A kitchenaid mixer in motion mixing a green cookie dough.

My Chai Cookie Journey

It’s 2021, somehow. Things in my life have changed from my job to my current diet, and I’m going to spend more time focusing on me and the things I enjoy. This means my blog is going to get a lot more love moving forward. Let me tell you about the baking class I’m taking!

TL:DR; My journey of baking allergen-free for a course that glorifies cultured butter.
Want to bake the chai cookie I ended up with? Go here.

In December, I saw that Christina Tosi, famously of Momofuku’s Milk Bar, now it’s own very successful stand alone bakery, was hosting a baking course! I had just been laid off from my job in the events space after 4.5 years thanks to COVID, and I thought this was a great way to kick off my year in a positive manner. Learn from one of the best? Hell yeah. I’ve never actually taken a class for food making of any sort, unless you count 8th grade home ec. where I learned to make pancakes.

The course is broken up into three sections – the first one is cookies. When I looked at the course syllabus, there was a section for food substitutions and I was like – score! I can bake along and stick to my diet so I can still enjoy the foods and learn as I go. I was expecting some difficulties in swapping some ingredients, but certainly wasn’t expecting as many issues as I had.

Quick backstory on this Elimination Diet: I am currently trying to find potential allergies since I have some throat issues that cause “Dysphagia.” I won’t get super into it here, but the gist is that for the past 3 months I have been cutting out foods in six specific categories: Wheat, Dairy, Egg, Soy, Nuts & Seafood. The goal will be to test each category separately to see if I have an adverse reaction to it, and thus – I’m allergic. Unfortunately it’s not something you can test out of, so here I am. It’s challenging, but frankly there’s no better time to do it than in quarantine.

So – I kickoff my first bake-along class using my substitutions. A flour mixture I had on hand from some earlier experimenting, ground flaxseed to replace egg, soy-free butter, and my dough was looking pretty good. I was thinking “wow, this is going better than I expected!”

A top down image of a chocolate chip marshmallow cookie that has seeped on the sides due to not enough fat being in the butter used in the cookie.
pause for dramatic effect
Everything was not going according to plan.

I’m lucky I don’t currently have a day job, because my new day job was about to be trying every last “butter” substitute to see if I could fix my issue.

I made eight doughs of varying degrees of non-success. My verdict was that because the “butter” substitutes that I was using had no soy in them (ya know, because allergies) there was nothing to actually hold the oil together, so everything just kept becoming a pool or a lake of what was meant to be.

My first cookie was Earth Balance pressed olive oil butter. No luck. Second was just plain Earth Balance (no soy). No dice. Then I tried a mixture of Earth Balance no soy and Earth Balance Avocado oil. Nope. I tried Spectrum’s Palm Oil shortening. No no no no no.

I was at the end of my rope. I was convinced that it was the fat in my recipe because my cookies kept pooling and “lacing” on the edges which meant the fats weren’t combining with the sugars. Baking, science for hungry people (quote from Jeph Jacques). If fat is the issue, I know you can swap avocado for butter 1:1 so let me try that.

Issues here: My dough was green, the fat was too much and gave the cookie so much lift that they became biscuits/bombs, they had an underlying taste of banana/avocado to them, and frankly the dough didn’t bake all the way through so they were raw-ish in the middle. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t what I was looking for. After trying this I had gotten that cookie that almost looked like a cookie in my photos above, by cutting 70/30 ratio of butter to avocado. I think if I went 50/50 it would work, but again – cookies tasted/looked not great. Don’t want to risk it.

I got so upset that I thought “maybe I can’t even bake anymore,” because I had so many grand fails in a row. Each day was a new dough that didn’t work out. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not me, it was the ingredients, and as my husband said, I’m baking on “Dark Souls: hard mode” since I wasn’t just swapping out one ingredient type: it was most of them.

I went back to what I knew. I grabbed the real butter and eggs out of the mini fridge we’re keeping separate from all the ingredients I shouldn’t be eating in the back of my house, and I came out with a beautiful cookie that I couldn’t eat. My confidence was redeemed.

An image of a chewy, crunchy edge chocolate chip cookie

I was at a point in my class that I needed to be able to start experimenting with a successful base dough to come up with my original recipe, so I swallowed my pride and moved forward with the baking I knew I could do, so I wasn’t wasting all my time trying to make something work when I don’t have the ability to. No, I couldn’t change the world right now with a fully allergen replaced cookie, but I could start with what I know and work backwards eventually.

Two cookies with slightly different ingredients sitting next to each other on a square white plate.
Iteration 1 with two variants using the Tosi Base Dough. Left – Chai teabag + fresh diced ginger. Right – black teabag with added spices.

Finally. I could move forward. I couldn’t try the cookies, but I could certainly get my husband to eat some.

I won’t go into the whole cookie making process, although here are some experimental shots just because I like them. Frankly the process is better left for my lovely teacher and if Monthly decides to run this class again (I love it so I think if you can take it, you should!), but here are my takeaways.

  1. Learning is a process, and failure isn’t celebrated at all in American culture. I said to a friend that it’s been forever since I’ve failed this gloriously and it’s really put me in my place. If you’re not learning from mistakes or experimentation, you’re not growing. I can certainly say I’ve grown from this process – most of the people I’ve talked to didn’t know you could bake with avocado, and now I can say I’ve done it.
  2. Silver linings are real. No, my doughs didn’t work out in a finished cookie format. But I now know how to make cornflake crunch without allergens (swapping milk powder for rice powder was perfect). I also could eat that cookie dough with no raw-ingredient guilt, which will be perfect for any future pregnancies or fears of salmonella I may have.
  3. Vegan Butter sucks. Not really, but for baking – it’s not ideal. Maybe that’s the reason there’s no soy-free butter sticks, because they don’t want to encourage people like me to think they’ll work. They won’t. But I really want to give it up to any vegans or folks with allergies who have done the work before I got here. Thank you for all the research that’s out there for me that I can reap the benefits of.
A brown, somewhat crinkly looking spiced cookie being held up in a kitchen setting.
The final Chai cookie I hope to revisit and eat in a few months.

Want to bake the final product? Here’s the recipe post, let me know how it goes! And if you magically find a way to make an allergen free cookie – please send me a message. I gotta know what you did.

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