“Great Cookies” by Carole Walter (review, long)
- JoanN Feb 2, 2008 06:41 AM
I don’t do my baking when everyone else does. I do mine twice a year, in February and August, when friends come to stay with me while exhibiting at the Javits Center. A number of years ago I baked a bunch of cookies, they took them to the fair, and all their clients loved them. The next show people were coming by their booth asking “Do you have any cookies?” Thus begins a tradition. And a reputation must be maintained. I usually rely on recipes from RLB’s “Christmas Cookies.” But this past Christmas so many people were recommending Carole Walter’s book that I took it out of the library for a test drive.
My main criticism of the book is a personal one. I prefer to bake by weight, not volume. And Walter doesn’t use weights at all. One recipe calls for “3/4 cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter.” Well, I use French butter. It doesn’t come in sticks. Why not just say “6 ounces”? And in another recipe she calls for “1 cup graham cracker crumbs.” How am I supposed to know how many crackers make a cup of crumbs? If she can’t give us the number of crackers, why not give us the weight?
And the book is not as well edited as it should be. There are instructions that are missing, and some that just don’t make sense (see biscotti, below).
I also question her rating system. She has little icons that indicate whether the cookie is easy or complicated to make, ranging from one icon for easy to three for difficult. Some of the recipes that she calls easy are awfully fussy and time-consuming and although I didn’t try any of the cookies she says are difficult to make, just reading the recipe makes me think they wouldn’t take very much longer than some she calls easy.
The cookies, though, have been very good; one of them outstanding. I’ve made four so far.
Crystallized Ginger and Macadamia Wafers
A thin, slightly chewy cookie that’s easy to make. The flavor is quite subtle, but I adore ginger and would have like a bit more of a hit. Her ingredients list calls for “1 (2.5 ounce) jar Australian crystallized ginger bits.” I have no idea what this product is. I used crystallized ginger. Maybe these “bits” do have more of a bite. Some of the people who tried them liked these a whole lot better than I.
Shaved Chocolate and Pistachio Biscotti
Very tasty, but her instructions are sloppy. Although she’s specific in other biscotti recipes about how to cut them on the diagonal, for this recipe she just says to “cut logs in ½-inch-thick slices.” But that’s not what’s shown in the photo and, I’m sure, not what was intended. Also, after the sliced biscotti have been baked for 15 minutes on the first side, she says to turn them and bake for another 7 to 10 minutes. But how do you know which? She doesn’t say what to look for in terms of color, so how is one supposed to tell whether or not it needs another 3 minutes? This is a really good biscotti and I liked them a great deal, but I tend to be more of a traditionalist and prefer RLB’s Almond Biscotti and even Zuni’s Cornmeal-Pistachio Biscotti.
Her version of Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes are simply marvelous, truly melt in your mouth. She’s says they’re easy to make, and they’re not difficult—but they are quite fussy. They’re so good, that I’m even getting over my annoyance at the fact that the photo in the book is faked; they’ve been sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, not just rolled in it, to make them look more attractive than they could possibly be if you just followed the instructions. These were my favorite of the four, but for one person, at least, they were her least favorite; she didn’t like the texture and thought they were too dry. Go figure.
Peanut Butter Balls
Another recipe she says is easy that is even fussier than the Snowballs. You make a dough of confectioner’s sugar, butter, graham cracker crumbs, and chunky peanut butter; roll them into 60 1-inch balls; dip them in melted chocolate; then roll them in finely chopped salted peanuts. This is definitely a cookie for Peanut Butter Cup lovers and were a big hit all around.
I wasn’t quite as taken with this book as I had hoped to be after reading about it here, but I will be adding it to my collection—when I can find it at a really good price.
Thanks for the review. I bake by weight, too, and am annoyed by recipes that are given only in volume measure. It's just not an accurate way to bake, and I don't like the cleanup either. After the positive mentions here around the holidays, I found a copy of Walter's book at the library. I have yet to try any of her recipes, though, so appreciate your comments.
Interesting and valid comments. I also bake by weight -- most of the time. I learned to bake at my mother's knee, however, by measuring, so I wasn't annoyed by her measurements. I also was in on much of the tasting of the recipes, so I have a couple of big faves that you haven't tried... the Chocolate Truffle Sandies and Carole's version of Mallomars. (Those were my dad's favorite cookie, and now they're my great-nephew's favorite.)
I am one of the Carole Walter champions. I've lived in both the UK and the US and have cooked extensively using both measuring cups and weight-based measuring, and I'm fairly adept at switching back and forth (not within a recipe, mind you!).
I imagine as most people in the US cook with measuring cups that's the way Walter chose to go. If you want to explore more cookie recipes, I recommend the following:
Brown Sugar (plain, but outstanding, this was the most popular cookie this past Christmas).
Oatmeal Walnut Crispies
Nancy's Nuthouse chocolate chip cookies
Any of the sprtiz cookies
Classic sugar cookies
I only had problems with one recipe: a jam filled oatmeal cookie. Otherwise, I've never had any problems with her instructions, then again, I haven't really cooked the more exotic cookies.
I will add this: the quality of your butter will affect the cookies. I didn't buy a fancy brand, but it was fresh and of good quality. The second suggestion is to follow Walter's instructions on incorporating flour into the dough: do so lightly and only just to incorporate, and if she tells you to sift three times, sift the flour three times.
re: Roland Parker
Roland, I was thinking of making the jam filled oatmeal cookies next weekend, actually. Could you take a minute and tell me what happened with yours? It'd help me troubleshoot the recipe, perhaps.
Also, I want to mention that after reading this thread, I pulled out the book and made the amaretti recipe. They're fantastic cookies, even though I altered it a bit b/c I didn't want to make a grocery trip.
The oatmeal jammies has a delicious batter, but the little balls completely lost their shape during baking and became flat. I ended up making sandwiches out of them, and they were tasty, but not what I'd expected from the picture: little round cookies with a dimple of jam in the middle.
Actually, I just realized what may be the problem: I used steel cut oatmeal (vaguely like grits), which was what I had on hand, instead of the conventional rolled oats. That may make all the difference.
She has another oatmeal cookie which contain almond paste. It's wonderful and forms very crisp rounded cookies, and you may want to check that recipe to see how much oatmeal it calls for, and see how it compares to the jammies.
I wanted to add to this review thread now that I've made several recipes in the last year or so. Most of the recipes have worked, though the text could have been more informative or was sometimes inaccurate on yields, etc. A few didn't turn out well shaped but were delicious tasting.
Chock Full of Crunchies is a great combo of rolled oats, coconut, rice crispies, and pecans in a brown sugar cookie. This strikes me as easily modified, too, with whatever appeals.
Rustic Maple Pecan Cookies starts off with melted butter, which is unusual, and has real maple syrup. These weren't as crispy as described, but were still utterly delicious. (Perhaps I underbaked them? Perhaps it's because I didn't include the orange juice, allergic.)
Oatmeal Almond Jammies did just what Roland described above, namely spread too much. As in spread like crazy all over the baking sheet. Great tasting, funky looking cookies that had to be cut into cookie like shapes after baking. Maybe this recipe just has poor proportions? More flour? Less sugar? All of the above? Don't know, but I will definitely stick with a better recipe I have for almond thumbprints, albeit without the oats.
Great Pecan Tassies recipe, though I had leftover filling. Not a lot of leftover filling, but since my mini muffin tins are standard and the yield was the same otherwise, this seems worth noting.
Nuts in the Blanket is a showstopper recipe, perfect for a cookie tray at a party. The ricotta pastry is divine, not sweet, wonderful pastry like texture with great dairy flavor. The weird part is the yield says 6 dozen while the instructions on portioning the dough I read to yield 4 dozen. So, unless I'm reading wrongly, the math doesn't add up on this one. I do think the cookies would be more delicate and divine if the proportions yielded 6 dozen rather than the four dozen I got. Hmm..more filling to less pastry, sounds good, wish the rolling and cutting instruction yielded that!
Aniseplatzchen was my first attempt at these unusual, addictively flavored (if you like anise) cookies. The instructions were great, as I'd never made anything like them--these are little footed macarron shaped egg based cookies that sit and dry out overnight before baking. Great textural contrast between the dry shell and chewy interior.
Golden almond amaretti is a keeper recipe, and a great use for leftover egg yolks, too. Fantastic texture, chewy and uber almondy taste.
There are some fantastic recipes in this book. It's probably a good idea to read a recipe through and look for inconsistencies to sort out how you will approach them before proceeding, however. I don't think those issues should keep anyone from this book, however, because other than one recipe, the formulas seem solid and feature great flavors and textures. She teaches good technique on handling ingredients, and the cookbook is useful for both beginners and experienced bakers.
I'm so pleased you returned to this thread to post your reviews, amyzan. Except for the Aniseplatzchen (which I forgot to post about), the ones you made are all new to me. I've already hauled out my copy of the book and marked the Golden Almond Amaretti and the Nuts in a Blanket.
Carole has a Web site with a contact e-mail address. I went looking for an errata sheet, but unfortunately she doesn't have one (if one even exists). Now that two of you have had the same experience with the Oatmeal Almond Jammies, I think it would be worth writing to her to ask if there was a typo somewhere. I'll let you know if/when I get around to doing so and if/when I get a response.
OK, I don't get what the big problem is with the Oatmeal Almond Jam cookie recipe (sorry, I'm too old to call anything "Jammies").
Yes, they do spread more than the accompanying picture leads one to expect they will. However, they do remain perfectly cookie-shaped and absolutely delicious. I've made them with blackberry or raspberry preserves, and even orange marmalade. Everybody loves them - including (perhaps especially) me!
I plan to make another batch this weekend - I already made two batches for Christmas cookie boxes last weekend - and can attach a photo to support my point.
I've made many of the cookies in this book in the five years or so since I bought it, and have had only one disappointment: Neil's Scalloped Sugar cookies. I didn't care for it much since it doesn't have any leavening, as I think sugar cookies should.
People absolutely fight over the others I've made: rainbow cookies, nuts-in-the-blanket, pistachio lime thins, the French macaroons, chocolate espresso spritz, black and white cookies, chocolate pistachio biscotti, etc.
kc, the jam filled oatmeal almond cookies spread a LOT. I had to cut the sheet of cooked dough into cookie shapes. They weren't perfectly cookie shaped, though yes, they were absolutely delicious!
I wrote Ms. Walters and she was kind enough to write me that she hadn't had any negative feedback on the recipe. I don't know why the recipe didn't work for me or for Roland, but I'm certainly glad you had better luck! If I ever tweak it and am successful, I will report.
I found her recipe for pecan tassies to be great. However, fwiw I found her directions to be needlessly more complicated than necessary. I rolled the dough into circles as if I was making a pie crust or rugelach instead of rolling into rectangles and then measuring into squares. I then cut the dough into pizza like slices and rolled into a ball to put into the muffin pan. I tried not to handle the dough too much.
I'm sorry it took so long to get back, but I had a busy month or so!
As promised, please find attached the results of my most recent use of the Oatmeal Almond Jam cookie recipe.
Again, I admit that they spread quite a bit - more than the picture in the book would lead one to expect - but I don't consider the results deformed.
If you do feel like trying again, I'd be happy to share some of the tips I've figured out from making these cookies repeatedly:
1. DO keep the dough cold (as foiegras suggests below). I only roll out a dozen at a time (enough for one cookie sheet) and then chuck the dough back in the fridge. Or I'll roll out a bunch (I use a kitchen scale to ensure they're all the same size; mine run a little big at 20-21 grams with a yield of 36) and refrigerate the dough balls until just before they go in the oven.
2. DO re-indent the wells/ holes before adding the jam (as the recipe suggests).
- and -
3. DO bake the cookies for the minimum amount of time prior to filling and then the maximum time after filling. This maximizes the time the jam is in the oven (so it bubbles and gets tacky instead of running all over the place) without burning the cookies.
Good luck! : )
Interesting review, thanks. I'm a big fan of CW and this book. I can't say I've encountered any specific problems, and all the cookies I've made have been good (and some much more than that, like the lemon glazed cookies).
Thanks so much for this invaluable review Joan. Like you, I prefer baking by weight and often this little detail is not to be found in the online descriptions of these books.
I was reading a thread on egullet about this by Dorrie Greenspan and Dan Lepard and they said that their American publishers rarely publish the weight equivalents anymore (having both weight and volume is "too confusing" for we dullards apparently). Dorrie's Home Baking (?title?) was a particularly heartbreaking story in that she meticulously worked out the volumes and weights (in both metric and imperial), only to have the publisher ditch the latter at the 11th hour. What a lot of work down the drain! And a lost sale (to me).
Thanks for the feedback about the cookies you've tried so far too.