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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Success & Failure

Wow. Who would have predicted Cookie Triumph again – this time with Peanut Butter cookies —and so soon after last month’s achievement of baking nirvana?

And, who would have guessed that just a few short days later, I would find myself peering, prodding and poking at a dismal mess in a pan…an Italian vegetable pancake gone awry.

Here’s how it unfolded…

This weekend, to satisfy a weeklong craving for peanut butter cookies, I found myself back in the kitchen, sigh…yes…firing up the oven, again. So, as the mixer whirred away, I thought, "what is up with this infatuation I have with good, old American-style cookies.

Desserts in my house, growing up, were of two styles. There were the typical heavy, Eastern European ‘fancy desserts’ my mother made for guests. These always seemed to involve ground nuts. And booze. Not exactly the sort of tastes a kid yearns for…
Then there were the store-bought desserts that made my brother and I wild with joy. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Ding Dongs. YUM. When my aunt , bless her, would visit, she’d bring a box or two, just for us. They were everything the leaden-nut-and-rum-soaked tortes were not…light and fluffy with that sugary, chemical-tang we adored. There was also that period of time when my father spent time on an engineering project at Sara Lee, so he would come home in the evenings with boxes of delicious, frozen desserts from the factory outlet store: cheesecakes topped with strawberries (which I enjoyed barely thawed – like ice cream cake), dark chocolate cakes with thick frosting and dense, buttery pound cakes.

Typical, American cookies, were elusive. My school friends’ mothers would make the mysteriously named Toll-House Cookies. LOVED those. I was especially enamored with the notion of mothers stocking large ceramic jars, to be plundered at will when one came home from school. There was something lovely, warm-feeling and homey to me about the old-fashioned, classic cookies: oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar and snickerdoodle.

So, that’s mainly what I find myself craving when I want something sweet. No whip-creamy or fancy-pants desserts here…I hunger for cookies, pies and cobblers instead.

My neighbor and I have been passing Dorie Greenspan’s book, Baking: From My Home to Yours—as well as the tasty results--back and forth between our two kitchens trying various recipes. Everything so far has been outstanding. So, given this penchant I seem to have for cookies, I figured I’d give the Peanut Butter Crisscrosses a try…

Oh my!!!!! Crunchy, almost-but-not-quite shortbread-like and delectably salty-and-sweet…they were amazing. It felt as if I had achieved some sort of baking pinnacle, and took every ounce of will power not to pull up a chair and eat half the batch in one sitting as they came out of the oven. The recipe called for rolling the dough in balls and tossing them in sugar before placing them on the baking sheet, giving the cookies an almost professional look. All I can say is wow.

So, okay, I was feeling plucky…
And, I’ve been yapping on about pancakes
And, there was a pile of zucchini and summer squash from the CSA share sitting in the fridge.
And, I’ve been itching to try my hand at savory Italian Vegetable Pancakes, as suggested by Mark Bittman in the Times a few months ago.

Oooh, it seemed to be a good idea. I grated the squash and zucchini. (Is it me, or is summer squash kind of slimy?) Mixed them with eggs, parmesan and onion. (err, the batter seemed very wet…) Added bread crumbs. (hmm, still too wet…) Added flour. (A bad feeling about it…but, exasperated…I continued…) Dropped spoonfuls in hot oil. And then things went from bad, to worse. The gloppy, too-wet pancakes were burning on the exterior and remaining stubbornly soggy and uncooked in the center. Turning the pancakes was a wretched experience I won’t even go into, except to say it prompted a second attempt with a non-stick skillet. Disaster again. The Peanut Gallery (aka. Steve, between forkfuls of ragged, pancake scraps I kept dumping out of the pan) advised a thinner layer of batter. It just made thinner, scraps of ‘pancake’. Nothing worked. So, yesterday evening we ate the piles of tattered pancake with some cold grilled chicken and agreed they didn’t taste that bad, but there was something left to be desired with their appearance. It left me feeling glum.

Yet, today, writing this…I feel resolute. I will try to make vegetable pancakes again. You remember…I love pancakes and I feel there’s something good there.

Meanwhile, I think I'll comfort myself with another peanut butter cookie…

Note: It’s suggested not to use the freshly-ground, all-natural peanut butter here. Skippy Crunchy is what I used.

Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
makes about 40 cookies

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup peanut butter—crunchy or smooth
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup chopped salted peanuts (you can add an additional ½ cup if you want even more crunch – I was just out of peanuts)

About ½ cup sugar, for rolling

Position racks in oven to divide into thirds and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for a minute or two, until smooth and creamy. Add the peanut butter and beat for another minute. Add the sugars and beat for 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minutes after each addition. Scrape down the sides and bottowm of the bowl and, on low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear. Mix in the chopped peanuts. You’ll have a soft, pliable (mushable, actually) dough.

Pour the ½ cup of sugar into a small bowl. Working with a level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll the dough between your palms into balls and drop the balls, a couple at a time, into the sugar. Roll the balls around in the sugar to coat them, then place on the baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between them. Dip the tines of a fork in the sugar and press the tines against each ball first in one direction and then in a perpendicular direction—you should have a flattened round of dough with crisscross indentations.

Bake for about 12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point. When done, the cookies will be lightly colored and still a little soft. Let the cookies sit on the sheets for a minute before transferring them to cooling racks with a wide metal spatula. Cool to room temperature

Repeat with remaining dough, making sure to cool the baking sheets between batches.

1 comment:

Jane said...

I knew those were p.b. cookies the moment I saw the picture, even before I read your post. They're a favorite from my childhood, in which my mother, a good home cook, always baked cookies. Peanut butter topped the list, next came toll house, and, finally, snickerdoodles.

Once in a while she baked something you might like, oh Nostalgic Lover of Twinkies and Ding Dongs: the homemade devil dog. (Some call them whoopie pies.) I still make them occasionally: a fluffy white butter frosting sandwiched between miniature devil's food cakes. A guilty pleasure. My recipe is from one of those old community fundraiser cookbooks. Should I e-mail it to you?