`The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion' by King Arthur staff bakers and recipe testers, with a major assist from Laura Brody and the usual platoon of editors and designers from W. W. Norton and The Courtryman Press of Woodstock, Vermont is certainly the very best general purpose cookie book I have reviewed to date. I say this with the important caveat that I have yet to review major cookie books by baking heavyweights Nick Malgieri, Maida Heatter, and Carol Walter.
It is important to say that the value of the book is not based on its exhaustive coverage of cookie recipes, although in over 500 pages, the book certainly covers all but a few corners of the far flung land of cookie baking. While it does leave out some important recipes, such as the famous thin Moravian ginger cookies of North Carolina, its real value is in its meticulous description of all those factors that influence great cookie baking.
While a lot of cookie baking is a lot more forgiving than, say, pastry or biscuits or cheesecake, it is still baking, which means that a change in ingredients which would mean nothing to a sautee or a braise will mean the difference between a great cookie and a disappointment. The clearest example of this sensitivity is in the selection of shortening, where the major choices are butter, lard, margarine, or vegetable shortenings such as Crisco. Each option has a significant effect on taste and the degree that a drop cookie will rise or spread. And, that's before you even take nutritional aspects into account with tradeoffs between the saturated fats of butter and the transfats of margarine. Add in the effects of different sugars and different flours and you start to wonder how a cookie ever manages to get made. Oddly enough, the most complicated ingredient, the egg, seems to be the least finicky. All you do is be sure you use large eggs and bring them to room temperature before mixing them into other ingredients.
The fact is, as long as you are good at following directions, you have in this book a terrific collection of recipes for an incredibly modest list price of less than $30 which I am virtually certain will work for you every time. I repeat, this assumes you follow directions and don't do any substituting unless you really know what you are doing.
A perfect example of how this book can improve your cookie baking is the case of my favorite Snickerdoodle recipe from Nancy Baggett's `The All American Cookie Book'. I have been quite pleased with my results from this recipe ever since it became my standard, except that I would like them to spread out a bit less. Nancy's recipe calls for all butter and I happen to be using White Lily flour, which is relatively low in protein (a great pie crust flour, to be sure). It turns out that butter, low protein flour, and high sugar content all contribute to spreading, not to mention dropping the cookie dough onto a warm sheet. And here I thought it was all due to the corn syrup in Nancy's recipe.
My most interesting items in this book are where the authors disagree with statements in super baker Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookie book. One is where King Arthur warns against using oil sprays containing lecithin (an emulsifier found in eggs) while Ms. Beranbaum recommends them. Also, King Arthur warns that while you can rework leftovers from cookie cutout margins, the cutouts from reworked dough will be a bit tougher than the originals. Miss Rose suggests there is no problem with reworking cookie dough. Last, Beranbaum warns against using sheets with high edges (such as jellyroll pans) to bake cookies, as this will inhibit cookie browning. King Arthur gives no such warning and recommends jellyroll pans along with no sided or low sided cookie sheets. On these issues, I give King Author two out of three, as I believe I have seen Rose's adverse effect of high-sided pans on cookie baking.
After the exquisitely presented discussion of what makes cookies work, the best feature of this book is its organization of recipes by type, with all of the most important styles grouped into a chapter of `The Essentials'. These are your chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, oatmeal cookies, molasses cookies, peanut butter cookies, shortbread, Biscotti, brownies, and decorated cookies. While I suspect the book dedicated to chocolate chip cookies may do a better job of it, I have seen no better treatment of chocolate chip cookies than what you get here. Also, in the chapter on decorated cookies you get all the basics you need to make gingerbread houses. Ms. Beranbaum's Christmas Cookies book gives a much more elaborate presentation of the subject, but this is more than enough to get you started. The remaining cookie types, each with their own chapter are bars and squares (hermits); drop cookies (thumbprint cookies); roll-out cookies (classic spice cookies and cutouts); shaped cookies (molded cookies such as springerles); batter cookies (such as Madeleines); and no-bake cookies (rum balls).
The low price and the terrific coverage of all basic cookie types make this by far one of the best general-purpose cookie books. There are others which are very, very good and there are special subject books such as Beranbaum's Christmas cookie book which offer things not in this volume, but you simply cannot go wrong if you get this book and follow its advice carefully.
I thing this is a better cookie book than King Arthur's earlier `All Purpose Baking Book'. Very highly recommended.