Baking Scientists Desperately Needed!
December 11, 2016 9:32 PM   Subscribe

I got a new natural gas stove, and now my 20-year-old recipe for Russian Tea Cakes refuses to bake correctly. Why?

Here are the ingredients:

1 c. butter
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2-1/4 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. finely chopped nuts

1" balls of chilled dough are cooked at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes. They used to retain their shape, now they "melt" into a crumbly puddle.

What I've tried: calibrating the oven (it was a bit off, but correction didn't solve the problem); baking for 10 minutes at lower temps; baking at 400 for shorter periods of time. The ONLY thing that's different is the new natural gas oven.

Help! How do I fix this recipe? This is a family heirloom recipe that is being anxiously awaited to complete the Christmas season. Thanks Mefites!
posted by summerstorm to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The oven is unlikely to be the problem. "melting into a crumbly puddle" rather than keeping their shape is usually an indication that either the sugar or the fat is different. Are you using the same brand of butter or powdered sugar that you used to? If so, did it change? Are you using a new bag of flour? (I make those same cookies in a gas oven, have for years. Works just fine.)
posted by jlkr at 9:50 PM on December 11, 2016

Is your new oven a convection oven? Convection ovens heat hotter even set to a certain temp. Also, what level are you placing the sheet pan? Low, middle or high racks?
posted by jadepearl at 9:50 PM on December 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is the new oven bigger or smaller than the old one such that using the same cookie sheets allows or doesn't allow air to circulate in the same way?
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:51 PM on December 11, 2016

A cup of butter is pretty standard expression in US recipes -- it means 2 sticks to an American, or half a pound. 16 tablespoons.

I agree that the butter is running the dough outwards before the steam in the butter is lifting and the gluten in the flour is holding it all together. Baked goods like cookies are a balancing act between the ingredients that want to go up (steam, baking soda/powder, air pockets) and those that want to go outwards (fat).

I think this oven is maybe colder than the previous oven-- not to say its thermostat isn't accurate; it could as easily be that the previous oven was hotter. Get an oven thermometer and check the true temp in there. Part of me thinks hotter is the way to go, but I don't know.

Do other recipes for these add any baking soda/powder? I would think a little powder might help here. Also, make sure you're got your creaming technique going: cream butter and sugar together so they're fluffy, add vanilla, and then add the combination of dry ingredients, followed by nuts.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:12 PM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

[If you don't know what the recipe is AND you know nothing about baking, this is not the question for you!]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 10:17 PM on December 11, 2016 [22 favorites]

This sounds very similar to a shortbread recipe I just made (almost same ingredients, minus the nuts), so this suggestion is based on my knowledge of that recipe in my gas oven.

It looks like the ingredients are cooking too slowly, hence the butter is melting out. Maybe the ingredients aren't chilled enough before being put in or maybe the oven isn't hot enough. Try increasing the chill time and increasing the temperature of your oven by about 15 degrees (maybe even more than that) - make sure that the sheet is on the middle rack.

You say it is all the same, except for the oven, but what type of cookie sheet are you using? Has this changed at all?

Also, I had some failure with the shortbread rolled into little balls, so I ended up pressing it into a glass pan, baking and then slicing into nice squares when it was cool. You may consider this option as well, as it helped eliminate the question of shape retention.
posted by Toddles at 10:34 PM on December 11, 2016

If you used to have an electric oven, then AFAIK gas ovens cook at a higher humidity. So, as mentoned above, try a higher temperature, and you could also try dryer dough, for example by increasing the amount of flour or nuts by ... I dunno, a bit? Also - you calibrated your new oven - but did you ever calibrate the old one? Even if it was also a gas oven, maybe it just cooked hotter than declared / than the new one.
posted by labberdasher at 11:11 PM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Was your old oven a fan/convection oven and your new one isn't? I'd try baking them at about 420 for a minute or 2 less. What you want is for the outside to start to cook/set before the butter melts into a puddle
posted by missmagenta at 2:56 AM on December 12, 2016

Quick fix: you could freeze the cookie balls and then bake them directly out of the freezer -- it'll help them keep their shape better. It might take a minute or two more to cook, so check as you go.

In terms of root causes, my first guess would be that your old oven ran hotter than your current oven (either because it was convection, because it had hot spots, or just because its thermostat was off). I'd try baking at 425, watching carefully and perhaps taking them out a minute or two early.

My next guess would be flour. It might have changed in a couple of different ways without you being aware of it -- gluten content (and absorbency) can change seasonally, and/or the flour can settle or fluff in your cupboard, meaning that the amount of flour in 1 cup measure can vary widely. Here are some things to check/try with the flour:
- Has your cookie batter been the same consistency/stiffness as before? If not, try adding more flour until it feels right.
- Try weighing your flour instead of measuring it by the cup. 2 cups should weigh in at 257 grams or 9.1 oz.
- Try subbing in bread flour (more gluten) instead of the all-purpose flour and see what happens -- it should make the cookie dough stiffer & better at holding its shape.

An outside possibility: powdered sugar can vary dramatically by brand. Most conventional powdered sugar is mixed with cornstarch, but organic powdered sugar uses tapioca flour instead. This definitely has an effect on baking, though I think it's unlikely it would cause the problem you describe. But, if you have recently switched brands of powdered sugar, it wouldn't hurt to switch back.

You might find some more leads in this in-depth exploration of chocolate chip cookie making. Not all of the points apply to your Russian Tea Cakes, but some do -- for instance, the suggestion that a hotter oven might be the way to go, and that bread flour might help. Good luck!
posted by ourobouros at 4:24 AM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Do you have the same fridge? Maybe it's not as cold as your old one.
posted by kjs4 at 4:36 AM on December 12, 2016

Have you changed cookie sheets and/or is the oven slightly bigger/smaller? How the sheet fits in the oven will change how the heat transfers to the top.
Maybe you will just have to make this a science experiment: make a batch, divide into four and try four different temps - two below and two above.
posted by 445supermag at 6:51 AM on December 12, 2016

So, my gas oven is not super new, but it does have electronic controls. After baking a few times at a friend's house with an electric oven (might be convection, she doesn't know and hasn't read the manual), I have realized how freaking different gas ovens behave.

The heating cycle is absurd for my oven. By my oven thermometer against the temp setting, it does get hot enough. But it drops by something like 50F degrees before the heat kicks back on. Everything takes longer, sometimes astonishingly longer from directions. But I don't think the right solution is to go hotter. Hotter doesn't help, in my experience. Make sure you've got the rack in the right spot, which is lower than where I'd put it in an electric oven.

Specific suggestions: Chill the dough balls at least overnight, or better, freeze them and bake from frozen. I've had the most consistent results with cookies in my oven baked when from frozen. Just bake them a few minutes longer. It will probably take some experimentation. Parchment paper or silicone mats. Never put the cookie balls on hot baking sheets.

Good luck getting this ironed out. I'm sorry I don't have any specific suggestions for Russian Tea Cakes. But I do always think it is a good idea to bake by weight. King Arthur Flour has a similar recipe with weight in ounces or grams as options. Could be a worth a look.
posted by monopas at 6:00 PM on December 12, 2016

If you still need help, King Arthur Flour has a baking hotline that you can call and they will help you solve your baking problems.
posted by nalyd at 6:10 PM on December 12, 2016

Well, I'm embarrassed to tell you what the problem turned out to be: I had mis-read the recipe and added one too many sticks of butter. I figured it out when I made a second batch - the consistency was quite a bit different - less greasy and more floury. The extra butter was the problem. Occam's Razor!
posted by summerstorm at 9:50 PM on December 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

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