Baking abroad: How to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and chocolate cake

Anyone who likes to cook, and especially bake, knows the perils of baking abroad.

The thing is, butter and flour are different here. So you never quite know how your desserts are going to turn out, though there’s a decent chance your chocolate chip cookies, for example, and going to come out like flat disks.

So, yesterday I decided to make a quick and easy (and delicious) chocolate cake recipe I’ve got — I was invited to dinner at a friend’s home last minute, so wanted to whip something up that wasn’t too hard.  And today, some French friends are throwing one of their famous nighttime summer picnics, so I thought I’d try some chocolate chip cookies.  Both turned out great.

First the cake.  It’s a great recipe I found online, and it makes an awesome, moist, thick and rich cake that easy to throw together, and doesn’t need a frosting (but it certainly wouldn’t object to one either).  Chris in Paris, whose apartment I’m staying at, isn’t much of a baker (he prefers to cook main courses), doesn’t have a mixmaster, so I bought him a handheld one a few years ago.  It’s a big name brand, Philips, and is a roaring piece of garbage. If your goal is to have whipped butter flung on every wall in your kitchen, then Philips is the brand for you.

So I made these by hand with a whisk. Not the most fun, but not impossible either.

Here’s the cake recipe — I got it from here, my notes have been added in:

Simple ‘N’ Delicious Chocolate Cake recipe

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour (I tried 1/2 c white whole wheat flour, was great) — in France, use the “bio” (meaning organic) flour that has the small number 65 written on its side — different flours have different numbers here, you want #65 for cookies and cakes, American style.)
1/2 cup + 2T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2t salt
1/2t cinnamon
Might consider up to 1/4t almond extract for added flavor

brown-sugar

This is what to use for brown sugar in France.

1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar (I used only brown sugar in France, it worked)

1 egg (whip then add slowly)
1 T vanilla
1 cup cold, strong, brewed coffee (I did 1/2 c espresso and 1/2 c milk) – or you can do 2 teaspoons instant espresso in 1 c milk)

DIRECTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour an 8 inch pan. Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside. (I used ungreased parchment paper and it actually stuck! Well, it was French parchment, so your mileage may vary.)
2. In a medium bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat well. Add flour mixture, alternating with coffee. Beat until just incorporated.
3. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. I used my 8 inch glass pan.

cake-batter

Took a good 40 minutes or so at least, Collapsed in last 5 min after opening oven to test it.

Then a second time took more like 50-55 minutes.

Then I used a 9 inch pan at moms, and it cooked in only 25 min or so.

And finally, this time in France, I think it took around 40 minutes. Just do the clean knife/toothpick test and you’re good.

Eh voilà! It ended up tasting perfect. Very moist, very thick, not needing any frosting (for guests you could even just spray some powdered sugar on top, but I’m sure a frosting would be great too).

cake

Chocolate Chip Cookies

As for the chocolate chip cookies, they worked out rather well too.

Cookies are a bit harder to make, I find, as you need to have a sense of whether the dough is appropriately hydrated. And while I can do a great bread dough, I’ve not been accustomed to adjusting the consistency of my cookie doughs. But you really need to over here, so I ended up adding a bit less flour to my favorite recipe. (which is basically the King Arthur recipe that I tweaked.)

Ok so here’s my take on King Arthur’s fabulous recipe:

Chocolate chip cookies King Arthur Recipe

2/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed (in France, use Beghin Say, name of sugar is Saveur Vergeoise BLONDE NATURE)
2/3 cup granulated sugar (I ended up cutting  the recipe back to half the sugar, eliminating this second 2/3c all together, it was still great)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, right from the fridge, or at room temperature (I use salted margarine) – I then add in some flax meal and use it to replace some of the fat (3T meal flax can replace 1T butter, or so)
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (In the end, I use 1/2c margarine and no shortening, and it still turned out great)
1/2 teaspoon salt (use only 1/4t if using salted butter)
1T vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, flavor goes away after 36 hours. This is a nice touch.
1 teaspoon vinegar, cider or white (seriously, just do it)
1 teaspoon baking soda

chocolate-chip-cookie-dough

French vanilla sold in a convenient (read: absurd) 1.5 T vial. Someone is making a killing on the small over-priced sizes in this country.

French vanilla sold in a convenient (read: absurd) 1.5 T vial. Someone is making a killing on the small over-priced sizes in this country.

1 large egg
2 cups flour (I measure out 4T flax seeds, then grind them in a coffee grinder, which makes about 2/3c meal. I add this in addition to the 2c flour)
2T inulin (for fiber, why not)

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (honestly this may even be too much choco chip with the cutbacks above, consider 1 1/3c chips, then add more as you like.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two baking sheets.

1) In a large bowl, combine the sugars, butter, shortening, salt, vanilla and almond extracts, vanilla, vinegar, and baking soda, beating until smooth and creamy.

2) Beat in the 1 egg, again beating till smooth. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl with a spatula to make sure everything is thoroughly combined.

3) Mix in the flour, then the chips.

4) Put whatever sized balls of dough you want on the tray.  Sprinkle the dough with sea salt – the big chunky stuff — just a light sprinkle per cookie. You’ll be surprised, it’s great.

5) Bake the cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, till their edges are chestnut brown and their tops are light golden brown, almost blonde. Remove them from the oven, and cool on the pan till they’ve set enough to move without breaking. Repeat with the remaining dough. Now, really, I start checking the oven at 7 minutes to be safe.  Totally depends how big the dough balls are.  Once the edges start browning, take em out – these things seem to cook quickly, and they don’t always look totally done when they really are (if you like a soft cookie, like me).

One more tip – both King Arthur and the NYT say to let the dough sit in the fridge for 36 hours before using it. Of course, no one is going to do that, but I do, after making the first batch, put the dough in a ziploc bag, flatten it, THEN put it in the fridge for 36 hours. It makes the dough have an almost caramel flavor to it, seriously.  Then just throw the bags in the freezer and you have fresh cookies whenever you want — I take out enough to make only 3 or 4 cookies at a time in my toaster oven (beware of toaster oven cooking temp and times, in mine I set the temp down to 300F and watch the cooking, they can be done in 7 minutes sometimes).

Boy, did these turn out nicely. Notice they held their shape – I think the #65 flour is key, but also try to remember how thick the dough should be, then adjust your flour accordingly.

chocolate-chip-cookie


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Really? How many beans to how much brandy? And I assume this can then last as long as ordinary vanilla? Does the brandy not end up being a bit too strong in cookies and things?

  • koolaidyarn

    This obviously won’t help an an immediate need to bake right now, but homemade vanilla is so much better than the storebought stuff. Small bottle of brandy, couple of vanilla beans, stash it in the back of the pantry for a couple of months. The longer it sits, the better it is.

  • perljammer

    Coffee generally has a ph of around 5.0, so that would probably do it. Natural cocoa is about the same, but the processed cocoa used in baking is usually more neutral.

  • PeteWa

    we always put vinegar in cake when making from scratch as well, probably for the same reason.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    The web tracks you with cookies and then the cookies talk back when you travel around the web. It’s all very creepy, and very much out of my control :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    That’s a good question about the cake rising, because it does. One would think the cocoa or the coffee?

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Ah that’s interesting.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    The thing is, they’re not very forgiving abroad. You either get rocks or sludge. At home,= I ‘ve found they’re more forgiving, in that you either get good cookes or hockey pucks :)

    And I brought some Ghirardelli chips with me. Last summer I tried to use just chopped local chocolate – boy was that a mistake! It all melted while we were mixin the cookies!

  • PeteWa

    mmmmm looks yummy.

  • emjayay

    But anyway cookies are pretty forgiving of variations. An important point is to just judge the consistency and taste of the dough (and seriously, who doesn’t enjoy a taste of chocolate chip cookie dough) and add flour or butter or sugar accordingly, particularly when substituting equivalents. It’s not a cake or or something – you can try baking one cookie and then adjust the batter or oven temperature.

    And with the sweetness of the chocolate you can go about as unsweet as you want with the chips up to maybe about 70% cocoa (you didn’t say what you actually used – they maybe don’t have those bags of chocolate drops we have here in various brands in the US. And by the way the better brands like Guittard are indeed better and worth a few extra cents.)

    Any kind of chopped nuts, like hazelnuts for a particularly Eurostyle cookie, are great in chocolate chip cookies. I personally think the chocolate/hazelnut combo is the best as used in a lot of European chocolates, but almond and walnut are great too.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    When we lived in Tien Mou, Taipei, the problem was most apartments did not have an oven. Fortunately, we discovered an Australian bakery that make great chocolate chip cookies. Actually, I always preferred buying to baking.

  • AdmNaismith

    The Cooking For Engineers has a chocolate cake recipe that rivals any cake made anywhere. Serve this if you want to impress anyone.
    Substitute left-over coffee for some of the water.
    Make only half of the frosting recipe, I don’t think any cake needs that much frosting.

    http://www.cookingforengineers.com/recipe/178/Chocolate-Cake

    If you are gluten free, The Gluten Free Goddess lives up to her name.
    Her chocolate cake is peerless:

    http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/2012/12/gluten-free-chocolate-layer-cake.html

    I make only half the recipe with King Arthur or ATK flour blend (still 10 large pieces of cake).
    Fill it with a layer of ganache and frost with whatever.

  • bkmn

    What messes me up in the non-US countries is the oven temp. As for the vanilla, I would check an Aldi, they usually seem to have reasonable prices on most products (the family that owns Aldi is related to the family that started Trader Joe’s, which if they had TJ’s in Europe they could make a ton of money).

  • emjayay

    As for the Bosch, it sounds like it doesn’t have a low enough speed. A much deeper, smaller diameter bowl than the one pictured should do the trick.

    Here in the US of A, Trader Joe’s sells bags of Red Mill preground flax seeds at a reasonable price. I throw some in everything for fiber and Omegas or whatever it is in there.

  • emjayay

    I’m sure the cookies were great, but why not use butter? European butter has maybe less water so more fat, if I remember correctly without bothering to actually look it up.

    OK, I just spent 30 seconds with Google and here is the answer:

    “Although traditionally butter was made by hand, nowadays, fresh milk from dairy farms is brought to a creamery where the cream is separated from the fresh whole milk using centrifugal force and pasteurized to kill any potential disease-causing bacteria. The cream is then churned in a churning cylinder until it thickens and the remaining buttermilk is drained off. The result of this process is sweet cream butter— the kind of butter we’re most used to in the U.S.

    “But so-called European-style, or cultured, butter involves an additional step early in the butter-making process: the cream is allowed to ferment, either naturally or by adding a bacterial culture, before churning. This fermentation, in addition to a higher butterfat content—between 83% and 86% in European-style butter, as opposed to the 80% butterfat content required by law in standard American butter—results in a richer, creamier, more complex flavor.

    “Unless you have a discerning palette, for example, you may not notice the difference between American and European-style butters in simple cookie or brownie recipes. But if you’re making pastry or homemade piecrusts, the lower water content in cultured butter will create a richer, flakier dough that’s well-worth the extra expense. Because some American producers call their butters European-style based on the butterfat content alone, if you want to make sure you’re getting traditionally cultured butter, look for “lactic starter” on the ingredient panel.”

    But anyway cookies are pretty forgiving of variations. An important point is to just judge the consistency and taste of the dough (and seriously, who doesn’t enjoy a taste of chocolate chip cookie dough) and add flour or butter or sugar accordingly, particularly when substituting equivalents. And with the sweetness of the chocolate you can go about as unsweet as you want with the chips up to maybe about 70% cocoa (you didn’t say what you actually used – they maybe don’t have those bags of chocolate drops we have here in various brands in the US. And by the way the better brands like Guittard are indeed better and worth a few extra cents.)

    Any kind of chopped nuts, like hazelnuts for a particularly Euro cookie are great in chocolate chip cookies. I personally think the chocolate/hazelnut combo is the best as used in a lot of European chocolates, but almond and walnut are great too.

  • perljammer

    In the recipe for chocolate chip cookies, the vinegar is most likely there for the acid to balance the alkaline nature of the baking soda, and to activate the baking soda as a leavening agent; leaving it out would probably result in a very flat batch of cookies. You could dispense with the vinegar if you use baking powder in place of baking soda. If baking powder isn’t available, you can roll your own by mixing baking soda and cream of tartar (2 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda).

    I’m still trying to figure out what ingredient(s) in the cake recipe might activate the baking soda. Cinnamon is alkaline, so that’s not it. Of course, the important thing is the result, not the chemistry.

  • HereinDC

    It’s still weird to me that how the pop up ads on your article are dark chocolate and baking things.
    And then I go to another site and those baking ads show up over there too. :)

  • Hue-Man

    I miss the real French baguettes (the pre-fab baked on store premises, not so much).

    I hope you’ll report back on the “Fait Maison” law which was recently enacted.

    “Jean-Paul Arabian is the owner of a cozy bistro tucked into a side street in Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood. He’s thrilled about the new law.

    “Homemade will be the war against restaurants that buy their food already cooked and in plastic bags, ready to heat up and serve to clients at 10 times the price,” he says.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/07/21/332645040/from-scratch-or-not-french-restaurant-law-stirs-controversy

    It reminds me of the Jamie Oliver school lunch TV shows where the “cooks” opened bags of frozen foods and either deep-fried or oven-roasted or microwaved the contents. I can understand the attraction for French restaurant owners – no kitchen disasters, no short-supplied raw ingredients, no prep staff late for work, and HIGH profit margins (and can the customer tell the difference?)!

  • 2karmanot

    Yumm!

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