During a recent lunch outing the conversation turned to desserts. I asked the other guests: "What makes a great cookie?"
Simple enough question, right? But I asked them to answer, in detail, with their eyes closed.
My odd request allowed them to visualize a culinary memory and bring it back to life. Enticing aromas, such as cookies still warm from the oven, engage our powerful sense of smell long before a morsel hits the taste buds. These virtual whiffs trigger recollections of wonderful deliciousness.
Few desserts provide the wide range of culinary possibilities as the cookie. Easy to make and serve, this compact delight gives bakers a rare treat with its sky's-the-limit on imaginative stir-ins. Last but not least, cookies travel like a dream.
As the group played along I sat back and listened. Textural details took first honors, with the right balance of chewiness and crunch topping the list. Taste descriptions included a browned buttery essence, layers of complementing flavors and bold spices.
What I found equally as informative was what was missing from their descriptions: not one person mentioned "sweet" as a characteristic of prize cookies. This surprised me as I find many cookie recipes too sweet. I couldn't resist reworking America's favorite snack into a recipe with sugar on the sidelines.
Big food manufacturers offer packaged cookies boasting low sugar and accomplish this with natural and artificial sweeteners. From our taste buds' perspective, it all signals sweetness on the first bite.
The first rule of food science laid down the law for this challenge: balance matters. Any reduction of major ingredients in a baking recipe must be offset with something of equal proportion. Besides infusing sweetness, sugar promotes browning and enhances chewy or crispy textures so significantly reducing sugar in a cookie pulls the base out from under the texture. The key to success lies in finding the right mix of ingredients to take sugar's place.
Using a combination of butter and olive oil allowed me to reduce the sugar amount to only ½ cup. The different fats bake into a sandy and crispy texture. I chose light brown sugar for the molasses punch that provides flavor layers and color.
Sugar also softens the protein in all-purpose flour. Substituting coconut flour, which is gluten-free, for a portion of all-purpose reduces protein and prevents the cookie from baking tough. Rolled oats add textural and visual interest.
Infusing flavors and texture into this reduced-sugar recipe called for a weighty amount of mixed nuts. The duo of savory walnuts and mellow pecans offers complementing tastes and crunch. Raisins that have been lightly rehydrated impart natural sweetness without drying out the cookie. A small touch of cinnamon adds background essence.
Don't be afraid to bake these cookies until golden brown. A deep bake sets crisp texture, toasts those nuts and develops that oat flavor. Close your eyes, take a bite and remember this great cookie experience.
• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.