In my mother's kitchen, cookies came from the bakery, and homemade cookies came from one of those yellow Nestle dough sausages. My mother baked so infrequently that when our oven broke, she decided it really didn't pay to have it fixed. Baking is not in my genes. Cooking in general was a total mystery to me, but in my teens, I decided I wanted to learn. I picked up a bag of chocolate chips at Waldbaums and I found a cookie recipe on the back. I walked through the store, and found each ingredient. I went home, set out my ingredients, and got to work. The first step posed a problem:
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Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Our oven had been broken for a couple of years at that point, so I improvised. I pulled out the DeLonghi Toaster Oven and set it to 375. I dropped all my sort-of-measured ingredients into one bowl and mixed with a fork. Since we didn't have any cookie sheets (and even if we had, they wouldn't have fit in the toaster oven) I dropped spoons of my lumpy batter on to a piece of aluminum foil and set the timer for 12 minutes. When the timer beckoned, I returned to find a half dozen burnt pancakes that had fused to the aluminum foil. I used too much butter, I didn't leave enough space between cookies, and they were much closer to the heating element than they would have been in a real oven. It was a complete disaster. After a lot of experimentation, I learned to make a half-decent cookie in the toaster oven, but every time I tried a new recipe, there were new struggles.
It's been fifteen years since that first attempt, and now I have cookie baking down to a science. I've got my oven's temperature perfectly calibrated; I measure all my ingredients carefully and make sure they're at the right temperature. And I never bake cookies or pastries without a silicone cooking mat such as the Matfer Exopat.
The Exopat is a 16 1/2 by 11 5/8 inch slippery silicone mat. It's a high tech material that addresses a pretty low tech problem: how do you keep your cookies from sticking to your cookie sheet? Before silicone caught on, there were three basic ways to solve this problem.
1. Grease the cookie sheet.
2. Buy nonstick cookie sheets.
3. Line the cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Each of these solutions has problems of its own. Greasing your cookie sheets involves grease. This adds fat to your cookies, and grease easily burns on to the cookie sheet. (Yes, I'm baking thousand-calorie-per-cookie cookies and worrying about the homeopathic level of fat in Pam.) No matter how well you scrub them, they just look worse and worse every time you bake. Nonstick cookie sheets are great in theory but there are a few problems with them. As with any nonstick surface, you have to avoid metal utensils. You may be a more conscientious owner of nonstick bakeware than I am, but when it comes time to remove my cookies, I always reach for a stainless steel turner to lift them off. This scratches the nonstick surface, which eventually peels. Another problem with nonstick surfaces is if they're not washed scrupulously, leftover grease burns on, and cookies actually start to stick to your nonstick sheet. When I was using nonstick cookie sheets, I had to replace them at least a couple of times a year. Parchment paper works well, but it's not cheap, it's not always available at supermarkets, and like aluminum foil, you'll always pull off the last two inches of the roll when you really need a big piece.
The Matfer Exopat solves all of these problems. Like parchment, it provides a barrier between your cookies and your cookie sheet, so nothing burns or sticks to the sheet. Your cookie sheets will last forever. Unlike parchment, though, a silicone mat can be used over and over. The manufacturer claims the sheet can be used at least two thousand times. Even in my kitchen, that's a lifetime of cookies. If the $20 price tag scares you away from an Exopat, just consider how much you spend on parchment paper and replacement cookie sheets.
Nothing sticks to this baby. Nothing. I did manage to burn one batch of sugar cookies during a compelling episode of Iron Chef but the burnt cookies slid off the mat effortlessly. I've never tried this, but I've read that these mats work very well for rolling out pie crusts.
Clean up is easy. The manufacturer's instructions say to use a sponge to wipe down the Exopat. I use a dry paper towel. I've used each of them dozens of times, but there isn't a spot anywhere on any of my mats. After years of scraping pastry residue off of greased and nonstick cookie sheets, this is a godsend.
There are other silicone mats out there. I haven't tried the Silpat ($20) but I've used the less expensive SiliconeZone ($15) mat, and it works as well as the Exopat. I haven't had it as long though, so I'm not sure if it's as durable.
If you enjoy baking, a silicone mat is indispensible. They're available in most cooking supply stores, or online at amazon.com and cooking.com. In addition to the 16 1/2 by 11 5/8 inch mat, there's a 16 by 25 inch version. I'm hoping that eventually they'll manufacture ones to fit a variety of cake and loaf pans, but I'm not holding my breath for a toaster oven model.
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