I've never understood the attraction to pre-packaged box mixes, particularly when the end result is an easy-to-make cookie or brownie. Isn't making from scratch nearly as simple? Besides, while there are no guarantees in life, it's fairly safe to say that homemade will trump just about anything that originates from a cardboard box.
Or so I thought. A few weeks ago a catalogue from the King Arthur Flour folks fell out of my mailbox. Don't ask why I found myself curious about a new cookie mix the company was featuring, but I did. Maybe it's because I once tried to bake a similar Oreo-like chocolate sandwich cookie recipe (from Los Angeles uber-baker and cookbook author Nancy Silverton), and it didn't work out the way I'd hoped; the recipe was fussy and time-consuming, and the finished product, at least in my rank amateur's hands, wasn't stellar.
Downsides? The mix was $9.95, and shipping and handling cost nearly as much, $6.50. That's not cheap for what turned out to be roughly 20 two-inch cookies. We're talking 85 cents per cookie, and that doesn't include the egg and two sticks of butter.
Would I try them again? Sure. This is one box mix that impressed me. I don't know about you, but I look at these pictures and instinctively want to reach for a glass of skim. That's one measure of a good cookie.
Unfortunately, not all high-end mixes are created equally. Witness Bouchon Bakery's chocolate-chunk cookie mix. I picked one up at Williams-Sonoma while I was on a recent vacation, thinking it would be an easy sweet to bake in our rental home's kitchen. Certainly less time-consuming than a sidetrip to the supermarket for the flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, vanilla extract and chocolate chips that I wasn't sure was waiting back in that unfamiliar pantry.
The directions were a breeze: Cream the butter, add the dry ingredients and the egg, stir in the chocolate (first-rate Callebaut), bake. No problem. The dough, with its deep brown sugar flavor, was kind of addictive (admit it: you're a dough-eater too). They baked up into thick, golden brown cookies with tons of chocolate -- I like my chocolate chip cookies to be at least half chocolate, if not more, and these totally filled that bill. Funny thing is, as good as they looked and smelled -- and as tasty as that dough was -- when they came out of the oven they were, well, a little bland. Maybe I'd add a shot of vanilla extract next time?
Not that there probably will be a next time. Yes, it was a relatively convenient process. Certainly not as quick as a Pillsbury, Nestle or Mrs. Field's refrigerated or frozen cut-and-bake dough, but let's not pretend that those products could ever pass as homemade. This one definitely could.
The downside is the price. They're a stupidly expensive $18. Yes, eighteen hard-earned dollars, for what is essentially flour, sugar, chocolate and a really attractive, well-designed package. A single box yielded about a dozen 3-inch cookies. That's roughly $1.50 a pop, not including the cost of butter and an egg, making it one convenience food that clearly isn't making a stab at appearing reasonably priced. Heck, don't throw that box away. At those prices, you'll want to capitalize on the cachet of using a Bouchon Bakery/Williams-Sonoma product.
Would I make them at home? Never. Even for novice bakers, it's too easy -- and far less expensive -- to pull together a made-from-scratch drop cookie; I prefer the taste of my homemade version anyway. I might turn to Bouchon Bakery's mix the next time I'm on vacation, but even then I'd probably gravitate toward the Barefoot Contessa's chocolate chunk cookie mix instead. Depending upon where you shop, Ina Garten's version is roughly half the price of its Bouchon Bakery counterpart, and in my own little taste-test revealed very little difference between the two mixes.
The following is a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe of mine, adapted from "The Neiman Marcus Cookbook." Preparing the dough takes just a few minutes longer than using a time-saving mix, and the effort is worth every second. This recipe has a favorable chocolate-dough ratio, a pleasant brown sugar bite and a surprise grown-up's ingredient: espresso powder. For chocolate, I skip the Nestle chips and buy a semi-sweet bar and chop it up (an orange-flavored bar is particularly delicious), or splurge on Callibaut chips, which are available locally at Kitchen Window. Remember, the more chocolate, the better.
NEIMAN MARCUS CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Adapted from "The Neiman Marcus Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $45).
1 3/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/2 c. dark brown sugar
3 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
11/2 c. (or more) chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
11/2 tsp. instant espresso powder, optional
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and reserve. In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add light brown sugar, dark brown sugar and granulated sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla extract and mix until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture to butter-sugar mixture and mix until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips and espresso powder (optional). Cover bowl with aluminum foil and refrigerate dough at least 30 minutes or overnight. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop heaping tablespoons of dough 2 inches apart onto prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies are nicely browned around edges, about 12 minutes (bake a little longer for crisper cookies). Remove from oven, cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.