Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Project cookie tech or the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe

              Two months ago amidst the hulking shapes of my newly acquired kitchen gadgets, I started project cookie tech.  Cookie tech ™ was my attempt to build a bigger better chocolate chip cookie.  I had the technology.  I had the ingredients.  I was sure I could do better than the packaged chocolate chip dough packs at the grocery store.  I knew it would not be easy.  I knew it would require devotion.  So began my quest—for cookies! For world domination! For science!  Muhahahahahahaha!!


Before we begin dear reader, you must understand something.  My wife loves desserts.  She has sampled coco delights across the country.  Her quest for confectionary perfection is endless—boundless—a glorious obsession that has driven baristas mad, waitresses to ruin, and threatened the very fabric of the time space continuum.  When I say that I wanted to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie I knew that my soul rested in the balance.  This was a life’s work—good work—but fraught with peril.

              As any good scientist, I began with research.  Making cookies is not art, it is science…science!  Every step of the process has been painstakingly investigated.  However, opinions on what is the “perfect” chocolate chip cookie and how to reliably manufacture said wonder vary widely.  I drew inspiration from three sources.

The kitchenaid chocolate chip cookie recipe that came with my mixer:

This is a standard no frills recipe.  You get cookies—no muss—no fuss—just the basics.


The Alton Brown chewy chocolate chip cookie recipe:

This is a slightly better recipe with a few tips and tricks mixed in.  I learned a lot contrasting the results of the kitchenaid and Brown recipes.


The New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe:

If you love cookies, then you must read this article.  It is a beautiful, dare I say it, sweet and buttery treatment of the lineage of this iconic dessert.  From these three fonts of wisdom I took my inspiration.

              One thing was clear, not all cookies are created equal.  Chewy, crisp, gluten free, silver dollar, gigantic, light, fluffy, dense, thick, wafer-thin, there are endless variations.  Fortunately, for me that is, my wife and I have similar tastes when it comes to this delicacy.

·       They should be chewy—not crunchy—not doughy.

·       They should be big enough that you can take a bite out of one and have plenty left to nibble.

·       They should be thick with melted chocolate—not delicately seasoned.

·       They should keep their consistency over time—not drying out after a couple hours.

·       The recipe should be simple enough that I can make it without a bunch of fiddly details.


Then I made about 150 cookies over a month and a half.  Heed my words, learn from my mistakes.  What follows is the wonder of the age—a cookie so perfect that I yet live, my soul my own—for the moment.



·       1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted sweet cream butter.  Make sure to get real unsalted butter.  The amount of salt matters when combined with baking soda and flower.  Butter and milk fat in general are the binding agents that give the cookie its rich flavor.  Do not skimp on quality.

·       1 box or 2 cups packed dark brown sugar.  Make sure this is fresh and not dried out or solid brick-like to the touch. brown sugar should give a little under pressure due to the molasses content.  If it does not your cookies will not have the desired texture.  Do not substitute granulated sugar.

·       1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk.  Separating the egg is the only fiddly part of this recipe.  Eggs provide the second binding agent as well as some of the protein for the chemical reactions to mature correctly.  You would not think that the loss of 1 egg white would make that much difference but I assure you it does.

·       2 teaspoons vanilla extract or optionally 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon coconut extract.  This is what gives the dough its mellow character.  The coconut melds well with the buttery sugary tones of toffee and caramel created by the brown sugar and butter.

·       Optionally, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.  I know this is not part of a traditional recipe.  I tried it in one of my batches and it sets off the chocolate really well—especially if you are using 60% or better premium coco.

·       3 cups high quality all-purpose flower.  I tried cake flower, bread flower, all-purpose flower, and mixtures thereof.  All-purpose gave me the best results.  Changing the type of flower changes the amount of gluten and protein which changes the arability and texture of the dough.  I recommend gold metal or king Arthur flower for preference but feel free to modify as desired.

·       1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt.  I like this version because there are no fiddly fractional amounts of baking agents.  Be sure to get the quantity exactly right, these are the magic powders that make the process work.

·       12 ounces’ semisweet chocolate morsels or 12-16 ounces of the darkest purest chocolate you can find.  I used a 12-ounce package of nestles morsels

and a 1-pound package of Valrhona 72% chocolate disks

in testing.  Actually I bought so many packages of the Nestles morsels that my grocery store coupon generator continues to dispense discounts for them on every other purchase.  You can definitely taste the difference in the chocolate.  I suggest getting the recipe right first before dropping $16 or more on quality chocolate but even with the Nestles the results were excellent.



·       Remove all ingredients from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.  The butter will be handled in step 2.  Everything else needs to be at the same temperature for best results.

·       In 20 second segments, melt the butter in a microwave.  The objective is to render the sticks into liquid, not get them sizzling hot.

·       Add your melted butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon to the bowl of your stand mixer.  Put on the second setting—scraping the side of the bowl every 30 seconds—until the brown sugar is incorporated.

·       Separate one egg.  Add one whole egg and the separated yolk to a bowl with the vanilla and coconut extract.  Beet the mixture with a fork until fully blended.

·       Add the egg mixture to your stand mixer’s bowl and process on setting three until fully combined (approximately 2 minutes.)  Depending on the shape of your bowl, you may have to scrape brown sugar dregs off the side for further incorporation.  Continue until the mixture is soft and creamy and the ingredients are evenly combined.

·       Sift together the flower, baking soda, and salt.  I put my sifter into a mixing bowl, measure out my ingredients into the sifter, and then pick up the sifter and slowly turn the crank until everything is processed.  This has the added benefit of catching any overflow—there is no net loss of material.

·       Put your mixer on setting 1.  Over a couple minutes’ scoop in the flower mixture giving time after each scoop (usually a 10 second count) for the new material to mix into the dough.  After the flower mixture is completely added, move the mixer up to setting 3 for 30 seconds.  Your objective is to get everything mixed with no dry pockets of flower.  You do not want to over-mix the dough or the cookies will not rise and fall correctly.  You may need to scrape the side of the bowl to make sure all the material is getting blended before setting the mixer on the faster setting.

·       Scrape the side of the bowl and knock residual dough free of the paddle before turning the mixer to setting 1 and slowly adding the chocolate over a couple minutes.  If you add it all at once or if you add it too quickly the mechanism may jam or fail to incorporate the chocolate completely.  Do not over-mix.  You want to stir the bowl just long enough that the chocolate is evenly distributed. 

·       Cover the top of the mixing bowl with foil and let sit in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours.  This process lets the dough firm up, allows the gluten to relax, and lets the moisture permeate the starches.  Do not freeze the dough—the moisture cannot permeate if it turns to ice.  Play around with the time left in fridge—it will impact the end texture and color.  I like 24 hours but others may wish to go as long as 48.

·       Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Do not move it up to 350 or 375 as many recipes recommend.  Trust me, there is a method to my madness.

·       Line two half baking sheets with parchment paper.  I used to use the silicone baking mats but parchment paper is so much easier to clean up and I never get even slightly burned bottoms with this method.  Make sure there is enough paper to cover the edges of the sheets.  The dough will burn if it contacts the bare metal.

·       Using a large cookie scoop

Evenly lay out 3 rows of 4 cookies (12 total) on each sheet.  Ideally this should take some work since the dough should be very firm.  The cookie scoop ensures each cookie is exactly the same shape and weight.  The flat underside of the cookie should rest on the paper with at least 3 inches clearance between each dough ball.  The size of the cookies is important.  If you make them smaller then you will not have enough surface area to generate the desired gradients of texture and flavor.  Do not take the dough out early, you want it good and cold as you are scooping it.

·       Put the sheets in the oven on individual racks.  Set the timer for 7 minutes and close the oven door.  After 7 minutes, switch the sheets so that they occupied the rack the other sheet started on.  Close the oven door and set the timer for another 7 minutes.  Just before the timer is about to go off, turn off the oven entirely.  This is where the magic happens.  As the dough balls warm, the outer layers soften and spread.  The cooler center takes longer to cook leaving the outer edges golden crispy brown and the centers soft and perfectly cooked through.  You switch racks to make sure both sheets cook evenly in relation to the heating elements.  Depending on how your oven cooks, you may want to let the cookies sit in the reduced heat for a couple minutes.  The longer than average cooking time and lower heat lets the cookies spread without getting too crispy or too thin.  Those last three minutes make or break the recipe.  See what happens right after the timer goes off and adjust accordingly with future batches.

·       Remove the sheets and let sit for 5-10 minutes.  As the cookies come out of the oven they should have risen slightly.  Do not bump the sheets or bang them around.  You are letting them sit long enough for the dough to settle down and condense much like with quick breads.

·       Once the cookies have sunk and cooled slightly, transfer to wire racks and let sit until completely cool or if you cannot wait—and who could blame you—have a couple with milk or your morning coffee.

·       For me, the cookies are best 24 hours later after they have been left in a container post initial feeding frenzy.  The brown sugar causes the cookies to become slightly chewy—not soft—with the perfect mix of flavor and texture.

·       You can freeze the dough after it has set in the fridge for the allotted period of time.  It should be used within one month—up to a year if you vacuum seal it first.


That is the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe my friends.  I give it to you.  I Release it into the wild.  Be afraid, very afraid;)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Reviewing Pathfinder Rise of the rune lords adventure path card game

The following is my Amazon review of ROTRL.  I will talk about playing the pathfinder card game in more detail later.  For now, enjoy this review.



            Rise of the Rune Lords (hereafter referred to as ROTRL) is a deck building adventure card game for 2-6 players based on the RPG of the same name.  Participants select characters, complete narrative encounters, and develop their decks.  The narrative campaign is comprised of two introductory modules, a base set (adventure pack 1) and five sequentially numbered scenario kits—each of which contains 94 treasure, monster, trap, and location cards required to play six distinct adventures.  The full experience encompasses 38 encounters each usually lasting between 1 and 2 hours.



While this is technically a review of the ROTRL base set, it is difficult to discuss the starter box without addressing the campaign and supplementary materials.  I have tried to clearly distinguish between the base set components and other products.



            The base set comes in a high quality game box typical of euro card products like dominion and ascension.  It is big enough that your player decks, selection of locations, misc loot, hazards, and monsters will all still fit in the box including expansions and bonus cards.

            The base packaging includes an instruction book, more than 400 cards, a set of RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12), and a plastic card organizer.  The cards are your usual euro card stock—plenty durable in the short term but easily destroyed if care is not taken.  We found it easiest to sleeve our character decks and use dry erase markers on top loader sleeves for our characters.  This protected our decks while keeping a physical record of our advancement that did not require separate character sheets.  The cards are well written and illustrated—though the lack of flavor text was a missed opportunity in my opinion.  The instructions cover game play cleanly with a couple of quality oversights.  I would have liked a mechanical guide that clarified which rule takes precedence when two actions conflict and a robust index but for the cost and form factor the materials are more than adequate.


Game Play:

            The campaign begins with players picking a character from the provided options including monk, bard, fighter, barbarian, cleric, ranger, wizard...etc.  Each character has a pre-set distribution of cards chosen from items, weapons, armor, allies, spells, and blessings.  Their character card provides a range of attributes and special powers which will improve each time an adventure module is successfully completed.

            At the start of a mission players build the scenario board by building 4- 8 location decks.  In most cases this will consist of several piles of loot cards, monsters, and barriers specified by the location (a wizard’s tower has more spells while the guard tower has more weapons.)  The number of location scales with the number of characters so smaller groups are not disadvantaged.  The adventure boss and their henchmen are randomly scattered among the available locations.  Each location requires a particular skill check, combat, or card sacrifice to close.  As the group completes the 6-adventure expansion packs more challenging foes and more valuable treasure are added to the random pool raising the risk-reward potential of future sessions.

            A game consists of 30 turns regardless of the number of players.  While larger groups have more resources, they have less individual player turns to achieve their objectives.  The players successfully complete the scenario when they defeat the boss while preventing him from fleeing to open locations.  So players have to balance the desire to collect all the loot with the need to close locations and find the boss before the 30 turn clock runs out.  Most characters have cards which can be played to benefit themselves or others.  Since they often face challenges they cannot overcome individually, the collective management of cross-party resources combines with strategic exploration to make collaboration essential.  Sometimes you will need to give up your resources so the wizard can acquire a valuable ally.  Sometimes you will be blessed by the cleric so you can close an open location with a particularly difficult challenge rating.  Group priorities change depending on game state and available resources.  Good players will work together.  Poor players will try and turn the adventure into a group contest—and probably fail.


A note on additional products:

            New players should be aware of the economics of the game.  Currently, Paizo offers 3 adventure path sets with a fourth on the way.  Each path begins with a base set ($45) good for 2 introductory adventures and the 6 adventures in the first expansion pack.  To get the full campaign experience, players will need to purchase 5 additional adventure path expansions (aprox $20 each.)  The base set has a great deal of replayability due to the random scenario mechanic but if you want to go all the way, it will cost around $150 for the full 38 mission treatment.  If players want to spice up their options, they can buy a character expansion pack which features alternative character configurations ($20.)  Tack on a set of character play mats ($40) and the total runs over $200 per path.  Outside the four adventure paths, players can also purchase dedicated class expansion packs featuring extra loot for those seeking a better treasure distribution.  There are currently three special release goblin characters and two associated class expansion packs ($30 total.)  You can buy a dedicated scenario mat to help organize locations and scenario decks too.  My group enjoyed running through ROTRL so much that we bought the 2 complete following paths and have pre-ordered the fourth.  That being said, even if you only want to play the base campaign without all the bells and whistles I feel it is only fair to put the cost in perspective--$45 is about a third of what you will end up spending for one of the adventure paths minimum.


Why should you buy ROTRL?

            If you like truly cooperative games, if you want to level a character and enjoy some table talk without the need for a game master, if you used to role-play and can only spare a couple hours a week now, if you like big modular gaming frameworks, ROTRL is for you.  It took five of us over a year to complete the full 38 module adventure path.  We loved every minute of it.  The mechanics do an excellent job of recreating the intuitive feel of playing an old school RPG character while blending in modern deck builder elements.  Even if you stick with the base set and never get a single expansion kit this is a fun game with a lot of replayability.


Why should you avoid ROTRL?

            If you dislike organizing hundreds of cards, if you do not like working with detailed rule sets, if you do not want to have to buy each of the supplementary card packs, if you are not interested in playing an on-going game over multiple sessions, then this might not be the game for you.