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In praise of recipes: pick ‘n’ mix cookies 

I love recipes. As someone who learnt to cook not at her mother’s knee, but through a combination of google searches and cook books that had previously served only as door stops, I owe a lot to recipes. I am not yet the sort of cook who can confidently throw ingredients into a pan without clinging onto a book for stability and reassurance. If it weren’t for good recipes succeeding and swaddling me during my first forays into cooking, I would likely have abandoned the whole endeavour.

For a long time I was scared to cook anything without a recipe that wasn’t shop-bought filled pasta and a jar of sauce. I knew in theory that a tin of tomatoes with some onion and herbs and seasoning would create something delicious, but unless I had a step by step guide in front of me, convinced I would fail, I flailed, and bailed.

So I came to relish a really good recipe. One that I could trust, and follow with ease, and end up with the dish I set out to make. You put a lot of faith in a recipe writer: you might buy ingredients, or cookware with the express intention of making that cake or that stew or that salad.

Conversely, there is nothing sadder in a kitchen context than when a recipe just doesn’t work. Especially if it is one that touts its virtues alluringly, and appears to all intents and purposes to be up to the task. It is a particular sort of heartbreak, a very personal letting-down by someone you have never met.

So much of cooking is about trusting (often blindly!) in the process, and trusting in the recipe. And if that goes wrong, it can frustrate the whole malarkey. It’s only slightly melodramatic to say that the betrayal goes beyond that one dish that ends up in the bin. It makes you nervous, and nervous cooks are not happy cooks.

I’ve been burnt before, all too literally. I spent a Sunday evening making a beef rendang, from a recipe that sounded wonderful. I followed the recipe to the letter. I knew that the coconut milk would split towards the end, and that that wasn’t a problem because it would effectively confit the beef, leaving it unctuous and tender. So I watched the beef sit in the hot oil that had separated from the milk. It sure didn’t look confited, and it was beginning to smell acrid. But there was nothing about stirring it, and I was new to the cooking game, and shallow frying is a serious business, so I waited. I waited until Sam came into what was, by now, a smoke filled kitchen, and gently suggested that maybe the need to stir had been assumed by the recipe writer. I was so deflated. It was made worse by the fact that my poor housemate’s drying washing had to be rewashed three times before it didn’t smell overpoweringly of burnt beef. Burnt beef is a particularly menacing and surprisingly distinctive smell. I haven’t tried beef rendang again.

But there are other pitfalls in a recipe: not being upfront about preparation time or complexity is particular bugbear of mine. I recently threw myself into a pistachio souffle recipe which promised it would take 25 minutes to make from start to finish. It was only as I rolled up my sleeves and turned the radio on, and glanced down at the ingredients I spotted it: 200g pistachios, roasted, cooled, blanched, and skinned. My heart sank. I don’t know if you’ve ever skinned a slippery blanched nut before. It is, in some circumstances, very therapeutic: a mere handful taking the whole of a full length episode of Masterchef. If you haven’t factored in some leisure time, however, it’s an absolute nightmare. And I roasted and blanched and skinned the damn pistachios and I made the blasted souffles, because I was invested in them, both financially and emotionally, and because I had people coming for dinner, and because I’m too proud. But that sort of thing is pretty much a recipe deal breaker for me. I won’t trust that writer again in a hurry.

So this recipe tries to satisfy what I look for in a recipe: it’s pretty thorough in its instruction, which is based on a recipe by J Kenji. Lopez Alt. Lopez Alt is a kitchen genius and I would trust his recipes with my life. He writes the Food Lab column for Serious Eats, and approaches every recipe from a scientific stance, working out what works best, and why. His articles are long and exceptionally reassuring. The man wrote over 5,300 words on the technical side of making chocolate chip cookies before he even got to the recipe. That’s my kind of recipe writer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to write over 5,300 words on these cookies, not least because I’m going to repurpose much of his technique and advice.

But it’s also not going to require any unusual ingredients, in fact quite the opposite. Because when it comes to the flavourings or fillings, you can use up whatever the hell is in your cupboards. In mine there were dried cherries and cranberries, some leftover mini eggs, a tube of smarties, a tube of rolos, some mini marshmallows. Some leftover cornflake crunch, pistachios and pecans. Some granola. The end of a bar of galaxy. But use whatever you have: popcorn, candied citrus, or chocolate chunks. Apricots, bananas, or crystallised ginger. Whatever your heart desires or your cupboards bestow (I sort of want to try it with big fat dark chocolate chunks and ready salted crisps).

I am giving you express permission, if you need it, to put whatever the hell you want in this cookies. It will not break the recipe. Do not worry. Empty your cupboards and fill your hearts. Go wild.

It goes like this:

Pick ‘n’ Mix Cookies

Makes: 15 large cookies
Takes: 10 minutes plus at least 2 hours’ chilling
Bakes: 20 minutes

225g butter
1 ice cube
280g plain flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
140g caster sugar
2 large eggs
80g light brown sugar
60g dark brown sugar
Roughly 200g of whatever filling you want to use, chopped into chunks

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. The butter will melt and splutter, then foam up, and as the foam subsides, it will be golden brown, and smell nutty. Remove from the heat as soon as the foam starts subsiding, and give it a vigorous stir and scrape with a spatula to incorporate all the nice browned butter solids. Pour into a bowl and pop the ice cube in with it, giving it a bit of a stir.

2. Whisk the eggs and caster sugar together in a large bowl, ideally using a stand mixer or a hand whisk, but by hand is possible too. Do this on a medium high speed, and for about five minutes, until the mixture falls in thick ribbons from the whisk.

3. Add the slightly cooled browned butter and the brown sugars to the egg mixture. Mix them briefly until they are just combined, and then add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix for no more than thirty seconds, just until the dough comes together, and there are no longer flour streaks. Quickly pummel whatever chunk you’re adding to the mix, manhandling the dough as little as possible (if you’re using a wide variety like I have above, you can leave this bit until step 5, and smoosh the additions in ball by ball).

4. Place in the fridge for as long as possible: at least a couple of hours, but up to three days.

5. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 160 degrees, and line as many baking trays as you can muster with non-stick parchment. I use an ice cream scoop to try and get relatively even cookies, but you want them to be about the size and shape of a ping pong ball. Space these generously on the sheet. I put no more than four on one of my big baking trays.

6. Bake for 16-20 minutes. The cookies will still be soft in the middle when you take them out of the oven, and will harden up later, but they should have a defined shape, and be starting to firm around the edges. If you want to sprinkle a little rock salt on them, now is the time (I do this with the rolo cookies, and kid myself I’m making trendy and elegant salted caramel chocolate chip cookies). Leave to cool on the trays for a couple of minutes until they are just firm enough to transfer onto cooling racks, and leave them there until they are completely cold.

7. Repeat the shaping and baking until you have used up all the dough.

8. Ta Dah!

Icing on the Cake

Cookies are the ultimate temptation: we piled them up on a plate and failed to walk past that plate without digging into them once. My favourite was the one with the cornflake crunch; Sam loved the mini eggs ones. As big as my hand, they lasted us days. I would advise against making seven different varieties because it will be quite impossible not to have to sample them all immediately.

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