10.14.11

The Pursuit of (Im)perfect Cookies

Would you rather eat a few flawed cookies or a single perfect one? Emily Chang finds an answer in Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Plus, her recipe for six-minute snickerdoodles.

Even if you tried but didn’t end up finishing all 562 pages of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, there’s a good chance you at least made it to the part about baking cookies. It’s on page 10 of my hardcover edition—only about 1.8 percent of the way into the text. Here’s a little refresher:

Connie was an afternoon fixture in Patty’s kitchen, laboring to mold cookie dough into geometrically perfect spheres, taking such pains that the butter liquefied and made the dough glisten darkly. Patty formed eleven balls for every one of Connie’s, and when they came out of the oven Patty never failed to ask Connie’s permission to eat the one “truly outstanding” (smaller, flatter, harder) cookie.

--Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

One reason I never much cared for Connie as a character was that she just didn’t seem like the kind of gal who knew how to unwind, even in the kitchen. Does “laboring” to form “geometrically perfect spheres” sound like a good time? Not so much. More importantly, she completely misses out on one of the best things about cookies: they are a godsend for the impatient baker, because, unlike cakes or brownies, cookies usually boast a measly single-digit-minute baking time. I’ve always thought that if desserts were animals in a race, drop cookies would be the roadrunners of the pack, and the first to cross the finish line… into my mouth. Time wasted on forming cookie dough into perfect spheres would cause cookies to lose their competitive edge.

Patty’s route is much preferred: speed and efficiency over aesthetic perfection. Still, one can’t argue with the merits of making sure that drop cookies are relatively uniform in size before baking. This not only makes for prettier cookies, but also helps ensure that they are approximately the same size and will finish baking at the same time. For example, New York’s Levain Bakery (known for its massive, ooey, gooey cookies) weighs every one of its cookies on a scale to make sure that they weigh 6 oz. before baking.

All in all, it turns out the snot-nosed kid on the playground was right about something: “It’s a free country!” Meaning, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Connie or a Patty—even a less-than-perfectly shaped cookie is still a cookie, which is better than no cookie at all.

best-books-list-2010---franzen
“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. Picador. 608 p. $10.88 ()

If you’re more of a Patty than a Connie in the kitchen, then you’re probably accustomed to baking speedy batches of irregularly shaped cookies. In my experience, I’ve found that the best way to gloss over one’s less-than-stellar cookie-forming abilities is to make sure that the cookies taste as delicious as possible. The following snickerdoodle recipe does just the trick. What distinguishes these particular snickerdoodles from your average drop cookies is that they aren’t just dropped onto the cookie sheet—they’re dropped and then rolled in a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon, achieving a dangerously addictive crunchy crust. The next best thing about them? Their six-minute baking time.

Here’s to life, liberty, and the pursuit of (im)perfect cookies!

Six-Minute Snickerdoodles

For the dough:

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup brown sugar
1 large egg
Scant ½ cup canola oil (or melted butter)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the crust:

2 Tbsp granulated sugar + a sprinkling of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix all cookie dough ingredients together until well combined. In a shallow dish, sprinkle a few shakes of cinnamon into about 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Mix with your fingers until the cinnamon is evenly dispersed throughout the sugar.

Form the cookie dough into tablespoon-sized balls (or geometrically perfect spheres, if you wish) and roll each ball in the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Place the cookies on a foil-lined cookie sheet and flatten slightly with a glass or with the fist of your hand.

Bake for 6 minutes (do not overbake unless you like crispy cookies). Remove the cookies from the hot baking pan and let them cool on a wire rack, to make sure they don’t overbake. Devour and share to your heart’s content.