Great post over at megnut.  A mean chocolate chip cookie, a dozen recipes converted to common denominators and combined to create an actual mean.  She said the cookie was good, but what’s so great about this (and thanks for doing the work, megnut!) is how easy it is to compare variations.  She’s put it all on a spreadsheet.  It’s the second recipe spreadsheet I read this week (veronica’s test kitchen).  Coincidence?  Or is America on the verge of becoming pathologically geeky about cooking?

What I’d like to see is this recipe reduced to its fundamentals: what is the perfect combination of flour, sugar, butter, egg, minus the flourish of chocolate, the eccentricity of melted versus cold butter, the light or dark or white sugar.

Maybe I’m obsessed with meg’s post because I bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked Chocolate Chunk cookies for a road trip two weeks ago.  For the kids.  But they won’t eat them.  A chocolate chip cookie that kids won’t eat—now that’s a bad cookie.  So I’m stuck eating them because I refuse to throw them out, and am reminded with each angry bite (and the mile-long ingredient list) how crappy food can be and that the real tragedy is that people eat a cookie like this and accept it, as opposed to taking a bite and calling it bullshit.  Which is what my kids have, in effect, done.

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36 Wonderful responses to “Meg’s Mean”

  • jing

    deanna–

    i completely empathize with your fondness for hamburger helper; we all have nostalgia for the kind of food i loved as a kid. however, i think it’s unfair to say that michael’s kids are spoiled because they refuse to eat the pepperidge farm cookies. the problem is that although pepperidge farm is a “fancy” overpriced brand, those cookies are an abomination that only exist due to their “fancy” reputation and our desire for excess, with their delicious-sounding flavor combinations and huge chocolate chunks. instead of delivering on the idea of that cookie, they give us some hydrogenated mess that has undergone some kind of manufacturing process wholly unlike baking. we deserve better than that, regardless of price, and i wouldn’t fault anybody for throwing away bad cookies. the marketing of substandard food, the emphasis on quantity and commodity rather than flavor is the root of our growing obesity problem, especially among the poor. a meal at applebee’s costs as much as if not more than one at a restaurant that actually cooks their food from scratch, so it’s not a financial problem but rather a cultural problem.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    This brings me back to an earlier line of conversation -

    What is the difference between an UNTRAINED linecook and a TRAINED Chef who went to culinary school:

    MATH. School trained chefs know the math behind cooking, trim loss, edible portions, and purchasing amounts.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Here’s an example:

    In professional baking, you don’t use recipes – you use “baker’s percentages.” What that means is you have recipes that aren’t in cups and ounces or pounds and gallons….you have things like “Flour, 200%,”, “Eggs, 30%.” What this is, is taking what a good baker should already know is a good ratio and tweaking it. Its the algorithm thing.

  • Ashley

    To return to what someone said about having a parent who cooks refining your palate…my mother being a fabulous Vietnamese cook had the reverse effect on me, at least initially. I didn’t want freshly fried spring rolls, braised short ribs with a caramelly-salty-anchovy-infused sauce, or garlic-sauteed greens. I wanted the all-American Kraft mac ‘n cheese with hot dog pieces across the street.

    My deepest apologies, Mom–I swear I’ve reforemed! No more soft-baked cookies reminiscent of silly putty’s consistency, and only homemade mac ‘n cheese…or Michael Symon’s goat cheese version.

    So if you’ve turned your kids into gourmets at an earlier age than my mom did me, congrats. I’m just a slow learner.

  • Deanna

    I can’t believe how disconnected from the reality for the majority of individuals, even individuals in the relatively spoiled United States, you guys are. Particularly among those of us who came of age anytime in the last 2 – 2 1/2 decades or so; I don’t know about how your families operated, but I came from a multiple-income earning household where my (skilled laborer) father worked his full-time job and picked up jobs on the side, while my mother worked full-time and occasionally worked overtime. Add to that all the duties and responsibilites involved in keeping up a household, the errands that one regularly has to run, having to take care of elderly parents (my grandparents) (my parents were the Sandwich Generation before the selfish baby boomers claimed the label all for their own), etc., and I counted myself fortunate that my dad at least still had the energy to cook his gravy-based homemade Tex-Mex meals to freeze ahead of time to warm up during the week. I mean, I grew up viewing Hamburger Helper as a big treat.

    Now, granted, I wasn’t subsisting on a diet of fast food — McDonald’s was always a once a month thing, and I was a participant in the BookIt! program so I did get to eat the occasional Pizza Hut personal pan pizza — but by and large, a lot of what I was eating was stuff that you guys would have probably turned your noses up at. But the difference between you and me was that I knew how dirt poor my parents were when they were growing up and, because of that, I had an awareness of how fortunate I was that I had what we were able to have. So I learned not to complain whenever my parents served up something, because I knew that my thoroughly blue collar environs were so much a step up from the poverty that marked my parents’ childhood (childrenhood?). And Pepperidge Farm? Counted as one of those fancy brands we couldn’t even afford until I was 14 and my mom got a big promotion at work, thus increasing our household income. (It was also the year I started working part-time, but I count that income as relatively negligible.) To have your kids complaining about Pepperidge Farm cookies should be a sign that you are overindulging your children, not a sign that they are being raised with “good taste”. What they should be complaining about are the super-cheap generic packages of duplex cremes, like the ones I remember eating as a small child. Why? Because that’s all we could afford. My parents had to find some way of paying for day care and their parents’ living expenses, so we lived on a tight food budget.

    And, you know, to this day the only homemade cookies I have ever eaten have been the ones I’ve made myself, using ingredients I myself have sprung for. I didn’t start doing that until I was 23, out of college, and finally with the amount of spare time and disposable income to where those expenses could fit into my budget. I have since learned how to cook, from scratch, a great many things, and to truly love and relish the opportunity to do so. I love making homemade mashed potatoes and stuffed pork chops and my own gravy and biscuits made not from a mix but from scratch. Yet I look upon a box of Hamburger Helper with a huge amount of fondness. I still think Pepperidge Farm is rich people’s food. I think throwing out any food that isn’t spoiled is a waste of money and would much rather see that food being given to someone who is going to sleep on an empty stomach tonight. And I hope that I never, ever, ever change.

  • jing

    deanna–

    i completely empathize with your fondness for hamburger helper; we all have nostalgia for the kind of food i loved as a kid. however, i think it’s unfair to say that michael’s kids are spoiled because they refuse to eat the pepperidge farm cookies. the problem is that although pepperidge farm is a “fancy” overpriced brand, those cookies are an abomination that only exist due to their “fancy” reputation and our desire for excess, with their delicious-sounding flavor combinations and huge chocolate chunks. instead of delivering on the idea of that cookie, they give us some hydrogenated mess that has undergone some kind of manufacturing process wholly unlike baking. we deserve better than that, regardless of price, and i wouldn’t fault anybody for throwing away bad cookies. the marketing of substandard food, the emphasis on quantity and commodity rather than flavor is the root of our growing obesity problem, especially among the poor. a meal at applebee’s costs as much as if not more than one at a restaurant that actually cooks their food from scratch, so it’s not a financial problem but rather a cultural problem.

  • jing

    deanna–

    i completely empathize with your fondness for hamburger helper; we all have nostalgia for the kind of food i loved as a kid. however, i think it’s unfair to say that michael’s kids are spoiled because they refuse to eat the pepperidge farm cookies. the problem is that although pepperidge farm is a “fancy” overpriced brand, those cookies are an abomination that only exist due to their “fancy” reputation and our desire for excess, with their delicious-sounding flavor combinations and huge chocolate chunks. instead of delivering on the idea of that cookie, they give us some hydrogenated mess that has undergone some kind of manufacturing process wholly unlike baking. we deserve better than that, regardless of price, and i wouldn’t fault anybody for throwing away bad cookies. the marketing of substandard food, the emphasis on quantity and commodity rather than flavor is the root of our growing obesity problem, especially among the poor. a meal at applebee’s costs as much as if not more than one at a restaurant that actually cooks their food from scratch, so it’s not a financial problem but rather a cultural problem.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    While interesting, what you’ve done with the algorithm theory is describe:

    Culinary School.

    Yup, that’s what you learn in school – you learn the microbiology of cooking and what happens when you change up the ingredients and the heating/cooling methods at the molecular level.

  • Tags

    That’s not a headache – it’s throbbing creativity, bustin out all over just in time for June.

    The subtitle to the book is “And Other Antidotes to Computer Anxiety,” and Chapter 7 is a breakdown of the algorithm for making his Aunt Martl’s Sachertorte. I enjoyed it, even though I’ve been more of a network analyst than a programmer. Not much about food, though.

    What you’ve done is describe a basic algorithm for creating a website that would be more worthwhile to spend time with than the ersatz cooking shows on Food TV. People probably thought Jimmy Wales was nuts when he proposed Wikipedia, but look what they’re saying now. Do you belong to eGullet? You might want to propose this idea on there. Somebody with programming skills might just run with it.

  • Bob dG

    Tags,
    I’ve never heard of “The Sachertorte Algorithm,” (or John Shore for that matter); any good?

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for a long time. I mean, you cannot cook and watch others cook for as long as I have without suspecting that all basic preparations might be represented as ratios of ingredients that are prepped, combined and (sometimes) heated in a specific series of steps.
    Something similar could be said for parameters of taste, flavor and shape. Discarding the reality of individual variation for the moment, don’t all pizza margherita look, taste and smell more alike than not?

    I also think it would be kind of cool to go through a bunch of books of classical French cooking and pull out every method of preparation and every ingredient, make a database of it all (not that I have any idea about how to do this, mind you) subject it to some statistical tests and see what kind of patterns emerge.

    Not sure what practical use there’d be for any of it. Perhaps nothing more than a neat looking new way to describe classical cooking. But who knows?

    Okay, I have a headache now -always happens when I allow myself to think beyond my ability.

  • ruhlman

    ok, the cookies are gone.

    but i want to be clear, this is not an elitist decision. it’s a taste decision (combined with the fact that they’ve got 97 ingredients–they recall those 1970s space food sticks). There are great mass produced cookies out there, from the very same food giant. but these aren’t among them.

  • veron

    Meg’s worksheet is brilliant! I love chocolate chip cookies. It’s funny I just bought a package of those soft chunky pepperidge farm cookies for my visiting nieces and nephews. They haven’t touch them much. I took a bite out of one of them and it’s like ‘YUCK!’ . I agree with Jim about not wasting your calories. Just throw them out!

  • Tags

    Just take care not to eat anything with the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.

  • Tags

    Bob, you must’ve read “The Sachertorte Algorithm” by John Shore, or at least chapter 7.

  • Lee

    Massly manufactured cookies that are intended to stay soft have always been, and always will be, a bad idea.

    At least half of that mile long list of ingredients are chemicals designed to keep the cookie from hardening with age. It’s like they reversed engineered Viagra and dropped the result in these cookies. If you are going to buy store cookies, stick with the classics – Milanos, Oreos, etc.

  • Bob dG

    Well what Meg did may be geeky but it’s also pretty brilliant. And I’m with you on wanting recipes reduced to fundamental formulae designed to produce specific outcomes.
    I’ve long believed that there is an underlying grammar or set of algorithms for each style of cooking and all variations on a specific dish (e.g. pasta with tomato sauce). If we could discover and teach the algorithms along with the recipes -now that would be powerful.

  • RI Swampyankee

    If you’re going to eat something that will harden your arteries make it count. Eat duck fat, pork fat, heavy cream–anything but those faux cookies!

  • chris cook

    i don’t think you are correct in saying “the eccentricity of melted versus cold butter” when the difference has such a large effect on the final cookie product… ruhlman you are sacrificing your cookcore to your writingself!

  • eat4fun

    In regards to the mass-ufcatured cookies… maybe your kids can take them to school and give them with thir friends or classmates.

    Oh… the ethical dilemma. Push that stuff onto other unsuspecting children??

    On second thought, toss them out or feed them to the ducks.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Well, in the name of kindness – there is one remedy for those cookies: stick them in the microwave for 10 seconds to warm them/soften them back up. If you’re desperate it helps!!

    I suppose if you’re driving you can wrap them in foil and put them on top of the engine for a minute or two…..

    If not – they make excellent hockey pucks in a pinch ;)

  • sorcha

    Michael, there are many sacrifices we must make for our kids. Eating bad cookies is not one of them – just throw them out! Besides, what kind of example are you setting, choking them down? ;)

  • Deanna

    fiat lux – I’m in love your comment and I second it.

    Jennie/Tikka – I feel sorry for your friend. While I’m sure he’s a great person I find chain restaurants the restaurantification of what hell is like in my head.

    And megnut definitely needs to factor in the “just like mom’s” quality because chocolate chip cookies are exactly like chili and meatloaf – no one’s are ever as good as your mom’s. [Unless of course your mom made terrible/inconsistent CCCs...like mine did.]

  • Tags

    Don’t throw those cookies away – your compost pile needs them!

  • Lee

    Mom’s chocolate chip cookies spoiled me for anything else, and then my best friend, an amazing cook and baker, and confessed cookie fiend, started making her own every Christmas. Not just sugar cookies, but molasses, ginger, choocolate, and anything else you can possibly think of. I’m ruined for anything in a package now, though I do confess nostalgia for Oreos or Fig Newtons and milk. But even they don’t taste the same now. I’m not sure whether it’s my tastebuds or the proliferation of artificial ingredients.

  • Skawt

    Tossing your cookies? I’m not cleaning that up.

    Obviously the soft-baked cookies aren’t made by the same group that does the Milanos.

    Still, doesn’t hurt to know how to make a decadently chewy, buttery cookie that makes your eyes roll back in your head, and make you feel guilty for eating just one.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    This reminds me of a buddy of mine who is militantly mediocre. He gets positively livid at the idea of improving anything that is in need of it. Though he can afford to eat at better places (especially for those special occassions) he remains vociferous and hostile to anyone who eats anywhere besides a chain restaurant because “its good enough – you don’t need better.” Michael, this is the exact type of guy you need to reach.

  • Diane

    Fortunately for us, some of this work has been done already by that venerable author/foodie/all-around-great-lady Shirley Corriher. There’s a chapter in her (must have, IMHO) Cookwise cookbook that talks about how varying the type/quantity of particular ingredients in the chocolate chip cookie will take it from cakey to chewey and all stops in between. This is a wonderful experiment to try – and best of all, you’ll get lots of volunteers to help with quality control.

  • Danina

    Hmmm, I have the very same problem with my teenage son. I guess that’s what happens with kids who have a parent that bothers to cook….they know the difference. There’s no such thing as boxed cookies, sauce from a jar, etc., in my house. The kid won’t eat it.

  • Chris Hennes

    Of course, then you are required to define “perfect”… chewy or crispy? Better hot or room temp? Better dipped in milk or plain? What is the “objective function” here? And, although you want to omit “minor variations” such as melted versus cold butter, etc. I think that perhaps Meg’s onto something with combining the two… fat is a peculiar ingredient that functions differently at different temperatures. This sounds like a serious multi-dimensional optimization problem. I wonder if I can get an academic paper out of it… :)

  • ...you can call me "Chef" Suzy

    Good on ‘ya for really contemplating the medium as the message: Your children did not even need to read the label to know that those cookies were EVIL! – But then children are closer to the ground, and so are better at intuiting these things.

    YOU on the other hand, forced yourself to rationalize eating those disgusting cookies — and by suspending your disbelief, you allowed yourself to be played right into the hand of Corporate Greed!

    I betcha $100 that research would reveal no more than 2 degrees of separation between those cookies and Blackwater…

    My GOD Ruhlman! Did you not grok Michael Pollan’s message?

  • Jim

    Michael – stop it. Throw out the cookies. You’re not wasting food. Those packaged cookies are wasted calories, unnecessary stress, an insult to real cookies and general bad karma.

  • david

    Isn’t it interesting that children are not afraid to tell you when it tastes bad. Like Brussel Sprouts: they can be very bitter when not properly handled, and so kids don’t like them. Home grown Sprouts are never a problem.

    So if they won’t eat the chocolate chip cookies, they must be Brussel Sprout bad.