A cookie is an essential thing. From the Dutch for “little cakes” they are almost endless in their variety and their versatility and they can range from humble snack to family dessert to decadent holiday treat.
The importance of the cookie being established I assume it’s clear that I make cookies often. But in my house, white sugar and brown sugar are rarely used, and confectioner’s sugar almost never. I’ve had varying degrees of success with substituting maple syrup for those sugars and decided to hone on in what makes a successful and satisfying maple syrup-sweetened cookie.
Flour usually makes up the bulk of a baked good so I decided to tackle flour first. The basic question: is white flour or whole wheat flour better with maple syrup? To be scientific, I set a hypothesis of whole wheat flour being better with maple syrup because it has more flavor to stand up to the stronger-tasting sweetness of maple and more body to hold the increased liquidity of a maple-sweetened dough (but I knew that could all be hogwash; that assumption could simply be coming from the fact that most baked goods sweetened with maple syrup use whole wheat because, let’s face it, those of us sweetening with maple tend towards the crunchy-granola end of the spectrum and we are simply more likely to use whole wheat over white flour).
To cut down on too many variables spoiling the cookie I used the simplest recipe I have, the 1-2-3 cookie from the excellent book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. The recipe calls for 1 oz of sugar, 2 oz of butter, and 3 oz of flour. It is a perfectly simple shortbread that, in its simplicity, is an excellent vehicle for making observations about flour.
Flour is, of course, more than simply or only white or whole wheat. Explore Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking and you can see their list of different brands and types of white flours and their specific uses for breads and rolls, biscuits, or pastry. Whole-grain cookbooks introduce spelt flours, rye flours, kamut flours, etc. Gluten-free cookbooks launch into the world of gluten-free flours such as brown rice or buckwheat. Pastry chefs and bakers have their own opinions on cake flours (low-protein, so less gluten and less bounce and elasticity) and bread flours (high-protein for establishing a strong gluten network). And Paul Bertolli, in his beautifully written Cooking By Hand, discusses his realization that improving his fresh pasta started with freshly freshly ground flours: “After years spent bent over the crank of my rolling machine, it dawned on me that my pasta, though good, was not getting better. Since I was certain that making pasta from scratch and by hand was critical to achieving fine noodles, it became evident that focusing my attention on their fundamental ingredient, flour, must be the next step.” (p92).
We cannot all be so fortunate as to have the money for or access to the variety and quality of flours that the pro’s use. But it does behoove all of us kitchen junkies to play with flour a bit to find what works best for our preferences.
So here we go with the notes from my maple syrup-flour-cookie experiment…
Let 2 oz (1/2 stick, or 1/4c) butter sit out until soft. Cream thoroughly – this is important for being able to mix in the syrup well! Add 1 oz of maple syrup (approximately 1.5 T) and mix well. Stir in 3 oz of flour (about 3/4c). I like to add 1/4 tsp of salt to the flour first, but it’s not necessary.
Shape the dough into small balls then press onto a cookie sheet and bake at 375 until done. Alternately, these can be rolled into a log, wrapped in wax paper, and refrigerated for baking at a later time. Bake them 10 minutes or so? I confess to being terrible at using timers, I just check the cookies regularly. I find this is a better baking practice anyways, there are an infinite number of variables that can affect cooking time and that frequently change from day to day. Best to be in the habit of keeping an eye on whatever is in the oven.
Simply handling the dough was fascinating! The white flour cookies were so much softer and more malleable. The whole wheat flour cookies felt more rugged in my hands and cracked along the edges more as they were pressed onto the sheet. During baking, the white flour cookies cooked a little more quickly and when pulled out of the oven were firmer to the touch than the whole wheat flour cookies.
Both cookies were done, although the whole wheat cookies could have stayed in the oven another minute or two while the white flour cookies would have likely started burning. I let them cool, then did the big taste test. The white flour cookies were sweeter and a little more crumbly and delicate in texture. The flavor of the butter really came through, reminding me how important it is to use quality butter when baking. The whole wheat cookies had a nuttier, heartier taste. They were less sweet overall, yet the flavor of the maple came through a little more. Although still shortbread-y in nature these cookies had a toothier body than the white flour cookies.
Conclusion: either flour is fine, it is truly preference-based and the choice should depend primarily on the desired outcome. The white flour cookies would be nicer after dinner with tea, the whole wheat cookies would be better as an afternoon snack with a glass of good milk. Also, any variations of the recipe would suggest one flour over the other. Almond extract and chopped almonds on top? I would go with white flour. Toasted walnuts and a bit of cocoa powder? Go whole wheat.
My last notes regarding this experiment – just to be thorough I tried a batch of cookies with 1.5oz of whole wheat flour and 1.5oz of white flour. I found that this actually captured the worst of both worlds! I love going half and half with flour on bread, pizza dough, and pie crust, but with the cookies I got neither the delicate texture and buttery flavor of a white flour cookie or the hearty, nutty quality of a whole wheat cookie.
I’ll re-address this maple syrup and flour issue in the next post which will cover bechamel sauce. Next time I talk cookies it will be to discuss my preferred fat for sweetening cookies with maple syrup…
*from the movie Stranger Than Fiction. Possibly my favorite line from a movie ever. When Will Ferrell brings baker gal Maggie Gyllenhaal a box of flours to woo her, my heart melts.