one man's ceiling
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
  10 pm snack time
when i was in college i lived in a student housing co-op where we had snack at 10 pm five nights a week, sunday through thursday. it was a good time for a study break (or a good excuse to call it a night and start socializing) and generally meant something simple and baked fresh. a bad snack night might include a burnt zucchini bread offering, or maybe slightly bitter fruit tarts. a good snack night sent ripples through the building like a wildfire, causing lines to start forming at the edge of the kitchen at 9:30 pm.

the best snack night was always chocolate chip cookie night. once a month, usually a thursday night, it was the one time you could guarantee to see 95% of the house all at once.

i learned how to make chocolate chip cookies during my second year in the house when one of the snack cooks failed to show up for his shift. i was given the sacred recipe for chocolate chip cookies because it was presumed i was too green to suggest my own snack and to keep the natives at bay. that and the fact that the kitchen managers felt even if i burnt them it would go down easier than riot that would ensue if there was no snack at all.

it started with 16 pounds of butter. we had butter by the pound in bulk, but if i had to do that by unwrapping traditional butter that would be 64 sticks. of butter. i had spent the previous 19 years of my life raised on margarine and hadn't seen 16 pounds of butter in the aggregate. that was a lot of butter.

into the massive hobart mixer, along with 32 cups of white sugar, 32 cups of brown sugar and a whole palate of eggs. while that was whipping up nice and creamy i sifted the dry ingredients in. last, a massive box of bulk chocolate chips that had to be at least 10 pounds. from there it was just the process of greasing up pans and rotating them through a double set of convection ovens.

while i was doing this another house member named gretchen claimed to have done time with debbie fields (as in mrs.) before her stores went nationwide and she explained the finer points of cookie making. digging up a dozen 1/4 measuring cups she showed me how to scoop, level, cut in half, and place the dough on the rounded edge. all the cookies would be uniform and bake perfectly round. my first couple of batches, pre-gretchen, turned out like the lumpy dung piles i had grown up eating; post-gretchen, perfect cookies. by sheer luck i had managed to cream the butter and sugar to her satisfaction before adding the flour (and long before she arrived). i had also managed to get the right dough consistency to yield a more cake-y cookie, just the way i like them. by 9 pm the smells had lofted up the four floors of the building and people began hanging out casually in the dining area. i was asked to come back and make chocolate chip cookies for snack three more times before i moved out at the end of that school year.

for years i used to mentally scale down the foodservice recipe for my own needs, never really trusting the proportions in cookbooks and on the backs of the bags of chips. now i just look at whatever recipe is handy for a general sense of the amounts and take it from there. as good as they can be, they're never quite like those times i started out with 16 pounds of butter.
 
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