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Apps for baking: Cookulus and Martha Stewart Makes Cookies

"Top Chef" alum Carla Hall explains the tips and tricks of sugar cookie decorating.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:56 PM

In the ongoing debate over whether recipes should be set in stone (see Cook's Illustrated) or mere guidelines (see Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio"), a new iPad app stands to take cooking instructions to a new level of variability, interactivity and, possibly, obsession.

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Cookulus, the brainchild of cookbook author Andrew Schloss and entrepreneur Max Minkoff, starts off with three master recipes. But then the program lets you choose just how crispy or soft, chewy or crumbly, thin or thick to make that chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin or peanut butter cookie, resulting in more than 1,300 unique recipes for each. Cookulus is an addictively powerful (or is it powerfully addictive?) way to geek out on a recipe. Even better, it works like a charm.

Take chocolate chip, the iteration that Schloss and colleague Max Minkoff let me play around with last week, while they were waiting for approval from the Apple store. First I pulled up the master recipe, then started moving one of three sliders to get something softer or crumblier or thicker (or any combination thereof) and watched ingredient amounts, temperature and baking time change in response. I could save each variation, naming it and writing my own notes about it; I could choose among four ways to see the measurements, including metric weight; and I could scale the yield up by a factor of five. When I went for something pretty soft and chewy but a little thin, and made the recipe, that's exactly what I got.

The app includes pop-up windows with more information about each ingredient, equipment and technique tips, and a built-in timer.

Schloss started thinking about the app after he and David Joachim wrote "The Science of Good Food" (Robert Rose, 2008), which included a chart analyzing the effects of different ingredient amounts and proportions on cookies. But what a cookbook can't effectively do - communicate multiple variations on a recipe - is perfect for an app.

But where to start? Including all kinds of cookies in one app would be too unwieldy, as would all drop cookies (as opposed to, say, rolled or bar cookies) because of the various flavor possibilities. They settled on icons: cookies that are widely loved but that spark disagreements among cooks with strong opinions about which recipe is ideal.

Even Schloss was surprised when the algorithm they developed - based on the idea that, for instance, a thinner cookie would bake for a longer time at a lower temperature, or that more brown sugar and less butter would make the cookie chewier - worked when he started testing hundreds of the resulting recipes. But he wasn't completely sold until the breakthrough: ultimately thin, crispy cookies.

"The algorithm told me to bake the cookies at 260 degrees for 45 minutes, and I thought, 'This thing does not work,' " Schloss said in a phone interview from his office in Elkins Park, Pa. "And I made the cookies, put them in the oven, and I started to redo them 'cause I just knew it wasn't going to work. And then 45 minutes later, they came out, and they were thin and crisp, and they weren't burned, and they didn't spread too far, and I went, '[Expletive], this works.' The logic of the algorithm told me to do something that as a professional cook I never would have done."

As that 260-degree instruction indicates, the algorithm results in some nonstandard temperatures, but Schloss is confident that today's digital-display ovens make such specificity easy to achieve. The app includes instructions for calibrating your oven.

"The way I often view this kind of thing is, if your oven is off 20 degrees, it's going to be 20 degrees off for every cookie you've ever baked, so you've either adjusted your palate or your timing," Schloss said. "There is some leeway."

Schloss and Minkoff aren't stopping at cookies. Up next are brownies, then savory iterations of Cookulus: pizza, chili, mac and cheese.

Another iPad cookie app out just in time for the holidays takes a much more, well, Martha Stewart approach. Martha Stewart Makes Cookies includes 50 recipes divided into eight categories, including those "for traditionalists," "for little ones," "for hedonists" and more. "Today, I'm so excited to bake cookies from a new source that is functional and, more than anything, a lot of fun," Stewart says in her video introduction.

The app, produced by Callaway Digital Arts in association with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., includes a timer feature, as Cookulus does, but it also lets you compile a shopping list from multiple recipes, watch videos and even, in true Martha style, e-mail templates for packaging ideas (such as star-shaped glassine wrappers for peppercorn shortbread).

For fans of design, the app might be worth it for the stunning visuals alone, but any baker worth his or her salt will want to do much more than just look at it. The best part of both of these apps is that they make you feel like baking.


Very Soft, Very Chewy, Kinda Thin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cookulus costs $2.99 for the basic app, which includes the chocolate chip cookie, and 99 cents for each additional cookie (peanut butter and oatmeal raisin). Sign up for notification about its availability from the Apple store by visiting www.cookulus.com. Martha Stewart Makes Cookies costs $4.99.

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