In life, in love, and especially in the kitchen, a handful of qualities or ingredients will collaborate to produce something incredible. While each ingredient lends its particular property, some strange magic occurs during the process of combination. Something tweaks the assembly of these few items and creates an extraordinary whole. Today I experience this magic as baking.
With my collection of tiny extract bottles and spice canisters, I feel like a medieval apothecary. I arrange my ingredients on the kitchen counter and place the large bright mixing bowl atop a wooden cutting board. A devil’s food cake mix, 2 eggs, a stick of butter, vanilla extract, hazelnut extract, instant coffee, cinnamon, white and semi-sweet chocolate chips—this array promises a delectable future.
After preheating the oven to 375, I open the devil’s food cake mix. The rich smell of cocoa rushes out of the opened pouch as I tip the light brown powder into the bowl. It falls quietly into the bowl, and I understand that the powder has a loosely packed, fluffy texture. I measure cinnamon into my palm—about a quarter of a palmful—and add it to the cake mix.
Next comes the instant coffee, in its fat glass jar. I enjoy the smell of the instant coffee, though I never prepare it as a drink. The granules smell earthy, woody, and slightly bitter—the smell is deep and dark. Since this is the only ingredient I’m measuring with a utensil, I don’t bother to use my measuring spoons. I retrieve a regular spoon from the silverware drawer and add a spoonful of instant coffee to the other dry ingredients.
I whisk together the dry ingredients, watching the dark streaks of coffee fade into the softer brown of the cake mix. I pour in a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips and two handfuls of white chocolate chips. I apply the whisk again, ensuring that all the chips are thoroughly coated by the cake mix.
I unwrap the butter and place it in a sturdy coffee mug with a handle. I pop it in the microwave to soften for 45 seconds. While the microwave drones and the kitchen fills with the smell of melting butter, I add a splash of hazelnut extract and two splashes of vanilla to the batter. When the microwave beeps in completion, I retrieve the butter. I add this to the mix as well.
Now comes a tiresome baking task: cracking eggs. Currently my favorite method involves lightly tapping the egg on the counter and cracking it over a separate bowl. I crack my two eggs in the large mug, vacated by the softened butter. I save the eggshells for use in our garden.
The melted butter, extracts, and eggs transform my fluffy dry mixture into a sloppy mess. I use the whisk to incorporate the new ingredients; I watch my batter take on streaks of dark brown. Setting the whisk aside, I prepare to tackle the batter by hand. My left hand rests on one corner of the square bowl while my right hand massages the mixture within. I rotate the bowl with my left hand and mix its contents with my right. The well-mixed batter feels thick and slippery—a textural contrast to the few clumps of dry powder that need to be incorporated. As I mix, I can feel the small chocolate chips, carried along in the current of batter. Since they were well-coated with the dry mix, they do not fall out of this happy stream.
When the batter is thoroughly mixed, I begin preparing my baking surface. I line a cookie sheet with shiny foil and apply cooking spray. Because I can’t see whether I’ve given the sheet an even coat, I slide a paper towel over the foil. Now I can see that my foil’s shine has become slightly foggy.
Using a small, spring-loaded scoop, I create balls of dough. I can fit twelve balls on the cookie sheet, spacing them at least an inch apart. The scoop ensures that the cookies will be about the same size. As with mixing the batter, I can keep one hand clean. My clean right hand holds the scoop while I shear off extra dough with my left.
I place the cookie sheet, with its small chocolate burdens, on the lower oven rack and turn on the oven light for extra visibility. I set the timer for 11 minutes and put the cinnamon, instant coffee, hazelnut, and vanilla back on my shelf, in their proper places. I wait.
Soon the smell of transformation wafts from the kitchen, and the oven chimes its solicitous one-minute warning. I return to the kitchen and take up my purple oven mitts. Large and long, these mitten-shaped protectors have heavily textured silicon outside and soft fabric inside.
The oven display flashes as the last minute elapses, and then the timer begins its persistent beep. I lower the oven door, catching a glimpse of my cookies. Illuminated by the oven light, they are easy to spot—puffy dark circles on a bright stage. I bring out the pan and balance it on the stovetop. I close the oven and remove the mitt from my left hand. With my right, I hold the cookie sheet steady; with my left, I gingerly press the center of several cookies on the tray.
To tell if the cookies are done, I must pay attention to their surface texture and smell. Their color has changed, become darker and less glossy. The smell has changed too—all traces of the batter’s raw, wet aroma are gone. When I press each with a finger, the cookie feels firm but not rock-solid. One minute more and these will turn to disks of concrete. Each cookie has some give. All the cookies display a few fault lines—cracks and crinkles that tell me that they are done. Here and there, white chocolate chips twinkle invitingly against their dark chocolate surroundings.
From experience I know that I can’t take the cookies off the sheet right away. Because these are made from a cake mix, they are not crunchy or sturdy like other cookies. They are fluffy and light, similar to madeleines. Removing them before they’ve had time to cool will mean lots of breakage. Though broken cookies taste just as good, they don’t look as appealing, and they leave the cookie sheet a mess. So I wait.
Five minutes pass, and I decide that the cookies are cool enough. I gently rotate each cookie, freeing it from the foil. I stack the cookies on a plate. I arrange them asymmetrically.
One cookie doesn’t make it to the plate. It is warm and soft, its chocolate flavor rich and complex. The cinnamon and coffee heighten the overall flavor in perfect subtlety, never coming out into the open. The chocolate chips make tiny creamy pockets in the soft, fluffy texture. Short-lived and long-savored, the cookie is a small gift of magic and science.