cookies

Honeycakes (Medenjaci) and Bakers Ammonia

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Happy New Year! The last few weeks have been great. Gramercy Tavern was busier then ever this holiday season, especially the last couple weeks of 2017.  For New Year's I managed to escape for a few days to Lisbon, Portugal where I met my Serbian family for a little reunion. It was an amazing trip, fun seeing family, walking around the beautiful city, enjoying the fresh, plentiful seafood and scoffing dozens of Pasteis De Nata (commonly known as Egg Tart). I even got the tart molds back with me, so there will be some of those in the near future!

Todays recipe is Medenjaci, or when translated, Honeycakes (not to be confused with Russian Honey Cake). These are slightly cakey spicy cookies, covered in a thick sweet glaze with the slight tang of sour cream, perfect with your morning coffee or afternoon tea. 

These cookies are available all year long in Northern Balkan countries, but are particularly popular during Christmas time. Not surprising since they are snowy white and full of fragrant and warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. 

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What's interesting about this recipe is the use of an old fashioned leavener called baker's ammonia. I became particularly interested in this ingredient during my last trip to India, when I had some plain looking cookies with my tea. They were not particularly tasty but had a very interesting texture to them. They were thick and crispy, but not hard. Each bite of cookie practically dissolved in my mouth before I could even chew. I later learned it was baker's ammonia that gave the cookies this particular texture.

Baker's ammonia, also know as ammonium bicarbonate or ammonium carbonate, was the leavener of choice before baking soda and baking powder entered the scene. Though this leavening agent is fairly unknown in Western countries today, it is still widely used in many Eastern and Northern European countries as well as in the Middle East and India. It is always used in low moisture items like dry cookies and crackers. Ammonia needs to evaporate fully from baked goods due to its noxious smell and that wouldn't be possible in a high moisture environment like a cake, for example. 

When using baker's ammonia it's important to dissolve it in liquid for proper distribution.  Do not eat the raw dough, no matter how tempting, as it might give you a tummy ache. 

You might wonder why use this product when it sounds so scary? Well in cookies and crackers it really produces superior results that cannot be matched by substituting baking soda or baking powder. It creates a much lighter and crispier texture and when used correctly there is no metallic/soapy aftertaste that sometimes occurs with other leaveners.

At Gramercy Tavern we use baker's ammonia in several cookies throughout the year. Currently on our cookie plate we have two cookies using this leavener, these Honeycakes that I'm sharing recipe with you today, and a delicious pistachio and dried blueberry biscotti. 

SERBIAN HONEYCAKES (MEDENJACI)

Cookies:

  • 7oz/ 200g lard, room temp *
  • 10.5 oz/ 300g organic powder sugar, preferably Wholesome 
  • 1.5tsp/ 8g kosher salt
  • 1tsp/ 5g cinnamon powder 
  • 1/2tsp/ 3g ground cloves
  • 1/2tsp/ 2g ground nutmeg 
  • 1/2tsp/ 3g ginger powder 
  • 1/4tsp/ 1g cayenne pepper 
  • 7oz/ 200g buckwheat honey, local preferably*
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 7oz/ 200g whole milk
  • 2tsp/ 10g bakers ammonia
  • 18oz/ 510g all-purpose flour, preferably King Arthur 
  • 14oz/ 400g unbleached cake flour, preferably Bob's Red Mill Super-Fine

Sour Cream Glaze:

  • 17.5oz/ 500g organic powder sugar, preferably Wholesome Sweetners 
  • 5.5oz/ 155g sour cream, preferably Organic Valley  
  • 1 vanilla bean 
  • generous pinch of kosher salt 

Preparation: 

Combine lard, powder sugar, salt and spiced in the bowl of a stand mixer and cream with paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. See picture for texture of the creamed mixture. 

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Add honey to creamed butter and mix just to come together. As you see in the picture, the mixture will start to curdle once the honey is added. This is due to the acidic nature of honey. Not to worry. Add the eggs and yolks one at a time and cream to combine. 

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Combine milk and baker's ammonia in a small bowl and mix well to dissolve. Sift together the flours (an important step to insure lightness of final product). Add the milk-ammonia mix to creamed mixture and paddle to combine. Your mix will look even more curdled at this point, but don't worry, once you add flour it will all come together. Add the flour and mix just enough to be fully combined. Transfer cookie batter to an airtight container, cover and refrigerate overnight. 

The following day, scoop cookie batter using 1.25 oz cookie scoop. Roll between your palms until smooth and glossy looking. At this point you can freeze cookies for future use, or bake immediately.

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Preheat oven to 325°F. Place cookies on a parchment lined sheet tray, with at least 3 inches of space between each as the cookies puff handsomely when baked. Bake for 18-22 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies should be golden brown and fully baked in the middle. When under-baked, it tends to be raw/wet on the very top of the cookie. When cookies are done, remove from oven, let it cool for a few minutes on the tray, then transfer to a wire rack to fully cool down. 

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While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze. Combine sugar, sour cream, scraped seeds from the vanilla bean and salt and mix vigorously with a whisk until thick, shiny and lump-free.

When cookies are fully cool, use a fork to dip them in the sour cream glaze. The cookies should be fully submerged in the glaze. Fish it out with the fork and tap to remove excess glaze. Place on a wire rack and let it sit for at least an hour so the glaze can crystallize and be dry to the touch.

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Notes:

  • Lard is traditionally used in these cookies, as butter was considered an expensive item and was rarely used in former Yugoslavian countries. It was almost impossible to lay your hands on some butter after World War II as most communist countries including Yugoslavia considered butter a "luxury, elitist" ingredient. So people used lard that was commonly available, especially in Northern Serbia, which was and still is a big farming community. Later on as the health craze raged on, unknowing customers replaced lard with margarine. Thankfully, people are now realizing the folly of eating fake fats like margarine and shortening and are turning to butter and lard once more. When sourcing lard, make sure it's NOT HYDROGENATED and preferably get it from a local source like your farmer's market where there's a greater chance that it came from animals with a better quality of life. 
  • I like to use buckwheat honey in this cookie for its strong taste. After all the cookie is called Honeycakes, so it has to live up to its name! You can most definitely use other types of honey, but don't forget all honey is not equal. Some honeys are not always 100% honey, especially imported ones (see the groundbreaking documentary series Rotten on Netflix!). Wildflower and linden honey's tend to be milder and the flavor will be more subdued in these cookies. Chestnut is another good choice in this preparation, due to it's bold and rich flavor. 

Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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This cookie is the single biggest reason for creating this website. Since this cookie debuted on the menu at Untitled in the Whitney Museum, it created some serious buzz and numerous requests for the recipe. As a fairly busy chef, I try to be as prompt as I can in responding to my emails and recipe requests, but I realized there was a much better, faster way. Why not share my recipes on an online platform and refer people to it. So thank you Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookie for pushing me to start my website and "Miro Bakes"!

Before I share the recipe for this cookie that Sierra Tishgart of Grub Street called "New York's Finest New Chocolate-Chip Cookie" I want to tell you how it came to be. When I signed on to be the opening pastry chef of the Untitled at the new Whitney Museum, I was already the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern for a couple of years. The beginning at Gramercy was very challenging. I was a 29 year old Serbian guy appointed to lead the pastry department of an iconic American restaurant, following in the  foot steps of such pastry giants as Claudia Fleming and Nancy Olsen. I pushed hard to change the menu. I pulled out all the stops, sometimes going a bit overboard with crazy combinations, little known ingredients and elaborate plating. While most of my colleagues enjoyed these desserts, let's just say that some others were a bit more reluctant. One day, I set out to redo our cookie plate offering. I put out 7 different kinds of cookies, served alongside a small glass jug of ice-cold Batenkill Valley milk with a red and white striped straw.  The effect was remarkable. Not a single person on either the kitchen or service team protested. Every one was on board and the cookie plate would soon became a permanent fixture on the menu.  

So when I started making plans for the desserts at Untitled, I knew I had get a cookie out there.  Untitled is located in the Whitney Museum of American Art, and it only made sense that the food at this new restaurant should be very American. Of course, what could be more iconic than the one dessert the entire world thinks of as purely American- the Chocolate Chip Cookie.  I tried to create what I thought was the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie. First, bye bye chocolate chips, and hello chocolate chunks. This move allows for larger chunks of chocolate, and the use of higher quality chocolate. And why stop at one kind of chocolate? We added milk and white chocolate to the mix. We played around with different ratios of ingredients and baking techniques, till we had a cookie that was crispy on the outside and gooey in the middle. Finally, we had a killer cookie that everyone liked. Then something clicked. What about all those people who are celiac, or have removed gluten from their diet? We wanted them to be able to enjoy this cookie as well. So, why not simply swap out the regular flour for a gluten free blend? The idea was to have a small batch of gluten free cookie dough scooped and frozen that we could quickly bake off as needed. Right before the restaurant opening, at the dessert tasting with Danny Meyer and Mike Anthony, we baked a small batch of these gluten free versions in addition to ones made with regular flour. They both loved the gluten free version so much that they requested we only go with that one. I wasn't surprised with their decision, as the gluten free one was my preferred choice as well. The substitution of GF flour (which is mainly starch) created a flatter cookie, which meant more crispy surface area, while the middle stayed somehow more gooey, almost molten, when warm.

TRIPLE CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIE

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  • 10oz/283g unsalted butter, such as Kerrygold 
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 
  • 6.5oz/185g organic cane sugar, such as Wholesome*
  • 9.5oz/270g organic light brown cane sugar, such as Wholesome 
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 19oz/539g Gluten Free Flour, such as cup4cup Multipurpose Flour* 
  • 1 tsp baking soda 
  • 9oz/255g dark chocolate chunks, such as Guittard* 
  • 6.5oz/185g milk chocolate chunks, such as Guittard 
  • 4.5oz/128g white chocolate chunks, such as Guittard 
  • coarse sea salt for garnish 

HOW TO MAKE BROWN BUTTER: Melt the butter on a low heat. Let it cook, undisturbed, until all the milk solids separate and fall to the bottom. Continue to cook on a low flame till the milk solids caramelize to a deep amber color, and the butter smells toasty. This step turns plain butter into something altogether more magical and flavorful with caramel/nutty overtones. 

Combine the warm brown butter, vanilla extract, sugars and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip with the whisk attachment for a few seconds, to combine. Add the eggs and yolks and whip on medium speed until it looks like thick frosting. This should take about 5 minutes.

Combine gluten free flour and baking soda and whisk to aerate and mix well. Add flour to whipped butter mixture and combine. Add chocolate chunks and mix. Portion cookie dough using a 4oz cookie scoop. Transfer to an appropriate container, cover and refrigerate overnight. It is important that dough sits overnight so it properly hydrates, otherwise it will be too gritty and crack on top as it bakes. It's even better if you freeze the scooped dough for at least a week, as the texture continues to improve. 

When you're ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 375°F. Place the cookie dough balls on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. These cookies spread a lot, so be sure to leave substantial space between each, about 4 inches. Bake in the preheated oven for 9-10 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and the entire cookie looks just set. These cookies will be much softer and gooier to the touch than those made with regular flour. Remove them from the oven and let it cool on the baking tray for about 10-15 minutes, till they firm up enough to be picked up without falling apart. 

NOTES:

  • I am committed to using organic sugars in my home and at work, but you could use conventional if that's your preference. I choose organic sugars as I believe they are a better option for us and for our enviroment. I played around with other alternative sugars like coconut palm which makes an excellent substitute for the brown sugar in this recipe. 
  • Not all gluten free flours are made equal. Even the brand we use, cup4cup, has two different blends, the one I suggest above, and another called Wholesome Flour. Both will give you different results in this recipe, so will any other different blend out there. This doesn't mean you can't use other blends, it just means that you cookies might look a bit different. The blend used in this recipe is very fine and soft, plus it contains milk powder which boosts the flavor, color and tender texture. 
  • I prefer to use Guittard or Valrhona chocolates in my home and at work, but you could use any other chocolate you wish. A good quality chocolate will make for a better tasting cookie than one made with palm oil and excess sugars.