'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 11 November 2012

World Peace Cookies, regional version

Et In Terra Pax Hominibus...

Those of you who are frequent visitors of food blogs might have heard of World Peace Cookies, a cookie that has captivated the hearts and minds of countless fellow bloggers and foodies all over the world. It is essentially a chocolate sablé (shortbread) studded with dark chocolate chips and fortified with sea salt - not your average sea salt, but the legendary fleur de sel ('flower of salt') from Britanny, France. It is hand-harvested by Breton women traditionally, and even in this day and age it is not mass-produced and is produced by small local enterprises. Fleur de sel is by and large used as a finishing salt - for sprinkling onto finished dishes - rather than merely making a dish salty. It has a finesse and purity in flavour that is quite difficult to describe when you taste it on its own, but wait till you taste it side-by-side with normal table salt and you will be shocked by how harsh the commercial stuff suddenly becomes.

World Peace Cookies are the creation of the great French pâtissier Pierre Hermé, who came up with the brilliant idea of pairing chocolate with salt in a cookie. The idea might raise some eyebrows in our day, but remember that the Aztecs didn't have 'sweet' chocolate at all, and it wasn't until chocolate was introduced to Europe that people started sweetening it with sugar. In recent years, chocolate with sea salt has been all the rage - chocolate with salted caramel, chocolate bars studded with sea salt, Ferran Adrià's famous toasted bread with dark chocolate and sea salt, etc.Whether or not Hermé was the first person to set the trend, the idea of adding fleur de sel to a chocolate cookie is truly a stroke of genius. Without the salt, they are moreish; with the salt, they are sublime.

Dorie's World Peace Cookies
These cookies became an instant sensation when Dorie Greenspan published Pierre's recipe in her Paris Sweets: Great Desserts From the City's Best Pastry Shops. One of Dorie's neighbours loved the cookies so much and asserted to Dorie that in his house they 'call them World Peace Cookies, because we're convinced that a daily dose of the cookies is all that's needed to ensure planetary peace and happiness.' The name stuck ever since - and quite aptly so. Many people proclaim them to be the best cookies they've ever eaten, and they're the favourite cookie of one of my very best friends Marsha. I would always associate these cookies with her.

Why, then, is there any need for me to sing its virtues and praise its beauty when so many fans have done it already? The reason is that I have been experimenting and twisting the original recipe for five years before I could really nail a version that suited my own personal taste perfectly. Of course, one size doesn't fit all, and I'm sure my ideal World Peace Cookie would be different from yours. Perhaps I can't secure world peace with my version of these cookies, but at least regional peace... hopefully? LOL

Here are my observations and amendments:

1. Texture

The original recipe calls for a hefty dose of dark brown sugar which makes the cookies chewy. I'm not a great fan of chewy cookies, so I use only white sugar for my version. I'm also adding an egg to the batter to make the cookie less crumbly - many people seem to have found the cookies too crumbly as well. Even with the addition of an egg, the texture was still tender and 'short' - there's no fear of the cookies losing their textural allure. I also decreased the amount of leavening sightly so that the texture is more like a shortbread than a cookie.

2. What cocoa powder to use

I'm a great believer in the superiority of natural cocoa powder over dutch-processed. For me the latter just tastes so un-chocolate, although I fully understand that the 'old-fashioned cocoa' flavour that puts me off is exactly what many people crave and love. For real chocolate flavour though, a good non-alkalised cocoa powder is the sure way to go. I use ScharffenBerger, but more and more artisanal chocolate companies are producing their own single-origin cocoa powders. Use them if you can. For the same reason, I avoid using baking soda so that I do not take away the acidity which constitutes so much of the flavour profiles of the beans - I don't want to 'dutch-process' my cookies as they're baked.

3. How to incorporate the cocoa powder

Instead of mixing the cocoa powder with the flour, I found that the flavour of the cocoa powder is released much more fully if you cream it with the butter right at the beginning. Not only does it eliminate the need for sifting (sorry!), I was able to use less cocoa powder with a fuller cocoa aroma.

4. Sugar level and percentage of chocolate

While I feel that the overall amount of sugar could be reduced significantly overall, the amout of sugar should also vary according to how dark your chocolate is. The darker the chocolate chips, the more sugar you use and vice versa. I use either 70% or 85% dark chocolate for these cookies and I adjust the amount of sugar accordingly depending on which one I use for a particular batch of cookies.

5. Chocolate chips?

This is to do with the use of chocolate chips in cookie recipes in general - I don't like the texture of chocolate chips after baking, especially if you're like me and like your cookies on the crispy side. You'll find that the chocolate doesn't melt as easily and loses some of that velvety texture after baking. I want the chocolate bits to be soft and gooey, not hard. After some experimenting, I came up with the idea of making a ganache, chilling it till firm and then make 'ganache cubes' out of it. That way I have 'chips' that remain nice and soft even after baking.

6. Salt

The original recipes calls for creaming the butter with the sugar and fleur de sel, but I feel that adding the fleur de sel in so early mixes them into the dough too much - I want to have the pleasure of biting into little grains of salty goodness. I therefore add the fleur de sel at the very end along with the ganache cubes so that they're mixed in minimally and maintain their textures. I use a little amount of fine sea salt during the creaming stage to impart a background saltiness to the dough.

7. How to portion the dough

The recipes calls for forming the dough to a log, chill it, and cut into slices to bake. As with other cookie recipes with chocolate chips, I find chopping through a dough log studded with chocolate chips an absolute nightmare. Instead, I bake my world peace cookies as as drop cookies to save myself some work.

World Peace Cookies, my regional version

My fleur de sel de Ile de Ré
While fleur de sel is certainly pricier than normal table salt, they last and last because you only need a little for sprinkling. The most highly prized is of course fleur de sel de Guérande, although the one I use is from Ile de Ré and I feel that it's even better than some fleur de sel de Guérande that I've tried in the past. You could also use a good-quality flakey salt like Maldon. While fleur de sel has this canonical halo about it, I'm sure that other fine-quality salt from other regions of the world have their own unique characters to offer in these cookies too.

Incidentally, I remember reading a witty comment somewhere in a post about World Peace Cookie: it's impossible to have world peace when America is still using cup measurements. I can't agree more!

115g (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
25g (1/4 cup) natural, non-alkalised cocoa powder
80g (1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp) sugar if using 85% chocolate, 60g (4 tbsp) if using 70% chocolate
1/8 tsp fine salt
150g (1 cup plus 1 tbsp) all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1/2 tsp fleur de sel
150g chocolate chips or ganache cubes (see below), at least 70%

For the ganache chips

1. Make a ganache by melting an equal amount of heavy/double cream and dark chocolate in a large bowl with whatever method you prefer - microwave, double-boiler, etc. I like to make more at a time, but for this recipe you could use 100g of each.

2. Pour the ganache into a container lined with clingfilm/plastic wrap. Leave to cool to room temperature, then place in fridge until firm, a couple of hours.

3. Remove the ganache from the fridge, and use a sharp knife to cut it into chip-size cubes. Return the ganache cubes to the freezer until you add them to the cookie dough. They need to be very cold otherwise they will melt into the dough as you mix them in.

For the cookies

Set two racks in the oven and preheat to 170C/325F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder with a whisk to combine and loosen the mixture.
2. In a separate large bowl, add butter, sugar, fine salt, and cocoa powder.

3. Starting on slow speed, mix everything together until it turns a cocoa-hued butter mixture. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue creaming until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the egg, and beat again until you have a lovely buttercream-like cocoa mixture.


4. Add the flour mixture in a few additions (with a spatula). When the flour is almost mixed in, sprinkle the frozen ganache cubes and the fleur de sel over the dough. Mix briefly until they're evenly distributed.

When the flour is almost but not entirely mixed in, that's the time to throw in the ganache cubes and fleur de sel.

5. Drop tablespoons of dough on to baking sheets, spacing them well apart. Press down on each ball to flatten them - it's up to you how flat you want them. Set them aside for 30 minutes if you can.

6. Bake in the preheated oven for 12-20 minutes, depending on how soft or crispy your like your cookies. Rotate the baking sheets halfway through baking.
Peace will indeed descend on the people who munch on these cookies

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