Ben Starr’s blog…recipes, travel, DIY, musings, stuff and nonsense.

One-Bowl No-Mixer Pumpkin Muffins

Perfect Homemade Fortune Cookies

Makes 12-18 fortune cookies depending on size and thickness.

Fortune cookies are remarkably easy to make…IF…you have the right recipe.  Many of the recipes on the net call for fat in the form of butter or oil.  The problem there is that you end up with greasy fortunes.  The remaining recipes, at least the ones I’ve found, have a very high sugar content, and sugar is hygroscopic…meaning, it attracts moisture…so the fortune cookies quickly get soft or soggy after baking, and once this happens, the fortunes inside tend to stick to the cookie when you open it.  No good.

At a recent FRANK dinner, we wanted to serve fortune cookies at the end of the meal, so I spent 3 weeks perfecting a fortune cookie recipe that will work beautifully for you.  The recipe couldn’t be more simple, but the technique itself is something that takes a little practice.  Once you’ve done a few trays, you’ll get faster at it and can churn them out pretty quickly, but don’t expect your first few to be perfect.  You need to learn your oven and adjust the baking temp and time to get them just right!

First thing’s first…equipment.  You don’t NEED special equipment to make these, but a few “specialty” items will help you out considerably.  All can be gotten at a restaurant supply store for pretty cheap or snag them here on Amazon:

1/2 ounce ladle
small offset spatula

cotton gloves

Next, you need your fortunes!  They should be about 3″ long and not too wide.  Get them cut out and spread out individually along the edge of your countertop before you begin.

Preheat your oven to 400F and place a rack 1 space up from the center of the oven.

Line a couple of baking sheets with silpats.  If you don’t have silpats, you’ll want to spray the baking sheet liberally with oil.  This will keep your fortune cookies from sticking to the pan, however, you’re introducing oil which can make your fortunes greasy.  I’ll explain how to mitigate this a little later.  Some people find it’s easier to turn the baking sheet upside down and bake the fortune cookies on the bottom, which is fine.  But that makes them harder to handle, and there is potential for the cookies to slide off the sheet when removing it from the oven, so there’s a tradeoff.

On your workspace, have a big coffee cup or bowl handy (for folding the fortune cookies) and have a standard muffin tin ready to help hold the fortune cookies in their shape as they cool.

In a bowl, or using your stand mixer, combine:

4 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp real almond extract
1/4 tsp kosher salt

Beat the mixture until the egg whites are foamy, but not to the point where they begin to turn into a fluffy meringue:

In a separate bowl, combine:

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar

Sift the mixture into the egg white bowl, then mix just until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.  You’ll have a fairly stiff batter:

Now loosen the batter up by adding:

1-3 Tbsp water

The amount you need will depend on the age of your egg whites, the hydration level of your flour, etc.  You’re aiming for a pourable consistency, but not too loose or runny.  When you ladle the batter onto the baking sheet, it should spread slowly, not quickly.  When mixing, the mixture should sink right back into the bowl without holding its shape, like it does in the photo above.

Drop 1 Tablespoon (or half-ounce…thus the ladle) of batter onto the baking sheet.  Then gently spread the batter until it forms a circle about 3-3 1/2 inches in width.  The ladle makes this super easy, as the bottom of the ladle bowl makes a perfect spreader.  But you can also use a Tablespoon to measure, and a knife or spatula to spread the batter out.  Don’t get too fussy about making perfect circles.  You’re really not going to notice once the cookie is folded:

The cookies will expand a little in the oven, so be sure to leave plenty of space between each cookie.  Also, only bake 2 or 3 cookies at a time until you get your oven timing and temp straightened out, and until you have the folding method down.  Once the cookie is out of the oven for more than a minute or so, it becomes impossible to fold without tearing or breaking.  When you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be able to make about 6 at a time on a standard half-sheet baking pan (the size that fits in most people’s ovens).

Place the cookies into the preheated 400 degree oven and bake for 5 minutes.  Then take a peek.  You’re looking for a slight amount of color around the very edge of the cookie, but not too much in the other areas of the cookie:

This cookie probably went about 30 seconds too long…or the oven temp was 5-10 degrees too high.  This is where you’ll begin to learn what temperature and time works best for your oven.  The cookie above will still fold properly and be fine, but too much more browning and it will be harder to fold and won’t look as proper once it’s finished.

When your cookies have baked to perfection, work quickly. Remove them from the oven.  Tug on a pair of white cotton gloves, or a couple pairs of latex gloves…anything to keep you from burning your fingers.  Using a spatula, pull one of the cookies from the pan and into the palm of your non-dominant hand.  (ie, your left hand, if you’re right handed)

Now you have a choice…which side to use.  If you’re baking on silpats and not using cooking spray, either side will work.  If you put the side that was in contact with the pan facing up, your fortune cookies will have a matte finish.  If you put the side that was in contact with the pan facing down (ie, in contact with your palm), your cookies will have a glossier and more traditional look.  However, if you used cooking spray, you MUST put the side that was in contact with the pan (and thus, the oil) facing down in contact with your palm, otherwise your fortunes will get greasy.  The cookie will be VERY hot…thus the need for gloves of some sort.

Wipe your dominant hand quickly to remove any oil you may have touched and then place a fortune in the center of the cookie:

Then fold the cookie in half, just like a taco:

Now, using both hands, fold the cookie in half using the rim of a coffee mug or bowl:

Now your cookie is formed, but is still too soft to hold its shape.  Place it gently into a muffin pan to keep it folded:

Continue working until all your cookies are stuffed and folded.  Then you can bake the next round.  If you have double ovens you can have 2 batches going at a time once you get the hang of it, or you can have a helper pouring batter and baking the cookies, while you stuff and shape them.  I can make about 80 cookies in an hour, twice that if I have help.

Unfortunately…you’re not done yet.  Once all the cookies are baked and shaped, you need to finish them by dehydrating the remaining moisture, so they will be snappy and crisp.  You’ll notice, as they are at this point, once cooled, they’re still a little soft.  (You can somewhat solve this problem by baking them until they are fully brown, but they don’t brown evenly, and then they look spotted.  Under-baking, like I’ve described, will give you pretty results and then you just dehydrate them overnight in the oven.)

Once the oven has mostly cooled down, set it to 180F (or “keep warm” setting) and place the cookies, still in their muffin tins, into the oven.  Bake them for 6-8 hours until they are hard and crisp.  Set your oven’s timer to turn off automatically if you’re worried, or just check them when you wake up.  They can’t really overbake, so don’t worry about that.

To store the cookies, place them in a sealed ziploc bag.  I also keep little packets of silica gel in my pantry for this type of thing, as it will help keep them crisp and dry for longer.

If, for some reason, your cookies start to get soft again, just bake them at 200 for a few hours to crisp them back up.

About Last Night

Today I turn 40.

And I have to admit, I’m sorta speechless…which is unusual for me. I always have plenty to say about everything.

The first thing that comes to mind was my 30th birthday. I was in Seattle with my friend-family up there, and we filled our backpacks with great wine, iron skillets, and fresh ingredients from the Pike Place Market, took the ferry over to the Olympic Peninsula (one of my favorite places on Earth) and packed several miles up into the North Fork of the Hoh River valley…a deep, mysterious temperate rainforest. We camped on a gravel bar in the middle of the glacial river, spent a few hours picking wild raspberries, and cooked a fabulous meal, celebrating into the night. I danced naked by the fire under a trillion stars and plunged into the rushing 40 degree water. In this manner, my 30s were ushered in. And my 30s were infinitely better than my 20s.

Not to say my 20s were bad! In my 20s I was a wanderer. I worked my way to all 7 continents…more than 40 countries. I stayed with families and in youth hostels. I learned about life in many cultures. My brain was stretched far beyond the formatting of my rural Texas upbringing. I learned to cook ingredients I couldn’t pronounce. I also did crazy things…I jumped off waterfalls, rappelled into caves, dug up an unexploded bomb I found in the backcountry of the White Sands Missile Range (where I shouldn’t have been in the first place!) and packed it out in my backpack, dug for buried treasure on the Mexican border, and even spent a few nights in jail. There was adventure at every turn. I was always broke, and never pleased with my life. My family had raised me for “great things.” They had hoped that I’d end up in politics or public service, like other prominent members of my family. Leave a mark on the nation. And while I was blindly following my nature in my 20s, with all the wandering and adventure, I certainly wasn’t getting myself closer to the Ben I was raised to be. And I felt an increasing sense of dread that I would disappoint everyone who had put so much effort into my youth.

My 30s were less about wandering the globe, and more about…well…reality TV to be honest. How trashy and pathetic that sounds! It started with Rachael Ray’s “Hey, Can You Cook?” which was a bit of a rude awakening. As someone who pretty much exclusively watches CNN and South Park (when I have a rare moment for television), I was on reality TV before I had seen reality TV. And I learned quite a bit in that first stint. Namely, that networks produce reality TV not because Americans love it, but because it’s cheaper to produce than scripted television. And if you leave reality TV to reality, you end up with something that MIGHT be great, or might be boring. And we can’t have viewers tuning out. So virtually all “unscripted television” is carefully crafted to remain gripping from episode to episode.

Despite my complicated relationship with reality TV, it changed my life. After MasterChef, my life became entirely about cooking. For the past 5 years I’ve been wrapped up in this bizarre, unconventional anti-restaurant project with Jennie Kelley and Adrien Nieto (both from MasterChef) called FRANK, where we basically throw the most fabulous dinner party on the planet for a bunch of strangers who gather around a massive table, and they feast and drink and learn all about the ingredients and the techniques and the stories behind the farmers. And it has been the single most fulfilling enterprise of my life.

Who knows what my 40s will have in store? If I judge them based on the trajectory of my life thus far, they’re gonna be pretty awesome.

But when I look back on what I’ve learned in this half of my life, it’s actually pretty simple:

Be good to people. Love them desperately, unconditionally, even when it’s hard to. And take them on adventures.

Last night I walked into my favorite little neighborhood Italian restaurant…the kind where you can bring your own bottle of wine and have a fabulous dinner for $15. Where you know all the servers and they all know you and get excited to see you walk through the door.

I expected to see my friends from FRANK there…maybe 10 people at the most. Today I was to celebrate with some of my older friends who I’ve known from my 20s and before.

As I strolled through the door, I saw a familiar face that did not belong there. A dear friend who lives in San Francisco. A guy I’ve known since he was a kid.

And then more faces…a couple who I’ve known more than half my life. They live in San Diego and I’ve been all over the world with them…crawling through skeleton-filled caves in Belize and zipping across azure waters in a rickety boat in Thailand.

Then the face of one of my dearest friends from LA, who built a business with me and has provided me with a livelihood for the past 15 years that I’d never have been able to achieve working an hourly job. He and I have climbed volcanoes and snuck across borders together. He is my kindred spirit in travel.

Then the face of the first person I ever truly fell in love with…a guy I’ve known since he was a kid. I’ve known him far more than half his life. He and his partner live in Seattle, and I’ve backpacked with him through forests thick with grizzly bears, and watched fountains of lava plummet into the ocean, spraying us with hydrochloric acid, and chased pigeons in busy city squares.

Face after face, from people who lived thousands of miles away.

These faces did not belong here. How was it possible that they were all gathered together? For me?

After weeping…and I mean that ugly, UGLY kind of weeping where your face muscles start chasing the nerve impulses in your brain and your bottom lip ends up near your left ear…for many, many minutes (hours?)…I sat down in a daze, surrounded by more than 30 people from my life. People who have shaped me. People who I desperately love. There were faces of childhood friends I’ve loved since grade school. There were faces of people I’ve known only a year, but who I’ve come to love just as much.

Part of me felt worthless. Almost guilty. These people had traveled halfway across the country to eat dinner with me on my birthday. How could I be worth that? What could I possibly give them that evening that could justify their journey and expense?

One by one, they told me what role I had played in their life. It was like being hit by emotional 18-wheelers, one after the other.

But all I had done was love them, each in their turn. For some, I was a naive child when I started loving them. For some, I was a world-wise adult. But I loved them, and I took them on adventures. Taught them. Learned from them. Was good to them. Loved them honestly and endlessly, in the only way I knew how.

I wish everyone could experience what I experienced last night.

As I move into my 40s, I realize that the ONLY thing that makes life worth living is the people you live it with. I galavanted across the globe as a young, irresponsible guy running away from the expectations of family. But when I dragged people with me, I was building the foundations of a friend family that are, without a doubt, the thing that gives my life the most meaning.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it over and over again until I die, whenever that may be:

I am the richest person on this planet. Not for money…for I have almost none of that. I am rich, endlessly and unimaginably, from the love of the people who’ve left their grubby fingerprints all over my soul.

Jennie, Chris, Doodles, and my Sweet Lover…I can’t thank you enough for orchestrating this best-of-all-surprises. It was the best night of the last 40 years.