Monday, October 31, 2011

'Animal style' peanut butter Halloween cookies

I once shared a dorm room during a high school overnight academic program with a girl named 'Taryn.'  Not 'Karen' or 'Tara.'  'Taryn,' like the two names had been smushed together by her parents. Taryn was from a tiny town named Ghent.  She was also one of those people who constantly made me feel inferior, every second I was around her.  Not because she was smart--although she was.  It was her other extracurricular activities, however, that intimidated me.

The first night, Taryn gave me a test that I would be forced to take more than the SATs for many years afterward--The Purity Test.  It was a series of yes or no questions.  A list I cannot reprint on a family blog.

Even though I lied and exaggerated about several of the answers, Taryn was still shocked at my high score. For the next eight weeks, Taryn would regale me with tales of running shoe-optional adventures with her cross-country team--including the coach.  She recounted over and over again what she said was her favorite novel: The Story of O. Even when eating what was, at the time, one of my favorite breakfasts--toast with peanut butter and blood red strawberry jelly--she could ruin my appetite simply telling me an anecdote from her own Story of Taryn, one of which involved white jeans.

The weird thing about Taryn was that none of my guy friends found her particularly sexy. It wasn't just that she was an 88 pound, tiny waif with straight hair she usually wore in a bun, and very conservative clothes (think khakis and pastel sleeveless sweaters).   Even for a sixteen-year-old guy, at some point, when you talk about something enough, eventually your audience's attention starts to glaze over.

That's kind of how I feel about the new trend for 'sexy' Halloween costumes. I am sure that sexy Halloween costumes have been popular in previous years, but this year every Halloween costume website I surf features an entire page devoted solely to sexy Halloween costumes.  Sexy nurse. Sexy cheerleader.  Sexy pirate. Sexy Elmo.

Usually, if you have to advertise something as 'sexy'--it isn't.

My advice--eveb if you want to bring sexy back to Halloween, save the extra cash.  Because the more you advertise you are sexy, the less sexy and more desperate you seem.

Many foods are sexy, but because of its association with childhood, peanut butter, despite its many devotees, is not a sexy food.  However, by making these peanut butter cookies, you will show that even with a glass of milk and cute peanut butter animal cookies in hand, you are still one sexy beast.


Woof! Woof!

Peanut Butter Cookies 'Animal-style'

Makes 24 cookies

From the Joy of Baking--a great, intensely peanut buttery recipe, with more peanut butter per cookie than is traditional

Ingredients 

3/4 cup room temperature butter

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

1 large, beaten egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup smooth peanut butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt
Candy corn and semi-sweet chocolate chips (for decoration)

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350F and prepare two parchment-lined baking sheets. Cream butter and sugars. Fold in egg, vanilla, and peanut butter.

2. Sift flour, baking soda and salt.

3. Spoon dry into wet mixture until well incorporated.  Form into balls.


4. To make 'cats,' flatten the peanut butter balls and make whiskers with a fork. Pinch 'ears' on the left and right upper corners of the cookie.


5. To make 'dogs,' simply flatten the peanut butter balls and shape into an oval, rather than a circle.





6. To make 'horses,' form two ovals with the ball of dough, stick the 'neck' and 'head' together.


7. Bake for 10-12 minutes.  Cookies will seem slightly underdone after being removed from oven.

8. Press candy corn and chocolate chips into the still-soft cookie, as illustrated above. Remove from baking sheet after 10 minutes and cool thoroughly.

The horse design still needs a bit of work, so here is a bit of inspiration in case you think of a better idea.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Smitten Kitchen's Brown Butter Sugar Shorties: 282 comments and counting

When I was six or so, I loved the Brady Bunch.  I even stuffed my hair into pigtails, in the hopes of looking like Cindy Brady.





Because, you know, if I looked like Cindy, then one day, when I became old, like really old--eighteen, I might look like:

Of course, Maureen McCormick developed bulimia, but all I knew at the time was that she had cool, flippy hair.  I was convinced that despite my brown locks I would grow up to have cool, flippy blonde hair that I could swing in a boy's face when I wanted to flirt with him. Instead, my mother insisted cutting my curly hair at home to save money, leaving me with a vaguely Peter Pan-esque, Davy Jones-style haircut rather than that of the coveted Marsha.

By the time I hit nine years old, my hair had grown into a great, fluffy mass. Kids used to call me "the wig lady" in school, and no amount of Nexxus could tame it.  Part of the problem was that big hair was supposed to be a 'good thing'  in the 1980s, and every hair product was designed to maximize rather than minimize volume. As a tubby kid with thick glasses, the last thing I needed was hair to make me look even bigger.  I tried using Pert Plus once, to be like the other girls in my class. Shampoo and conditioner in one?  Oh, they lied!  My mother had to cut out a knot the size of a brillo pad from my 'fro after I used green goo.

Unsurprisingly, I would come home every day from school, my hair crunchy with spitballs and cry.

These formative experiences often made me want to seem as unobtrusive as possible. Except when I was performing (I had a great 'turn' as the Queen of Hearts in 6th grade), I tried to hide.  By the time I was an adult I had perfected the art of disappearing.  I could creep so stealthily that despite living in some horrible neighborhoods in my 20s, no one ever mugged me (knocks wood) because I knew how to dart in-between the shadows.

Unfortunately, being unobtrusive is great if you're an chubby, unattractive prepubescent. Being a blogger aspiring to be the next Hot Young(ish) Thing...it ain't so great to be unobtrusive.  So I was totally jealous when I stumbled upon Brown Butter Brown Sugar Shorties by Smitten Kitchen.

I am obsessed with browned butter, but what made my head explode was how this recipe with nary and egg, and only the most basic ingredients of sugar, flour, vanilla and salt could generate 282 comments, debating the recipe's virtues.

The debate was this--following Deb's directions, and in Deb's pictures, thick, luscious slabs of cookies were produced by the rolled dough. Yet about half of the commentators, while they loved the taste, said that their efforts produced thin, crispy little rounds and complained about the sandy taste and the spreading. The other half said that these were the best cookies they had ever tasted.

You can see from my photograph what my results were....


Some spreading but a tasty cookie.  Reading comment 258  (yes, I did not go to graduate school in vain!  I read the comments), I didn't cream the browned, chilled butter to create a more solid dough.  Then, after the cookies cooled, I refrigerated them, to firm them up a bit.

Although they are rather plain, they taste lovely.  Much like the shy, slightly unattractive girl on the cookie platter of life who has inner beauty.

I made the recipe almost exactly as stated, but I'll rewrite it for 'technique's sake' since I incorporated some of the comment's suggestions in what I did:


Ingredients

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon  vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt



Directions

1. Brown butter in a pan, remove from heat and cool for 1 hour in the refrigerator


2. Mix butter and brown sugar together, but do not cream, then add vanilla.   Sift salt and flour together, incorporate into butter mixture.

3. Form dough into a 'log' (mine was about eight inches), wrap in parchment.  Chill for 2 hours until very firm.

4. Slice into 24-32 'rounds.'  Instead of rolling the log in brown sugar like Deb, I just sprinkled some brown sugar on top of the cookie flats.

5. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.  Cookies will be very fragile.  Chill after thoroughly cooled for at least 1 hour in the fridge to create a (slightly) sturdier cookie.





Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Toasted Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies

 As a 'creative type,' I've always shied away from taking instruction. This led to stunningly good grades in history and English, at least when I could finally break away from learning grammatical structures and do independent research. It also lead to stunningly bad grades in math and science which involved listening to what the teacher said and actually paying attention in class. 

I don't have the stereotypical personality of a baker, with a love of order and a house with everything straightened to right angles.  But I've changed quite a bit in the past few years, and I have come to realize how often when we are trying to be the most creative, we often fall into cliches and bad habits. By using a structure--whether it is iambic pentameter when writing a poem or the correct alignment in some physical activity, or a recipe, only then can real innovation take place.  Preexisting structure forces us out of our comfort zones.

And if Henry Ford tried to re-invent the wheel, we'd all be dragging ourselves around on top of square-wheeled cars...and using horses as a more efficient means of regular transportation.  Although, that might be a good thing.


I remember when taking some poetry classes, quite often lazy students would scrawl out on a piece of loose-leaf paper something like this:

Can't think of a poem.  
Can't think of a poem.
Oh man.
Can't think!
Poeme!

And then they'd complain when they got a C+.  "It's free verse!  You're stifling my creativity."

Compare that with the very technical execution of a villanelle, like "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night."  Or this poem "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster. 


Similarly, people who claim to be 'daring' and never follow recipes often find themselves making the same dish over and over again. Without the enforced structure of recipes, they never nudged to rewrite, to think of a new ingredient or word when confronted with the unknown technique or ingredient...to lose bad habits...

Form can actually inspire creativity, which is the essence of good baking...of course, just like Bishop 'plays' with the rhyme at the end of the poem, you can also play and jazz up a recipe, so long as you keep to the basic meter.  

Not unlike your creative potential when making this awesome recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Now, I prefer walnuts and dark chocolate chips, but you can also play around with toasted pecans and toffee chips, or toasted peanuts and peanut butter chips.  Go crazy with nuts and chips, just make sure the cookie is pure chocolatey goodness.

Ingredients

--yields 48 bite-sized cookies--

1/2 cup of finely chopped walnuts or other nuts of your preference
1 teaspoon of oil
1 teaspoon of sea salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
2 cups of semi-sweet or bittersweet chips
2/3 cups white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 beaten eggs
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup semi-sweet chips or 'chips of your choice'

Directions

1. Toast the nuts: preheat the oven to 425F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment and toss the chopped nuts with oil and sea salt.  Roast until crispy, approximately 3-7 minutes.

2. Melt the butter and chips in a saucepan over medium-low heat.  Remove from stove.

3. Combine the sugar, vanilla, eggs, salt, and flour.  Add to the chocolate mixture.

4. Incorporate the toasted (now cooled) nuts.

5.  Chill for 4 hours.  After 1/2 hour, when mixture is thoroughly cool, add the chips.  Don't wait until the mixture is fully chilled, because the dough will be too stiff and hard to stir.

6. Preheat oven to 350F. Roll dough into tablespoon-size balls.  Line 2 cookie sheets. Cook in two batches of 24 for approximately 8-11 minutes per batch. Yields 48 small cookies.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pecan Sandies Clone: I don't need no stinkin' elves

I have a pretty impressive geek resume.  I can quote entire passages of Blackadder and Monty Python verbatim. I've read my fair share of the Great Books. I like PBS and NPR. I love classical music and opera. I didn't go to my senior prom but I did watch each and every single episode of the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice.


However, there is one glaring omission: science fiction.  Other than Tom Baker and Peter Davidson in Doctor Who (which I loved more for their Britishness than the fantasy element), sci-fi leaves me cold.  With my fellow geek friends I would sit as they would compare various Star Trek episodes and anthologies of books with pictures of dragons and space ships on them. As my friends grew more excited, for me, it was like watching someone talk enthusiastically in a foreign language.  You sort of admire the passion but long for subtitles to understand what brings forth such emotion.

Dungeons and Dragons?  Ugh!  (Except for the Saturday morning cartoon). Don't even get me started on the multi-sided dice and being 'dungeon-mastered' by a guy in a black t-shirt emblazoned with a bad heavy metal band, while sitting in someone's basement in the 80s!


However, I've often regretted NOT loving a genre so immoderately. When I was a young teen, I won a few poetry and playwrighting awards.  Someone even told me: "you will go far with your writing, she [referencing a dear friend of mine who I regarded as equally talented, if not more so] writes too much about vampires and darkness, but you try to scratch the true surface of the human heart."  Egotistical little bitch that I was, I treasured this comment for many years.

The punchline is that SHE became a professional fantasy novelist and I became a boring editor who only gets to write for free on a food blog.


I was always particularly suspicious of the Keebler Elves, given that they reminded me of having to hear my guy friends who were obsessed with The Hobbit debate the merits of Bilbo Baggins versus Frodo and do their best Gandolf imitations.  For Hours.  And this was before the films were released!  However, I have to admit that this clone of their famous Pecan Sandies is pretty brilliant.  It doesn't have a lot of sugar but  is packed with buttery goodness.






Butterscotch Pecan Sandies

Adapted from Guittard Website

-yields 40 large cookies (approximate)-

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/3 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large, beaten egg
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 cups Nestles' Butterscotch Chips

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line 4 baking sheets with parchment, or bake in multiple batches.

2. Sift flour and baking soda together

3. Cream butter and sugar.  Add salt, vanilla, and egg.  Incorporate flour mixture slowly, followed by pecans and butterscotch chips.

4. Scoop with a rounded tablespoons onto parchment. Bake 10-12 minutes per batch.  I baked two cookie sheets at a time.

Note: The Guittard website states a yield of nine dozen using a teaspoon-sized scoop for these cookies and 8-10 minutes baking time. I don't think the yield would be as large, but if you would like you can make these cookies much smaller.  They will probably be more crisp than mine, but I prefer a softer butter cookie.



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Browned Butter Oatmeal Raisin Walnut Cookies: Men should make passes at girls who wear glasses (and make oatmeal cookies)


When I was eleven I read a book called It All Began with Jane Eyre, about a young girl named Franny who liked reading Jane Eyre while sitting in her closet, gorging herself on sour cream and onion-flavored potato chips and dip.   Since I liked Sherlock Holmes and potato chips, I decided to emulate Franny, much to my mother's chagrin when she vacuumed the house.

  Jane Eyre proved to be both a good and a bad teacher. At age eleven, I much preferred Wuthering Heights, which told the tale of Catherine Earnshaw and her fondness for brooding stableboys named Heathcliff. Unlike Emily Bronte's heroine Cathy, Charlotte Bronte's plain Jane waits for Rochester's mad wife Bertha to die and gains an independent income before she marries. Jane decides not to become Rochester's mistress and lose all social legitimacy and become dependent on him.  Catherine weds a weathly, socially powerful, and wimpy guy named Edgar, spurns Heathcliff and ends up in a loveless marriage and dies in childbirth despite her fondness for wandering the moors in childhood.  Jane is her own woman, Catherine is shackled until freed by death.

But I still liked Catherine best.

Also, I have come to the wisdom that salt and vinegar is a far superior flavor than sour cream and onion for potato chips and the idea that a plain girl could burn with an inner fire that would snag a hot and sexy man is about as realistic as suddenly discovering that a poor orphan is actually a heiress. 





You'd think, growing up in New Jersey, I would have known better when I fantasized that a guy could overlook my inability to apply eyeliner.  I mean, when I was chosen to play the romantic lead in a community theater production because no one under the age of fifty auditioned, the director was so saddened by the enforced casting of a short, brunette with curly hair he plastered me with more makeup than a drag queen and put a wig over my hair. The sixty-year-old woman with bright red hair who thought SHE should have been cast as the twenty-year-old romantic lead kept saying: "She looks so plain."  Ah, NJ--the only state where the motto is--'get all dressed up and then look in the mirror and put something EXTRA on."
As opposed to take that one thing off, for understated elegance.

The literary geek in me thinks that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights should be required reading for all junior high kids because of their use of first person narration and literary doubling (respectively).  The wise woman within me thinks that the triumph of plain Jane Eyre over pretty rich girls with big ta-tas like Blanche Ingram makes the book better classified as science fiction than literary romance. And the idea that a girl is always going to pick the rich guy over the stableboy in Wuthering Heights makes it a book filled with 'teachable moments.'

Have I tantalized you to make these oatmeal cookies yet, Mr. Rochester? 

Beneath the healthy surface lurks the intense flavor of browned butter.  Whip off the glasses of the pretty girl's face (she never seems to need them in the movies), ignore the flavorless sugar cookies with artificially-colored sugar on the plate and grab these instead.  You won't be sorry!

Browned Butter Oatmeal Cookies with Raisins and Walnuts

Adapted from Alice Medrich


-makes 32 small and 24 large cookies-

Ingredients
2 cups rolled oats (I used quick oats)
1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt (and more for sprinkling on the cookie)
1 large beaten egg
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins (I used 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1/2 cup dark raisins)

Directions
1. Place the oats in a bowl and soak in the water. They will be 'clumpy.'
2.  Sift flour, baking soda, spices, and salt
3. Brown the butter--bring to a bubbling simmer--over medium heat.  Remove from heat and add sugar, vanilla, salt, and after the mixture has cooled, then add the egg (make sure the butter isn't so hot that the egg will cook).  Stir in the flour mixture and then the oats, one cup at a time, then incorporate the walnuts and raisins.
4. The original recipe suggests chilling overnight or for at least 2 hours.  I chilled it for 1 1/2 hours and was still pleased with the result.


One warning with the chilling--I have read that chilled oatmeal dough can get very stiff and hard to scoop, unlike chilled chocolate chip cookie dough, so I 'scooped' the dough onto parchment sheets and covered them with plastic wrap in the refrigerator so the cookies would be pre-made and ready to pop in the oven. 

When making the cookies, use 1 or 1/2 tablespoons of dough.


5. Preheat the oven to 350F and bake for 10 minutes for small cookies, 12-15 for large cookies. Rotate halfway in between.  Cookies will be soft when taken from the oven, so make sure to cool completely before removing from the rack and serving.