Cookies are supposed to be simple. They’re among the first things covered in pastry school and are usually one of the first tasks any aspiring baker tackles (slice and bake doesn’t count, Doughboy). Unfortunately, within simplicity lies a lot of room for complacency and mediocrity.
Until recently I loathed the idea of a cookie plate. I worked for a restaurant that had one once and it was an uninspired, overpriced thing with such crumbly little offerings as plain, dry shortbread, thumbprints with cornstarch-based “jam,” unremarkable oatmeal raisin and undersalted chocolate chip cookies that were too small and quick-baking to develop the range of textures and flavors that make that simple cookie amazing. But, for some reason, I decided to make little gift boxes of treats to send to friends that Christmas, and got to thinking about how I would reinvent the cookie plate to make it my own.
First off, who says cookie plates have to be comprised of just cookies? Add the word “confection” into the mix and suddenly a whole other world opens up, one that includes marshmallows, caramels, pate de fruits and other gummies, chocolate bonbons and truffles, even bite-sized cakes or whoopie pies. You’d be surprised how many people still haven’t had a really great handmade marshmallow, or how adorable anything can be when made in a one inch scale.
Second, there are a lot of different wonderful cookies out there, at least a few for every cuisine. No reason to keep things strictly American, French or Italian; draw on anything that strikes you. There are as many ways to make biscotti as there are bakers (I almost never repeat a biscotti flavor unless it’s going on a specific dish). I recently noticed some chickpea flour next to the golden raisins at work and have been making mysteriously nutty oatmeal raisin cookies for the past couple of weeks. Meringues are fast, easy blank canvases for any flavor you like. Shortbread can be made with a variety of flours, sugars, spices and even using things like olive oil in place of the butter. Crunchy all-American options like graham or animal crackers (that reminds me, must remember my cutters tomorrow!) bring novelty and are impressively delicious but deceptively simple. Bar or thumbprint cookies are great venues to show off any preserve or curd you can dream up.
For some reason, the cookie plate has caught on recently as a venue for a little extra creativity, just as it should be. (With some credit due towards Gramercy’s new pastry chef, Miroslav Uskokovic. The aforementioned sad cookie plate was clearly modeled on Gramercy’s former cookie plate presentation, in two-by-two rows of blah little discs. I love Chef Miro’s aesthetic of including many shapes and colors, and the bottle of milk seals the deal.) Since having it on my menu, I’ve twice seriously debated taking it off and only offering biscotti to accompany coffee and tea, but every time I say it aloud I come back the next day to a vastly depleted supply. One table of eleven shared four of them for dessert. Cookie plates appeal to the trickiest demographic for pastry chefs: those who claim they don’t care for or are too full for dessert. I consider this a serious yet quiet victory.
This month I even went so far as to put together a special cookie plate for Valentine’s Day. It was a great opportunity to test out some ideas I’d had.
Clockwise From Left: Chocolate Anise Biscotti, Honey Lavender Shortbread, Turkish Delight, Sesame Halva Truffles, Harissa Meringues
With the exception of the Turkish Delight (which was a cheat anyway as I was short on time and had to use gelatin along with the cornstarch) everything I’d made for the day was both unique and delicious enough to carry over onto the regular cookie plate, at least for the week.
Though I do have a particular soft spot for the truffles. They’re wonderful, especially thoroughly chilled so the halva inside the bitter chocolate shell is delightfully chewy. I have a feeling they’ll be sticking around for a while, and only in part because of the time I spent filling four pints of them the other day.