Q: I bake dozens of cookies for holiday presents. This year, I'm thinking of making some with sweetener instead of sugar for the people with diabetes, weight concerns, etc., on my list. What will Splenda do to the cookies texture and flavor?
A: The flavor won't be affected if you use Splenda, measure for measure. But a lot of other characteristics will. The first thing you'll notice if you use Splenda in your traditional recipes is that you'll have only half the number of cookies. Because the sweetener is so light and fluffy, but dissolves into practically nothing for the same amount of sweetness, there will simply be a lot less cookie dough.
If you need the same number of cookies, you'll be baking twice as long. You could add some powdered milk to take up some of the space, but that will alter the texture and possibly the flavor. It works well in cakes or breads but not so well in cookies.
Another factor that will change is the color. Splenda does not brown the way sugar does. So you'll have pale cookies, unless you frost them or make them all chocolate. Splenda recommends using a squirt of pan spray on quick bread and cake batter to help with browning. I've not tried it on cookies, but it might help.
And third, things made with Splenda tend to bake faster even though they don't brown. Be sure to check for doneness three or four minutes before the usual time. You'll need to check by texture, not color. Cookies made with Splenda will be crisper and will dry out faster, because it doesn't hold moisture the way sugar does. You might want to try a batch or two made with half sugar, half Splenda to get some browning, some moisture and a few more cookies per batch. Or just use sugar and make them all smaller.
Q: I've seen cooking shows where they say to always blind bake a pie on the bottom shelf of the oven. Others don't seem to care about that but say to put the pie plate on a cookie sheet. Why the fuss and, if it does make a difference, which do you think is the better way?
A: Blind baking (baking the empty shell without the filling) is tricky. If it's not done well, the crust will shrivel, bubble, slide or collapse, none of which will give you a good pie shell for the filling. Baking on the bottom shelf or on a metal cookie sheet are intended to set the crust quickly by getting it hot faster. However, I tend to agree with the recommendations in Cook's Illustrated, that the problem is not the oven but how the crust was handled. Shrinking is caused by the gluten — wheat protein — in the flour being stretched and then snapping back. Collapsing happens when the protein isn't strong enough to hold the dough up until it sets.
Roll out the dough, put it in the pie plate and refrigerate it for at least 30-40 minutes, until it is firm. Then put it in the freezer for another 20 minutes. This will give the protein a chance to relax, but hold it in place. Bake it directly from frozen in a 375-degree oven to set the protein before it has a chance to soften and collapse.
The best way to handle bubbles under the crust is with weights. Metal or ceramic ones will heat the top of the crust faster, but rice or dry beans can be used if you don't have weights. Line the crust with foil first so you can lift the weights out when the crust is set. That way it can brown on top as it finishes baking. You should have a pretty crust for the fancy filling.