Monday, August 10, 2009

On the Search for a Chocolate Chip Cookie Epiphany

My journey towards vegan baking almost ended before it began nine months ago after a disillusioned baking session with chocolate chip cookies. Without a little prodding from Greg, I probably would have thrown in the towel and decided that great baking simply requires butter and eggs and stopped at that. I'm happy that I've since been proven wrong, but I still have not won the war with my friend-turned-foe, the chocolate chip cookie, and I have a feeling that there are posts to come that will talk about our ongoing battles.

How could I possibly harbor such a sore spot with chocolate chip cookies? It's because we used to be the best of friends. Before I decided to try to cut out dairy and eggs, I used to bake chocolate chip cookies and bars all the time with the famous Nestle Tollhouse recipe. Although I used to bake other things, I knew I could always rely on the good ol' chocolate chip to bring a smile to my face and joy to others.

Then I decided to foray into the world of vegan baking. There is one product that gave me the confidence to do this, as you can likely tell from my previous recipes: Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread. I am not a huge fan of margarine, because recipes just don't turn out the same, and that fact alone kept me from experimenting (and I later found out that many margarines actually do contain some dairy, which totally defeated the point!). Then I had a few friends turn me on to Earth's Balance, and I've never used butter again. Earth's Balance is all vegan, but it is not margarine; instead, its recipe was designed to behave just like butter, without trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils, and I can tell you, somehow, magically, it does! Just swap it out one for one with butter (and many times, I add a little extra kick of vanilla), and you'll never notice the difference.

With, however, one exception: the chocolate chip cookie. Don't get me wrong, I still make chocolate chip cookies and use Earth's Balance, and they taste good, but for some reason, the cookies don't have the same *joie de vivre* as when I made them with butter. The first time I used Earth's Balance was with, you guessed it, chocolate chip cookies, which is why it took major moral support from Greg to give the stuff a second shot. And don't even get me started with trying to make chocolate chip cookies without eggs - that is a whole other post unto itself! The results are always tasty, but so far chocolate chip cookies are the only recipe where I haven't been able to duplicate that tastiness of the original in dairy-free or vegan form. But I will not give up yet!

Fortunately for me, I have a thoughtful friend, Anita E., who has given me a powerful alternative. She gave me a fantastic recipe for Chocolate Chip Coffee Bars. I took one look at this recipe and knew I had to try it. First, I love that it uses coffee. Through my baking adventures, I have learned that chocolate on its own needs help from other ingredients to make its flavor "pop"; Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut Chocolate has built her stellar career on this fact. Instant coffee crystals are a staple in my kitchen for this reason; they give chocolate an excellent depth of flavor. When I saw Anita's recipe followed the same philosophy, I knew these cookies would be something special. Second, I'm a huge fan of any recipe that is flexible on the ingredients. As much as I love to bake, I hate going to the store to actually buy the ingredients (or sometimes I just forget...see my recipe notes at the end of the post). Any recipe that just lets me bake with what I have on hand is always a friend of mine.

And let me tell you, one bite of the finished product, and I was hooked! These are simply the most amazing vegan chocolate chipcookies I have ever had. My old cookie recipe better watch it; Anita's vegan-friendly noshes are giving it a run for its money.

Anita E.'s Vegan Chocolate Chip Coffee Bars**
Yields: 30-40 bars

2 c. non-dairy butter substitute (Earth's Balance tasted awesome in these)
2-4 Tbsp. instant coffee
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. white/brown sugar
4 c. flour
2 c. chocolate chips
1/2 -1 c. slivered almonds

1) Cream non-dairy substitute, instant coffee, and salt. Then beat in both extracts and sugar. Finally, work in flour, chocolate chips, and most of the almonds.
2) Spread in greased 10x15-inch jelly roll pan and press until flat and even. Press in remaining almonds on top.
3) Bake 18-20 minutes until edges are slightly brown.
4) Cool in pan and cut into squares. Store between wax paper.

**I reprinted Anita's recipe as she gave it to me, but I did make some modifications when I was baking. The biggest modification I made was not using almond extract and the slivered almonds, for one big reason: I forgot to pick them up and I had already started baking. Yikes! I look forward to trying this recipe again, when I actually have everything! Anyway, for those who don't like nuts or have an allergy, you can eliminate the almonds and use 1 tsp. of vanilla to swap out the 1/2 tsp. of almond/1/2 tsp. of vanilla combination, and it will still be tasty.

Other recipe notes: I used two cups of brown sugar and no white sugar. I also omitted the salt, just because I never bake with it; Earth's Balance has salt in it, so I often find that I don't need to add extra.

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