Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Molasses brown butter chocolate chip cookies: Exercising self-control

On the surface, I have all of the trappings of a woman with a great deal of self-control. I'm a daily runner, and I pay my bills early. I don't spend my money on fancy beauty creams that don't work. However, I am kind of a reverse superhero.  A true superhero is an apparently ordinary person, like dorky Clark Kent or Peter Parker, who has enormous reserves of a hidden talent.  Beneath my serious exterior bubbles my real self--a person with no self-control at all. I run daily because I like it, not because I will it to happen and while I'm not addicted to shoes or shopping, my decision to embrace the hobby of horseback riding in my mid-30s was hardly a calculated and sensible financial decision.

I feel pretty confident that at four years old, I could have passed the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. This experiment 'proved' that children who were willing to forgo eating a marshmallow until the experimenter returned, with the promise of being given two marshmallows as a reward, demonstrated better self-control later in life than those who did not and ate the single marshmallow immediately. The impulsive kids gloried in the pleasures of the moment and behaved in an undisciplined fashion even as adults. The two marshmallow, delayed gratification kids grew into more successful and disciplined grown-ups.

Flickr: Dimitri N
Flickr: yourpicturesarejon
But that's only because even as a child I was fairly indifferent to marshmallows--I didn't hate them (kids who hated the puffy white things weren't used in the experiment) so I wouldn't have said 'ick' when asked but I was far more inclined to try to incinerate marshmallows on my stick for fun, because I liked them black and charred rather than whole. Then I'd eat the chocolate and graham crackers separately rather than painstakingly make s'mores.  Marshmallows were crappy candy, as far as I was concerned, and only worth eating if nothing else was available.

So I went to good schools, but picked impractical majors because liberal artsy stuff 'felt good' versus science and math, where I would have had to have worked harder--but which also would have given me a more secure job.  I used to eat mega-muffins and fancy caloric coffees for breakfast, totally spiking my blood sugar (and busting my student budget) unlike my sensible, egg-devouring friends.  I bought clothes that were entirely inappropriate for the harsh New England winters where I lived....

I have grown more sensible in terms of money, making a living, and eating lots of protein but only because I have found that life with self-control is more pleasurable than life without it, not because I'm a truly disciplined person by nature.

Molasses is slow, and these cookies take time. They are easy to assemble for the dilettante four-year-old that lives within all of us, but it is essential to chill the batter for at least 24 hours, otherwise the cookies will spread violently, due to all of the moisture from the butter and the molasses.  Of course, chilling the dough for most cookies yields a superior batch, but for these cookies it is a necessity. They are worth it, so worth it, and much better than a marshmallow that has some creepy scientist's fingerprints all over it.

Molasses browned butter chocolate chip cookies

makes 32 average-sized or 24 large cookies


2 sticks unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt (plus additional sea salt to sprinkle on top of the cookies)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon molasses
1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk, beaten together
2 heaping cups of dark chocolate chips (I used a 12 ounce bag)


1. Do not preheat the oven.  Do not line two baking sheets with parchment.  Do not pass go or collect $200.

2. Instead, 'brown' the butter over a medium-low flame.   Set melted butter aside to cool.

3. Sift the flour, salt and baking soda.

4. Add the brown sugar to the butter, then the egg and egg yolk.  Slowly add the sifted dry ingredients to the mixture.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

4. Chill for at least 24 hours to firm up.

5. Do not eat the batter, despite its unusually intense level of fragrant, molasses-y, chocolate-y deliciousness.

6. Now you can preheat the oven to 350F and scoop out the batter onto two parchment sheets. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt, if desired.

7. Bake for 10 minutes, rotating the tray half-way through the cooking.  Cool for five minutes.

Note: These cookies are so moist, they keep very well in the refrigerator without going hard.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vegan Brownies that Don't Suck

I'm a quitter. Until I realized in high school that if I didn't get As I'd never break away from my mother and grandmother and would be commuting to the state U from home, my report cards were straight DFAs--Ds, Fs, and As.  I either got something instantaneously (reading, writing, poetry, drama, looking sullen and angry) or I didn't try at all.

It didn't help that the subjects in which I was the poorest were math and gym, which tend to attract teachers who have a black and white mentality.  "What are you DOING?" they would say, because my wrongness was so incomprehensible to them. My failed volleyball serve was a profanation of the human body. My solutions to SAT math problems were so off, they weren't even one of the 'incorrect' multiple choice answers.

My scores were always a slew of contradictions. I got 100 (yes, 100) in biology and barely scraped by with a B in chemistry and calculus. If I didn't 'get' something instantaneously, I didn't bother to try. My verbal SAT score on the OLD version of the SAT was 200 points higher than my math score.

"I am a conscientious objector to the sport of volleyball," I explained to my gym teacher.

I did get into Harvard Divinity School for my master's degree which sounds smart on paper, but I could barely pass the super-easy 'reading knowledge' test for a foreign language to graduate (pesky grammatical memorization also never came 'easily' to me) and I never got Phi Beta Kappa at Wesleyan, simply because I refused to take a single math or science course while I was there.

Looking back, it's unsurprising that I have an obsession with British culture, a nation which is relentlessly self-critical and has always idealized coolness and indifference and not seeming to try very hard. "Yes, the sun never sets on the British Empire and we do have Shakespeare and all that--but think what we could have accomplished if we actually tried.  Tea?"

My academic degree in religion didn't lead me to have many conventional spiritual experiences, but I did have one revelation in my Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures class, which was ironically the only class I got a B+ in rather than an A or A- (in a kind of reverse Peter Principle, the higher up the educational ladder I progressed and the more useless and obscure the knowledge I collected, the better my grades).

Quoth the TA: "Anyone can do one thing well.  A genius is someone who can do two unrelated things equally well and make a connection between them." 

He was referring to a professor he admired, a man who was a great scholar of Biblical history who could also write very engagingly for a popular audience.  But his words haunted me.  They seemed so true, suddenly. Hemingway was a great writer who poured his ability as an outdoorsman into his prose. Most of the great Victorian writers I admired (Dickens, Bronte) were also enthusiastic amateur dramatists, which clearly helped their writing.  George Eliot was an amateur scientist and historian.

And even just the 'successful,' happy people I knew in life seemed to be balanced enough to be able to enjoy sports, do some fun extracurricular activities, do well in class, and not be haunted by the need to find the 'one thing' at which they excelled.

I realized that I had to break a nasty habit--one even more entrenched and nastier than my addiction at the time to eating Häagen-Dazs and cheese fries for dinner.  I had to stop being a quitter at things at which I sucked.  I had to accept that I would have a slower learning curve for lots of important subjects  in my life,and in a way that is a more painful truth than admitting to yourself that you can't do something at all.
Flickr: Michele Hubacek

Not being a quitter seems like a good theme for a post at the start of the school year, and these brownies would make a great after-school snack.  I am no longer a vegetarian, but during my attempt last year to go vegan, I had two colossal failed brownie experiments involving recipes with egg replacer and bananas. 

These brownies are ultra-fudgy, dense and 'all about the chocolate' since they lack butter or eggs. I still eat vegan, and have many vegan friends, so I am glad I worked hard to find a recipe that is just as awesome as standard brownies.

However, I must add (since I have not yet entirely exorcized the laziness from my bones), these have the adavantage of being a one-bowl recipe, and are easier to make than 'regular' brownies. No melting the chocolate and no creaming the butter and sugar.

Adapted from smilinggreenmom

Vegan Brownies




2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup vegan white sugar (such as Florida's Crystals)
1 cup vegan light brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Dark)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1 cup vegetable oil (I used canola, but I'd like to try mild olive oil in the future)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Topping: 1-2 teaspoons of sea salt (enough to cover the pan)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and oil and line a 9X13 baking pan with parchment
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.You can incorporate the water, oil, and vanilla in a separate bowl, but I just added everything in the same bowl. Pour into the pan, and sprinkle the top generously with sea salt.
  3. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the middle is no longer jiggly.  Brownies will be dense and fudge-like. For maximum flavor and ease of cutting, after cooling brownies I suggest chilling them overnight.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Secret Ingredient Snickerdoodles

"I've got a secret."

I still recall how in college, a girl once asked me to go with her to the bathroom to tell me a secret. After pestering me for several minutes I finally acquiesced (we were dining in a group at Friendly's, and I didn't want to miss the chance to order the Reece's Peanut Butter Cup sundae when the waitress took dessert orders), the girl erupted into peals of laughter, saying that she wanted to trick me into going with her because I always went to the bathroom alone, rather than in pairs, like other girls.   Which she found funny.  I felt a strange, murderous anger at her when she said those words and giggled.

I've never been a great fan of secrets.  I don't mean the dark, inevitable secrets that are woven into every person's life. Bad secrets are one of the symptoms of being an adult. Oh my readers, I could tell you secrets...about infidelity and incest and abuse...and unrequited animal lust...but I have to leave something for the book I hope to write to tantalize you to purchase it.

The secrets that annoy me are the petty little secrets people create to make themselves feel important. Or the 'not so secret secrets' like the Facebook campaigns to 'raise awareness about breast cancer' through secret, cryptic postings (an oxymoron) about bra colors and candy. Personally, based upon my experiences with my late mother's struggles with lung cancer, I think if you need to raise your awareness about cancer you should go to a hospice. But my airing of this unpopular opinion just goes to show you how bad I am at keeping my emotions a secret.

I still remember the first secret I ever kept, and I must confess that my own bad behavior perplexes me.  I was five years old.  As a kindergartener I was supposed to take Bus 2 to my school--I remember this because I had to make a purple construction paper name tag that said Bus 2 to hang around my neck the first day of school. I took Bus 2 the first week. But Bus 3 also ran past my house, and for some reason, it stopped for me one morning, and I continued to take it day after day.

I felt that I was doing something criminal, taking the wrong bus and not informing the Bus 3 driver of his mistake and waiting for Bus 2. The Bus 2 driver was kind of creepy, plus there was a boy named D-- who used to make fun of me on Bus 2. The sensible thing would have been to ignore Bus 2 and continue to take Bus 3, but the idea that taking the wrong bus made me both stupid and evil tormented me, and I began to beg my mother more and more to let me stay home from school.

I concocted an elaborate story, based upon the fairy tale books I loved, about how D-- had tripped me in front of class, and how the teacher favored D.  Embellishing further, I explained that my teacher had made us go into the scary crawlspace of Wall Street school to punish us for some small infraction. Finally, I began to just use illness as a reason to stay home, and when I discovered that my hypochondriac mother and grandmother wouldn't question me when I said I was 'sick,' I missed over 50 days of kindergarten. I already knew how to read and did very well on standardized tests, so the school passed me onto first grade and no one ever knew my terrible secret about taking the wrong bus.

I don't know why I was so obsessed with the idea that taking Bus 3 was a 'bad' thing.  And why I felt lying was better than just admitting my mistake. Perhaps I found school more unpleasant than I remember in those early grades, although I didn't really start to hate school until first and second grade. Then, I became the target of genuine bullying, in ways far more devious, painful, and hideous than my feeble little imagination could have predicted.

In this blog, I try to be an open book and to tell the truth.  However, since I have grown into a woman who loves school and taking classes, when I heard about this 'secret ingredient' snickerdoodle recipe from NPR (national public intellectual crack for geeks) I had to try it.

While using mayo instead of butter and egg may sound trashy, if you use homemade mayo made with a neutral-tasting olive oil--I used Alton Brown's recipe with mild olive oil for baking as a base--it actually has less saturated fat than a more traditional snickerdoodle and is easier to prepare.You could also use a good commercial brand (by 'good' I mean no high-fructose corn syrup).

Full disclosure: The mayo I made turned out pretty crappy and broken, and would have made a dreadful sandwich mayo, but the cookies turned out well.

I left out the dry mustard from Alton's recipe, and regardless of what mayo you use, I'd suggest one that doesn't have a lot of garlic and spices.  Although if you do try a Dijon or spicy mayo, I would be interested to hear about the results...

Secret Ingredient Snickerdoodles

(My version is slightly different than NPR's, so I am writing out what I did).


 --makes 24-28 cookies--

Cookie base
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup homemade or a good brand of commercial mayonnaise
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons of light brown sugar
1-2 teaspoons of cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Sift flour, sugar, spices, and baking soda together.
3. Mix the mayo with the vanilla extract. Spoon into the dry ingredients.(This recipe is actually easier than regular snickerdoodles, because there is no need to cream the butter and sugar!)
4. Sift together the light brown sugar and cinnamon for the topping.
5. Using a tablespoon or ice cream scoop, spoon batter into 1-tablespoon balls. Roll in topping until well-covered.
6. Bake for 11-12 minutes, rotating once about half-way in the baking process. No need to flatten the cookies. The cookies will seem slightly underdone and puffy when taken from the oven.  Cool for five minutes, then remove from the baking sheet. Cookies will solidify after 1-2 hours.