Cookie Science
Saturday, December 8, 2007, 10:34 AM - dessert, holiday
A Comparison of Chocolate Mint Wafer Alteratives in Surprise Cookies

Traditional winter holiday festivities require certain essential cookies. One of these is the Surprise Cookie, which is a chocolate mint wafer encased in sugar cookie dough. Unfortunately, chocolate mint wafers aren't universally available. This paper discusses alternatives based on availability, ease of use, and affordability. Two alternatives that rate highly on ease of use and affordability are Andes Mints and Necco Thin Mints. A baking test was conducted to compare the alternatives for taste and presentability. Andes Mints fall short of the original for taste, but match the original for presentability. Necco Thin Mints taste good, but nothing like the original; they yield few presentable cookies.

1 Introduction
Traditional winter holiday festivities require certain essential cookies. An essential cookie is one that the holidays are incomplete without. Inessential cookies are those that can be added to the mix, but that won't be missed if they're absent. What is essential varies by individual, but they are often ethnic, they usually must be made by hand, and they are usually labor intensive enough to require group effort. They serve the functions of reminding us of our heritage, bringing the whole family together to prepare, and can't be found in a store.

For instance, lefse is a traditional Norwegian holiday food. If the winter goes by and I haven't got any lefse, I feel cheated. You can buy lefse in Norway, but in the US, you have to make it by hand. Chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, are inessential. You can slap them on the desert end of the smorgasbord, but no one would miss them if they weren't there. If Spring were to come and you hadn't had any, you could march into any grocery store and just buy them. And, if a person doesn't like the pre-packaged versions, they are trivial for one person to bake.

Surprise cookies are a traditional American holiday cookie. They appear as Hidden Chocolate Cookies in Betty Crocker's Cooky Book. tells us that "more than 62 million of these cookbooks sold since 1950." It's hard to find a more perfect slice of Americana. Surprise cookies fit the essential cookie criteria. They are an American tradition. They can't be bought in stores. Stuffing the mints into the cookies takes effort, so making them requires most of the family to sit around together for a few hours stuffing the cookies. Family members might even talk to each other in the process.

Unfortunately, the essential ingredient, chocolate mint wafers, ceased to be available in most major grocery stores when I was in junior high. After several years of incomplete winter holidays, Trader Joes came to town and started stocking them. I've since moved to a town with no Trader Joes, and my grocery stores do not stock the necessary chocolate mint wafers.

2 Alternatives:
A replacement for chocolate mint wafers should share certain features with the original. Obviously, they should be both chocolate and mint. Beyond this, they should be available, affordable, and easy to use. If I had limitless time and energy, I would have made chocolate truffles and added mint extract, but that would have failed the ease of use test. When the chain grocery stores failed us as kids, we tried adding mint extract to the dough and using hershey kisses, but they weren't quite right.

A survey of the candy aisle at the local Hannaford revealed what was readily available and easy. The options were Andes Mints, Necco Thin Mints, and Hershy 60% cocoa mass chocolate mint squares. I really hoped there would be a mint Hershey Kiss by now, but they only had 6 or 7 non-mint flavors. The 60% cocoa mass chocolate mint squares were extremely pricey. They were in a package that held very few of them. They were individually wrapped and would have had to have been cut into quarters to be the appropriate size. The Andes Mints were also individually wrapped and would have to be halved, but they were a fraction of the price (by pound). Necco Thin Mints were comparably priced (by pound) to the Andes Mints.

Andes Mints are two rectangular sheets of chocolate with a sheet of similarly textured mint candy sandwiched between them. Necco Thin Mints are more like Peppermint Patties. They are round, and have some sort of white mint paste coated in chocolate. Andes Mints are clearly closer to chocolate mint wafers than Necco Thin Mints. But, several points are against them. They are individually wrapped and need to be cut in half. This adds significantly to the effort of using them. Furthermore, the square shape makes it harder to wrap dough around. Given their roundness and the lack of preparation involved, if Necco Thin Mints could be used instead of Andes Mints, they would give bakers a considerable advantage.

3 Experiment
We purchased a box of Necco Thin Mints and a box of Andes Mints. We halved the Andes Mints and used the Necco Thin Mints as-is. Since there were 20 Necco Thin Mints in a box and two of them disappeared while the cookies were being made (this is traditional), we made 18 cookies from Necco Thin Mints and 27 cookies from Andes Mints. This used up our half-recipe of cookie dough. There were Andes Mints left over. We compared the cookies for taste and presentability.

4 Results
4.1 Appearance
Two trays full of cookies were baked at 400 degrees F for 6 minutes, or until golden on the edges. The tray containing 27 Andes Mint cookies yielded 27 presentable cookies with no apparent flaws. The tray containing 18 Necco Thin Mint cookies yielded 5 presentable cookies with no apparent flaws, 2 slightly burst but still presentable cookies, 10 burst cookies that weren't presentable, and 1 completely flattened cookie that seemed to have exploded and oozed out in all directions. These results are statistically significant (p<0.05). It is fair to assume that using the standard methods of cookie preparation, Andes Mints will reliably produce cookies with a presentable appearance, and that Necco Thin Mints will tend to produce flawed cookies.

4.2 Taste
Two subjects compared two cookies twice. Once in the evening with sambuca, and once in the morning with coffee. Unfortunately, given the variability in appearance, a double blind test was not feasible. On both occasions, both subjects preferred the taste of the Necco Thin Mint cookies to the Andes Mint cookies. Andes Mint cookies tasted more similar to classic surprise cookies, but without enough chocolate-minty goodness to pass muster. Necco Thin Mint cookies tasted nothing like surprise cookies. They tasted like candy-cane infused sugar cookies. This is unsurprising, since the gooey minty center broke down in the oven and turned into a hard, minty, sugar candy. Since they invariably leaked, the candy infused into the cookie dough.

5 Conclusions
Clearly, neither alternative is a suitable replacement for chocolate mint wafers. It is possible that Andes Mints could be used if two half-mints were stacked on top of each other to provide more chocolate per cookie. Further research is necessary to determine the efficacy of double Andes Mints as chocolate mint wafer substitutes.

Necco Thin Mint cookies are tasty, but nothing like Surprise Cookie. What we have discovered is a new class of cookie: "Exploding Mint Cookies." Research is necessary to determine the cause of the tendency towards explosion, and culinary options for containing the explosions. Ideally, we would like to be able to achieve more presentable but slightly burst cookies and fewer flattened cookies that explode all over the baking sheet. We have several hypotheses regarding the tendency towards explosion. It is possible that structural weak points in the dough were produced by small lumps of butter that melted, allowing the candy center to burst through. Another possibility is that we simply didn't use a thick enough layer of cookie dough around the mints. A third possibility is that some of the fragile chocolate coatings on the mints were damaged by the wrapping process, leading the candy center to leak out. These can be tested by experimenting with more thorough mixing, thicker dough coverings, and gentler handling. Further experiments will be needed to reliably produce ideal Exploding Mint Cookies.

Yam Plantain Fiasco
Saturday, September 29, 2007, 05:06 PM - comfort food
Today, I made Yam Plantain Fiasco and salad for dinner. It's shockingly yummy.

olive oil (several glugs)
salt (several vigorous shakes; maybe 1 tsp)
pepper (a bunch of grinds; maybe 1 tsp)
nutmeg (1 shake)
paprika (a bunch of shakes; maybe 2-3 tsps)
coriander (1 shake)
coffee beans (10ish)
thai chilis (5)
chocolate chips (10ish)
rum (1 shot)
coffee (1/4-1/2 cup)
1 onion
1 yam
1 plantain
1 can black beans

cut the onions into slivers

cut the yams and plantains into cubic centimeters

Put the olive oil, all the spices (except the chocolate chips), and the onion slivers into a frying pan on high heat until the onions are carmelized. Then add the yam bits for a few minutes. Then add the plantain and the black beans. Let them go for a minute or two, then add a shot of rum. Flame it if you're on a gas oven. Pour in some coffee---maybe a third of a cup. Stir it up, heat it to boiling, then put on a lid and turn it to low heat and let it simmer for 15-20 minutes. Eat.

Gluten Free Brownies
Friday, August 10, 2007, 01:12 PM - comfort food, dessert
After two batches of ruthless experimentation on guests, I have perfected a recipe for gluten free brownies. It has been modified from the original Betty Crocker to fit on the screen. Erm, that is, to fit the celiac lifestyle.

Wet Ingredients
4 squares of melted baking chocolate OR 3/4 cup cocoa powder and 3 TBS oil. Baking chocolate is usually fine, but some extra sensitive need the specially guaranteed gluten free cocoa powder. To melt baking chocolate, stick it in a microwave safe container and zap it for 15 seconds. then combine the other ingredients, then zap it for another 15 seconds, then maybe stir it a bit, then let it sit a while, then zap it another 15 seconds and stir it a bit. Eventually it will be nice and runny. It's easier than doing it on the stove, but the short amounts of time and long amounts of sitting in between are to make sure it doesn't burn, as chocolate in a microwave is in danger of doing.
4 egg yolks. You'll need the whites too, but they count as other ingredients.
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar

Dry Ingredients

1/4 tsp Xantham Gum
3/4 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup corn flour

Other Ingredients

4 egg whites
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup chocolate chips


Mix your wet ingredients. Add your dry ingredients. Set aside your other ingredients. Throw everything back in the refrigerator and let it sit for a few hours. Well, you don't have to actually refridgerate the baking powder, nuts, and chocolate chips...mostly I'm talking about eggs here.

Take everything out of the refrigerator and let it sit for a while. The mixture will be pretty viscous and could do with warming up, and egg whites need to get up to room temperature. Once room temperature has been achieved, or you get really bored and don't want to wait around any longer, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare a 9x13 pan (I do this by spraying it vigorously with oil, but everyone has their own pet method, most of which involve more effort. More effort is a perfectly valid lifestlye choice, but it's not for me.) Beat the egg whites until they're fluffy and form peaks and all that. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the dough. Then fold the rest of them and all the other ingredients into the dough. Pour it into the 9x13 pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes. It's done when you can stick a toothpick into the middle and pull it out and have it be mostly clean.

Rice Pudding
Wednesday, June 27, 2007, 05:59 PM - comfort food, dessert, breakfast
Rice Pudding
Today I made rice pudding for dinner. I know nothing about rice pudding. I have never had rice pudding. But we had leftover rice from Chinese food the other night, and I had a sudden hankering for rice pudding. So I perused multiple recipes online, and discovered that most people think you're actually going to make rice from scratch in milk instead of using leftover rice. This seems dumb. In my ignorance, I thought the whole point of rice or bread pudding was to use up leftover rice or bread before it went south. And to presumably use them in a different format, because if people wanted them in their previous format, they would have just gone ahead and eaten them and not left them hanging out in their fridge as leftovers.

I also discovered that most people think you're going to make rice pudding in your oven. Since it's unbearably hot, this also seems foolish. Sure, it'd be great in the winter, but it's not a June activity (unless you're down under). Fortunately I found one great recipe for quick and light rice pudding that said you could make it with leftovers and you could make it on the stovetop, which will heat your kitchen a bit, but not to the degree of running your entire oven for over an hour. However, this recipe didn't fit my preconceived notions of pudding, which involve more creamy, eggy goodness. So after eyeing a bunch of other recipes, I thought I'd just make something up and use the stovetop cooking method and hope it turned out ok. Here goes:

1 small takeout Chinese food container almost full (but not packed) of rice --- this is probably somewhere between 1 and 2 cups, but I didn't measure because the measure was in the dishwasher. I don't think the quantity matters if it's in the ballpark.
1 can of evaporated milk
1/4ish tsp of salt
3 rounded TBS of brown sugar (not packed or messed with in any way that might involve effort, just scooped out of the container and dumped in)
1 glug vanilla extract
nutmeg and cinnamon to taste (I use more cinnamon than nutmeg, since nutmeg is very potent)
1 egg

Dump the rice in a saucepan. Add everything else. Stir it up really well so the egg is beaten and everything is pretty homogenous. Turn on the saucepan to high. Stir frequently until it boils, then turn it all the way down, put a lid on it, and go off and play video games and make a few phone calls. Come back periodically and give it a stir. This process should take half an hour to 45 minutes... shorter if you don't care about letting it oook---you do need video games you'll be able to pause once every 15 minutes or so. When it looks good and rice puddingey, either eat it or stick it in the refrigerator to have it cold for breakfast. It makes enough that 2 people could have a big serving now, and a little serving cold for breakfast. Or 4 people could have moderately sized servings whenever.

serving suggestions
Serve with fake breakfast sausage and salad... because salad is easy to throw together really fast and you've got to have a vegetable. If you're clever with your dressing, a salad can go with this. I convinced someone else to make the salad and they dressed it with oil, malt vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and coriander, which tied nicely with both the spice of the sausage and the spices in the rice pudding.

It might also be nice with one of those froofy apple sausages.

If I were the planning ahead sort, I might pick a different vegetable, but I don't know what that would be.

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Cornish Game Hen
Friday, November 24, 2006, 09:14 PM - soups, comfort food, holiday
Yeah, it's turkey day, but for 2 people, turkey is a bit silly. We lucked out and found an 8 pound turkey a few years ago, but since then we've decided to make a culinary tour of fowl. This year it's cornish game hen. We made 3 of them; two were rock game hens, and one was a normal game hen. The normal one was better, but smaller. But it came in packs of one and the others came in packs of two, and we wanted three so there would be leftovers. Leftovers are a crucial part of thanksgiving, so you can't just do two itty bitty birds and call it a day. The hens didn't all fit in the roasting pan together, so we seasoned two one way and the third another way. For the sake of controlled experiment, the two rock cornish game hens were seasoned differently. In addition, we made mashed potatoes, acorn squash, broccoli, and gravy. We also served cranberry chutney , which we'd made the night before. Then we made stock from the carcasses in the evening.

Preparing the hens
Remove the hen from its packaging. Remove the giblets and set them aside, if there are any. They should be in the chest cavity if they're there. Sometimes in bigger birds I've seen them stuck in by the neck, but there's just no space in a small bird. Set the giblets aside to make stock later. Put them in a bag in the fridge or something. Wash the hen thoroughly. Only one of our birds had giblets. So sad.

Get a partner with clean hands. Have him shake seasoning onto your fingertips. Rub the inside of the bird (yes, the chest cavity) with salt. Get more salt and rub it on the outside of the bird. Repeat the process with pepper. We stuck a pat of butter between the breast of each bird and the skin that goes over the breast. It was a whim. I read about doing that when I was researching capons, and lots of things I'd read cautioned about roasting things that weren't fatty, and I was worried that a small bird might not have enough fat. I have no idea if it made any difference, but they were juicy and tasty in the end, so it couldn't have hurt. We did two hens with garlic and rosemary in addition to salt and pepper. Just use the same process with diced garlic and rosemary. We had extra garlic and rosemary prepped so we put it over the top of the birds after we'd trussed them up for roasting. We did another bird with orange. After salting and peppering it, we put two very thin slices of orange between the skin and the breast and some more in the cavity. We saved aside three more slices, trussed up the bird, squeezed the remaining juice from the orange over the bird, and put the three slices on top.

Put the bird chest side up on a plate. Fold the wings back so the tips are under the back. Tie them into place with some string. There's special kitchen string you can do that with. There should be some flaps of skin at the bottom of the bird by the drumsticks. You can wrap those around the outside of the drumsticks, bringing the drumsticks together, then stick a toothpick through the flaps of skin and use another length of string to secure that end. Stick the bird in the roasting pan. You're supposed to put them on roasting racks, but we don't have one. We use an upside down oven-safe plate. They didn't all fit in the same pan, so we did the garlic/rosemary ones in the roasting pan and the orange one in another pan.

I don't know how long we actually cooked ours. Maybe an hourish at 375 degrees? It's hard to say, since our stove doesn't maintain temperature properly. We tried to use a thermometer to make sure they were the appropriate temperature for cooked fowl, but that was a bad idea. They're really too small to use a meat thermometer in. We pulled them when we realized they were probably done and the thermometer must be lying. I think it was just too easy with such small birds to stick the thermometer through and take the temperature of the air in the cavity (too low) instead of managing to get it in the meat. But the juices were clear, the bones wiggled, and it was basically perfect.

Cut an acorn squash in half. Scrape out the seeds. Rinse the seeds, put them in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Coat them then lay them out flat on a cookie sheet. Stick them in the oven with the roasting birds for about 10 minutes. Pull them out and snack on them while things cook, because it will take a while and you'll be hungry.

Meanwhile, prep the squash. You should have two halves of squash, each with a hollowed out bit in the middle. Put them on their backs on a cookie sheet or oven safe plate. Pour a puddle of Unicum Next (which is pretty undrinkable, but turns out to be interesting to cook with) into each half. Season each half with cinnamon, coriander, and allspice. Stick in the oven with the birds. It will probably not be done until the birds are done, but you can stick it with a fork periodically and declare it done when the fork goes in easily.

mashed potatoes
Skin a bunch of potatoes (we did about six) and cube them. Throw them in a pot and fill it with enough water to submerge them by at least half an inch. Bring the pot to a boil, turn it down to a strong simmer, and let it go for 15 minutes or until the potatoes seem softish when stuck with a fork.

Pour off the water. Mash with a potato masher. Add a bunch of butter and milk and some salt. We used a few tablespoons of butter and several glugs of evaporated milk. Evaporated milk is richer, and you should always keep some around in case you have a milk emergency. Like you forgot to buy milk before making mashed potatoes.

It didn't look like there was going to be real gravy because the birds weren't giving off much by way of drippings. So we put a cup or so of water in a pan with a teaspoon or so of corn starch and added chicken bullion (a little more than was required for the volume of water). We thought there should be a spot of fat because you never actually manage to de-fat drippings completely when making gravy, so we replaced it with a dribble of olive oil. Heat the concoction until it thickens. We later added chicken drippings from the orange chicken; we didn't actually get drippings from the other two. The drippings improved the flavor immensely; before drippings it tasted sort of like salty butter (wacky), but afterwards it tasted very yummy and went well with the birds.

I just heckled for the broccoli; it's not my area of expertise. Someone added olive oil, whiskey, salt, and pepper to an oven-safe, lidded dish with florets of broccoli and half an onion (chopped into fairly large pieces. We stuck it in the oven with everything else and baked it for about 30 minutes. It was a little on the soft side, but very yummy.

Throw the carcasses into a stock pot with four large carrots, fiveish celery stalks, and a white onion. Fill until everything has water over it. Bring to a boil then turn down to simmer for a few hours. Skim the fat off the top into a can or something so you can put it in the trash. Don't put animal fat down the sink or bad things will happen when it comes back down to room temperature and solidifies. Strain the defatted broth into containers for refrigerating and freezing. Any fat you don't manage to get off will congeal on the top of the container and can be more easily removed when you use the stock.