To the baking world, it’s an unthinkable suggestion bordering on blasphemy: When making certain desserts, it’s just fine to use imitation vanilla extract.
So says Helen S. Fletcher, the author of “Craving Cookies: The Quintessential American Cookie Book.” It may be the best cookie cookbook you will ever see.
Fletcher is the pastry chef at Tony’s, one of the highest-rated fine-dining establishments in town. For more than 20 years, she owned Truffes in University City, a bakery that catered to restaurants, hotels and caterers, and also did a lot of work with weddings. So she knows about baking, even when it comes to imitation vanilla.
“At work, at Tony’s… I use vanilla that costs $400 a gallon,” she said, demonstrating in one short sentence the difference between professional bakers and hobbyists.
Even small bottles of what she considers the best tasting, most aromatic vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, can cost $35. And she doesn’t want to price anyone out of the joy of baking.
“My whole mantra is: I want people to bake. I want people to enjoy baking. I want people who have never baked to bake,” she said.
And that means using imitation vanilla when the vanilla flavor doesn’t stand on its own, such as in recipes that also use a lot of spice or chocolate. She usually uses professional imitation vanilla herself, but she also recommends McCormick’s.
Fletcher, 81, has had no formal training as a baker. So she has developed her own way of doing things, tips and tricks and hacks that work wonders but that other bakers don’t use.
“Sometimes, when you are trained, you get stuck on the way you are taught or the way the book taught you. Well, I wasn’t trained and I didn’t have the book,” she said.
Her new cookbook, which is self-published, has tricks for baking the way she bakes.
For instance, she recommends something she calls the double-pan method. When she was baking croissants, she noticed that when the outsides were golden brown and perfect, the insides were still undercooked. If she lengthened the cooking time, the interiors would be cooked but the bottoms would be burned.
So she put one baking sheet on top of another, and baked on that. The result was perfect croissants every time — and not just croissants but cookies and other pastries that are made with brown sugar, honey, molasses or chocolate, or that have a lot of butter or spice in them.
Cookies and pastries cooked on a double pan will take a little longer to bake; probably about 10% to 15% beyond the original time.
If you bake something that sticks to the sides of the pan and is hard to remove, she recommends a very simple solution: Turn the pan upside down over a board or platter and heat the side of the pan with a blow dryer. The brownies or caramels or lemon bars will drop out easily.
“At work, I use a propane (blow torch). I modified it to a blow dryer on high. It just really works for a lot of things. I use it for cheesecakes, anything that needs to be released with heat,” she said.
Lemon bars, which she writes “are as American as chocolate chip cookies, and loved just as much,” are particularly prone to sticking. As the bars bake, they pull away from the sides of the pan, and when the lemon topping is added it fills the gap and sticks to the pan.
She developed another technique to keep this from happening. She calls it spooning the crust. As soon as the crust is taken out of the oven, while it is still soft, she goes around the edge with a soup spoon and gently presses it back up against the sides of the pan.
The idea of using bread flour to make chewy cookies chewier isn’t hers alone, but she embraces it fully — while suggesting it is also best when doing so to refrigerate the dough overnight, which allows the flour to fully hydrate.
Nor can she claim credit for the idea of adding corn syrup to make caramel to keep the sugar from granulating (though she did come up with the idea of heating the cream to keep the caramel from temporarily solidifying). And other bakers, too, use a food processor for making some doughs, though doing so seems counterintuitive.
Shortbread, for instance, is “the easiest thing to make in the food processor. You use cold butter and just cut it into the flour until it’s like sand. This way, it comes out of the food processor cold and ready to go,” she said.
“Craving Cookies” is Fletcher’s second cookbook. The first, “The New Pastry Cook,” came out in 1986. Someone has a copy on sale at Amazon for $253, she said.
“What moron would pay $253 for a pastry book?” said the writer of that pastry book. “Two hundred fifty-three dollars, and no sense.”
The new book, “Craving Cookies,” focuses only on American cookies. It was originally going to be twice as long as its 80 recipes, and would include European cookies as well, but she didn’t want to have to charge too much for it.
“It wasn’t so much the number of recipes as the number of pages,” she said.
So a second book, as yet untitled, will come out next year. It will focus on European cookies.
“There’s so much to learn. I think that is what I like most about food. There is no end to it; there’s always more.”