So, 2020? What’s new? Not much, other than the world coming to a stop over a pandemic and a whole lot of turmoil, right? <sigh>
Yes, 2020 has been a crazy, scary, insane year for so many folks. During all of the madness, I squeezed in a day off from work to catch my breath. What did I end up doing? Going for a hike? Nope. Bingewatching something? Nope. Sleeping in? Nope (thanks to our dog). I leaned into my baking nerd-dom and retreated to our kitchen, inspired by an info graphic in the Penn State alumni magazine that had just arrived. Say what? Naturally, there’s a story behind it all…
Mindlessly leafing through the alumni magazine over my morning coffee, a full-page infographic on what it goes into the daily batch of West Halls chocolate chip cookies caught my eye. Considering these cookies feed all of main campus and get sent of to some branch campuses, the volumes of the ingredients was pretty eye-popping.
I didn’t think much of it at the time other than it was interesting. Then, the wannabe baker in my brain sprang to life a few hours later. What if I could reverse engineer a recipe from that infographic? All it would take would be a whole lot of math and applying some basic cookie-making knowledge. With all of the stress around us with the pandemic and life in general, making a batch of chocolate chip cookies sounded like just the thing my soul needed. If it exercised some brainpower along the way, so be it.
Off to the kitchen I went to scale down this massive recipe to something a little more appropriately sized for a family. Like any good baking recipe, the ingredients in the info graphic were listed by weight – a very good place to start. But what about the odd things like 84 pounds of eggs? How many eggs is that? How do I scale that down?
That’s when the science nerd in me kicked in. We happened to have an untouched dozen of eggs in the fridge, so I weighed each egg in the dozen to come up with an average egg’s weight, applied the math to scale it down, and boom – there’s my starting point! I figured out approximately how many eggs were in 84 pounds, then built my recipe around using 2 eggs. (For those of you wondering, 84 lbs. of eggs is about 648 large eggs!) My recipe would represent roughly 1/325th of what the infographic would make!
As much as I love baking using weight measures instead of volume measures, I still had to convert some items from weight to volume. Six pounds of vanilla is way more than I use in several years, so how much should I use for a recipe 1/325th of the original size? I got scientific again, weighing out a teaspoon’s measure of vanilla, noting its weight, and took an average. Rinse and repeat for several other ingredients. Tedious work, but it’s all about accuracy!
Lastly, I had to figure out what some of the ingredients were in the first place. Inverted sugar? Never heard of it. (It acts like corn syrup to stabilize food.) What makes pastry flour special? (It’s a higher protein content in the flour.) What’s a good substitute that I might have in the house already (since I can’t go to the store due to the pandemic)? Interwebs to the rescue!
With all of the math and ingredient research done, the pantry raided for some simple substitutes, next up was to figure out the mixing method. Naturally, that wasn’t part of the info graphic. No worries though as we’re fans of Alton Brown & Good Eats, so I had a treasure trove of knowledge on a bookshelf to consult. I decided to apply “The Chewy” method from the Good Eats episode about – what else? – chocolate chip cookies.
For my first attempt at making this reverse-engineered recipe – which was currently scrawled all over random notepaper – I made half a batch. Eighteen cookies would be more than plenty for us. If they turned out well, great! If not, fine by us too because we’d still eat a gooey mess of sugar and chocolate. (We’re not picky.)
I baked one tray of cookies at a time, carefully trying (and noting!) different cooking times, tray positions, and so on. Lo and behold, the maiden voyage of this new recipe turned out really well!
I was feeling proud of my accomplishment that day, so I tweeted out a pic of my nerdy baking feat. That caught the eye of the alumni magazine staff & they asked to use my picture in the next issue! Pretty cool!
As the weeks went by, I kept thinking about where I could improve the recipe more to my liking. I was intrigued by changing the fat. Everything tastes better with butter, right? What if I swap the shortening for butter? Time for another test batch and – let me tell you – that butter swap made for some really thin, puddly cookies. They tasted fine, but were a little on the ugly side.
I made a few more test batches, finally settling on a half-and-half mixture of butter and shortening to split the difference to achieve the flavor I wanted with fewer puddles when the cookies baked. I also used dark chocolate chips to cut back on the sweetness a little and ditched the little bit of corn syrup since there was no need to stabilize the dough for mass distribution purposes like PSU does.
It was quite a journey from the infographic page to the plate. If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded. While I can’t give you an actual cookie, I can share the final recipe and you can make the cookies yourself!!
Penn State Cookie Recipe
Yield: One batch makes 36 cookies that are 3 ½-4” in diameter.
300g granulated sugar (approximately 1 ½ cups)
300g light brown sugar (approximately 1 1/3 cups, packed)
120g shortening (approximately 2/3 cup)
120g unsalted butter, softened (approximately 1 stick + ½ tablespoon)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
220g all-purpose flour (approximately 1 1/3 cups + 3 tablespoons)
220g cake flour (approximately 1 1/3 cups + 3 tablespoons)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
240g dark chocolate chips (approximately 1 1/3 cups)
Beat sugar, light brown sugar, shortening, & butter in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment at medium speed until well blended and a little fluffy. Add the vanilla and eggs. Mix to combine.
Note: You can mix this recipe by hand with a large fork and enough arm power!
Sift together the all-purpose flour, cake flour, salt, and baking soda. Add the sifted ingredients to the sugar/egg mixture in 3 parts, mixing just enough to combine after each addition.
Add chocolate chips and mix until incorporated.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375° with an oven rack in the middle position.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop the chilled dough in 43g portions (approximately 2 ¼ tablespoon) and form into a loose ball shape. Place the dough balls on the baking sheet with 2-3” of space between each cookie. (6 cookies fit nicely on a half sheet pan.)
Bake for 12-14 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. The cookies are done when they are slightly golden in color around the edges.
Remove the pan from the oven. Immediately transfer the cookies on the parchment paper to a rack to cool.
Note: The center of the cookies will still be soft when they come out of the oven, making them hard to transfer to a cooling rack with a lifter or spatula. Transferring the cookies on the parchment paper to the cooling rack is quick and easy, while also helping the cookies keep their shape.
Cool for 5-10 minutes. Remove the cookies from the parchment paper and leave on the rack to cool completely. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container.
Note: When the cookies are completely cooled, the edges will be crispy, while the middle will be a little soft and chewy.