Friday, April 29, 2011

Next-Level Chocolate Chip Cookies

I don't know what's going on, guys. But I have been in one of those zones where I am in Taking On the World Mode. There has to be some kind of groovy, planetary thing that's propelling this insanity, because I'm suddenly all about Next Level Stuff over here. Like taking the leap to "big'gerl underwearz" (for Little C, not me, pervs!) the same week as finding out that I'm taking on some new projects that simultaneously thrill and terrify me (I will tell more as soon as I'm sure I won't get sued for it, I promise!). This is all on top of getting super close to Go Time for the fabulous San Francisco Food Bloggers' Bake Sale. Also, Royal Wedding fever? I've totally come down with it. True.

But in spite of all the crazy, I am here, because I love you and I can't stay away. Also, one of those aforementioned Next Level Things was devising a way to transport the humble chocolate chip cookie to a different dimension and, well, I just couldn't hide this light under a bushel, people. This is Important News (jazz hands).

So last week, right about the same time that the words "potty" and "big girl panties" started being used in high-pitched questions way too often in our household, my beloved brother-in-law came for a short visit. The brother-in-law who, along with my sister, will be chiefly responsible for my child thinking her own parents are seriously, helplessly uncool. He was on his way through town to play a few shows here in San Francisco, and I couldn't send him back on the road without cookies and candy, naturally. You know how that whole thing goes.

The plan was just to go with good old chocolate chip cookies--no fancy cookie pants, just traditional, chocolate-chipped love. I had all the ingredients in the house, things were looking easy peasy. Until I tapped into those Next-Level Urges I was telling you about earlier. They're insatiable, I'm telling you. I know, I don't know EITHER. But I suddenly decided a regular chocolate chip cookie was totally Current Level and therefore simply would not do.

So the goal was to create a twist on the classic, here. I mean, I wasn't trying to get all molecular gastronomy on Toll House or anything. I just wanted to see how much flavor and texture play could happen, just by preparing things a little differently.

This is how it all goes go down. Hack up a bunch of chocolate chips (if you've got a few odds and ends of bars and almost-empty bags of chips in your cupboards, even better), breaking some up just a little, creating lots of little shards out of the rest. You're going for a sort of chocolate tweed here, with the occasional hunk.

Next comes the butter. Melted and browned, then frozen solid again. Let it sit out on the counter for a few minutes to soften up just enough that it can be creamed with the sugars. Can I just say that I always die a little from the gorgeous nutty scent of browned butter? If I could marry a smell, browned butter would be it. That is all.

The other little je ne sais quoi flavor bumper here is a dash of almond extract with the vanilla. Man, oh man, how I love almond extract. It's so great at giving things a little boost of "Huh! What's that?", know what I mean? It's genius in buttercreams, batters and doughs of all sorts. Here, it also played well with the nuttiness of the browned butter, so that's a win-win-WIN sort of situation, I'd say.

Overall, the finished cookies had everything any self-respecting person loves about classic chocolate chip cookies--buttery, sugary, crisp, a bit tender just at the center, loads of chocolate. More than one band member proclaimed they were the best chocolate chip cookies they'd ever had, and I don't just think it's because they'd been travelling in a band van for a couple weeks. I'm telling you, these are like Illuminated Chocolate Chip cookies. Just different enough to blow minds. It's like if you went out on your normal Girls Night Out karaoke excursion and then Prince William showed up. And then you fell in love and then you became the Princess of Wales. I told you, I have Royal Wedding fever! But I didn't tell you that I have nothing against being somebody's second wife. Just saying.

Illuminated Chocolate Chip Cookies

I love using a mix of chocolate chips for these cookies--bittersweet, milk and semi-sweet--but use whatever sounds good to you.

Makes 4 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Scant 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 to 2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (or a combination of different kinds of chips), roughly chopped into hunks and shards (see note)

Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Melt and cook the butter over until it is browned and smells nutty, swirling the pan occasionally, about 6 minutes. Listen closely--as soon as the butter stops sizzling and popping, you are seconds away from perfectly browned butter. Pour the browned butter into a small metal pan. Freeze until the butter is completely solid, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the freezer and let it sit at room temperature for about 10-15 minutes.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

Place the sugars and extracts in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Scrape the browned butter out of the pan in hunks and place them in the mixer bowl. Beat the butter, sugars and extracts together until smooth, light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes (depending on how cold the butter is when you put it in the bowl, it may take a minute or two longer). Scrape down the bowl and beat in the eggs one at a time. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually stir in the flour. Stir in the chocolate bits by hand. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour, or up to 2 days.

When you're ready to bake, position the oven racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Scoop the dough into 1-tablespoon-sized balls and place them on the baking sheets, 12 to a sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 13 to 15 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool for a minute before transferring them to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

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