photo by Anthony Palatta
A while back, Alton Brown of Food Network's Good Eats did a show on chocolate chip cookies, in which he offered three variations, each to satisfy different tastes. There was a recipe for thin, crisp cookies, chewy cookies, and then fluffy, puffy cookies.
I haven't tried the first two. (I don't like thin, crisp cookies, and the chewy cookies call for bread flour, which I don't have on hand and haven't gotten around to buying.) However, I have made the fluffy, puffy cookies several times, with, in my opinion, rich and delicious results.
What makes them puffy? A few things. The dough gets chilled before baking. Cold dough spreads more slowly. The recipe uses cake flour, lighter than all-purpose, which is sifted, to add air. A healthy amount of brown sugar is used in conjunction with white, which also prevents too much spreading. And finally, in the place of butter, the recipe uses butter-flavored shortening, a.k.a. Crisco.
Now, I know Crisco is a substance not known in nature. However, I find it useful in baking, and when I substitute the butter-flavored version for butter in pie crusts or cookies, the resulting products have a rich, complex, almost salty flavor that compliments the brown sugar in the chocolate chip cookie.
Also, as of 2007, there is no trans fat in Crisco. (Well, to be precise less than .5 grams, which the FDA considers equivalent to zero.) And wouldn't you rather be eating Crisco than lard?
No, say a vocal group of anti-Crisco crusaders, who argue that anything composed in a lab or factory rather than on an organic farm must be bad for you.
I don't know enough about science to weigh in on this issue. And generally I try to bake with good old butter or vegetable oil (for quick breads). But my feeling is that every once in a while, a bit of shortening can make a huge difference, for example in achieving flaky pie crusts. And if once in a while, you have a craving for fluffy, puffy chocolate chip cookies, with M & Ms added for crunch and color, then I say go for it.