John Jannuzzi’s Perfect Cookies

All photos: Matt Rubin (mattrubinphoto.com)

There’s a well-dressed man in Nolita who will sell you a fan-fucking-tastic cookie for a buck—if you know which doorbell to ring. That man is writer and editor John Jannuzzi. You might know from Jannuzzi’s Instagram account that the dude likes to bake, but what you might not know is that, until six months ago, he had never really done it—until he set out to nail the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

If there was a show called “The Modern Man’s Guide to Cakes and Cookies,” Jannuzzi’s kitchen would be the set. Two Best Made axes loom over a cooling cookie rack. A GQ notepad—for jotting down recipes—sits near the sleek KitchenAid standing mixer. The refrigerator holds two magnets: a bottle opener and the fletching of a dart, which holds up baking tongs. Below, Jannuzzi talks about the science of baking, dieting in New York, and the trial and error in perfecting a recipe.

ON MAKING COOKIES

Last March I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I got hooked on spicy Mexican chocolate. There’s a shop there called Kakawa, where they sell ancient Mezoamerican chocolate elixirs. We would go every morning and go nuts; we were on vacation. I got really addicted to that flavor, and when I came back from New Mexico, I couldn’t really find anything resembling it around here, so I decided to try to make it myself. I experimented with chocolate cakes—some from scratch and some from a box—and added red chili from New Mexico, or Ancho chili powder, I even threw sriracha in there, anything to get that flavor back. Then I tried making doughnuts with a sriracha glaze, and I would bring them into the office and people would just eat them.

Cakes and doughnuts are a little complicated. They take half a day to make, and when you’re just starting out, you don’t really know what you’re doing. Cookies seemed easier—not only to make but also to move, to bring to someone. So I decided to try a chocolate cookie. I started messing around with different recipes and doing a lot of research in my free time. J. Kenji López-Alt, who writes The Food Lab column on Serious Eats, and who also has a great new book out of the same name, did this in-depth story on the science of chocolate chip cookies. He has a crazy science background and approaches everything scientifically. The article had the basics on how every ingredient affects the end result, like baking soda vs. baking powder, egg whites vs. egg yolks, crazy things that I had never thought of having an effect. That’s why I liked getting into baking—it’s all chemistry. The more you understand what is happening, the more you can enjoy it, and the more you can fuss with it a little bit. I wanted to see all the different effects instead of just reading about them, so I set out to make the chocolate chip cookie that I thought would be really good. There were a lot of bad batches, and a lot of decent ones, and I finally settled on a great recipe. Once I felt like I had nailed the chocolate chip, I did peanut butter, then sugar, and then a cinnamon bun-inspired cookie. Anyone can make a cookie from the Tollhouse recipe, but when you really get into it and look at all the different effects, it’s weird and exciting.

watching people enjoy food you’ve made is really rewarding.

I’ve been cooking for a while, just simple stuff. When I used to eat a ton of red meat I would cook steak all the time. I worked at a steakhouse when I first moved to the city, so I got some knowledge of cooking from the chefs there. I used to hate grocery stores—I think it’s a hangover from when I was 16 and my mom was like, “you have a car now, you have to go grocery shopping for us”—but now I find it therapeutic to walk through the aisles and figure out what I can make. I’ll go to Whole Foods on a weekend and try to stock up for the week. If I’m making fish or any kind of protein I’ll buy it day of, at either Gourmet Garage or Dean and Deluca on my way home from work. I’ll also go to the grocery store around the corner from my apartment, because Whole Foods doesn’t have any of that good candy—I want real Peanut M&Ms, not whatever organic version they have.

My mother, my grandfather, and both of my grandmothers were incredible chefs. When my brother and I go back to visit, there is constantly food being made for us. I grew up with food being really important, and everything that my mother cooked for us was really rich. We were big fat kids. But it was good, because it made food a really important part of our lives. Food is such a social activity. Also, it has incredible power. If it’s really good and you’ve had a really shitty day it can turn everything around. If I haven’t had anything to look forward to, a meal is always something I can look forward to.

ON EATING WELL

I just finished this crazy diet with Core Rhythm fitness. They evaluate your diet based on urine tests, and they check up every two weeks. You can’t really cheat because they’ll know. It’s an 8-10 week commitment. The diet is supposed to take your body back to basic in terms of what you’re eating, and then slowly add foods back to see how your body responds. In terms of protein, it’s eggs and fish, and a very large selection of vegetables, and lots of healthy fats like avocado. Then they add back seeds and nuts and berries.

On the diet, it’s much easier to cook than to go to a restaurant. When I first started working out I ordered from Seamless all the time. Some food-paranoid people were like, “you don’t really know what’s in there,” to which I replied, “I don’t really care,” but once I started paying more attention to what I ate, I realized that I could control things much more on my own. Then I found out I enjoyed it. At first I was just throwing a bunch of stuff in a skillet. It didn’t look very good but it tasted okay. Dieting in New York can be frustrating because friends or acquaintances will ask you to have a drink or a piece of cake, and you don’t want to be that person who has to look at the menu first before going out for dinner, or to haggle with the waiter for greens and nothing extra. It’s frustrating for the waiter, it’s probably really annoying for the chef, and you feel like a dick doing it.

The first ten days on the diet were really hard because I didn’t change how I exercised at all. Before I started it, I was eating like five to ten cookies at night and then eating three eggs in the morning, so I had tons of carbs and sugar and a little bit of protein to go nuts with at the gym. Switching to no carbs, no sugars—in the case of a cookie at least—and usually going on an empty stomach, the things I had normally found easy to do were really taxing and a little dangerous. So I had to adjust. But other than that, your body gets used to things, and now I wake up feeling way more energized. You feel better because you’re running on better fuel. Nothing you eat is empty, everything has a purpose. But yeah, those first ten days were tough.

AftertastesJohn-08459

ON HIS KITCHEN

Most of my baking supplies are fairly new. I got the KitchenAid at the beginning of the summer. I was starting to mess with recipes and each one called for a mixer or a KitchenAid. I’ve used a handheld mixer before and it could potentially be a disaster, so I just got the KitchenAid. It also reminds me of growing up, because we had the same one in our family house. They last forever and it has made experimenting a lot easier.

I have a comically large breakfast every morning. It’s a bowl full of veggies, an avocado, and five scrambled eggs, and it keeps me full for pretty much most of the day. My fridge has lots of eggs and lots of dairy. Sour cream is an interesting substitute for butter in a cookie, or in addition to butter. It gives a totally different texture. The freezer is filled with candy. If I’m not going to make a big batch, I’ll put some candy into the cookies, like Kit Kat pieces or Reese’s Cups. There’s also a cake in my freezer that has been in here for about seven weeks. It’s part Momofuku and part recipe from Erica Leahy, a pastry chef I used to work with.

Being in Nolita is great because you’re close to the Bowery, where all the restaurant supply stores are. I got most of my kitchen supplies there, at the one on the corner of Bowery just before Houston—I think it’s called Rainbow Kitchen Supplies—they have everything and it’s super cheap. It’s where I got all of my dishes. They close early though, so sometimes I’ll go to Sur La Table. I hate that store.

AftertastesJohn-08733

ON COOKING FOR OTHER PEOPLE

I don’t do it on a regular basis but I really enjoy it. That’s one of the things I love about the cookies, when someone tastes them and I’m watching like a hawk whether they know it or not, and I see their reaction—their eyes roll back and I’m just like ‘yesssss, I did it.’ I like that aspect of it. Whether it’s a cookie, or whether people are over for dinner, or you’re bringing something to a barbecue, watching people enjoy food you’ve made is really rewarding. Although now it has gotten to the point where if I’m going anywhere, people expect me to bring them. I’ll be hanging out with my friends and they’re like, ‘did you bring cookies?’

Cooking and baking have become such a regular part of my life now, that I can’t even remember not doing it before, and it hasn’t even been that long. The only thing that sucks is cleaning up.