I Tried One-Star Baking Recipes so You Don’t Have to

By: William Ford

Sometimes the difference between one star and five stars is a single ingredient. Baking is less cooking and more of a science, combining the perfect ratios of ingredients to reach a desired outcome.  Baking is something I’ve been doing for over a decade when I would make cookies and cupcakes with my parents.  And baking is never more enjoyable than it is around the end of the year holidays, where seasonal recipes arise and we can enjoy warm winter treats.

And of course, not all recipes are the same.  Some are more well-adjusted than others, but they all take thought and effort, and they all have the potential to be five stars.  Here, I’ll be making one-star recipes gathered from around the internet, diagnosing their problem, and turning them into enjoyable and easily recreatable holiday recipes.

Recipe one: Basic Sugar Cookies

Original Recipe’s Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Cookies:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Assorted candies, sprinkles, or colored sugars, for decorating (optional)

Icing:

  • 1 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3-4 tablespoon milk, water or lemon juice

Sugar cookies are a classic.  They’re a warm, simple treat that can be decorated for any occasion.  They are almost impossible to mess up.  When initially making these cookies, I have one pressing thought: they will be very, very dry.  Though I want to give the recipe the benefit of the doubt, I decided to see what other people were saying, and the current reviews seem inclined to agree.

“I regret that I did not read the reviews first,” an anonymous user comments, “they were awful, hard, and very dry.”

Though while seeing these reviews, there were also the positives: “I triple this recipe!” “Never any leftovers!” It was for these that I delved further.

In the initial steps of the recipe, I combined my sugars with my butter, egg, and vanilla to create a creamy liquid base, as is a typical start to a recipe.  While doing so, I had noticed it was very runny: I could not decide whether it needed less liquid or more solid, but for now, I was following the recipe as written.  After combining my dry ingredients in a separate bowl, I began adding my creamed sugar mixture by the forkful and attempting to join the two mixtures.

It was a disaster.  The liquid was sticky, and it had blanketed itself in flour, making it impossible to combine further.  As a last resort, I washed my hands, donned a pair of gloves, and began to work the dough with my hands.  Slowly, it melded together.  And after working at it for an amount of time I lost track of, I rolled and cut the dough into palm-sized portions, smoothing them out onto the pan.

Martha Stewart demonstrates with Aisha Tyler how to properly roll the dough to follow along with this recipe.

As the cookies baked, I started on my frosting.  It proved simple enough: combine powdered sugar with about half a lemon’s worth of juice.  Though this seemed excessive and ended up being intolerably sour frosting, a dash of imitated vanilla ended up reducing the pucker it put on my lips.

The moment the cookies came out of the oven, I realized they were tall.  The recipe called for a strange amount of baking soda, which will cause the cookie to rise, but a sugar cookie is expected to deliver a classic, thin crunch.

Basic Sugar Cookies

Correcting this took trial and error and turned out far easier than I had thought: use about half the recommended amount of baking soda, and roll the cookies nearly twice as thin.  This caused the cookies to crisp around the edges while maintaining any desired shapes and sizes, making frosting and decorating far easier, and making the cookies far more traditional feeling.

Recipe two: Chocolate Marshmallow Pastries

Original Recipe’s Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

The only photo to go along with the recipe.  This one was a hook in itself.

Dough:

  • ⅓ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup vegan margarine (such as Earth Balance®)
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup semisweet chocolate chips (such as Ghiradelli® 60% Cacao)
  • ⅓ cup chopped pecans
  • ⅓ cup marshmallow cream

OK.  After seeing the only picture along with the recipe, I know what you’re thinking.  At first, I was disgusted too.  This odd choice for the cover photo, the lone review, the way the recipe was structured, all made it appear… repulsive.

The only review for this recipe, which I find it hard to believe John Cena himself has left.

There were absolutely no good qualities going for this recipe.  I had no idea what was ‘wrong’ with it, and as I wondered what I was getting myself into, I began gathering my ingredients.

The recipe required lots of various this-and-that’s.  Some things felt excessive and other things were absent entirely.  And to start off, I began as always: by creaming my sugar with my butter (or as the recipe demanded vegan margarine) and adding my cap-full of vanilla.

In the dry ingredients, I added cocoa, and in the wet, I added a lone egg white, which I thought strange.  These combined far easier than the previous recipes but came out no more promising.  Once again, I pulled on my gloves, and this time balled the dough, pressing a small dimple in the center of each cookie to be spooned full of marshmallow creme.

The outcome was not inedible.  It was far from it.  Though they were dry, cracked through the center, and stuck like glue to every crevice of your mouth, they tasted faintly of graham crackers and chocolate, like a poorly cooked smore.  I knew this recipe just needed to moisten up, rise and be the soft treat we expect a pastry to be.

To correct this, the first change I made was real, salted butter, remembering not to add the salt to my dry ingredients.  After perfecting the creamed sugar, I added two full beaten eggs, yolks present to the mix, topping it off with two tablespoons of milk and a larger dash of vanilla.  To my dry bowl, I added just one more cup of flour.

Combining these was stickier than the previous batch by a long shot, but the outcome was worth it.  After rolling the dough into balls, pressing them down, and adding their dose of creme, I baked them for a similar time, until the creme on top was golden brown.

I thought for the holidays the creme even looked like a blanket of snow.

These were my favorite part of the night.  They were soft and melty in the middle, while the crisped layer of creme on top had a pleasant crunch and creamy texture in the center.  The hint of chocolate lingered in your mouth and the warmth embraced your core.  This is a recipe I will always recreate, and I hope others can enjoy it alongside me.

And as you bake, keep in mind that it is easy to double, triple a recipe.  Remember to pick a good recipe, and to always follow the directions, making adjustments as you see fit.  And this round of holidays, make sure to make something sweet for someone you care about.

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