the ispahan cookie fail

I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve never baked a bad batch of cookies. Let’s be honest: it’s not much of a brag anyway. Even if you fall short, there is still the flawless marriage of flour, sugar, butter, vanilla…all the good things.

But my unblemished record came to a screeching halt last week with a batch of Ispahan Sables. Ispahan? Ah, yes, my first mistake. If you can’t pronounce the name, it’s probably best to move on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Things began unremarkably enough. I was listening to one of my new favorite podcasts, Were You Raised By Wolves? It’s a wonderful show about good manners and who among us can’t afford a side trip down etiquette lane? A listener submitted a question about the appropriateness of throwing one’s own birthday party and serving a favorite, yet unconventionally-flavored, cake? It led to a discussion between the two hosts about their favorites whereupon Nick Leighton mentioned Ispahan. Ispa-what?

Subsequent research found it was a signature flavor of master Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme. It’s a combination of rose water, raspberries, and sometimes lychee. This gem is among his most famous concoctions, but Monsieur Herme has incorporated the flavor into everything from cake to Buche du Noel to tea and more.

I’ve used rose water in cooking and I love the flavor. I made these rose water and raspberry macarons, which turned out amazingly well considering they’re vegan and the recipe substituted “aquafaba” (literally, the liquid in which garbanzo beans are packed) for the egg whites. I made this rose water ice cream for a small gathering and it was magical. So, I had every confidence I could conquer a simple sable (basically, butter cookie) recipe even if I couldn’t pronounce Ispahan and they emerged from French culinary tradition.

Here’s the thing. I might have taken a few bad turns. Sometimes in life you can recover from bad turns. In cooking, not so much.

First, I bought raw butter, which has a distinct, earthy flavor, overpowering in a shortbread cookie. Second, I found freeze-dried raspberries at Trader Joes, but they came in a combo pack of raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. I would have needed to buy three packs to yield the necessary 1/2 cup of raspberries and they were $3.99 each. I went with a $3.49 pack of freeze-dried strawberries instead. Close enough. Except no. There are no strawberries in Ispahan. Third, I skipped the recipe notes, which pointed out the distinction between rose water, which is diluted rose extract, and pure rose extract. I used the former.

All of this was compounded by a small misunderstanding between me and Chef Dorie Greenspan, who adapted the recipe. Chef Greenspan said to split the dough into four pieces and roll each into 8″ logs. Now, see here’s the problem. “Log” is a relative term. To me, it’s a bit substantial. To Chef Greenspan, a log is roughly the width and length of a hot dog. Hence, her batch yielded 60 cookies; mind yielded 32. And while no other bakers pointed out an error in oven time (19-21 minutes at 325 degrees), Chef Greenspan’s “golden brown bottoms and pale tops” were my burnt-ish brown bottoms and toasty tops.

But I like to take lessons from my mistakes so here is what I learned.

  1. The replication of a dessert created by the recognized master of French pastry is probably not advised.
  2. If attempting the replication of said dessert by said master, it is likely not good practice to “wing it” with substitutions. I have a feeling “wing it” is not even translatable to the French.
  3. Finally, whether baking cookies or eating them, it is recommended one never bite off more than one can chew.

I hate to end on a “taste-less” note, so here’s one for you. This chocolate chip cookie recipe by David Leite is perfection. It’s probably the only cookie recipe you really need.

There. I fixed it.

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