Darling Reader, if we have never met, there are a few questions that can help me understand if we’ll really get along. One is: do you appreciate the great works of Journey, Fleetwood Mac and Hall and Oates (it’s sort of okay if a drink or two helps you to do so)? Another is: do you often take pause at furry animals and smiling babies, if only for a moment to think of how great it is that they exist? And lastly, and possibly most importantly (don’t tell Steve Perry): do you believe in the power of the Afternoon Cookie?
Few things define “simple pleasure” as much as a detour in one’s busy day to chow down on a very necessary cookie at 4:00 p.m. . No matter what all those lady health and fitness magazines tell you, a handful of nuts and dried fruit or an apple and a piece of string cheese are clearly only for the 10 a.m. munchies when you are still feeling virtuous and may very well be oblivious to how the rest of your day will unfold. Call me six hours later, when your lunch has started losing its satiating abilities, life has gotten REAL and you Just. Need. A. Cookie. And don’t feel bad about it. Because I will totally be on board and bring you a really great peanut butter cookie like this one. Especially if you answered “yes” to the first two questions in the above paragraph.
I love the humble peanut butter cookie. It’s an American classic, and its ideal, to me, is delightfully different from the fat, chewy Oatmeal Raisin and Chocolate Chip and the elegantly crisp Butter and Sugar. I think a great peanut butter cookie does have a tiny bit of chew, but only when you get towards the very center. Otherwise, a sandy texture is what I’m after with a crunch that comes not just from chopped peanuts, but from the sugars basking in a long baking time. And no peanut butter cookie worth its weight in Jif would dream of entering the oven without dressing up in a kicky crosshatch pattern provided by a dinner fork. Its ingredients are all staples in the traditional American home, making it one of the few recipes that doesn’t require a special trip to the store. It’s simple, earthy and undemanding, just the thing for the part of the day when things can start to get a little hairy.
Afternoon Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen
2 sticks butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F and set an oven rack to the middle position.
In a bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar and peanut butter together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating to combine. Mix in the flour and baking soda. Roll generous spoonfuls of the dough into golf-ball size balls and place onto the prepared cookie sheets. Use a fork to flatten and create a crosshatch pattern on the top of each cookie. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cookies are just begin to brown at the edges. Cool on the cookie sheet for two minutes, then transfer them onto a wire rack to cool completely.
After being in the grip of an intense Southern California heatwave for the better part of a week, the hellish beast has released us from his gnarly fists into the kind of weather that Santa Monicans usually take for granted: a high of 71 degrees, 65% humidity, ultramarine skies that kiss the horizon of a glittering navy ocean with the mountains of Malibu in the distance. Sound dramatic? It is. That’s how bad the heat was, people. It makes it tragically hard to bake, for one thing. Not that it stopped me. Anyway, with this recent return to the lovely weather that makes life worth living out here, I decided to celebrate by making meringue.
Meringue in all its forms has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family of chocoholics, but occasionally, usually during the holidays, these delicious and unusual treats would appear among the goodies on my Gramma’s kitchen table. Small and light in color, crisp sweet domes of I didn’t know what, sometimes with tiny chocolate chips mixed in, sometimes flavored with peppermint. They were a sweet mystery, and I gobbled them up. I also remember begging for a towering slice of a lofty lemon meringue pie from a rotating case at a Greek restaurant, neglecting the shimmying yellow curd altogether and devouring only the sugary pillow on top. I had no idea that what I was in love with was called meringue, and would probably have abandoned it forever if I had been told what it was made of (my lifelong egg phobia is a thing of legend in my family–now it’s mostly the yolks that freak me out, and just in certain circumstances. I’m all growed up!).
Meringue, in short, is egg whites whipped with sugar. How the whites and sugar are whipped together determines the kind of meringue it is and how it can be used. There’s Swiss meringue, a “cooked” meringue, made by dissolving sugar in egg whites in a double boiler, then whipping them. Italian meringue is made by streaming hot sugar syrup into the whites while they are being whipped, and is also considered to be a cooked meringue. French (aka “classic”) meringue, which I make most often, is uncooked, just egg whites and sugar whipped together (I take granulated sugar for a spin in my clean coffee grinder first for a smoother texture). The more sugar added to any meringue, the stiffer the end result will be. These meringues are the base for thousands of recipes, everything from buttercream frostings to the aforementioned lofty pie toppings, dessert shells, macaroons, macarons, and more. And let’s not forget meringue cookies.
Because they are so neutral in flavor, meringue cookies can be flavored with just about any extract or powdered flavoring imaginable, and little jaunty bits of chocolate or nuts or somesuch can be nice too. But I like them in traditional vanilla (with the best extract, please), maybe with a bit of cocoa, with tea on a nice, breezy, sunny day like today. When I mentioned that it’s perfect meringue cookie-making weather here in Santa Monica, that mainly has to do with the relatively low humidity. Making baked meringue in humid or wet weather is a guaranteed failure–the meringue will flatten and burn and generally just be very sad.
But not today! Today we make meringues.
Makes about 20, depending on size
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup superfine sugar
Preheat oven to 225 degrees and set the rack to the lower-middle position. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In an immaculately clean metal or glass bowl (any trace of grease will ruin your efforts), begin whipping the egg whites in standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or with an electric mixer, on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and the salt, and whip at high speed until the whites are voluminous, glossy and sexy-looking, with the look and consistency of shaving cream.
With the mixer running, begin raining in the sugar, taking a short break about halfway to insure the sugar is well incorporated. When all the sugar has been added, add the vanilla.
At this point, you can add other flavorings or accoutrements (like finely chopped nuts or chips) as well. I opted to make half the meringue cookies vanilla, and gently folded in a tablespoon of Valrhona cocoa to the remaining batter to make chocolate meringues. These added elements will make the whites deflate ever-so-slightly, but they will still be delicious.
Shape the batter into cookies by using two spoons, dropping them onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 225 for 1 1/2 hours, until the exteriors are firm and dry. If they begin to brown, turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Turn off the oven and let the meringues dry out overnight. These can be stored in an airtight container, but are best eaten ASAP, as they will start to become soft and tackier over time. But that’s not all bad either, really.
Here’s the thing: I’ve always thought of myself as a thin, crispy cookie kind of person. The kind that go really well with a nice cup of coffee in the afternoon. Ladylike cookies, wedding shower cookies, you get my drift. But lately, I’ve really been in the mood for chewier cookies, the kind that totally deserve an ice-cold glass of milk if you’re really going to do it right. And because I’ve been doing a lot of baking-related research as of late (a post dedicated my my current reads coming very soon), I wanted to apply some of the things I’ve learned about how certain ingredients and the handling of them create different baked results. So enter the following recipe for Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.
I’m sure most everyone reading this blog is familiar with the classic Toll House Cookie recipe. If you’re using that recipe as a frame of reference for how these cookies turn out, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, this recipe calls for melted butter rather than just creaming softened butter with the sugars. Melted butter is one of the things that give this cookie it’s moist, chewy quality. Because, doncha know, when you melt butter, the water and fat in the butter separate, and the water binds with the flour to produce more gluten, which is stretchy and, ta-da…chewy!
The other thing is the high ratio of brown sugar to white sugar. Brown sugar is higher in moisture than white sugar and it contains molasses, which keep it from becoming hard and brittle when it cools, also equaling a chewy cookie. And the feather in the proverbial chewy cap in this recipe is an extra egg yolk, which means a little more fat, a little more moisture, and a rich and yummy texture, not to mention a pretty, more golden color. Chew-wheee!
I have recently become a total baking geek and have started weighing my prebaked portions so the cookies will be uniform without having to handle the dough too much. For this recipe, I made the portion around 50 grams for the husband to take to a work party, but when I made a batch to send to my very pregnant sister and my awesome brother-in-law, I made them awesomely sized at about 75-80 grams. She is, after all, growing a person.
Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Alton Brown
Makes 18 to 24 Cookies
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
- 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk together butter and sugars. Beat in the egg, egg yolk and vanilla.
Stir in flour mixture, followed by chocolate chips.
Drop by scant 1/4 cups onto the baking sheet and pat lightly so the cookies are an even thickness. They’ll spread when they bake (so I only do about six cookies per sheet), and this makes them an even thickness at the end.
Bake for 15-17 minutes until just turning light brown all over. The edges should be only very slightly light brown, if at all, from the rest of the cookie. Allow cookies to cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.