BAKING: This Is Where Things Really Heat Up

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I wonder why my cookies crack after they bake.

ROSE B.: Cookies that are not meant to crack on the top may do so after baking or just toward the end of baking if they are overbaked. Because cookies are so small, they continue to bake on the sheet even after removal from the oven. Try baking them in less time.

If that doesn't help, use superfine sugar, or grind granulated sugar to a finer consistency in the food processor. The finer the sugar, the smoother the cookie.

All of my baked cookies go flat. I have had cookies that look great fresh out of the oven and then go flat in minutes, and I have had cookies go flat in the oven. I have an oven thermometer, I have tried hand mixing and have tried margarine vs. butter, to no avail.

ROSE B.: Use a lower-protein flour, such as bleached all-purpose flour. Unbleached flour has higher protein, which ties up the liquid, keeping it from turning to steam and puffing up the cookie.

Also, after shaping the cookies, refrigerate them for at least 30 minutes, or freeze them for 10 minutes if you have freezer space. That way, they can set in the hot oven before they start to spread. If that doesn't help enough, try increasing the oven heat by 25 degrees.

My cookies get too dark on the bottom before the tops get brown. What can I do?

RAEANNE H.: Double up your baking sheets to slow down the bottom baking, and remember to adjust the baking time (it may take longer).

MARCY G.: Use parchment paper and doubled-up baking sheets. That really solves that problem so nicely (and no need to buy any quirky baking sheets or weird bakeware).

Some directions call for placing a baking sheet under a pan of squares or brownies that I know won't spill over. Why?

MARCY G.: To promote even baking, even through the dense center. It also makes it easier to retrieve the pan from the oven.

When baking two sheets of cookies on two racks at a time, is there a rule of thumb about rotating them top to bottom and front to back?

MARCY G.: Around midway through baking, for domestic (home) ovens, it's a good idea to rotate. Most ovens do not have even-flow heat. I suppose that in convection-oven baking, it's not necessary to rotate, but it couldn't hurt. Thick squares such as brownies generally don't need to be rotated. Blonder ones, whiter doughs could use a rotation.

Is there a big difference between baking on the middle and upper vs. middle and lower oven racks?

MARCY G.: Yes. It is unbelievable what a difference levels make (and temperature and also doubled-up baking sheets). For example: high temperature, middle rack? You can get amazingly high muffins with great tops. Lower rack, medium heat? Muffins that are just okay.

What doesn't work well is using both racks at once. Cookies on the bottom level don't brown as well as the ones on the top. And upper-level cookies just bake too slowly; it can turn good baking into bad ceramics. So you should rotate them.

It seems like everyone has recipes for crisp sugar cookies. But I like mine soft. So, do you have a good soft sugar cookie recipe, preferably with lemon zest in the dough?

MARCY G.: The trick is to just add 1/4 cup sour cream or 3 tablespoons milk or cream to your sugar cookie dough. That makes it soft and more caky -- not quite crisp cookie and not a cupcake. Add 1 teaspoon lemon zest per 2 cups flour in any recipe for that lemony hit.

Also, recipes called New York Black and White Cookies are soft sugar cookies, or you can pop a white cupcake batter . . . on a baking sheet.

Since we moved to Baltimore from New England, my pizelle cookies come out soft instead of crisp. How do I adjust for that?

MARCY G.: First, change the eggs. Use smaller ones (even a touch bigger eggs will make softer pizelle), or better yet, for one of the eggs, substitute two egg whites instead.

And use part peanut oil instead of melted butter (unless you are already using all oil). It is very high-temperature and will help in crisping the cookies more.

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