Alimentary, My Dear
Secrets From the Test Kitchen —
Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookies
By Tamia Nelson
May 18, 2010
Paddling sure works up an appetite, and baked treats stand high in my list of favorites. Luckily, bannock is a Canoe Country staple. It's relatively easy to make, and it certainly fills the bill. Bannock has tradition on its side, too. But there are days when I crave something a little less "outdoorsy." Like chocolate chip cookies, say. See the problem? Baking cookies may be pretty straightforward in a home kitchen, but it's a big deal in camp. Of course, a cook who has a reflector oven in her bag of tricks is ahead of the game. Still, you need a pretty good‑sized fire to make a reflector oven work, and I don't always bother to light so much as a small blaze, even when open fires are both safe and legal. Are there any other options? Well, Dutch ovens can also be used for backcountry baking, but these need coals, and that means you have to — you guessed it — make a fire first. So I'm back where I started. Don't get me wrong. I like cooking over wood fires. I really do. That said, there are plenty of good reasons to keep things simple, and portable stoves certainly make the backcountry cook's life easier. I don't have much use for stove‑top ovens, however. Yes, I've seen some mighty clever designs, but they're all a little fussy for my liking. The bottom line? If I can't do my backcountry baking in a skillet, then I probably won't bake at all. I do love the idea of filling up on fresh‑baked cookies right at the river's edge, though. And I'll bet you do, too.
I could stow a bag of chocolate chip cookies in my food pack before I leave for the put‑in, I suppose, but that's a long way from enjoying the gooey, melted‑chocolate toothsomeness of a warm, fresh‑from‑the‑oven cookie, isn't it? Yet for a long time it looked like the only realistic alternative. Until I had a Bright Idea. After my successes with skillet pizza, skillet journey cakes, and bannock, I wondered if I could use the same approach to bake…
It wasn't long before I got my chance. When a vigorous arctic front blew through recently, plunging temperatures from 60 degrees down to 30 in a matter of an hour or so and blanketing the greening woods in drifts of white, I gave up my plans to paddle and took the day off, so to speak, heading into my test kitchen to give skillet cookies a try, instead. My starting point was the commercial cookie mix you see on the right, by the way. It's nothing special. Just a one‑pound, five‑ounce package of the local HyperMart's store‑brand that I bought on sale, expressly for this purpose. Here are the printed directions:Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine cookie mix, ½ cup (1 stick) softened margarine or butter and 1 egg in a medium bowl. Mix with a spoon until a thoroughly blended dough forms. Drop dough by rounded teaspoons about 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8‑11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 1 minute and remove from cookie sheet.
That's easy enough at home, but few camp kitchens have cookie sheets and thermostatically controlled ovens handy, do they? And the list of added ingredients was a little daunting, too. So I began by substituting canola oil for the margarine and leaving out the egg, but — not knowing how these changes would affect the end product — I hedged my bets by dividing the package mix into two equal portions. This ensured that I'd have a second shot in reserve if my first missed its mark. To begin with, I emptied half the packet of mix into a bowl and scooped out a well in the center of the pile. I then poured half the suggested amount of fat (in this case, ¼ cup of canola oil) into the well I'd just made and used a spoon to mix the dough thoroughly.
The result resembled dense, wet sand, not unlike the dough for sugar cookies, and I was worried that the lack of any binder (the missing egg) would guarantee that my cookies would crumble in the skillet. But I persevered, nonetheless, heating a newly purchased eight‑inch, non‑stick camp skillet over medium‑high heat until a bead of water that I flicked into the pan spun round and danced like a dervish. (And no, I didn't oil the pan — the cookie dough had a lot of oil in it already. There was no need to add more.) Next, I dropped four rounded, tablespoon‑sized dollops of dough into the skillet, pressed them flat, and covered the pan. After a couple of minutes, I smelled the dough beginning to burn, so I used a spoon to flip each cookie. I tried to flip them, at any rate. As I'd feared, my cookies immediately began to crumble, but I did my best to keep them together long enough to brown the bottoms.
The results looked more like potato pancakes than well‑formed, chewy chocolate chip cookies, but I slid them onto a plate to cool and got ready for another trial. This time I formed the remaining dough into a single, very large cookie, just to see what would happen. I'll cut to the chase: It didn't work.
My cookie shrank and cracked even as the first side was browning. Then, when I tried to lift it with a spatula, a chunk broke right off. So I divided the whole thing into quarters and turned them individually. (Yes, there are four pieces in the pictures above — two are very close together.) The result? More potato pancake look‑alikes. Now I'd finished off the last bit of my first batch of dough. Here's my production to this point:
Once they'd cooled, I picked one up and gave it a nibble. Not bad, I decided — but not what I was looking for. It was more like chocolate chip crumble than a chewy chocolate chip cookie. Could I do better? I decided to try. The butter and egg went back in the mix, and the canola oil came out. This complicated things, but the complications weren't insuperable. I sometimes take fresh eggs on short trips, and I could always fall back on dried. Ditto for butter (or margarine), though without the dried option, of course. First I melted ¼ cup (half a stick) of butter in a Sierra Club cup. (I could also have used Smart Balance, my favorite butter substitute.) Then I emptied the remaining half of the packaged cookie mix into the bowl, punched a well in the center, and poured the melted butter into it before adding a whole egg and stirring.
The resulting dough looked good, creamier and stickier than my first attempt. I hoped this meant the cookies would hold together. It was time to find out. I put the skillet back over medium heat and dropped in four blobs of dough, then covered the pan. After a couple of minutes, I sneaked a peek and saw that the cookies hadn't crumbled. In fact, they looked just as they would have if I'd been baking them in the oven. The edges were firming up, and the blobs had subsided into disks. I used a spatula to flip them…
And it felt a little like trying to flip pancakes that weren't quite ready. But they held together — my cookies still hadn't crumbled! — and on this encouraging note I replaced the lid and left the skillet on the heat for a couple of minutes longer. That was enough. The cookies were done. All that remained was to slide them out of the pan onto a plate, urging them along with a spatula. A few got bent out of shape in the process, but it was easy to re‑form them.
There was just enough of my second batch of dough left for one last go. This time around, instead of putting the skillet right back on the burner, I placed it to one side and ladled four dollops of dough into the rapidly cooling pan (see left photo below). Then I returned the pan to the stove, keeping the heat at medium, as before. And I waited. Two minutes later, more or less, I checked to see how things were going. You can see what I saw in the right‑hand photo:
Things were looking up. The cookies hadn't burned, and they kept their shape better than any of my earlier attempts. (This time I used a two‑handed, spoon‑and‑spatula approach to turn them.) Here's what the final batch looked like just before I slid them from the pan:
They resemble small pancakes, but they're more easily deformed than pancakes — and more likely to break if not handled gently, though unlike my previous batches, they slid effortlessly onto the waiting plate.
Now here's the entire production run from both batches of dough, with my first efforts on the far right and my last on the far left:
All in all, I'm happy with the results of my test kitchen cookie bake‑off. Every one of the cookies is delicious. If you don't mind chocolate chip crumble, than go the simple route and use oil rather the butter or margarine, and leave out the egg. Or follow directions and add both, to get cookies that are almost as good as those from your oven at home. (Note that my second batch actually used twice as much egg as the package called for — I didn't have any half‑eggs on hand. The result was a little cakey, but it was still very good.) Whichever approach you opt for, these stove‑top chocolate chip cookies will make a welcome riverside treat.
OK. Ready to give skillet cookie‑making a try? Then here's…
The Executive Summary
You've probably got the gear you'll need in your kitchen pack already: a non‑stick skillet, a light aluminum cover, and a pot in which to mix the dough. (You could even use a plastic bag, kneading the dough rather than stirring it.) Add a package of cookie mix, an egg — or the equivalent in dried, powdered eggs — and some oil or butter (or margarine). Then fire up your stove and go to work.
Now here are a few tips to gentle the learning curve:
- Try this out at home first (And don't worry. You can eat any mistakes.)
- Use a non‑stick skillet, and don't grease it
- Ladle the dough into a cool (not hot) pan
- Throttle down; a low to moderate flame is all you'll need
- Cover your skillet during the baking phase
- Use two spoons (or a spoon and a spatula) to turn the cookies over
- Be patient! Let the just‑baked cookies cool completely before you eat them
Will this stove‑top technique work with other kinds of cookies? I don't see why not. Try it with your favorite cookie dough. And be sure to let me know how it goes.
I like to cook, but I also like to keep things simple. This goes double when I'm thinking about taking a recipe on the trail. So when the notion of skillet cookies first entered my mind, I headed right for my test kitchen. The results were worth the small effort involved — chewy cookies that I can bake on my stove top in camp, without any special equipment. And if I can do it, you can too. That's alimentary!
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