Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Crackled" Snickerdoodles

Decadence. Pure decadence. While in these tough economic times "decadent" should perhaps not be the slogan for the holidays, what if we were able to combine it with resourcefulness to approach something special enough for the holidays but "green-inspired" all the same? I give you these cookies. While they may not look decadent on the surface, haven't we learned to look a bit deeper?
There. Yes. That's decadence. Only during the holidays might I muse over the utter gluttony of stuffing one cookie with, yes, another cookie, and then turn these musings into reality. But only during these particular holidays might this action seem not like gluttony at all, but instead like traditional resourcefulness, like the frugality on which much of our nation's food culture is based. The Midnight Crackles I made last week produced 52 cookies--52!--and while they were wonderful, there are only two people in my household, and we've had colds and thus have not had a lot of company. That amounts to 26 cookies (and a stick of butter) per person. Of course, I froze some to take to North Carolina, as my mother-in-law and sister-in-law requested, but even then, 52 cookies! Many failed cakes-turned-trifles have taught me the pleasure (or perhaps, the habit) of turning one baked good into another, which got the wheels turning. I then remembered a recipe in a recent Bon Appetit (September 2008) for Brownie-Chunk Cookies, which used chilled brownie pieces instead of chocolate chips in a basic butter cookie recipe. Well, I thought, since my Midnight Crackles were flavored with cinnamon, why not use them in another holiday favorite of mine: Snickerdoodles. I love the crunch of the cinnamon-sugar when you bite into them, the characteristic lightness of the dough, and even, like the Midnight Crackles, the invitingly cracked tops, giving you just a hint of what's inside. They remind me of that present under the tree that the dog chewed the corner of--thanks to her, if you look closely enough, you can almost guess what's beneath the shiny wrapping.

Because they were both frozen and dense to begin with, the Crackles cut beautifully with a sharp knife. I just chopped them into small squares and tossed the crumbs so the Snickerdoodles would maintain their traditional look without being dotted with dark crumbs. I chilled the squares while I prepared the batter. I knew I needed to look for a Snickerdoodle recipe that was not too light so it would stand up to the Crackles. I found just the one in the September 2007 issue of Cooking Light: Puffy (not flat) cookies with a dark smattering of cinnamon-sugar on top. And since many of the reviewers said that it wasn't "that light," I didn't feel too bad adding a non-light cookie to the mix. Suffice it to say, though, I won't be winning any Cooking Light recipe contests with this one. Once the dough was finished, I folded in the chilled Crackle pieces using my hands after the rubber spatula failed and then I chilled the dough for about 30 minutes. This step was key, otherwise the butter would have been too soft and the Snickerdoodles would have flattened out in the oven, leaving mini chocolate boulders on their dusty surface instead of cleverly hiding them beneath their mounded surface. I wanted the necessary amount of holiday deception; that perfect hiding place for gifts, rather than stuffing them under the bed where anyone can find them.
I considered, for a second, not rolling the cookies in cinnamon-sugar; I was afraid it would be overkill. Absolutely not--this is what makes them festive. I love the crunch of the sugary crust, like the top of an oversized bakery muffin.
Because the Crackles were already baked, they did not melt like chocolate chips would and thus created some odd cookies shapes. Which one does not belong? (Here's the Holiday Baking version of good old "Where's Waldo?")
Thank goodness for friends, or my house would be covered with plates of cookies. Merry Christmas!

"Crackled" Snickerdoodles
(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2007, and from Bon Appetit, November 2006 and September 2008)

8-10 baked Midnight Crackles, chilled or frozen (see previous blog post)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lg. egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. Cut Midnight Crackles into 1/4-inch squares with a sharp knife. Discard crumbs (use a sifter or your fingers) and chill the pieces.
2. Combine 1/2 cup sugar, brown sugar, and butter in the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer; cream until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla; beat until creamy and well-blended.
3. Combine flour, baking powder, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, and salt; whisk. Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually; beat until just combined. Fold in the Midnight Crackle pieces, and you may need to use your hands, as the dough will be stiff. Try not to overwork it or get it too soft. You can always redistribute the pieces while you are rolling the cookies into balls later.
4. Chill for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 F.
5. Combine the 1/3 cup sugar and 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon in a shallow bowl with a whisk. Shape the chilled dough into 30 balls (each about the width of a quarter or slightly larger) and roll them in the cinnamon-sugar. Place them 2 inches apart on a nonstick baking sheet sprayed lightly with cooking spray. 
6. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until tops just crack. Cool on sheets for 1-2 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. 
7. Enjoy!

In order to just make the Snickerdoodles, simply leave out the Midnight Crackles. No other steps need be changed. You could even bake half the dough then add in some Crackles and bake the other half. Or you could use any other dense cookie in place of the Crackles--use your imagination!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Banana-Butterscotch Muffins

In The Joy of Muffins, Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher include a chapter called "Between-Meal Muffins," which consists of a miscellany of muffin recipes that are too sweet or spicy or savory to be breakfast muffins or dessert muffins, muffins that have the complexity to be enjoyed alone, when the tastebuds are fully awake and are not distracted by other flavors. These are the muffins I prefer. While blueberries certainly have their place in my summer morning repertoire, I usually prefer a subtle mixture of orange zest and cinnamon sugar, or pine nuts and lemon. These are to be savored on their own, resting crumbly on a napkin next to your computer or, better yet, a good novel and a warm blanket. Some muffins transcend even this "between-meal" status and achieve something, if not greater, then altogether different. These Banana-Butterscotch Muffins heartily resist categorization. They are too sweet for morning, though the banana is reminiscent of a good smoothie, making them too much like breakfast for dessert. "Well, serve them for brunch, then," you might say--depending on your menu, this could be a good choice. If you are serving wintery Christmas-morning foods such as spiced sausage and potatoes, these muffins would be an excellent addition. But if you are planning a lemony, citrusy bridesmaids brunch, well, try blueberry. I tend to crave them late at night, with a steaming cup of tea--the strength of the butterscotch is a perfect stand-in for a hot toddy or other cold weather nightcap. Let others fight shopping crowds; I'd rather be reminded of the holidays with the sultry whisper of butterscotch.

I made this recipe into 36 mini muffins, though I am told it easily makes 12 regular-sized muffins. If you make minis, I recommend chopping your butterscotch chips into roughly smaller pieces or, if you are so lucky, finding mini butterscotch chips to round out the theme. You could also certainly use chocolate chips, of course, but that would be an entirely different experience.

Banana-Butterscotch Muffins
(adapted from Nigella Express)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (though I imagine these could stand up to whole wheat or white whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch salt
2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed (slightly over a cup)
1 cup butterscotch chips

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and either spray a muffin pan (or two minis) well with cooking spray or line with paper liners. The butterscotch chips do not melt like chocolate--instead, they tend to caramelize and stick to the pan. 
2. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt in a large bowl with a whisk. 
3. Pour the oil into a medium bowl. Beat in the eggs, then add the mashed bananas. (Be sure to mash them before mixing them in with the eggs and oil to avoid overbeating the eggs.)
4. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and gently fold them in. Stir only until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. When there are a few streaks of flour left, add the butterscotch chips and continue folding to distribute them. 
5. Using an ice cream scoop or disher, place the batter in the pans, filling each cup about 3/4 full. Bake regular muffins for 20 minutes and minis for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Cool in pan 5-10 minutes and serve warm.

I have yet to try this, but I imagine these would be excellent with a sweet whiskey glaze. Hmm--what visions of sugar plums might this induce?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Midnight Crackles

I was always one of those weird kids who twisted her Oreos apart, scraped out the white filling, and ate the chocolate cookies. I never understood the kids who acted like the chocolate cookies were just a vehicle for the filling; it always seemed gritty and overly sweet. Don't even get me started on Double Stuf Oreos. I only ate the filling when the cookie had been soaked in cold milk long enough that the components blurred together into melty goodness. I have spent much of my adult life searching for a cookie recipe that was a softer version--like an Oreo dipped in milk--of the outside of the Oreos.

I've found something better: Dorie Greenspan's Midnight Crackles. I had marked them in an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine (November 2006) but somehow, had never gotten around to baking them. I found them again when I was recently creating an index of magazine recipes; they seemed like the perfect after-Thanksgiving sweet. Small, chocolatey (I needed a bit of a break from pumpkin) and spicy--the perfect transition into the Christmas season. And the larger-than-life magazine photo made them look perfectly seductive, cracked and crisp on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside--like those Oreos of old. And the best part: they did not require creaming butter and sugar, a process that always seems to result in too-soft cookies, at least in my oven. Instead, the butter is melted with the chocolate and brown sugar in a  saucepan--the stove does the work for you. Just chill the completed dough, roll pieces into balls, press them onto a cookie sheet, and bake. While they hold up well for about a week, they are best warm right out of the oven, with, of course, the requisite glass of cold milk. 

Press them lightly to flatten, and bake on either a Silpat or a nonstick sheet sprayed with cooking spray (or a parchment-lined baking sheet). 

I love how these cookies look like truffles before you bake them. It is like watching one glorious treat morph into another, like magic.

Midnight Crackles
(adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2006)

10 T unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces to help it melt
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar (the molasses in dark sugar will be too strong)
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used 8 oz. bittersweet and 2 oz. semisweet--because that's what I had)

2 1/2 cups AP flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process--again, too strong)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon (heaping is fine)
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
(At this point, spices such as ginger, allspice, and coriander can be added or substituted--you could even add some cayenne for a bit of heat.)
2 large eggs, room temperature (since you'll be adding them to a warm mixture)

1. Melt the butter, brown sugar, and chocolate (not the cocoa powder) in a saucepan over low heat, whisking frequently. When the mixture is smooth, pour it into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a large bowl to use with a hand mixer.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time, to the butter-chocolate mixture, and beat until well incorporated. 
4. Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until they are all incorporated and the dough has pulled away from the sides of the mixing bowl to form a ball.
5. Cut the dough in half, flatten each slightly onto a piece of plastic wrap, wrap tightly, and chill for at least an hour and up to three days. If you chill it for longer than one hour, leave it on the counter for 15-30 minutes before you plan to work with it. The cookies will not only be easier to work with but they will crack--as the title suggests--perfectly if they are not too cold.
6. Place the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 350 F. Prepare your baking sheets. 
7. Working with about 1 T of dough at a time, squeeze and roll it into a ball between your palms, place on the baking sheet 1 inch apart, and press down lightly with your fingertips (like you are making crisscross marks on peanut butter cookies with a fork).
8. Place a cookie sheet on each oven shelf and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets  between shelves and front to back halfway through. Bake just until the tops are slightly firm--if you lightly tap it, it should not sink, but it should feel very delicate.
9. Cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Allow sheets to cool completely before using them to bake another batch.

Makes about 50 cookies. They will keep up to a week and can be frozen, wrapped airtight, for 2 months.