Eid Mubarak, Ramadan Reflections

Ramadan has come and gone, like a plastic bag drifting through the wind. Alright – not really like that – I just wanted to take advantage of that Katy Perry lyric. It did, however, feel like a very short amount of time, as it does every year. This year, I hoped to take advantage of every day, and not feel like my month was snubbed by my own mindlessness. But no matter how diligent we are each day in Ramadan, the end creeps up on many. You might think that we’d look forward to the end of Ramadan and be happy to stop fasting, but in my experience, the opposite is true. Yes, we do get excited for Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday that comes right after Ramadan has ended, when you spend the day with family and friends and get to eat. But for me personally, there’s something about coming together on a regular basis with my community to break our fasts and pray together, and taking a month to remove anything that would distract me from myself and my time to come closer to my faith. You don’t get to see the community come together as often, and the same mental/religious/other focus that comes with fasting is harder to come by. That said, Ramadan can be considered something of a reset, where you restore your body~mind~spirit~etc to its natural state…factory settings, if you will. This year I tried to avoid eating cane sugar and processed carbs for the month, and I promised a report back. So, below the final outcome.

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First question: Did I make it all the way to the end of Ramadan on my diet? Answer: a resounding Yes! And I’m not too bashful to say I’m quite proud of myself! In the days leading up to it, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go through with my challenge. But it just goes to show you that you really can do anything you set your mind to. I emphasize mind because it’s a total mind game. What is it that makes me go for the cute cupcake after lunch or croissant for (second) breakfast? Cravings are your brain telling you that you want something because “remember how good it tasted last time? And remember how good you felt?” Did my cravings go away because I was fasting and I wasn’t eating sugar? Nah. But I was forced to get creative and  come up with healthy ways to trick my brain into thinking I was having dessert. Dates, so many dates, plantain, fruit smoothies, pretty-much paleo banana bread (recipe coming soon), and more fruit. Notice a trend? Fruit came through for me in my times of need during Ramadan.

Before I started, I thought my biggest takeaway would be that life is too short to free oneself from the burdens of sugar and that I am a miserable person without it. But in fact, I learned that there are many alternatives to baked goods for those with a sweet tooth, and exercising restraint is good for the soul. Did I get sugar pangs halfway through the month while looking at the Islamic Center’s bake sales? Yes. Did it feel better to resist the urge to give into the craving? Very yes. I can’t say how my body felt this month in comparison to a month of regular eating habits, since I was dieting under special circumstances and my body was not in its normal digestive state. However, I do feel like it’s good practice to say no to your superficial desires if it’s not something you do with ease. I might institute a no-treat Tuesday or something similar as a reminder to check myself before I wreck my stomach. Walking the streets of New York City sometimes makes it harder to say no when you’re passing a cafe on one block, a doughnut bakery on the next block, and an ice cream shop down the street. I’m hoping the habits I formed during Ramadan will stay with me, and that I won’t even need the no-treat Tuesdays. I’m excited to see how it goes!

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But, you know…of course I had to celebrate my accomplishment and one of our two holidays with a big cookie from Levain Bakery! it was delicious and I felt no body malfunctions.

Thanks for following along on my annual journey through Ramadan; I feel like this was a particularly special one. Come back later for that banana bread I was talking about. And in the meantime, let me know how you curb your cravings below!

Top 5 of 2016

Poor 2016…it’s going in the history books with a hashtag next to it. Lost your job this year? #2016. Lost a beloved celebrity role model? #2016. Despite the slew of unfortunate events in the last 365 days, it’s still important to look back to remember the progress we made and good things that happened. Here are 5 of your and my favorite posts from 2016, and here’s to a new year that we’ll be proud of 365 days from now.

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1. Mast Brothers: Genius or Nah?
What’s all the hype about? Is their chocolate chip cookie recipe really all that?

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2. Don’t Get Pancakes at a Place Called “egg”
Lessons learned: 1. It’s best to order something that a restaurant is named after, and 2. Not all brunch is created equal.

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3. Skillet S’mores
The most impressive party dessert to whip out in your times of need.

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4. The 3 Why’s of Chocolate Chip Cookies
So many questions…here are 3 answers.

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5. The Art of Dining Solo
The ultimate treat-yourself with its own perks.

Don’t see your favorite? Leave it in the comments below!
Happy New Year!

These Days’ Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

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It’s been some time since I last gave you a chocolate chip recipe of mine, even though I always refer to my constant struggle to find the best recipe. While it is a constant struggle, I’ve been on a break to work on a fun and exciting Nutella cookie…more on this to come. In the meantime, I will leave you with my latest chocolate chip cookie recipe. And I’m not going to belabor the definition of the best chocolate chip cookie, because it’s different for everyone. There’s a quote from market researcher and spaghetti sauce selling extraordinaire Howard Moskowitz pointing out this phenomenon, when describing an experiment with one of his first clients: “There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis” (from Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ketchup Conundrum”).

The point is not that I read a Malcolm Gladwell essay (you should too, though) but that I can’t tell you what the best chocolate chip cookie recipe is. If you happen to enjoy yours chewy on the inside,  butterscotchy, and full of chocolate like I do, this will get you in the right direction.

Happy baking!

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Chewy Chocolatey Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yields around 35 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups chocolate chips/chunks

Brown the butter on the stove, constantly stirring. Transfer to a heat resistant bowl and let cool. When the butter is cool, combine with sugars and vanilla. Mix in the eggs. Gradually fold in the flour, baking soda, and salt until just combined. Add the chocolate morsels. If you have time, chill in the fridge for 4 hours to overnight.

Bake in the oven at 375° for 8-10 minutes or until the edges are browning and the center is almost-but-not-quite-done. Let cool on the cookie tray.

 

The 3 Why’s of Chocolate Chip Cookies

There are a lot of decisions that go into making the best chocolate chip cookies. Do you ever stand at your kitchen counter, looking at a recipe thinking “what’s the big deal about leaving my butter at room temperature? Can’t I just melt it?” Or a slew of other concerns? I’ve broken down three of the basic cookie enigmas to get to the reasons behind the recipe.

1.  Why do I cream my butter and sugar?

When you start baking your cookies with soft butter, it allows for pockets of air to be created when combined at a rapid pace with the sugar. They say that this gives your cookies a better texture, that they come out  with more body. But why? When the cookies are in the oven, the air from the creaming evaporates, and steam allows the dough to rise taller in the oven and become less dense. That’s why the cookies have a lighter texture when you cream the butter instead of melt it. For those who love cookies that crumble instead of sink into your teeth like paste, this is logical solution for you.

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2. Why do I chill my dough?

What a bummer it is to reach the part of your chocolate chip cookie recipe where it says to chill your dough, either for a couple hours, or overnight. Don’t they know you’re craving these cookies right now, and have no time for dough firming? Kenji Lopez-Alt swears by leaving your dough to rest in the fridge overnight – and I got to hear it from the food scientist himself. He told me that’s the easiest way to enhance the flavor of your cookies. All the flour and starch proteins in the cookie have more time to break down when the dough is resting, creating a more intense butterscotchy cookie flavor. When the cookie bakes in the oven, these same proteins are breaking down anyway, but they get to go even further if you just give them more time to pre-game. This leaves you with maximum depth in your cookies.

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3. Why heat the oven to 375°?

There are a lot of super cool chemical reactions that happen in the oven when your cookies are baking, that this TED Ed video illustrates very well. One of these reactions is caramelization, but this only happens at 356° F. At this temperature, the sugar molecules in the dough break down and create the nutty quality that caramel has. If your recipe calls for an oven set to 350°, this reaction won’t occur and your cookies will come out differently. The change in flavor is better or not, depending on personal preference, but it would be a good experiment to try out and see which you enjoy more.

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There is an abundance of factors to consider when baking something as simple as chocolate chip cookies. These are the all-stars of basic cookie improvement that will help guide you in your next journey to the best chocolate chip cookies. Have a favorite recipe? Leave it below!

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Chocolate Comfort Cookies

I’ve written about this recipe before, but it merits some revamping, AKA more-than-subpar-photographing. Surprisingly, it’s still the best cookie I’ve made – especially for the simplicity. Say you have a chocolate chip cookie recipe. All you do is add half a cup of peanut butter, half a cup of cocoa powder, and bam: delicious treats that will blow the minds of all your omnivorous friends. Make sure there are no allergies in the crowd you’re feeding.

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I think the key here is the ratio of two eggs to one stick of butter. These are big-bodied cookies, with some heft and height, but they stay soft and chewy and somehow manage to melt in your mouth 24 hours later.

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Chocolate Comfort Cookies
based on the recipe from Bakerella

Yields around 30-40 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups chocolate chips (I use a combo of milk and semi-sweet)

Beat the butter, peanut butter, and sugar together until smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Combine with the butter mixture gradually. Add the chocolate chips and chill for a couple of hours. Roll the dough into balls of your desired size, and bake in the oven at 350° for around 10 minutes, or until the surface of the cookies are no longer shiny. Devour immediately.

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Seriously folks, these are unfathomably delightful. I fed them to some of the guys that work at the rock climbing gym I go to (baking = friends), and they were elated, many nights made. If you love these as much as I do, or wanna chat climbing beta, leave some words!

Baking With Vanilla

When you’re searching for the best chocolate chip recipe out there, you have to try different forms and variations of ingredients: creamed butter vs. brown butter, chocolate chips vs. chocolate chunks, vanilla extract vs. vanilla beans. There was a co-op in Connecticut where I lived that had two vanilla beans in little baggies for $3.89! I don’t know what magic allowed that to go down, but I wasn’t asking questions. It was time that I tested out the real deal.

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Vanilla beans are super cool because the flavor lies in these tiny seeds that are inside the bean. To get to them, I made a slit with a small knife, trying not to cut all the way through to the other side. Then I could open it up and scrape out the seeds with the blunt side of the knife.

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Inside, the seeds are pasty and oily, and have a strong vanilla aroma. Depending on the size of the vanilla bean, you could use half of the seeds for one batch of cookies and save the rest. If you find yourself with a dried out vanilla bean, just wrap it in a damp paper towel and put it in the microwave for 20 seconds!

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When I tried the chocolate chip cookies with this vanilla bean, I could definitely tell a difference between them and cookies I’d made with vanilla extract. These cookies were almost floral from the vanilla bean, with a sharper vanilla flavor that’s only hinted at in vanilla extract. Surprisingly, it turns out I don’t prefer to use vanilla beans to vanilla extract. For me, the flavor was a little too intense, and did not provide the nostalgic, homey chocolate chip cookie taste that I was looking for. If you’re looking for a more complex, interesting flavor, however, vanilla beans are a great choice. Plus, they make everything look speckled, and therefore much cooler.

Mast Brothers: Genius or Nah?

Once upon a time, I had a week off from work, so I went adventuring in Brooklyn. The destination of one particular afternoon was the Mast Brothers factory of chocolate in Williamsburg. Maybe you’ve seen their chocolate bars around? Or maybe you’ve heard accusations and admittance of chocolate fraud. No matter their previous or current strategies, the Mast Brothers have crazy, inventive chocolate flavors like goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, olive oil, and vanilla & smoke. And their packaging could easily be turned into wall decoration. But I was not in town for this chocolate, no. I was in town for their chocolate chip cookies (go figure). In my quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, substantial research of existing artworks is imperative. I walked into the storefront, took a brief gander around the bags of cocoa beans and podiums of chocolate bars.

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After taking a peek through the window showing the factory, convincing you to pay for the $10 tour, I circled back to the front and asked for one of the chocolate chip cookies sitting on the counter. I decided to pay for this over the tour, this time, because guess how much it was….a round $4. It was worth it though, this cookie was about the size of my face, or three normal cookies.

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There were no seats or tables inside, so I had to leave the premises and find a bench on the side of the street instead. To my surprise, this took about 90 seconds. The chocolate pros figured out that crispy-on-the-outside, soft-and-chewy-on-the-inside refinement, and the sea salt flakes on the top served as both decoration and general flavor enhancement. The top was the perfectly beautiful cracked texture that you see in the cookbooks. It was so delicious, and I managed to save some for later. I decided that I needed to track down the recipe for these cookies to see if any processes, techniques, or secret ingredients were applicable to my own recipe.

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Turns out, the Mast Brothers chocolate chip cookie recipe was no great shakes. There were no alternative mixing approaches or corn starch additions. In fact, their recipe didn’t even call for vanilla.

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Even so, I was confident that my cookies would turn out great, and excited to compare previous recipes. What resulted was a batch of perfectly smooth, large cookies that were less exciting than my current chocolate chip recipe.

 

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Pro tip from me: add the chocolate chips before all the flour is incorporated

 

 

Perhaps it was the fact that I did not use Mast Brothers chocolate, but probably not. There are always some variables that are unaccounted for, like evenness in your oven’s heat, oven heat in general, type of butter, and mixiness.

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Moral of the story: You should always feel free to tweak the recipe to your own taste. Things won’t necessarily come out how you think they will/like in the restaurant.

 

Mast Brothers Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook

Ingredients
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
⅔ cup white sugar
2 eggs
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
15 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
fleur de sel, for topping

Directions
In a large mixing bowl, cream softened butter with both sugars until fluffy. Blend in eggs one at a time. Add flour, baking soda, salt and chocolate and combine.
Spoon out cookie dough on baking sheets using tablespoons. Sprinkle sea salt to your preference. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

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Not fleur de sel. And I learned that adding the salt before baking will help it stick.
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Good with milk, of course.

 Have any perfected chocolate chip cookie techniques? Spill!