Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sweet and Salty Pleasures: Peanut Chocolate Chip Cookies

There is something I just love about this picture. I love the way the late-afternoon light from my kitchen window streaks across the cooling cookies. I love the way it harkens back to pie-cooling-on-the-windowsill simpler times, whether or not they actually existed. There's something very Mayberry about both the photo and the luxury of an afternoon of baking, and I think that feeling is exactly what I needed today. Tomorrow--Monday--Spring Break officially ends, and while I've been working during almost the entire break, I've been working at my own pace, on my own research, giving little thought to grading, teaching, or really anything that might distract me from the joy of writing about food, including food itself. 

I thought I would wake up every morning during break and bake a wonderful new treat for breakfast--cinnamon rolls one morning, muffins another, doughnuts still another, and perhaps I'd even try my hand at bagels or brioche over the weekend. I did make the cinnamon rolls and we've breakfasted and snacked on them all week long, but in my effort to buckle down and write, I forgot to bake. And perhaps this is my non-Spring Break problem. I often wonder where my time goes during the week, and I think about this as I wake up, bake a breakfast goody, eat, clean up, shower, dress, and finally turn on my computer at noon. Anyone in the real world couldn't hold down a job this way! Not to mention the urge for cookies or brownies that usually hits around 3 pm, when I could be spending a few more hours reading. "But they need time to cool before dinner," the angel on one shoulder tells me. "True, but you have a degree to finish, and catering department events will not earn you a Ph.D.," the other angel (named Dan) replies. "Nor are you learning anything about food history by baking everything Nigella tells you to," he continues. "And ..." "Okay, okay," I interject, "Will you please both be quiet if I resolve to bake only on weekends, to make friends with my freezer so that brownie-satisfaction will be at my fingertips anytime I please, and to not equate practical with theoretical food knowledge?" The angels, for once, are silent. And I guess this is what I resolve to do--be a baking maniac on Saturday and Sunday, stock my freezer (and my friends' freezers) and spend the week, like any normal person who does not own and operate a bakery, working. And this is why you find me, Sunday afternoon, baking cookies and discussing Mayberry. If I can't live there everyday, at least I can spend my weekends inhaling the aroma of freshly-baked anything.

Today I was exploring the two essential elements of true indulgence: sweet and salty flavors. These cookies are perfect when you don't want a peanut butter cookie but you're just not in the mood for a chocolate chip cookie either. I often wonder why we don't use peanuts in more baked goods. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts--all are fair game, but poor peanut, the forgotten nut. I love them in brownies, and in these cookies, they are right over the top. And for anyone gearing up for bikini season, they're from Cooking Light, only 2-3 grams of fat a piece, depending on how big you make your cookies. They do spread out a lot, so don't worry that your teaspoon-sized dollops look really small before baking. You're not going to end up with mini-cookies, I promise. And while the recipe doesn't call for it, I think a little sprinkling of sea salt over the tops before they go in the oven would be lovely. I'm my mother's daughter--there's no such thing as too much salt in my mind, especially good coarse salt.

Peanut Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light, March 2007)

1/3 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted peanuts (the recipe says unsalted--I disagree)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (I prefer dark, but either, or a mixture, works well)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature (just sit in out when you begin baking)
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt (you can substitute kosher salt)
(Cooking spray)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Place nuts on a small baking pan and toast in the oven for 5-8 minutes (until you can smell them); let cool.
3. Spoon flour into a dry measuring cup and level. Combine the flour, baking soda, and baking powder with a whisk. Set aside.
4. With a standing mixer or electric mixer, combine butter and sugars. Mix until well combined, 2-3 minutes. Add vanilla and egg; beat until smooth. 
5. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture gradually, in several additions, beating on low speed. Fully incorporate flour, scraping down sides of bowl, before adding more of the flour mixture.
6. Stir in chocolate chips, peanuts, and salt.
7. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls (2 inches apart) on nonstick baking sheet of baking sheet covered with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 9-10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool on pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

I made my cookies bigger, so the recipe yielded 28 cookies. The magazine says it should yield 38. Oops. 

Note: I usually don't like warm cookies. I love these warm. Really, really.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lemon-Almond Biscotti with White Chocolate

I've always been intrigued by biscotti--I love the idea of a crunchy cookie that you can dip in a cup of espresso with a sort of nonchalant sophistication that I can only dream of possessing. The reality, however, often disappoints me. Biscotti usually tastes bland or stale, or it is not crunchy enough and winds up tough and chewy. It looks beautiful, swiped with chocolate or studded with dried berries, but all too often it has that superficial "wedding cake" effect: taste never exceeds (or even matches) the levels of anticipation. 

This cookie is the first I've found that is truly everything I want from biscotti. It has a marvelous texture: crunchy and light, thanks to the addition of cornmeal (southern Italian recipe, perhaps?). Almonds and lemon are a perfect match for a light morning or after-dinner treat. And white chocolate complements the other flavors, adding just enough sweetness. When dipped in coffee, it becomes perfectly creamy. And that's the best part: These biscotti are meant to be dipped. They hold together and have just the right bite, whereas some other cookies fall apart and get those unappetizing crumbles in your coffee.

If you're going to try biscotti, start here. It's an easy recipe, and the texture is wonderful. They're also incredibly versatile: as appropriate for a Christmas party as for a May bridesmaid's brunch. Three easy steps: Make the dough and shape the logs (don't be afraid to use a ruler to check the size, and make sure both logs are the same size or they won't cook evenly). Bake once (until lightly browned), and cool. Cut, bake again, and cool. Simple, simple. 

Pre-chocolate biscotti:

I love this recipe for its simplicity. How many baking recipes use only eight ingredients? I'm sure you could do so many variations: orange zest and pecans, maybe with some cinnamon sugar sprinkle on top, any dried fruit and nut, toasted pine nuts instead of almonds with the lemon zest, or, ooh, maybe some hazelnuts and cocoa nibs. More biscotti posts to follow.

Lemon-Almond Biscotti
(adapted from Everyday Italian)

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 lg. eggs
1 cup sugar
3 T lemon zest (from about 3 large lemons)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped whole almonds
12 oz. white chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat. This is a very important step, as the dough will be very dry and sticky. 
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl with a good electric hand mixer) cream the eggs and sugar until they are a pale yellow, about 1 minute for the standing mixer or 2-3 for a hand mixer. Add the lemon zest, then the flour mixture, gradually, in about three batches. If the dough looks crumbly and does not pull together, add 1/4 cup water and the juice from one of the zested lemons. Add only enough liquid to help the dough mostly come together--you can knead in some loose flour as you form the logs. Allow the dough to sit for a few minutes.
4. Wet your hands lightly so they don't stick to the dough. Divide the dough in half and form each into a log on the baking sheet, 9 inches long, 3 inches wide, and about 1 inch high. 
5. Bake at 325 F for 35 minutes or until logs have risen slightly and are lightly browned around the edges.
6. After 35 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and allow the logs to cool for 5-10 minutes. Then remove them from the pan carefully and, using a serrated knife, slice into 1/2-3/4 inch slices and place these slices back onto the pan. 
7. Bake at 325 F for 25 minutes more.
8. Remove and allow to cool completely.
9. Once they have cooled, heat one bag of white chocolate chips in a double boiler over very low heat. White chocolate burns easily, so stir it frequently, and any steam that gets in the bowl can cause it to seize. (Basically, keep an extra bag on hand just in case--white chocolate is far less forgiving than other types of chocolate.)
10. Once the chocolate has melted, use a narrow spatula and spread it along the tops of the biscotti. Variation: Hold the biscotti in the middle and swipe the top through the white chocolate. This creates a pretty ridge along the top. Place the biscotti back on the baking sheet and allow the chocolate to cool and set.
11. Brew a pot of strong coffee and enjoy--these are amazing dipped in coffee.