Some of you may remember that a few months ago, I entered a cookie competition. The Brooklyn Cookie Takedown. It was to be my biggest baking challenge yet. I had meant to write about it more extensively at the time, but as you might guess, I got caught up in other adventures. So, how did it turn out? Read on, true believers!
I needed to make a minimum of 250 cookies for the competition, which is no small task. Why so many? They open the doors to the public who pay a small fee, and then get to sample as much as they want. Then they all vote. You have to make that many to be sure to have enough for the maddening crowds. I decided to make my (soon-to-be-world-famous) millionaire’s shortbread. It’s always a crowd pleaser, it’s relatively simple to make, and I thought I could scale it pretty easily.
The competition was held on two separate days, a Saturday and a Sunday. My slot was on a Saturday, and I started the Wednesday night before. Well, a few days earlier I had picked up all the ingredients I needed. I get 25 cookies out of one batch, so figured I needed 10 batches. I did a whole bunch of math to figure out how much of each ingredient I needed. I looked to see what I had already, and subtracted that from the total. And late one night on the way home from work, I bought the rest I needed.
I figured I would start that night with making 3 batches: 1 single batch in the regular 8 x 8 dish, and 1 double batch in a 9 x 13 dish, as it’s about double the size. I tripled the recipe. It worked out okay, but not exactly.
The shortbread was hard to mix. I did it all by hand. In retrospect a mixer would have probably been easier, but call me old-fashioned. And as will come as no surprise, I should have used a bigger bowl. It was a lot of batter, and it was heavy. I had to stop a few times, some to scrape the batter off the spoon and some because my arm was tired.
I melted the butter about halfway before mixing it, which helped, but I probably should have melted it a little more. I also probably should have split it into 2 or 3 parts to make it easier to mix. The other thought I had after the fact was to add it in bits: part of the sugar, part of the butter, part of the flour, mix, repeat. It would have been easier to get it to combine. I also had to weigh it to figure out how much one-third was to split it off into the other dish. I was a little concerned that a double recipe might not cook the same. But I did a little digging and other people cooked it the same amount for a dish that size, so I figured it would be okay.
The caramel was an issue too. I was a little concerned that the pot might be too small, but it looked okay with everything in it. It had just about started to boil, but the butter wasn’t melted yet and the brown sugar was still in a big clump, so i turned down the heat a bit until it was all melted and combined, then turned it back up, let it boil, and then turned it down and stirred. The result was that it ended up with the butter separated at the top. I tried cooking and stirring it some more, which didn’t really help. I did some research and it said it was something to do with temperature changes and not stirring enough. It had happened to me once before, and it still ended up tasting okay. I tried soaking up some of the grease, but it was hard to do. I figured that once it cooled, I could probably clean some of it off. I thought maybe I should try the rest in smaller batches, or just be more careful when I’m making it.
The chocolate wasn’t an issue. I broke it up into two batches. One double for the big dish, and one regular for the regular dish. It all turned out okay. Yay chocolate! I let it cool overnight. And I resolved to do a few more the next night if I could.
I did one more batch on Thursday. I used a different dish. It was roughly similar in volume, but it was a different size. It looked like it worked out fine. It just meant the shape/thickness of the layers would be a little different.
So with four batches done, I did another four on Friday. I did all the shortbread at once using a mixer. It’s quick! Modern conveniences, who would have thought they could help? 🙂 I then separated it out by mass so I would have the right amount for each.
I cooked all three shortbreads at once. (One was a double batch.) In order to fit them all in at once, I had to place some near the edge of the oven. They got a tiny bit overcooked on a couple of the edges. Through further experimenting I have learned that anything placed at the edge of my oven gets a little overcooked. I just cut those bits off.
This time I made all the caramel separately: two single batches and a double batch for the big one. The first one was not as great but the last two were awesome. I think I got the hang of it. Don’t start the heat as high, gradually reduce the heat, and keep stirring all the way. I could tell it was done right because when I poured it, it just slid out onto the shortbread without even really touching it.
What happened is what I wanted/hoped/expected. After doing it a whole bunch of times in a row, I really know it a lot better now. I can really tell with the caramel as I’m making it now, how it’s supposed to look like and if it looks okay or not. I could tell right away on the second and third batch that night as I was making them that they were going to be good, and not greasy.
The chocolate was easy as usual. The first bowl took longer to cook in, I think because of the material of the bowl. I switched to a different bowl which cooked much quicker as it usually had. I was using huge chocolate bars and breaking off squares. They didn’t end up with exactly 190 grams. They were over by like 3-5 grams, but everyone who thinks that’s a problem, raise your hand.
While I was baking these last batches on Friday my wife was helping a lot. As I said, I needed to make 250 cookies, so I figured 10 batches of 25 each. But then I realized I could cut them smaller. And I remembered that they encouraged us to cut them smaller. People would be tasting a bunch of cookies, so you wanted them to be on the smaller side.
My wife cut, stacked, counted, and organized the previous batches while I was baking the rest. She also did a bunch of cleanup. (Thank you, dear!) Since we cut them smaller, 8 batches made about 300 cookies, which averages 37.5 each. It was an odd number because they were different sized dishes, they were cut slightly differently, some broke, some batches had odd-shaped ends because of how the parchment paper sat, etc. But 8 batches was enough. Yay!
I had to rearrange things in the fridge to make room. There were lots and lots of cookies: the ones cut up already, plus the ones fresh out of the oven that were cooling. 300 cookies is a lot. If I’m thinking about being a professional baker one day, I would need to get used to it. From what I understand, it’s about scaling up to a large volume and keeping the results consistent.
There was nothing else I could do at that point, so I called it a night. I had to wait until the last batches of cookies cooled. It was late, so I decided to wait until morning. I still needed to cut them and double-check how many we had. (We had estimated the total based on the batches already done.) It would be fine to bring extra. In fact, since some could get smushed or broken, it would be better to have more just in case.
Now, seeing as how this is such a long post already, I decided to cut it into two. This week covered the preparations. Next week will cover the actual competition. So you’ll have to wait till then to hear the exciting conclusion! A baking cliffhanger? Who would have imagined?
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever entered a baking competition? How did it go? Did you ever have to bake tons and tons of cookies? How did that go? What are your secrets or strategies for dealing with huge volumes of baked goods? Fill us in below!