Friday, April 24, 2009

Ratios and cherry almond cookies


I’m an improvisational cook. This means that I’ll take stock of what I have in the kitchen and then create dishes from what’s available. This method usually works if I’m making savory dishes, but when it comes to baking I’ve had less success. (We won’t discuss the time I spontaneously threw in steel oats, cayenne and sea salt into a chocolate cookie recipe.)

Baking calls for precision, which I lack. For a long time I’ve wondered if there were basic formulas for making pastries, something I could use to make up my own recipes, if say, I wanted a steel oat and sea salt cookie to actually be edible. So when I heard about Michael Ruhlman’s latest book, Ratio, I knew this was the information I’d been looking for.


A professor of Ruhlman’s at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) presented him with the initial ratio concept, which takes certain foods and reduces them to their basic essence. For instance, let's look at pie crust. Its ratio is 3 parts flour: 2 parts fat: 1 part water. So no matter if you’re mixing butter and lard with wheat flour and ground pecans, or shortening with oat flour and buckwheat, by using these exact proportions of fat to flour to water you should have a crust that works.

Besides his pastry section—which covers all doughs and batters—he also shares the ratios for stocks, farcir (a fancy term for sausages), sauces and custards. And while he provides measurement conversion from weight to volume—ounces to cups—you’ll learn that it’s more accurate to use a scale.
Now that I had Ruhlman’s ratios on hand, I decided to put them to work. I wanted to make a shortbread cookie in which the ratio is 1 part sugar: 2 parts fat: 3 parts flour.

I placed a four-ounce stick of butter in a bowl on top of my new toy—my kitchen scale—and then creamed it with two ounces of powdered sugar. I had some almond flour around, so I threw in three ounces of that and then three ounces of wheat flour. To jazz up the cookie a bit more, I added a pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg and an ounce of chopped dried cherries.

I know that I’m prone to exaggeration, but believe me when I say that this dough was a dream to work with as it wasn’t too sticky nor was it too dry. It was just right. And the cookies baked beautifully. Still unsure about this wonderful cookie I’d made without a recipe, I took them to a group of people with very discerning palates—my coworkers. I explained to them how I’d baked with ratios and not a recipe and I needed their honest opinion on the cookies. They ignored me, however, and managed to finish the whole batch in record time. I reckon this means that my ratio cookies were indeed delicious.

I’m not going to stop reading recipes, blogs or cookbooks, but with this knowledge I now have a solid foundation for being more creative in the kitchen. Not to mention, I love using a scale. Why didn't anyone tell me that it was so easy and so efficient? Do you use a scale in the kitchen? I'm a convert! And with that, let's just say I'm already planning my next recipe: citrus breakfast rolls.

Cherry almond wedding cookies
Ingredients:
2 oz. powdered sugar (1/4 cup) plus another few ounces more for coating cookies
4 oz. unsalted butter at room temperature (1/2 cup)
3 oz. of almond flour (1/2 a cup, can make by grinding almonds in the blender)
3 oz. of all-purpose wheat flour (1/2 a cup)
2 oz. (1/4 cup) dried cherries, chopped
Pinch of salt
Pinch of nutmeg

Method:
Cream the butter and the sugar and then mix in the flour, spices and dried cherries.

Form the dough into a log, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

On a greased cookie sheet or one lined with parchment paper or a Silpat, form the dough into 1/2 tablespoon-sized ball, placing each ball about an inch from the other. Bake for 15 minutes.

Let cool for five minutes, and then dip cookies into powdered sugar.

Makes 20 cookies

Notes: You can really taste the butter in this cookie, so be sure and use fresh, good quality butter. Also, you can substitute dried blueberries or chocolate chips for the dried cherries.

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46 comments:

postJazz said...

Your cookies sound ace! And, coming from the UK, we do ALL our cooking with scales and measuring jugs where quantities are required...we've all wondered for a while why you guys don't! Glad you found out how easy they are :-).

radish said...

i'm SO buying a kitchen scale now. I don't know why i'm putting it off... it is time... maybe as a self-gift for upcoming bday? Like I need a reason - hee.

Phoo-D said...

I really need to pick up a copy of this book. My baking is wrought with similar challenges- i.e. I always think I can "wing" it and it hardly ever works! Kitchen scales are terrific and addictive.

Carl Weaver said...

Great post! Looks like the book gives you a solid foundation from which to experiment. I better go check this out!

tbsamsel said...

My wife is going to love RATIOS. She's the baker in the house. I can bake, but not as well as she can. Since we went nowhere on our anniversary in March, we sprang for a crank-bowl KitchenAid since we both wanted one.

BTW, You can get red & pink KitchenAids more cheaply than those of more drab color. We picked a metallic grey. Who needs "festive"?

Ted

lisaiscooking said...

I do use a scale. And, it comes in very handy with metric measurements in recipes. I'm baking from Dan Lepard's Baker and Spice exceptional cakes today, and instead of converting I just weigh ingredients. And, your cookies sound great!

Leigh said...

your cookies look great! I love buttery cookies.
So now, I need to get that book, and a kitchen scale pronto.

matt said...

Like you, I'm so not a baker nor accurate cook. But since I'm married to a food stylist there are some tools that have made my life so much easier. A kitchen scale is one of those things. It has saved my life so many times and taken the guesswork out of so many recipes. Yea, I don't know why more people don't use them.

Can I have a cookie?

darla said...

I'm like you -- I improvise when cooking but not when baking. I just finished reading this book and made bread from it and I felt free to get creative. Love this book! And now I must try cookies. :-)

Anna said...

Hi Lisa, This is going to sound like a dumb question, but just to clarify -- for the wheat flour, do you mean regular all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour? I'm assuming you mean all-purpose, but sometimes people refer to whole wheat flour as wheat flour and I want to make these right. Thanks!

Amy C Evans said...

Brave lady! Looks like it all paid off for you, though. Those cookies look--and sound--fab. BTW, I made your biscuits last weekend. They were gone too soon.

Penny De Los Santos said...

I'm totally inspired, thinking I need to check this book out from the library or maybe even actually purchase it...

roastdmallow said...

I can bake without a recipe but usually base it loosely on a recipe similar to what I want.
I think I have that exact scale. It makes savory recipes easier too.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

PostJazz--I know, I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me.

Radish--With all the baking you do, you should definitely get one.

Phoo-D--I've been weighing everything in my kitchen!

Carl--It's a great foundation

TBSamsel--I'm hoping a KitchenAid will be my next purchase (or present).

LisaisCooking--I have a bunch of recipes from Mexico and Spain that call for grams, and I can't wait to finally cook with them.

Leigh--Thank you, these are so rich with butter.

Matt--I'm baking another batch now!

Darla--Bread is next on my list--I can't wait!

Anna--Great question! I used all-purpose flour.

Amy--Ironically, my biscuit recipe is not the same as his ratio--mine has a bit more fat (which is why they're so good!).

Penny--You should definitely read it!

RoastdMallow--The OXO scale? I looked for a long time, but it seemed the nicest for its pricerange.

Culinary Wannabe said...

How cool! I rarely improvise in the kitchen because when I do it's generally a disaster. But this looks like a fun, and safer, way to go about it. And I love the flavors in the cookies - great idea!

Pat said...

I love the kitchen scale! Once you get in the habit of using it(and memorize easy conversions from those "barbaric" cups and tablespoons), you wonder why people ever used measuring cups. They sure aren't easier. I'm dying to get my hands on a copy of Ratio b/c I'm sure it'll integrate nicely into my existing cooking habits.

Anne said...

Yum! Those look very similar to what my family calls Russian tea cakes, which I adore. I love the addition of dried cherries. I've had my eye on that book and just might have to get it!

Jen said...

Ahh, I've been looking for a book like this one to lead me on a path of baker understanding. Also have wondered about the scale. Thanks for the scoop!

Kagee said...

Hey!
I'm a long time lurker from Austria, and up until now I was especially a fan of your savoury dishes. Over here all baking is done with a kitchen scale, so it's always a bit of a hassle to convert all those measurments.
Can we hope to see some more recipes like that or is it just a one-off?
The thing I like most about kitchen scales (besides the accuracy) is that you mostly only ever need the one bowl where you mix it all together and nothing else gets dirty for measuring. The Tara function will be your best friend ;)
BTW: Thanks for the book recommendation, I just ordered it.

Anonymous said...

I've been following your blog off and on for a couple of months and just love it. My BFF in Houston, Mary Jo Dupre, turned me on to it. And that's not the only reason she's my BFF. Anyway, I'm planning on checking out this book. I get tired of using recipes all the time. I'm hoping this book will help with cooking creativity. Thanks. Kathy Combs

Farmer Jen said...

Lovely post and recipe! Must try it soon.

TheKitchenWitch said...

I am THE most pathetic baker around. Never can be bothered to adhere to a recipe. I love the ratio concept...although if I'm too lame to measure,I'm probably too lame to weigh.

The cookies sound delicious!

Anonymous said...

I'll have to look into that book! The only recipe that I make all the time that I always use the scale for is homemade flour tortillas, and only because in the US you cannot use my mother-in-laws recipe of buy a bag of flour........as the measurements are not the same here as in Mexico.

Anonymous said...

If I could have figured out how to leave a name on the options listed to my previous post about the scale and homemade tortillas I would have. Chrisq

Tea said...

Is it wrong of me to say that oats, cayenne, and salt in a CC cookie sound good to me? Maybe if they were rolled oats...:-)

Nice post! I agree about the scale thing. Totally underrated.

Paula Maack said...

Great post, Lisa! I ordered my copy from Ruhlman's website back when he first posted about it and was the 23rd person to buy it, which meant a signed copy - yay! It arrived the day after purchasing, too! I'm looking forward to receiving the poster soon.

What a great cookbook concept. Even my husband (the total techie nerd) thinks it's cool.

Your cookies look fantastic! I want one right now!!!

Your inspiring post has lit a fire under my you-know-what, and now I can't wait to get in the kitchen and start playing with all of the newly discovered possibilities, myself.

Cheers,

~ Paula

Vidya Ramachandran said...

Ooooh yum, I've been on a bit of a cookie baking kick lately. I've never really been one for logical things like precision though, which is why some of my experiments can turn out inedible. I'd love to make these, but it's April 25 in Australia which means I need to be patriotic and whip up some ANZAC biscuits to commemorate the Aussie/New Zealander soldiers who died at Gallipoli in Turkey in World War I. They're cookies, by the way, but we call cookies biscuits. And you can't call ANZAC biscuits cookies! No, really, it's illegal! Not kidding!

Elizabeth said...

This is just the type of book I've been looking for! Such valuable information. And I have to agree about the scale--I was recently converted by my friend from England... apparently cooking scales are more common there, as all her recipes measure things in grams.

I am new to your blog, but I just want to tell you how much I love it. I am a Texan living in Montreal, and as much as I love this city, I REALLY miss all the home cooking and Tex-mex food. I tried to explain cream gravy to my friends last week, and nobody had even heard of it! I'm so glad someone else (you) provide such wonderful recipes I can try for myself here.

s. stockwell said...

Hi from Santa Barbara. We are a small cooking school and we have four Chefs who do the classes. Sometimes they read these posts and one of them, Wiley, likes the idea of this book. Thanks, s

Karyn said...

Ok, I am going to get a scale. I LOVE baking. I do have a question though....does the book have any info in it about changing the ratio for baking at a high elevation? It sometimes becomes like a science experiment and maybe there is a ratio that would make this easier.

Cynthia said...

Heather, thanks so much for this post! I'm ordering that book right now.

Kim said...

Ok, I just had to laugh at this one. When I was in the service in 1979 I started to teach my Airmen how to cook in ratio. After you are in my kitchen for two months I take away all measuring tools and you have to go for broke. The reason I did this is because even though there was no wars at the time, if there were you would still have to produce a meal with dessert often from what you have on hand. So you have to really have to understand "food" and more importantly ratios.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I know exactly what you mean. I too am an improvisational cook, which is why for years I avoided baking. Since beginning my blog, I've gotten a lot more comfortable with baking though. These cookies look great, Lisa.

Nosheteria said...

I just bought a copy of this book yesterday, flip on my computer today, and found your review. I'm intrigued; I can't wait to give this book a shot.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Culinary Wannabe--It's definitely safer!

Pat--I'm already a convert--so much more accurate.

Anne--The tart dried cherries help with the sweetness, I think.

Jen--The scale will change your life!

Kagee--Perhaps I'll start including conversions, now that I know how the rest of the world rolls!

Kathy--Welcome! And Mary Jo is awesome--I've known her since I was a little kid!

Farmer Jen--Thanks!

TheKitchenWitch--Trust me, weighing is much easier than measuring.

Chris--With my scale, I'm looking forward to cooking some Mexican recipes I have that use grams.

Tea--Yeah, steel oats probably shouldn't be in a cookie.

Paula Maack--How cool that you got a signed copy! And have a blast in the kitchen!

Vidya--What's in an ANZAC biscuit?

Elizabeth--Welcome! And I completely understand how you feel--New York has such wonderful food options but sometimes you want a taste of home.

S. Stockwell--It's great for a cooking class as I reckon this is how chefs cook.

Karyn--I don't recall seeing that, unfortunately. If you drop Michael Ruhlman a line through his blog, he may answer your questions.

Kim--That's exactly what cooking with ratios does--it helps you understand ingredients and how the interact with each other.

Susan--With ratios you can improvise to your heart's content!

Nosheteria--I've been baking nonstop since reading it. Not everything has been a success, but I feel like I understand why something either works or fails, which is key.

Renee said...

Thanks for the book review. It looks like one worth buying. I always learn something from your posts!
-Renee

Anonymous said...

I´m waiting for this book to arrive in the post and literally chewing my nails. It sounds perfect.
Also, the weights. Such a relief. I´t the reason I read my American books with joy but hardly every cook from them, just to avoid all the tricky conversions. Scales are great! welcome to our European world

Kelly said...

Ratios are similar to bakers percentages and they are an excellent way to formulate recipes, and to scale them up and down. Those cookies look wonderful! I think I would add a little chocolate drizzle to the top ... because I am a chocolate addict! Lovely!

Laura said...

That is SO cool, I want that book! The cookies look delicious, btw. Does he address the difference in different flours and how to figure that? I know some absorb more water than others....

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Renee--Thank you!

Anon--I'm finding that weighing everything has really improved so many recipes. I love it!

Kelly--Oh! The chocolate drizzle sounds divine!

Laura--I don't recall him going into detail on that, unfortunately.

Txswildflwrs said...

I just wanted to let you know that this little cookie just saved the day for me. My daughter is taking a little gift to school each day this week for Teacher Appreciation Week. Since "times are hard" we are doing homemade gifts. A pretty rose from the garden on Monday, a hand written note today, tomorrow will be a small plate of these wonderful cookies. We used raisins, since we had those on hand. They turned out so good. Now, I just have to figure out what to send that will be as good for the other two days. Thanks again!!!!

Amanda Crowe said...

Yum! Not only like these cherry almond cookies, I love them. Have tried my own, but it always flops.

Jane said...

I am guessing you never got around to the citrus breakfast rolls, but if you do, I am lurking eagerly!

chilewheel said...

I've been enjoying your stylish, literate blog for about a year now, and I am a big fan of Ruhlman's book. It literally changed the way I think about food. I made these cookies the other day. Very nice and they especially pleased one of the Mexican cooks I work with. One note though. You provide volume conversions for the weights. I believe your conversion of 1/4 cup for the 2 oz. of powdered sugar is a bit off. In my experience, a cup of powdered sugar comes in at 4.25 oz. The volume of 2 oz. is about a half cup. Keep up the good work. Between you, Robb Walsh and my ex Texas born wife's input, I'm getting real comfortable with the many facets of Texan cooking.

Catherine said...

Hi Lisa,

I am going to try these as I have some almond flour to use. Do you think you could use maraschino cherries, well drained and chopped?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Catherine--I reckon you could, though I've never tried it.

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