Beginning to bake #6: Cookies

Cookies 1 and 2

Biscuits or cookies – there are hundreds of variations. Providing a basic recipe for biscuits is hard – there are thousands of different biscuit or cookie recipes out there, and every country has it’s own favourite variations: bourbon biscuits, gingernuts, speculoos, chocolate chip cookies, macarons de Paris, biscotti, shortbread, digestives – the list is *long*.

But let’s start with some generalisations: most are a combination of flour, butter and sugar. Many also have egg to bind the dough together and to help it become crispy. Some will include some leavening – baking powder or bicarbonate of soda – to help it puff in the oven.

The shortbread-type cookies contain just flour, butter and sugar. They are mixed in the same way as pastry, but with softened instead of cold butter. This makes it hard to roll out, but gives you that characteristic shortbread crunch and really crumbly texture.

American cookies usually have a lot more sugar and some extra liquid or egg. They are usually designed to be scooped into balls and then spread out in the oven, and they usually have plenty of additions – chocolate chunks, nuts, dried fruit, oats.

Looking at different cookie recipes, there is a huge variation in them (and, because I’m a complete geek, I assembled a spreadsheet to check this. I know. But it keeps me in gainful employment). Look at different people’s shortcrust pastry recipes and you’ll probably find they are almost identical. No two biscuit recipes seem to be the same. That gives you a clue – if there is a very wide range in existing recipes, that tells you that you can probably play around and adjust recipes quite safely, and still come out with something that works/is edible.

To prove that, I tested two different but basic cookie recipes for this post. Use whichever you like the sound of. When you make such plain cookies, though, remember that the taste of the butter will be very prominent, so use something good, and definitely don’t use margarine or low-fat spread.

Make sure the butter is soft before you start. If you usually keep butter in the fridge, as I do, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to get the butter out of the fridge and put it on the counter several hours before you plan to bake. Hmm. No, I don’t usually remember to do that either. Instead, I most often slice the butter I’ve weighed for the recipe into thick slices on a plate and put it into the microwave. I use 1 min bursts on the lowest setting (90W) until I can press a finger in without too much trouble. You don’t particularly want to melt it, but if part of it does, just let it stand for a bit, and then mix it all together again. For cookies, it’s not a big deal, though it will get more important next time when we move on to cupcakes…

Cookie recipe 1 – shortbread type

Baked sliced cookies 1

This is a very plain dough, and almost the only difference with recipe 2 is the much reduced amount of sugar. On its own, it’s a bit boring, but it would work well as a thumbprint cookie (where you press a depression in the centre of the cookie and fill it with jam). The contrast with something very sweet would work with this plain dough. Because it’s quite fragile, I rolled this dough into a log, chilled it, and then sliced it into discs before baking. You can also use this method to make a sweet tart case – take the discs and press them together in a tart tin to form a complete crust.

  • 200g butter, room temp
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 300g plain flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Put the softened butter into a bowl and add the sugar. Beat together – it will make a paste.

Add the vanilla. Put a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour and baking powder. Sift into the bowl and mix together. It will be crumbly.

Add egg and knead gently until it comes together as a dough.

Cookie dough 1
Wrap into a cylinder in baking parchment and twist the ends. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Cookie dough roll

Slice into discs about 5mm thick, and place the slices onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. If you want, press in chopped chocolate or coarse sugar as a topping.

Sliced dough with toppings 1

Put into the oven and bake for about 14 minutes at 150C (fan)/170C. When they’re done, they will still be very pale, but should just start to colour slightly brown at the edges.

Cookie recipe 2 – cookie type

Chocolate chip cookies 2

This is more recognisably a cookie. It won’t be chewy, but crisp instead. If you want chewy you can do a few things: use brown sugar instead of caster sugar; replace plain flour with bread flour, and beat the dough to develop the gluten a bit (you’ll need a mixer or a strong arm).

  • 200g butter
  • 300 plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Cream the butter and sugar together, to make a stiff paste.

Butter and sugar 2

Add the vanilla and egg, and mix together. Place a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour with the baking powder. Sift into the bowl to make sure the two are combined. Mix together – it will form a stiff dough.

Cookie dough 2

Mix in any chunks, flavourings or other additions. For this recipe I used 70g of chopped dark chocolate.
Chocolate chip cookie dough 2

At this point you can chill the dough for 10 or 15 minutes (especially if it’s very soft) or up to a couple of days. Use a scoop or a spoon to pull off about a tablespoon at a time of dough, form it into a ball and place it on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.

Scooped cookie dough 2

Bake for 15-20 minutes at 150C(fan)/170C, depending on how crisp you want them. As for the other cookies, you are looking for at least a little colour at the edges. These won’t colour like most cookies because they don’t contain brown sugar, so they will remain quite pale.


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