Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies

I've finally completed the video about the great cookies (the trailer was posted a few days ago). There's a story behind why it's so amateurish - I'd originally intended to bring up a production crew - but this isn't the time to tell it. As-is, I invite you to roll with the rough editing, mismatched sound, and fever dream-ish driving footage, and concentrate on the central mystery: why are these cookies so superbly great, when they're made from the most pedestrian recipe and lousy supermarket ingredients? Regular Slog readers will recognize this as a perfect example of the issue that most fascinates and inspires me (see previous articles here, here, and here).

Here's the video (note: you can play it in HD by clicking once in the video frame and then clicking "360p" near the bottom and choosing "HD"). Also: scroll down for the recipe (which I've annotated based on my cookie baking afternoon at Von's). If you try it for yourself, please post your findings in the comments!

Von's Oatmeal Cookies

Crush lumps in 7 oz dark brown sugar (1 cup)

Cream in:
1 stick of Crisco shortening at room temperature
7 oz granulated white sugar (1 cup)

2 beaten large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

7 oz flour ( 1 1/2 cups)
1 tsp baking soda
a bit less than 1 tsp salt

At this point, move quickly, because the baking soda is working!

9 oz oatmeal (3 cups)
1/2 cup well-chopped walnuts
1 handful (approx 1/3 cup) Heath bits (found near the nuts at the grocery)

Shape dough into balls, put on parchment paper atop a cookie sheet, flatten to 1/2 inch with a spoon while pushing the edges inward with your other hand.

Put sheet low in preheated oven, atop a second (empty) sheet. Bake 7 minutes at 350 while preparing second sheet.

Move first sheet to a higher oven position and replace it with the second sheet. Bake another 7 or 8 minutes, and continue similarly with subsequent sheets.

Transfer cookies to cooling racks one minute after they're removed from oven

if baked for the right length of time and at the right temperature, the cookies will rise and stay risen, which is ideal. If not, they will collapse slightly. Either is ok, though. The taste is the same.

Update: read a fascinating and insightful Chowhound discussion about the recipe and video.

Update 2: After ten years of pondering this mystery, I figured it out.


oddlyme said...

I adore this video! And Von, and the cookies!

One grinch point - baking powder is activated by liquid, baking SODA is activated by heat. So there's no need to rush. They won't begin the chemical rise until they hit heat.

But who know, that quickness, that underbeating, could very well be a part of his magic : )

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for commenting, Oddly.

Yep, however justified his reasoning, I'd just follow his serendipity. Because in all those minutae, indeed, lies the magic.


Tripper said...

Two things some to mind...the way he does all the mixing by hand. Doesn't use a mixer. This may have an impact. Second, the way he shapes the cookies. He doesn't seem to pack them. They seem lightly formed from the video. Not sure, but plan to try these using his methods! Thanks for this great post and video.

Jim Leff said...

Tripper, yep. More observations of telling little quirks like these are accumulating....mostly on a Chowhound thread about the video, here: (I'll add that link to the article now)

Pat Hammond has pointed out a particularly good posting here:

Anonymous said...

Baking soda is activated by contact with acid (in this case, the brown sugar.

Jim Leff said...

Did you get cut off? Or do you have a reason to think brown sugar is acidic?

Barry said...


oddlyme said...

Alrighty - Anon is right - and I may be as well. Here's what the arm and hammer website says :

"What is the difference between Baking Soda and Baking Powder?

Baking soda is 100% pure sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda (usually about 28-30%) and various acidic ingredients (singularly or in combination). Both are used as leavening agents in baked goods- baking soda will react with an acid, giving off carbon dioxide gas and causing dough to rise. However, they are used in different situations and are not interchangeable. Baking soda is typically used in a recipe that has an acidic ingredient (cream of tartar, buttermilk, etc.) that will react with the soda to give off carbon dioxide. Baking powder, which contains one or more acidic ingredients to facilitate the reaction, is used in recipes without acidic ingredients."

So he's right and here's where I might be a little. Chocolate chip cookies are one cookie, for instance, I know I can put in the fridge and they bake up the next day dandy. I wrap the dough tightly in plastic, and the next day, no bubbles, no sign of rising - but they do pouf etc. when they bake. So maybe it's acid AND heat?

I just know, when I make baking powder biscuits, I have to be fast, they start activating immediately. Baked goods with baking soda? I've always been able to take my time with no dif in the end product that I can see.

chowser said...

Oddlyme--most baking powder is double acting which means it's activated on mixing with liquid and then with heat. Jim, molasses is acidic and that's a component of brown sugar.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Chowser, I didn't know that!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm ... seems like I should get some of the credit for bringing up the important baking principle that baking soda reacts with acids and that brown sugar is acidic. By the way, I learned that in high school home economics class.

Jim Leff said...

An anonymous commentator wants credit, huh? ;)

oddlyme said...

; ) indeed Jeff!

And Anonymous, if you look at my post, I DID give you credit. As much as I could...!

Jim Leff said...

I'm confused...who's Jeff?

oddlyme said...

Jeff is Jim.

Typed before coffee : (

Anonymous said...

calling this list:

crisco shortening, white sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, oatmeal, walnuts, heath bars;

"crap ingredient...supermarket stuff" is, in a parallel universe, "crap mass market holistic alternative macrobiotic zen biodynamic kultursmog". I mean, have you seriously considered how any of 10,000 other desserts is made?

Anyway, I'm guessing that the heathbars are the key to his recipe, just based on the coincidence that a friend of mine makes really phenomenal chocolate chip cookies, and her secret ingredient is heath bars.

huiray said...

1) How warm is his kitchen?
2) As Tripper says, his ingredients are barely mixed, very lightly at that. How many strokes/extent of mixing did he use at each stage?
3) ==> How aerated is his mix?
4) After the baking soda is added how long between adding and baking? Extent of folding of mixture, vigor of mixing? He seems to barely use any exertion --> i.e. again, ingredients barely mixed and lightly at that. Temp of bowl/surroundings? Does he put the bowl on the stove top for any extended period and is the stove top warm?
5) The video shows minimal contact with his hands while mixing. Is that true throughout? Is there much more contact with his bare hands than shown in the video? (hand heat, skin/sweat - any impact?)
6) As another poster (Tripper) commented about - the blobs of dough on the sheet are "barely" pressed down and the forming of the edges cursory at best - i.e. yes, very light, no compacting of mixture...
7) Throughout - oxidation/aeration, texture, all seem very light; baking soda activity - temp, time, size/extent of bubbles formed outside + inside the oven before being 'set' by the baking -- might be factors, see above... Also, the cursoriness of the whole thing - related to points above about barely mixing/folding things together - is striking. Try making a batch as if you weren't even trying to make it...?

oddlyme said...

PS, Chowser -

Yes, baking powder is double acting.

But most chocolate chip cookies, and oatmeal cookies, use baking soda. A slightly different animal : )

flgal said...

Honestly don't know what exactly what I was supposed to be looking for in the cookie, so hard to judge. They came out very crispy, which I like in a cookie, and very good.. Since I have eaten three, I guess I really like them!! Next time I will use the mixer and see if there is a difference. Thanks for the recipe.

Jim Leff said...


Yup, "really liking them" will do! Glad it worked out!

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