Ready to eat -- Fire Island Bakeshop's chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.
Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop builds its reputation on its breads and pastries, but many a visitor just wants a meringue, or a peanut butter cookie, or something small and chocolate-y to nibble. Often enough, the nibbler asks, "How do you get the chocolate chip cookie to puff up like that?" "What sort of butter do you use?" "Can I have another one please?"
A sampling of Fire Island cookies -- in the front -- chocolate shortbread with chocolate ganache filling; on the tray, chocolate chip cookies, rugelach, and at the back, birdseed bars.
Of course, you can almost always have another one. And on a Sunday evening, shortly before Christmas, Rachel Saul, co-owner of the bakeshop, offered a class to answer some of the other questions. About a dozen people gathered around work tables in the main room after the shop closed. Rachel handed out bakers' white aprons to tie around our waists, and plunged right into the how-tos of chocolate chip cookies.
Cookie class -- Rachel Saul at left in front of the oven, pastry chef Astrid in white coat, students.
She made it plain throughout that there are many ways of putting together cookies They are, after all, descended from ancient foods, the cakes of flour and water baked in the embers of the fire, and many chefs throughout the centuries have experimented with the basics. By adding oil and sugar, and then dozens of other delights -- fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices -- cooks have arrived at today's treats. What Rachel wanted to share was the way that Fire Island bakes cookies, based on their years of training and experience.
Chocolate chip dough, waiting to be scooped and shaped.
Scoops for the cookie dough.
So, that high-topped chocolate chip cookie? Some love the flatter version, others like them crisp. Fire Island likes them buttery, domed, evenly rounded. They get that way by being scooped out, rounded into small spheres, frozen, and then sent directly from the freezer into the 350 degree oven. Because they're cold when they go into the oven they have time to puff up, and become a bit crisp on the outside while staying soft on the inside.
Chocolate chip cookies, on parchment paper, ready for the freezer.
They will go straight into the 350 degree oven on the same sheet. To get the best results,Fire Island bakers make sure that they are evenly distributed, with a cookie at each corner of the sheet and some space to spread a bit. They let them cook for five minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Whenever someone opens the oven door, they call out "Oven open!" The space is so small for the fourteen employees that they must coordinate their movements carefully.
"Oven Open!" Rachel has a pan of peanut butter cookies to bake.
About the ingredients -- Rachel emphasized that Fire Island uses non-GMO, and organic products as much as possible. All of the flour is organic, and comes from Central Milling in Utah. For cookies, they use "Type 85," a flour that combines white and whole wheat. Their butter is organic and salted. Although many bakers like unsalted, Fire Island believes that the salted butter lasts better, and brightens the tastes in the cookies. They reduce the amounts of sugar used in their cookies, and amp up the flavors with small amounts of salt and carefully-chosen spices.
In the flour storeroom.
We washed our hands, scooped dozens of cookies onto trays, and then headed into the back room to learn about chocolate shortbread while the chocolate chip cookies were chilling.
Some of the ingredients for the chocolate shortbread: butter, Extra Brute Chocolate powder, eggs.
One student separated the yolks from the egg whites, while Astrid demonstrated how to cream the butter, sugar, and salt in a professional mixer until it pulled away from the sides of the bowl. This incorporates air and makes the cookies lighter. Separately, she mixed melted butter with the cocoa powder, and let it cool before combining it with the butter and sugar mixture, so that it didn't melt the butter in the sugar mixture. At each step of the process, the bakers mix ingredients until they are about 90 to 95% combined. As more ingredients are incorporated, the earlier mixing will be completed. Astrid said that it was important not to overmix cookie dough, or the gluten in the wheat flour will "develop" more, and the cookies will be tougher (they'll taste fine, but the texture might not be ideal). Next, she folded in the egg yolks, two at a time. She scraped the sides of the bowl now and again, to make sure that the ingredients were evenly distributed.
The sheeting machine. It has a canvas belt. When the chefs are rolling the shortbread out, they put it between sheets of silicone (sil-pats) so that the chocolate doesn't stain the belt.
After the dough for these cookies chilled for a while, we ran it through the pastry sheeter. At home, rolling the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper would work just as well.
A rolling pin for home.
Shortbreads going on to the baking sheet. Note the even thickness.
After the shortbreads were ready to bake, we mixed up peanut butter cookies.
Measuring sugar -- at Fire Island, everything gets weighed.
We creamed the butter with the brown and white sugars, added the eggs, peanut butter, and last, the flour and dry ingredients. The peanut butter dough also got chilled, then scooped, shaped, and put on to the trays that had been lined with parchment paper (Fire Island re-uses their parchment paper up to eight times).
Peanut butter cookies ready to come out of the oven (they were baked at 350 degrees).
The cookies were spaced widely so that they had room to spread, and plenty of heat around them to cook through. For flatter cookies, Rachel suggested pushing them down with the palm of your hand. They'll be crisper, but still soft inside.
Supplies for decorating sugar cookies.
We moved on to decorate sugar cookies that Rachel and Astrid had made earlier. Rachel demonstrated how to work with royal icing, piping it first around the edge of the cookie, then filling in the middle, and finally, adding the decorations.
Piping icing around the edge of the cookie; next step will be to fill in the center.
Finished sugar cookies.
While some of the students worked on sugar cookies, others watched Astrid add chocolate to cooked cream, turning the whole wonderful mix into chocolate ganache. They drizzled ganache onto biscotti, and dipped some of them into it.
Mixing cooked heavy cream and chocolate to make ganache.
Dipping cookies in ganache.
That was it. We took home plates piled high with our productions of the evening, and a few other cookies to savor. And we left with enough of Fire Island's secrets to brighten our cookie baking for years to come.
Rugelach, chocolate chip cookies, and birdseed bars.