Read My Mind...

Justin has been working a lot of weekends lately, filling in at the public library where he used to work before he got his full-time job, and when he heads up to the burbs for the day, he takes the car with him. As a result, I've been spending a lot of time around the house these last several Saturdays and that means one thing: I've been watching a lot of cooking shows on PBS. As I've mentioned in the past, watching the Saturday cooking show line-up on WTTW is something of a habit of mine, and since the recent debut of their new show The Mind of a Chef, my interest is even greater.

I started watching the program solely based on the fact that Anthony Bourdain narrates it (though he very seldom appears in the flesh), and I've been a huge fan of his shows and writings for years. Being both a foodie and a former historian,  I found that I really enjoyed The Mind of a Chef's fusion of food theory, ingredient history, and travel features. Plus, there was something very charming about the star, Chef David Chang's giddy enthusiasm for his craft.

Naturally, I found that the segments that inspired me the most were those featuring Chang's pastry chef, Christina Tosi, whom I watched week after week taking innovative approaches to dessert, until I finally couldn't take any more. I had Justin pick up a copy from her book from the library while he was there, and I started eagerly flipping through the pages of Momofuku Milk Bar.

By reading the book, it is easy to see that it was written by a pastry chef and not a cookbook author writing for the average home chef. Momofuku Milk Bar is structured around the concept of "mother recipes" which you make and then transform into other desserts by adding more components. This approach makes total sense if you are working in a commercial kitchen, where you can make a huge batch of say, liquid cheesecake filling, and then save time by turning it into ice cream, pie filling, cake filling, et cetera.

If you are a home cook, however, it is a little daunting to read a recipe for a cake, for example, that includes five or six nested recipes within it. Tosi's thought processes are interesting, to be sure, and the desserts look delicious, but very few of them are practical, especially because they also tend to call for ingredients that are either expensive to purchase in small, retail-size quantities instead of wholesale, or simply because there is little else the average home cook could do with them.

As you might have guessed, I still didn't let that stop me. I was determined to try at least one recipe from Tosi's book, even if it meant dedicating a significant amount of time to sourcing ingredients. I selected one of the more simple recipes in the book, for corn cookies, which I had watched her make on The Mind of a Chef, and then subsequently turn into a pie crust. Though corn may sound unorthodox at first in a dessert, the Italians have been puttin polenta in their cookies for ages, and cornbread (at least in the North), can have a significant sweet component, so I was willing to give it a chance.

I ended up dedicating the better part of an afternoon to locating the two specialty ingredients in the recipe - corn flour and freeze-dried corn, and ended up traveling to three different stores. I really thought I'd find the corn products at Whole Foods, so I went there first, but I was surprised to find neither. I did, however, find the Plugra brand imported butter recommended by Tosi, and though I was originally planning on just using the unsalted butter I had on hand, I opted to buy the expensive Plugra just to justify my trip to Whole Foods.

Next, I tried Jewel, a local mega-mart, thinking I might find the freeze-dried corn there, because I remembered that they once carried a line of freeze-dried fruit and veggies there for snacking and salad-topping, but discovered they no longer carried the brand. I did, however, stop in the organic aisle, where I was shocked to see corn flour on the shelf, where Whole Foods had failed to stock it.

I was at a loss, however, on the freeze-dried corn, so I Googled it, figuring I'd have to order some online. After all, in Tosi's own words, "Amazon is your friend." However, one of the top hits was for The Spice House, a spice and specialty food shop, which just happens to have a brick-and-mortar store in Evanston, the closest suburb to my house. I called ahead before driving there just to confirm that they had it in the store, and soon, I was in business.

After locating everything I needed, the hard part was over. Though grinding the freeze-dried corn down to a fine powder in the food processor was an extra step not required by most cookie recipes, the cookies were actually fairly straight-forward. I made sure to follow all of Tosi's instructions to the letter, even when I thought they were borderline ridiculous, which included creaming my butter and sugar together for nearly ten minutes before adding the dry ingredients. Tosi claims that this step is critical and really does make a difference, so I indulged her, even though I don't think I've ever creamed for that long before in my entire cookie baking career.

I also dutifully scooped out the dough in the exact size that Tosi specified, and refrigerated the prepared dough overnight to ensure perfect results. Her recipe called for 2 3/4 ounce cookies, which may seem large, but is only a scant 1/8 ounce larger than my beloved chocolate chip cookie recipe, so I was ready to get on board with her there. It does produce big cookies, but they are large enough that you feel satisfied eating just one, and don't end up justifying several small cookies to yourself instead.

In the end, the cookies turned out magnificently. They were golden yellow in color, almost like the unusual saffron snickerdoodles I made last year, but unlike those, their flavor was not nearly as polarizing. The corn flavor is subtle; if you didn't know what it was, you might not be able to identify it. It just adds a lovely depth of flavor and complexity to a cookie that is delightfully crisp on the outside and chewy in the center -- just the way I like them. They were also fantastically buttery. Plugra has only 2% more butterfat and less water compared to standard American butter, but Tosi was right again, that 2% makes a difference!

Justin even went so far as to procliam them a new favorite, or at least certainly in the pantheon of his favorite cookie recipes that I have made while we've been together. As for me, I'm relieved that they turned out so well, after chasing down all the ingredients. Plus, I will be happy to use up the leftovers to repeat this recipe in the future.

Now that Tosi has proven herself to me, I foresee myself doing more specialty shopping in the future, as the rest of the cookies in Momofuku Milk Bar are looking pretty good right about now...

Corn Cookies
adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar

225 g unsalted butter, at room temperature (preferably Plugra)
300 g sugar
1 egg
225 g flour
45 g corn flour
65 g freeze-dried corn, ground into powder
3 g baking powder
1.5 g baking soda
6 g kosher salt

1. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl add the egg, and beat for 7-8 minutes more.
2. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, corn flour, corn powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix until the dough just comes together, no longer than 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
3. Using a 2 3/4 oz. ice cream scoop, or 1/3 cup measure, portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat. Wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 week. Do not bake your cookies from room temperature -- they will not bake properly.
4. Preheat the oven to 350.
5. Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment or Silpat-lined sheet pans. Bake for 18 minutes. The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. After 18 minutes, they should be faintly browned on the edges yet still bright yellow in the center; give them an extra minute if not.
6. Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or airtight container for storage. At room temperature, the cookies will keep fresh for 5 days; in the freezer, they will keep for 1 month.

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