“I am a cookie nerd,” is how Chicago pastry chef Mindy Segal begins her impressive first cookbook, “Cookie Love” (Ten Speed Press, $24.99).
The James Beard award-winning owner of HotChocolate Restaurant & Dessert Bar was destined to be a pastry chef. At age 13, she received a KitchenAid stand mixer as a Hanukkah present (“I’ve still got it,” she said) and she’s been creaming sugar into butter ever since.
Segal, a fervent believer in the cookie platter (she’s featured one on the menu of every restaurant on her résumé), treats her book with a similar assortment focus, inserting her modern pastry chef know-how into must-bake shortbreads, meringues, thumbprints, spritz, kolachkes and a handful of beloved drop-cookie classics.
In a recent phone conversation, Segal discussed the virtues of cane sugar, her affection for Land O’ Lakes butter and her feelings regarding rules.
Q: Is it fun to write a cookbook?
A: It was a labor of love. The key is having a great writer. I had a phenomenal writer — Kate Leahy — and we had this great synergy. We had a lot of conversations, and she took the words out of my mouth and out of my brain and put them on paper.
I’m very passionate and talkative and I wanted to end up with a book that was all about sharing the techniques that I’ve learned over the years. It’s my goal and my hope that I will write a series of single-subject books, and this one was the first.
Q: What would be your next one?
A: I’d really like to write a book on pies and tarts, but we’ll see. It’s not like I don’t make pies and tarts, but I have been homing in on cookies for years, so it might be a bit before I focus enough on another subject, enough to write another book. Because I always go back to cookies, back to cookies, back to cookies.
Q: Why is the book’s first recipe a Snickerdoodle? Aren’t there enough Snickerdoodle formulas out in the world?
A: Because it’s a sugar cookie, it’s the simplest of the simple. I mean, it’s not a straight sugar cookie, but it can be, which is why I call it the “Any Which Way But You Will Never Lose” Snickerdoodle, because, why do you have to use cinnamon? Why can’t you used lavendar sugar? Or citrus sugar? The whole idea of the book is to stretch your imagination. Why do you need another plain sugar cookie, you know what I mean? Why not take your knowledge of cookies, and go a step beyond? It’s about taking the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Q: You’re not a fan of semisweet chocolate, right?
A: No. I don’t like it. It’s just sweet, it has no character. It’s mundane. Uh-oh, now the Semisweet Coalition is going to call and yell at me. But there are so many good chocolates now, with so many different percentages, and it’s so easy to blend chocolates. If I want a less bittersweet chocolate, I’ll add some milk chocolate.
Q: Why do so many of your recipes specify cane sugar vs. generic granulated sugar?
A: Because in this day and age, why would you want to use refined products when you can use unrefined products? If you have the ability to use a more natural product, why wouldn’t you? It’s the same with, say, eggs. If you have access to fresh eggs from the farmers market, why wouldn’t you buy them there? Don’t you want to put the best possible ingredients into your body?
Q: Why did you come up with a rendition for chocolate Milanos?
A: Come on, seriously, do I really need to tell you that? They’re just the best, that’s why. Let me clarify: The original recipe was so good. It was like this thin, buttery snap, with just a little bit of chocolate, and it melted in your mouth. They’re so easy to eat, I’d end up eating the whole package.
Q: I was delighted to read that you add beer to your fruit preserves. What’s the reasoning behind that?
A: I’m a beer freak. I cook a lot with alcohol. I think it enhances and heightens flavors. I mean, I don’t drink framboise; it’s so cloyingly sweet. But it makes beautiful jam, and it’s really great in red velvet cake. But that’s another cookbook.
Q: The vast majority of your recipes start with butter. But one recipe — Brownie Krinkles — uses canola oil. Should I be wary?
A: Why don’t you do me a favor, and make the recipe? Then you can tell me what you think. I won’t say anything until then, other than it’s a great recipe.
Q: OK, I will. [They’re delicious; see recipe at right.] Speaking of butter, Minnesotans will be delighted to hear that you’re a fan of the hometown team, Land O’ Lakes. What do you like about it?
A: It’s a lovely, all-purpose butter. It has a wonderful sour quality. I love it. Although I will never kick Plugra out of my kitchen, that’s for sure. I just like high-quality, high-fat butter.
Q: I’m not a white chocolate fan, but you are. Why?
A: I like it for a reason that you don’t understand. You’re looking at it and rejecting it for what you think it is. Don’t do that. Instead, you should be looking at it as an ingredient that adds texture. It’s a neutral flavor, you know what I mean? That makes it a vehicle for flavor, because it’s nothing but butterfat.
Q: Where do you recommend as a starting point for novice bakers?
A: The book is designed for you to start at the first chapter, and then literally bake your way through it. It’s progressive. By the time you’re done, you’re going to be a cookie master. And follow the recipes. They’re good. They work. This is my advice: Read the recipe, then make it. After you’ve followed it once, you can modify it.
Q: Because there’s a science to baking, shouldn’t bakers be rule followers, at least to a certain extent?
A: Don’t you already have cookbooks for following the rules? I wrote this book because I created these techniques over years and years, and I want to share them with you. Make my recipes, figure them out, and then start experimenting. Use the flavored sugars that I like, or use the flavored sugars that you like. Who cares? That’s the unfortunate thing about recipes, people think that recipes are rigid, but in the end, they’re not. There are no rules.
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