WATERTOWN — Standing at my kitchen counter, Dorie Greenspan is rolling dough from a recipe in her new “Dorie’s Cookies,” and even though she’s one of the most celebrated cookbook authors in America, has written 12 volumes, makes remarkable confections, and is so stylishly dressed that everyone who sees her wants to know where she buys her clothes, she’s not an inch intimidating.
That’s partly because she’s down to earth, funny, and a cautious baker. She plods along. She’s not like pastry chefs you might see in the back of a shop starting with a ball of dough and turning it into a giant sheet in seconds. Greenspan keeps checking her own recipe — “What does she say?” she asks over and over, referring to her own book — and she isn’t fast. As she’s working, her sour-cream dough doesn’t magically come together; in fact, it looks rather sticky. But when her caramel-sugar pufflets emerge from the oven, they’re deliciously crisp, golden, rectangular treats you might find in a high-end pastry case.
This is Greenspan’s great contribution to the world of cookies. She takes what you may already know and propels it into another sugar-coated stratosphere. “World Peace Cookies” are one example. Those chocolate shortbread cookies were first published in her 2002 volume, “Paris Sweets,” where they went by the name “Korova cookies,” because renowned Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme had created them for a restaurant of that name. They’re essentially American slice-and-bake cookies with chunks of chocolate. The dough is dark with cocoa powder, seasoned with salt (a delightful amount that you can taste), and studded with hand-chopped bittersweet chocolate. The cookies are rich and intense.
Then a neighbor of Greenspan’s renamed them World Peace Cookies, she writes in “Dorie’s Cookies,” because “he was convinced that if everyone in the world could have these cookies, there would be planetary peace.” Food bloggers everywhere made them and the recipe went viral. “Google the recipe,” says Greenspan. “The last time I checked there were 15,000 results.” (There are now about 29,400.)
The caramel-sugar pufflets she’s making today will probably not have the same momentum, but I wouldn’t be surprised if pastry chefs started using her dough in place of classic puff pastry, which it most resembles. If you’ve ever seen elephant ears or palmiers, that’s what this dough looks like after baking. Golden-brown layers caramelize because sugar is rolled and rerolled into the dough. It has humble origins. It comes from a book called “1001 Dairy Dishes From the Sealtest Kitchens,” published five decades ago by the dairy company. “I can’t imagine where [the book] came from,” says Greenspan, “or why I have it, or why I kept it for so long.” She adapted a yeast dough for the food processor and uses it as the base for the pufflets.
Greenspan and her husband, Michael, a former software-company owner who is also visiting today, have been traveling back and forth to France for more than 40 years from an apartment in New York and a house in Westbrook, Conn. Now they have to rethink things, because their Paris landlord sold the apartment they’ve rented for nine years in the fashionable 6th arrondissement.
Greenspan has written many of her books in Paris, but began by collaborating with Julia Child on “Baking With Julia.” Then came two more joint efforts, “Desserts by Pierre Herme,” and “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook.” “Baking From My Home to Yours,” “Around My French Table,” and “Baking Chez Moi” followed. She has won four James Beard Awards.
“Dorie’s Cookies” looks nothing like her previous works. Where nostalgia plays a big part in other books, cookie photographs in the new book are taken very close on intensely colored backgrounds with bright lighting and deep shadows, without context or a sense of place. They were shot by Davide Luciano, whom Greenspan met when she owned Beurre & Sel, a cookie boutique in New York. “It’s daring,” she says of the photography.
In my kitchen, in a denim smock she bought last year in Japan — “My mother told me if I liked something, always buy two, but I didn’t listen,” she says — with a starched white shirt and a silk Hermes pocket square tied at her neck (trademark pieces), Greenspan rolls the sour cream dough carefully, using a ruler to see if the length is exactly twice the width. This will help the pastry puff in the oven. “There is something so satisfying about rolling dough, especially when it doesn’t fight you,” she says. She folds the dough like a letter: bottom third up, top third down, then turns it so it looks like an unopened paperback and proceeds to roll and fold it, dusting generously with sugar, two more times.
For this recipe, I have prepared Greenspan’s mise en place (the French expression for measuring everything before you begin) using cups and spoons. At home, she weighs everything. But she’s decided weights or cups don’t matter. “Everyone says baking is so precise, so specific,” she says. “I say no, there’s wiggle room in every recipe.”
In Connecticut, she and an assistant had used different kinds of cornmeal to test a cookie recipe. It worried Greenspan, so she went out and bought three different brands: Indian Head, Bob’s Red Mill, and Quaker. Then she compared them. “I weighed, measured, used two different sets of cups, and they were all different.
“First I was panicked, then I was euphoric, then I took a deep breath. It was an epiphany. I felt a sense of calm.” Cooks all over the country will have access to ingredients she hasn’t used in her testing, and ultimately, everyone will make great cookies. Now, she has decided, though she prefers weighing ingredients, bakers should do what they’re most comfortable with.
The pufflets are done, but she returns them to the oven. She subscribes to the theory that when pastry is cooked, set the timer for a few more minutes. Many bakers undercook their confections, and a little more heat won’t hurt. The results are so crunchy with caramel, and so delicious, it’s impossible to keep our hands off them.
See the step-by-step process for caramel-sugar pufflets here:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.