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Wanna cookie?

IT MAY COME AS A SURPRISE TO ANYONE WHO HAS SAVORED A sweet, oven-fresh cookie--which is to say, nearly everyone--that this ubiquitous and infinitely variable confection was first developed as a durable way to feed the soldiers and sailors of ancient history. Baked once and stored in tins, fatless, sugarless squares of dough were cooked a second time before being distributed to men about to embark on a sea voyage or land battle. Called "stone bread" by sore-jawed soldiers, these cookies bore a closer resemblance to weapons than the treats we now devour with milk, coffee or a little sweet wine. Fat and sweetening agents were eventually introduced to the mix, which may have compromised the dough's shelf life but certainly enhanced its gustatory appeal.

The word cookie is derived from the Dutch word koekje, which means "small cake", and likely refers to the cooking of dollops of dough in an oven to test its temperature, a practice employed before the advent of oven thermometers. Young members of a household were given these lumps as a treat, thereby beginning the long and happy relationship between childhood and cookies. As their guilds flourished during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, cooks began to experiment with eggs, sweeteners and leavenings. Most had already transitioned from the boiling and frying methods employed in ancient Rome to baking in enclosed ovens, although Middle Eastern and Indian cooks continued to boil and fry their sweetmeats. Colonial American cooks employed wine, rose water and sweet spices to flavor their cookies, at least until Thomas Jefferson returned from France with vanilla in 1789. Roughly one hundred years later, as several baking companies merged to form the National Biscuit Company (later shortened to Nabisco), the Fig Newton[R] made its debut in the United States, and in 1902 came Barnum's Animal Crackers[R], whose string was meant for ease of hanging off the family Christmas tree. 1912 saw the advent of the mighty Oreo[R], whose name is likely based on the word or, French for gold, which was the color of the original package. Ruth Whitman, operator of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, accidentally created the chocolate chip cookie in 1933, when she added a chopped chocolate bar to sugar dough in the hopes of creating a uniformly chocolate cookie. Pepperidge Farm[R] pioneered the use of butter in mass-produced cookies in 1955, and Nabisco upped the ante on the Oreo[R] in 1987 by introducing a decadent fudge-covered version. Then, of course, there are Girl Scout Cookies[R], whose child-driven, grassroots distribution network has not stopped the Scouts from moving nearly 200 million boxes every year since the late 1990's.

In the last few years it has become de rigeur for high-end pastry chefs to replace petits fours with cookies at the end of a sumptuous meal, because no matter how fine the wine or how rare the steak, at the end of the meal we all need a little something sweet.

Connie McDonald & Pamela Weekes

Levain Bakery * New York, NY and Wainscott, NY

CONNIE MCDONALD AND PAMELA WEEKES HAVE PROBABLY PROVED THE downfall of many a diet, which is somewhat surprising, since their friendship (and eventual business partnership) was forged over serious athletics.

"We met while swimming. We trained a lot together, did a lot of triathlons together and have been friends ever since," explains McDonald, who took her culinary training in 1992, from Peter Kump himself, at his eponymous culinary school (recently renamed the Institute of Culinary Education). Weekes chimes in, "We both wanted to have a business, but we had no idea what kind of business it would be, or that we'd end up doing it together." They made their start running a wholesale baking company out of a downtown restaurant's massive kitchen, where they paid their rent in bread. Eventually wearied by the high volume and low profit margins of wholesale baking, the partners began to search for a retail space to showcase their artisan breads.

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"Have you ever looked for commercial space in New York when you're on a budget?" asks McDonald. "It's brutal. Some of the spaces we looked at were terrible. This place," she says, motioning around to the diminutive retail space and bakery, "at least it had a hood, it had a ceiling, and a floor."

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"We actually had to dig up the floor," says Weekes. "We were so naive about commercial real estate, we thought the landlords were responsible for fixing things up the way we wanted them, but we soon learned that everything came 'as is." In December 1995, the two opened Levain Bakery, initially offering a modest selection of breads.

"My favorite things that we did from the beginning are the breads," says McDonald. "We used to make this great red grape and rosemary focaccia, but people would come in and look at it and say 'are those hot dogs?' because of the way the grapes were sliced."

"Connie and I ended up eating most of it, and the red grapes were expensive, so we got rid of it," adds Weekes. More successful, however, were the cookies that McDonald began baking on a whim. Their four varieties of mountainous, six-ounce cookies remained something of a neighborhood cult item, however, until the New York Times ran a short article extolling their considerable virtues.

"That was it for the cookies," says Weekes. "For a month afterward, the shop would be chock-full, with people lined up on the stairs and down the sidewalk. People would cut out the article and bring it in with them. In fact," she says, "we had a man come in yesterday who still had the article from eight years ago. He'd kept it all this time, and he finally made it here."

In 2000, McDonald and Weekes opened their second store, in the tony Hamptons area of Long Island. "The first couple of summers [in Manhattan], it was scary how quiet it was," says Weekes, "so we decided to go where the customers were going." Their biggest challenge with the Hamptons outpost, they say, has been a lack of dependable labor. "A lot of restaurants out there have houses, so they can bring a whole staff out from New York [for the summer], but we don't generate that kind of revenue without selling alcohol. And the people who live out there want way more than we can afford."

McDonald adds, "We interviewed one girl who told us that if we wanted her to work retail, we'd have to pay her $16 an hour, because she was making $15 in her current job and she didn't have to do anything." She laughs. "I told her, OK, you'd better keep that job."

All of the breads and cookies at the Hamptons store are baked in a convection oven, but the partners actually prefer the weathered pizza oven in their Manhattan location, for the way its hot and cold spots create appealing variations in the golden brown spots atop the cookies' rough surfaces. "In [the] Long Island [store], everything looks exactly the same, with no natural variation," says McDonald, although she adds, "It is a lot faster, and on a busy afternoon, that can make a big difference."

Adriana Paveglio

Angelina, The Continental, Jones and Washington Square Philadelphia, PA

"SOMETIMES YOU JUST NEED TO MAKE SOMETHING THAT DOESN'T REQUIRE interpretation," says Adriana Paveglio, referring to her decision to enter the Italian cookie plate she serves at Angelina into the most recent Philly Cooks competition, an annual fundraising event hosted by Philadelphia magazine. "I wanted to do the cookie plate last year, but my director was against it, and we didn't win. When [the event] came around this year I thought, our cookies are good, and since each chef has to have samples for about 800 people on hand, cookies were easier to transport than the mise en place for 800 plated desserts. I just kind of said 'I'm doing it', and I did, and we won."

Paveglio, who is in her mid-20's, is executive pastry chef for four restaurants under the umbrella of Philadelphia mega-restaurateur Steven Starr. The chef and just a handful of helpers use the kitchen at Jones, a retro-cool comfort food joint, to produce their own plated desserts as well as those for the modern Italian restaurant Angelina, right next door. "Continental has an order system, so we sort of function as their bakery," explains Paveglio. "And [taking over the pastry department at] Washington Square just happened last week, so we'll probably send a full-time person over there, because we literally cannot make one more item at Jones."

A graduate of Penn State and the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Paveglio acknowledges that joining the Starr organization has put her on a fast track. After completing an apprenticeship at the Park Hyatt in Philadelphia, she reported for duty at Jones, having decided that, "I wanted the ability to move ahead a little more quickly." She worked a year at Jones before being plugged into the void left by departing pastry chef Sonjia Spector (who currently co-owns Matyson, also in Philadelphia, with her husband Matt). "She really gave me a lot of autonomy," says Paveglio. "She'd show me how to do something and let me grow from there, and she taught me by example how to make staff happy and keep them around." One of her biggest management challenges has been the tension that arises when a "career changer" is faced with a boss who is half their age and a job that's nothing like the romantic notion that propelled them out of law firms or banks in the first place.

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"I don't have a problem with the age. I have a problem with the mentality," she says, recalling one short-lived intern who couldn't take orders from Paveglio's sous chef in her absence. "I can understand, it must be hard, if you're 50 and here's some 19-year old telling you what to do, but at the same time, that 19-year old has a lot more experience in the task at hand, and if you're not comfortable with that, maybe a kitchen is not the place for you."

Paveglio notes that being part of Starr's aggressively expanding restaurant empire has helped her develop the skills necessary to deal with such conflicts. "We opened four restaurants in one year, which was a little difficult because, as far as our corporate staff goes, there are only so many to go around. It forced me to develop other solutions," she says. Asked about her future with the company, Paveglio indulges in a bit of daydreaming.

"This company would benefit from having a commissary-style bakery, where we all worked out of one huge area," she says. "Especially now, with my taking on a fourth restaurant's pastry program, it would be great to have a lot of different chefs together in one space. We all have our specialties, and we could all learn from each other."

RELATED ARTICLE: Dark Chocolate Coconut Cookies (Yields 1 dozen cookies)

Connie McDonald & Pamela Weekes

Espresso

directions

For the dark chocolate coconut cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, cream together butter and sugar until well-blended and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well-incorporated, then beat in cocoa powder. Mix in flour, salt and baking powder until just combined. Gently fold in remaining ingredients. Transfer dough to clean work surface and gently mix dough by hand to ensure even distribution of ingredients. Divide into 12 equal portions and place each on sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake in oven 12 minutes, taking care not to overbake. Let cool on rack and store in airtight container.

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ingredients

For the dark chocolate coconut cookies:
8 ounces unsalted butter
10 ounces granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces dark cocoa powder
10 ounces all-purpose flour
Pinch of Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 1/2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 ounces large walnut pieces
3 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut


RELATED ARTICLE: Ginger Valrhona[R] Cookies (Yields 1 dozen cookies)

Connie McDonald & Pamela Weekes

Milk

directions

For the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, cream together butter and sugars until well-blended and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well-incorporated, then add molasses, flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and mix until just combined. Gently fold in chocolate chunks. Transfer dough to clean work surface and divide into 12 equal portions. Place each on sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake in oven 12 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Let cool on rack and store in airtight container.

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ingredients

For the ginger Valrhona[R] cookies:
8 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces granulated sugar
3 ounces brown sugar
2 eggs
4 ounces unsulphured molasses
18 ounces all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 ounces Valrhona[R] extra dark bittersweet chocolate, cut into chunks


RELATED ARTICLE: Coconut and Sesame Seed Crisps (Yields 6 dozen cookies)

Adriana Paveglio

Recioto di Soave Classico

Co'Rugate

Montecchia di Crosara, Italy 2002

directions

For the coconut and sesame seed crisps: In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, combine butter and sugar and beat until fluffy. Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed until dough forms. Separate dough into three equal portions and roll each into a 1-inch diameter log. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate one hour. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Slice dough into 1/4-inch thick rounds and place on ungreased sheet pan. Bake 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on rack and serve immediately or hold in airtight container for up to 3 days.

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ingredients

For the coconut and sesame seed crisps:
1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
9 ounces granulated sugar
12 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces sesame seeds
6 1/2 ounces shredded coconut
1 1/2 ounces blanched almonds, finely chopped


RELATED ARTICLE: Chocolate Sambuca Sandwiches (Yields 4 dozen cookies)

Adriana Paveglio

Grappa

Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro

Tuscany, Italy NV

directions

For the chocolate Sambuca Sandwiches: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, combine butter and sugar and beat until fluffy. Add vanilla, egg and yolk and mix until combined. Scrape down sides of bowl. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and salt. With mixer on low speed, gradually add sifted ingredients to butter mixture. Mix until butter is incorporated. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 15 minutes. On lightly floured work surface, roll dough out to 1-inch thickness and sprinkle with half of seeds. Turn dough and continue to roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Sprinkle again with remaining seeds and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using 1 1/2-inch round cutter, cut as many circles as possible from dough and transfer to sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake in oven until cookies are slightly puffed and surface is dry, about 15 minutes. Let cool on rack.

For the Sambuca ganache: Combine chocolate and butter in bowl and melt, stirring regularly, over simmering water. Set aside, keeping warm. In small saucepan, combine cream and anise seeds and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep 10 minutes. Strain cream mixture through fine-mesh sieve directly into chocolate mixture. Whisk to combine and stir in coffee extract and Sambuca. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

To assemble and serve: Soften ganache slightly over simmering water. Use pallet knife to spread half of cookies with even layer of ganache. Top with remaining cookies to form sandwich. Serve immediately or store in airtight container for up to 3 days.

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ingredients

For the chocolate Sambuca sandwiches:
8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
7 ounces granulated sugar
1/4 ounce vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 1/2 ounces cocoa powder
18 ounces all-purpose flour
1/2 ounce baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 ounce anise seeds, toasted


For the Sambuca ganache:
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces unsalted butter
2 ounces heavy cream
1/2 ounce anise seeds
Dash of coffee extract
1 ounce Sambuca
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Title Annotation:Back to Basics
Publication:Art Culinaire
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:2716
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