. And while style can count, it is taste and texture that really measures the skill of the preparer.

I'm talking about cookies.

To be sure, I am biased. According to Lynda, who rarely seemed to remember things as trivial as this, my first word was cookie. I have no reason to doubt her because I happen to really like cookies. In fact, they are my favorite sweet.

Not just favorite dessert, but favorite sweet. I'd much prefer a good cookie to a candy bar, for sure. A good cookie is better than a good cake or a pie. Actually, a good cookie is both a cake and a pie. And that's why it is so hard to make a good cookie. The baker has to really know their stuff to make a really good cookie.

An amateur baker can fake a cake, or a pan of brownies, but they can't fake a cookie. Even the 'slice-n-bake' stuff, while it allows the faker-baker to get a lot closer than 'store-bought' cookies, just cannot even approach the real thing.

The real thing, for me, is a scratch-made cookie. It is neither too sweet nor too salty. It is neither too thick nor too thin. It is neither too crunchy nor too soft. It must be all these things at once. A cake has to be airy. Bread has to have texture. Cookies have to have both.

Chefs, like doctors, have an informal hierarchy in their world. For example, while all doctors are M.D.s the surgeons hold themselves to be at the top of the doctor ladder. The anesthesiologists, on the other hand, while no less doctors, place themselves lower on that invisible ladder.

In the kitchen, it is the line cook that thinks he holds the top spot, while the pastry chef is supposed to operate somewhere below the line. Often they work off to the side or at completely different times than the rest of the cooks in the kitchen.

To the doctors in the operating room, or the chefs in the kitchen, this hierarchy may make some sort of sense, but to those of us on the outside--the real subjects of this exercise--the perception is really the reverse.

In the operating room, the last person the patient sees is the anesthesiologist, on whose skill and touch they must rely in order to survive the surgeon's ordeal without pain. The surgeon claims the credit but the patient is silently thankful for the ego-less skill of the 'other' doctor in the room.

In the dining room, often the last food the patron will eat is from the pastry chef's hand, and thus on whom the outcome of the meal is ultimately resting. How ironic is it then, when he Chef comes out to take credit even as the diners are scraping up crumbs--not of the entree, but the dessert?

Given the importance of the pastry chef, you'd think there would be a better measure of their skill than the humble cookie, but there is not. Not for me anyway. When it comes to the dessert course, I can tell more about the skill of the chef back there not by the flavor or texture of the marscapone-toasted-cashew-chili-pepper-rubbed ice cream, but by the flavor and texture of the cookie that is often simply and casually tossed into the glass or onto the plate as an mere afterthought.

The cookie is no mere afterthought. I think that it is the supreme measure of a chef's passion and skill. I think that Chefs ought to first master the art of the cookie before they are allowed anywhere near the line.

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