I have been as susceptible as the next person to lockdown clichés. Sourdough-making? Check. Jigsaw on the dining table? Check. Bananas blackening in the fruit bowl for banana bread? Check. Turning on the sewing machine for the first time in two years for a DIY face mask? Check. Existential dread? Check.
Perhaps where I most wholeheartedly embraced the stereotype was in the mad panic I felt over pursuing projects: I would write that novel, I would clear out the cupboard-under the-stairs and deep-clean the oven. Now was the time to teach myself to knit, and quilt, and maybe to do calligraphy, too? I would embark on a new, intensive exercise routine from the comfort of my living room. I’d really nail viennoiserie, and devote proper time and energy to perfecting my croissant. I’d train the dog to roll over and play dead, and my husband to close the cupboard doors after opening them. Maybe I’d launch a youtube channel! Now was the time to grab every bull I could think of by the horns. Carpe Diem!
But once the reality of living inside my four walls for a prolonged period of time without seeing my friends or family, but with an added dose of morbid anxiety, set in, I set about recalibrating my expectations. Living through a pandemic is not a dystopian Miss World competition: you can’t win it. The achievements I’d hoped for really relied on financial security, significantly more free time than I have, and probably less panicking over the well-being of my loved ones.
Now I chalk up smaller achievements: reading a whole book, rather than writing one; walking the dog, rather than turning her into a performing monkey; having dinner with my husband, instead of changing his habits of a lifetime. And the viennoiserie? Well that went out the window with the scarcity of butter and bread flour. Here, my scaled-down achievement is less croissant- and more cookie-shaped. Baking something that is short on hands-on time but also completely delicious is my kind of small achievement.
In fact, if these chocolate chip cookies are my only achievement for the entirety of our quarantine, I think I’ll be satisfied: crisp and buttery on the outside, fudgy and sweet within, with pools of dark chocolate, and just the right amount of salt.
As ever, with baking, there are always substitutions you can make, if you don’t mind a slightly different (but still delicious) end product. Sub in the light brown sugar for dark brown sugar for an even deeper toffee flavour, or swap out the caster sugar for granulated or demerara. Strong white bread flour will work, if you can spare it, and rye or spelt flour will produce a damper but nuttier cookie (a delightful variation, in my books). You can lose the vanilla paste entirely, or replace with almond extract, or a good grating of nutmeg. Any chocolate will work, although I prefer the bitterness of the dark chocolate as a counterpoint to the unashamedly sweet dough. If you fancy, lose the chocolate entirely and replace with nuts or dried fruit. Sometimes I brown the butter for these cookies (melting the butter until it foams up and turns mahogany-coloured, smelling of toasted nuts, before letting it cool back down to solid form), for an even more complex flavour and chewy biscuit, but if you’re short on butter, margarine will work too.
We all need a little rest sometimes, don’t we? Cookie dough generally benefits from an overnight rest in the fridge: it makes you more likely to get a puffy little cookie with a soft inside, as the fridge-cold fats will take longer to melt in the oven. But more than that, it hugely improves the flavour, by allowing the sugars and flours to hydrate, which creates a more rounded, complex flavour. It sounds faffy, I know, but I promise it works. That said, if you’re the kind of person for whom waiting 24 hours for biscuits is anathema, I entirely understand, and fear not – these cookies will work perfectly well without the rest. The dough also freezes well, and I am an evangelist for making a batch of dough, portioning it out, and then baking 2 or 3 off as and when we need them; add 4 minutes to the baking time if you’re baking straight from frozen.
Chocolate chip cookies
Makes: 12-16 cookies
Takes: 10 minutes (plus optional overnight fridge rest)
Bakes: 12 minutes
150g butter, room temperature
150g light brown sugar
100g caster sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla paste
1 teaspoon baking powder
250g plain flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
200g dark chocolate, chopped coarsely
1. Cream together the butter, both sugars and the vanilla paste until pale and well-combined, but not fluffy.
2. Add the egg, and combine thoroughly.
3. Stir through the plain flour, baking powder and salt, and then, finally, the dark chocolate, until the mixture comes together as a chunky dough.
4. Portion the dough into balls the size of ping pong balls. You can do this with an ice cream scoop, but I tend to just use my hands. Leave to rest in the fridge overnight (if you can bear it).
5. Preheat the oven to 160°C and line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.
6. Bake the cookies for 12 minutes, then leave to cool completely before lifting from the tray.