Sunday, September 23, 2007


It's time to send off another batch of cookies to my daughter A. You know, the one who went off to college and never calls or writes unless she needs something? Yeah, that one. Just last week, I saw her online and we chatted for a couple of minutes, and then I went to amazon and ordered her two hundred ear plugs. It was just easier that way.

Anyway, I'd originally planned to make some sort of peanut butter and chocolate cookie. Perhaps a traditional peanut butter cookie with an indent, filled with a very thick ganache. But when I was researching various peanut butter cookie recipes, I decided to modify one that said it was traditional by adding some cocoa powder to the dough. I have found that the addition of cocoa powder adds a great deal to many different cookies, most notably lebkuchen. I also used less flour than originally called for, and I used all butter instead of shortening. And I ditched the brown sugar. Anyway, once I tried my recipe, I decided that the resulting cookies were exactly right, and that the addition of further chocolate -- even chunked good dark chocolate or a very rich ganache -- would be counterproductive.

I have nothing against the traditional, crumbly peanut butter cookies, that are formed with a fork. It's just that my cookies are better. A lot better. Really superlative. And they're still good nearly a week later, so I know that the batch I just made and will mail tomorrow will be fine for days after A. receives them. And, really, between her and her fellow students, they're unlikely to last more than a few hours, anyway.

The shape of these cookies is due to the thumbprint method of forming them. I had originally expected the dough to hold its shape slightly more, and I was trying to make indentations that could be filled with melted chocolate. Instead, I get something that has a very slight concavity, sort of like one side of a red blood cell. The cookies are moderately crisp instead of chewy.

I can get six or seven rows of four of these cookies onto a half-sheet pan. I find that it's easier to form them into balls if the dough's been refrigerated overnight, but there's certainly nothing to stop you from scooping the dough immediately onto the cookie sheets. The thumbprint is probably unnecessary, but I very much like both the shape and the cookie, so I'm sticking with that method. If you don't refrigerate the dough, it's likely that you'll need a minute or so less of cooking time. With dough that's been resting overnight in the refrigerator, I get perfect cookies after twelve minutes at 375. Because the dough starts out brown, it's not all that easy to tell from sight when they're done. If you touch the top of a cookie while it's still in the oven, it will seem soft but not wet when it's done.

Peanut Butter Thumbprints

1 c. butter, at room temperature
1 c. smooth peanut butter
2 c. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
2 c. flour
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda

Cream the butter, peanut butter and sugar together. Add the vanilla, eggs, and salt, and mix until well combined. Combine the remaining three ingredients then mix them into the other ingredients until the dough is smooth and uniform.

Measure the dough out with a small cookie scoop (or a teaspoon). Roll each bit of ball into a dough and place on a lined cookie sheet. Using the tip of your thumb, make an indent in each ball of dough.

Bake at 375 degrees for twelve minutes. Remove from oven, let cool on the pan for five minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Makes approximately ten dozen.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Way We Lunch Now

Some time ago, somebody pointed me in the direction of an online article or forum that championed the practice of cooking dried beans without any presoaking. I didn't actually read the article or forum: I just stored the description of the method in the back of my brain somewhere and figured it might come in handy one day.

A couple of weeks ago, V. had just left for a two-week trip, and I was pushing a cart through the supermarket, and when I got to the dried beans section, I saw a bag of dried hominy. And I thought, "Well, why not?" as I picked up the hominy and a bag of black beans to go with it. Often there's no very good answer to "well, why not," but in this case, the answer would have been, "Because you'll be eating that for weeks." Still, two weeks later, I haven't gotten tired of the combination of hominy and black beans. It does take up a lot of room in the refrigerator, though, so I'm not likely to make it again until V. goes out of town again. Alas. I suppose you could cut the quantity by half or more, but if I did that, then I'd have half a bag of dried hominy sitting around, and V. would hate that at least as much as he hates having a big container in the frig. As it happens, just before he got back from his trip, I took the big container out of the frig, repackaged most of the beans and hominy into individual serving containers and discarded the rest. There was some waste, to be sure, but I still got about fifteen lunches out of the concoction, and, well, it was dirt cheap to make. Even after you add in the salsa and shredded cheese that I serve with the beans and hominy, you're looking at something less than fifty cents a serving.

It takes about 2.5 hours for the beans to cook to the point of tenderness but not mushiness. The hominy was done at the same time, fortunately. The beans are done when they have just started to release their starch, so that the cooking liquid resembles gravy. There is a certain industrial sludge look to the beans and hominy, but the addition of salsa and cheese makes them considerably more attractive, but they are still not going to win any beauty contests. You could, of course, shop up vegetables and add them during the cooking, but using the salsa is easier, and I like it better that way.

I use my big, cast iron dutch oven for this dish, but anything that goes from the stovetop to the oven (and is really big) will work.

Black Beans and Hominy

1/4 pound bacon
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. celery seed
2 t. smoked paprika
1 T. ground cumin
1 pound dried black beans
1 pound dried hominy
2 t. salt, plus additional to taste
14 cups water

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Cut the bacon into pieces about an inch long. Put them in the bottom of a large, heavy pan over medium heat and cook until the fat is rendered and the pieces are crisp. Add the onion, stir, cover, and cook for about five minutes. Add the garlic and spices, stir, and cook for another two minutes.

Add the beans, hominy, salt, and water. Stir well, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover the pot and move to the oven. Cook until the beans are tender, about 2.5 hours.

Serve with whatever strikes your fancy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The WOBOCs Go to College

You see that sad-looking, tiny bag of cookies? That's all that's left of a thirteen-dozen batch. Almost all of the rest got shipped off to Vermont as part of the first care package for A., who is now a freshman at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, a small town about ten miles west of Brattleboro. AKA the middle of nowhere. It's out there. Really, really out there. But the post office goes there, apparently. Or at least I got an e-mail from A. saying that she had received the care package and that she and her roommates had enjoyed the cookies. I was a bit disturbed by the past tense in her e-mail. I'd taken the cookies to the post office on Saturday, and the guy at the counter had said that the cookies should arrive by Tuesday, and the e-mail came on Tuesday, and there had been twelve dozen cookies in the package. Surely three young women hadn't eaten all of them so quickly. I'd ask, but I probably don't want to know.

It took two cars and numerous people to get A. to Marlboro a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that I was dreading the trip. Ever since I drove A. a long way to visit a college back in March, I'd had to face the reality that she'd be leaving. I'd talked to a number of parents who said how excited they were at the prospect of their kids going off to college, and, frankly, I just didn't get it. It's true that these same parents have their kids every day, and I only have (I mean had) A. seven nights out of every two weeks. And it's true that the other parents said they fought with their kids all the time, and A. and I really never fought. And it's true that the other parents spent a lot of time nagging their kids about doing their homework, etc., and A. has always been responsible in the extreme with getting their work done.

I guess what I'm saying here is that I have a great kid (two great kids, but I don't reckon L., who is eleven, will be leaving imminently), and I knew I was going to miss her horribly.

And I do, of course. But I'm also immensely proud of her, and I'm glad that she's going to the school that she most wanted to attend. And it's good to have someone to send cookies to.

These WOBOCs are a variation on the original WOBOCs, which I first made earlier this year. The original WOBOCs had m&ms, and I still believe that if I could still find mini m&ms, they'd be the best choice, but I couldn't, so I used the chocolate- and candy-coated sunflower seeds that come from Trader Joe's. They're not as colorful as m&ms, but they're still colorful and tasty. I also added some peanut butter and craisins this time around.

The cookies are very good, but I think next time I'll cut the sugar a bit. These cookies have a lot of additions, and all the additions have sugar in them. The overall effect was a bit too sweet for me, but they do seem to be a big hit with the youthful palate.

The other major change from the original recipe was that I went for smaller cookies. Instead of the large cookie scoop, I used teaspoons and the classic drop cookie technique. Consequently, the recipe makes a lot more cookies (the extra ingredient or two helps, but it's mainly the smaller cookie size). I got about thirteen dozen smaller cookies, as opposed to fifty-six really big cookies the first time around. Cooking time is also shorter, naturally.

Peanut Butter WOBOCs

1/2 lb. butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. peanut butter
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. honey
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1.5 c. all purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. salt
3.5 c. rolled oats
1 c. unsalted roasted cashews
1.5 c. toasted coconut
1 c. miniature semisweet chocolate chips
1 c. butterscotch chips
1 c. craisins
1 c. chocolate covered sunflower seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter and peanut butter. Add the sugar and cream some more. Same again with the honey. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until well incorporated. Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, and mix again.

Add the remaining ingredients, one at a time, mixing after each addition until the ingredients are well incorporated.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake for thirteen minutes, or until nicely browned.

Allow cookies to rest on the cookie sheets for about five minutes, then remove to racks to cool fully.

As with the original WOBOCs, you can make a lot of substitutions for the final few ingredients, and still have something terrific. It may be possible to add another cup or two of goodies, but I think I'm getting pretty close to the limit of how much stuff can be in there without overwhelming the cookie dough. Not that pushing the limits wouldn't be fun.

Naturally, there will have to be more care packages, and naturally, I won't be able to send the same cookie twice in the same semester. I'd certainly appreciate any suggestions for cookies that ship and keep well. I'm certain A. will be similarly appreciative.