Home Baking At Work

Wednesday, Aug 24th, 2016

I’ve recently taken a new pastry chef position at a collection of restaurants with the same name, The Publican. What was once just a beer hall dedicated to pork and oysters holding down a dark corner of Chicago’s Fulton Market meatpacking district, the Publican brand has since expanded to include Publican Quality Meats, a whole animal butcher shop with a sandwich menu and retail component, Publican Tavern in O’Hare Airport, and soon to include Publican Anker in Chicago’s Wicker Park. As of June, I am along for the ride, helping shape the sweeter side of things for this brand.

In a lot of ways, the job feels like my last one. The people who own Blackbird and Avec also own The Publican, so I have the same bosses, mentors, and spirit guides. But the menus, oh the menus. They couldn’t be more different. Where Blackbird used items from every pastry category to compose plated desserts, The Publican is a home for those individual pies, cookies, cakes, cobblers, buckles, cream puffs, scones, biscuits, sticky buns, donuts, ice creams, etc that I once borrowed from.

Long story short, for the first time, I’m making the same kinds of things at work as I do at home.

When I took the reigns from the talented Mathew Rice, the first dessert I set out to change were the fresh baked cookies we sell every day at Publican Quality Meats.

It would be easy, I thought. Cookies are the simplest of baked goods, something I’d been making without a grown-ups help since I was 12. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For all the work I’ve done in the dessert realm over the last 15 years, I simply didn’t have a backlog of cookie recipes. Infact, most of the cookies I have made in my career were eaten at staff meal.

Mathew and I were sharing matcha lattes every day during my training, so the first step I took was to add matcha powder to a rice krispy treat. It’s freakin delicious, we both agreed, and I patted myself on the back for nailing it.

Then I pulled out my cookie ringer, a brown butter chocolate chip cookie, and impressed the guests with it’s depth of flavor and crackly surface. I paddled meyer lemon zest into the sugar cookie recipe I developed for a Lucky Peach article about sugar cookies and watched them fly off the shelves.

Then………………… I was out. I tried a peanut butter cookie that bombed. I made oatmeal cookies for two weeks, hating each one more than the last.

I finally had to admit, cookies were not going to be easy.

While I set my sights on the usual suspects, I wanted cookies that were distinct while being familiar. It took a lot of testing, some of which were unfit for even the staff to eat as snacks. A request by Paul Kahan to put potato chips in a cookie led to the saddest no-bake cookie I’ve ever had!

I made recipes from every cookie book I could get my hands on, comparing Dorrie Greenspans Oatmeal Cookie to Sherry Yard’s, pitting Christina Tosi’s peanut butter against Pichet Ong’s. I borrowed qualities I liked from some of the cookie-masters recipes, and took some recipes in wildly different directions.

For example, after weeks of oatmeal cookies coming out of our ovens tasting much like everyone else, I decided to try a reverse creaming method, mixing the butter with the flour and sugar before the eggs were added for an uber crispy exterior. I also set the cinnamon aside and spiced this cookie with powdered ginger and studded it with chips of candied ginger along side plump golden raisins.

Aside from the flat, crackly brown butter dark chocolate chip cookie, we included a second chocolate chip cookie, this one fat and tall, a little doughy in the center, and filled with milk chocolate and walnut chunks. And a third chocolate chip cookie, made with caramelized white chocolate, macadamia nuts, and sour cherries, an ode to the cookies of mall food courts everywhere.

I joked that I could fill an entire case with chocolate chip cookies, each one completely different than the last.

But the recipe I hold dearest to my heart right now is a Sorghum Peanut Cookie. After eating crispy peanut butter cookie after crunchy peanut butter cookie, I decided to make the softest, moistest version I could. I employed sorghum syrup, a robust sticky cousin of molasses, richer and deeper, with a redish hue. The result deserves a spot in the “soft-batch” category, and the flavor is outright haunting.

This cookie is reason enough to run out and buy a jar of sorghum syrup, and read up a little on it’s legacy as an american heritage product, still made by hand by those passionately growing the unpopular crop. The batter is sticky, so much so it requires chilling before scooping.

Since i am now baking at work like you bake at home, I can share this recipe with everyone. I hope it finds it’s way into your cookie jars for good.