Small Batch Lemon Lavender Sugar Cookies

This is a story about two of my friends. They are very different, and our friendships are very different, but they both have a connection to these sugar cookies.

In high school, M. was my best friend. We met at the beginning of our 8th grade year, and as a newcomer to the area, I was on the lookout for a companion. Within about three weeks, our friendship was cemented. We were in many of the same classes, we played the same instrument, we lived within a mile of one another, and we had many of the same interests. That’s a pales-in-comparison way of saying we spent at least a chunk of almost every weekend together from eighth grade through our senior year.

We had a number of misadventures in our years together, and though we grew apart a bit during college and fell out of touch for a while in graduate school, these movements punctuated by increasing geographical distance as she went to the East Coast and then to Great Britain, we made little sparkling moments of contact, particularly around food – I sent her a box of Triscuits because she missed American crackers (she was horrified by their saltiness, far more than she remembered), she sent back a box of Maldon sea salt, astounded by its U.S. prices. We weren’t able to attend one another’s weddings, but thanks to the coziness of the internet we can keep an occasional eye on one another, and that feels nice.

The most crucial of our adventures for this post was one chilly afternoon in high school. We were at my house, as was typical, and decided we wanted to bake some cookies. Not chocolate chip this time, though. Plain old sugar cookies. We dug out my Complete Guide to Country Cooking book my nana had sent me when she first learned I was interested in cooking, and went to work.

The problem with sugar cookies is that they have to be rolled out and cut, and that requires workable dough. Our instructions, the same instructions I’m following here, called for the dough to be chilled for at least an hour. But we wanted cookies! We decided it probably wouldn’t require a full hour of chilling. We’d check on it earlier. We may have waited ten minutes. We tried rolling and made a squelchy, horrible mess. Back into the fridge went the dough for maybe another ten minutes. Ad infinitum.

It turns out that when you lug a bowl of dough out of the fridge every few minutes, try and fail to roll it out, and then do the same thing ten minutes later, the butter doesn’t have enough time to harden back up and come to a rollable consistency. I don’t remember exactly what we did with the mess we finally abandoned; it probably went into the trash and we headed up to the computer to entertain ourselves with SimCity or King’s Quest or something. But our handiwork remains both in my mind and on the page bearing that recipe, and it was indelible enough for M. that she coerced a group of her college pals into recreating the cookie-baking episode on VHS (!!) for me as a birthday gift one year.

In graduate school, VV was one of my friends. We weren’t tremendously close, as she entered the program a few years after me and thus circumstances put us at different places in our studies and in our lives, but we always got along, and I remember a lovely afternoon teaching-evaluation-disguised-as-coffee-session during which we chatted about the classroom experience. VV and I, too, stay connected via that simultaneous glory and trash fire that is the internet – her Facebook page gives me a little window into her life and, most importantly to this particular story, another kind of baking: her current adventures in ceramics. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, VV showed off some hearts with inspirational messages she was preparing for the kiln, and being her generous self, offered them up to friends who admired them. A few weeks later, I received a beautiful heart, dark rose in color, with spiraled floral patterns surrounding the encouraging words “Be Brave.”

VV, then, needed a thank you. And inspired in part by another ceramics project in which she pressed lavender stems into clay to create lovely little garden signs (“Welcome Spring!” “Welcome bees!”) I realized it was time to dig out the old sugar cookie recipe and shake it up a bit with the addition of some culinary lavender and a little lemon zest.

I’m calling this a “small batch” recipe because it only makes about 18-20 cookies, if you use my size suggestion of 2×3 inch rectangles. But I really think, unless you are having a party, that’s enough. Almost two dozen cookies is enough to last a few days: it’s not so much piping that your hand cramps up, the cookies don’t get stale, and you don’t get tired of them. Though if we’re honest, with the sharp lemon and the hint of perfume from the lavender, there’s really no danger of that.

A few notes: the cookies taste a touch on the salty side by themselves, because I wanted to account for the sweetness of the frosting – with 4 cups of powdered sugar at minimum, it has the potential to quickly become overwhelming. If you aren’t frosting these, go ahead and halve the quantity of salt I’ve called for.

I’ve also gone a bit overboard on the decorations – I wanted them to reflect their inspiration, so I crafted little portrait frames and piped my best attempt at lavender onto them. I include an approximation of my method below, but you could opt for flowers of any kind, or birds, bees, butterflies, or whatever you’d like. For filling but also delicate detail piping, the best option for cookies is royal icing. It is reasonably easy to make, you can mix it with different thicknesses – firm enough to hold its shape in detail work, or thin and flowing in what’s called “flood” icing – and it dries rock hard. Since I was sending these through the mail and since I didn’t know how VV would feel about a traditional royal icing’s requirement of raw egg whites, I opted for meringue powder instead, which works near miraculously.

 

Small Batch Lavender Lemon Sugar Cookies
Makes 18-20 2×3 inch cookies
2-3 hours, including time to chill, cool, and ice finished cookies
For cookies:
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon culinary lavender
3/8 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 3/8 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
For royal icing:
¼ cup meringue powder
¼-½ cup water
¼-½ cup lemon juice
4-5 cups powdered sugar
optional: gel or liquid food coloring

 

  • To make the cookies, first add the sugar, lemon zest, and lavender to your mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the zest and lavender into the sugar, releasing their oils and breaking up the blossoms a bit. Add the butter and use an electric mixer or the stand mixer paddle attachment to cream the butter and flavored sugar together until they are light and fluffy.
  • Add the egg and the lemon juice and cream together again. It may look slightly curdled thanks to the acid in the lemon juice, but don’t worry. It will be okay.
  • Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gradually add it to the creamed mixture. It will seem a bit dry at first; mix it a few seconds more and you’ll almost see it start to moisten and come together.
  • Pat the combined mixture into a ball and then chill the dough for one hour, until it is easy to handle.
  • When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, or, my preference, place it between two large pieces of parchment paper. Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a rough rectangle of ¼ inch thickness. It may take a few minutes for the dough to warm up before it becomes rollable.
  • Cut the dough into 2×3 inch rectangles (or use a flour-dipped cookie cutter of your choice) and place on the parchment lined cookie sheets. Reroll remaining dough and cut again, and so on until you have used all of the dough.
  • Bake the cookies at 375F for 8-10 minutes, until they are just barely golden around the edges. If you’ve cut different sized cookies, you may have to adjust this baking time. Remove to wire racks to cool completely before icing.
  • To make the royal icing, mix ¼ cup meringue powder with ¼ cup water and ¼ cup lemon juice. Beat until peaks form and the mixture is glossy.
  • Working about 1 cup at a time, add 3½ cups sifted powdered sugar and beat until fairly stiff. This will be approximately the right texture for the “flood” icing, which is useful to fill areas, as I did with the white surface on my cookies. Scoop out about half of this into a separate bowl.
  • To the remaining mixture, add another ½-1 cup powered sugar and beat until very stiff – you are looking for something pipeable that will hold its shape.
  • Load about a cup of the firmer icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can cut off a small piece of the corner from a ziptop plastic bag and fit the tip into that. I haven’t tried doing this without a metal piping tip, but if the hole in the bag was small enough you might be able to make it work.
  • Starting from one corner, pipe a thin rectangular border around the top surface of each cookie, as in my photo above. Don’t go quite to the edge – a very thin visible edge of cookie looks nice.
  • Using a spoon, a small spatula, or another piping bag loaded with a tip that has a wider opening, fill the space inside your piped borders with the thinner “flood” icing. If this icing isn’t thin enough to spread quite easily, you can add more water and/or lemon juice 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the consistently you want. It should still be thick, but almost flow when you tip the cookie back and forth. Use the spoon, spatula, or piping tip to coax the icing into all crevices until you have a thin but opaque layer of icing totally filling your piped border.
  • When you’ve finished filling in the tops of the cookies, it’s time for intricate decorations. If you’re using color, divide up your remaining firm icing. You’ll need as many separate bowls as you want separate colors. If you are using gel coloring, add just a small smear to begin with, as it’s very strong. I used just a fractional bit of green, and a few drips each of red and blue to make my “lavender” purple. When you have the colors you want, load up a piping bag fitted with a small round tip and get started.
  • To pipe lavender stems, start with the green. Draw a straight or curved line about 2/3 of the way up the cookie from the bottom edge of the frosted portion. Add a few leaves on either side by piping just a small straight line of icing attached to the main stem.
  • To pipe the lavender flowers, using pale purple icing in a piping bag fitted with the small round tip, squeeze small dots starting from the top edge of your green stem up until your flower head seems tall enough. Right next to that column of dots, do another one. Squeeze a final column of dots right in the center, on top of and between the other two, as you can see in my photos above. Lavender sometimes has small, less developed flowerheads sprouting out from just above its leaves, so you can also pipe a dot or two above the leaves here and there, as you can see I’ve done in some of mine.
  • When everything is piped to your satisfaction, set the cookies aside. The icing will take several hours to dry, but once it has, it will be incredibly solid – hard enough, in fact, to make it in one piece through the mail from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon, yet not so hard that it hurts your teeth.

 

Lemon Blueberry Scones

Well, that whole “feeling promising” thing really panned out, didn’t it? I could give you a whole list of reasons I didn’t post last week, ranging from puppy to visiting relatives to bad weather, but the simplest and most truthful explanation is lack of inspiration. It happens every now and then: in spite of my dozens of cookbooks and long lists of dish ideas, sometimes I just don’t get excited about making anything. I used to fret about this, but anymore I try to give myself a break. Some weeks I don’t come up with anything I want to cook for dinner, much less anything worthy of posting here; some weeks I have four ideas for the next week ten minutes after I come home from the grocery store.

To get myself back on track I think I’m in need of a little structure. I did so well back in the days of Twelve Loaves because I had loose guidelines to follow and a set deadline (not to mention I was only working part time…). Yes, last year I had my Chopped Challenge project, but I ended up getting stymied on an entrée challenge N. set me because his inclusion of pretzel rolls put me in sandwich blinders. I just couldn’t see a creative approach, and that led to ignoring the prospect completely. That was, perhaps, too strict a guideline. A touch more flexibility is in order for this year.

One of my friends and former colleagues (hi H!) does a weekly baking project that she photographs and posts about on Facebook. This, with its similarity to Twelve Loaves and the reminder that baking was my first love in the kitchen, sparked a glimmer for me. I can’t always come up with a beautiful, delicious, post-able dish, but I can almost always think of something to bake. So we’ll try that for a bit and see if it feels, to quote myself again from a fresh few weeks ago, “promising.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be baking something every week, but it’ll be a bit of a safety net for me to rely on. I’m sure my coworkers and our office staff won’t mind either, since they are usually the ones responsible for preventing N. and me from eating the whole batch.

I learned early in our relocation to southern California that winter is citrus season. That being the case, lemon feels right for January: it’s sour but bright, and its color promises spring to come. Zest and some of the sparkling-sharp juice fit well in so many applications. I love blueberries with lemon, and since they were unexpectedly on sale at my grocery store, that was enough of an inspiration for me. I decided on scones, those not-quite-a-biscuit pastries beloved of a British tea spread. This rendition replaces the usual cream with buttermilk to capitalize on the tang of the lemon zest – the sugar in the dough balances out their combined sourness, and if you still want more sweetness, I’d suggest a glaze of powdered sugar and a dribble of lemon juice to spread or drizzle over the top. You can also add some finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger, if you want sweetness with extra zing. I’ve included suggestions for both in the instructions below.

Holly, my new kitchen helper!

Key to scones is not overworking the sticky mixture. One, continuing to work it makes for tougher scones, as you’ll start to activate the gluten in the flour. Two, the more you mix, the stickier the dough becomes. You want it to just come together, and then make use of a well-floured surface to pat or roll out the dough before quickly slicing and relocating the unbaked scones to a cookie sheet. Don’t worry about perfect shapes; they will be delicious regardless.

N. and I shared one of these while they were still a touch warm, and then immediately shared another one. The outside was just crisp, the interior moist and barely flaky, and the blueberries and lemon play well together. N’s favorite thing about them, though, was the occasional crunch of salt – I used Morton kosher salt rather than everyday table salt, and though these are definitely not salty, once in a while your teeth hit a crystal that didn’t fully dissolve in the oven and it’s a lovely little punch that somehow enhances the flavors of the fruit.

Although scones are best on the first day, just like their biscuit brethren, I found these reheat remarkably well in the toaster oven, regaining a bit of crispness. Then, it’s a simple task to split them in half and spread with butter or clotted cream and some jam, or munch alongside a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit, or just pop straight into your mouth as is.

Lemon Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Makes 16 scones
35-45 minutes
½ cup granulated sugar
zest of two lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (12 tablespoons or 1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6-8 slices for easier integration
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup fresh blueberries, roughly chopped (this was about 6 ounces for me)
optional: ¼ cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and lightly grease or line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest into the sugar between your thumb and fingers. Supposedly this releases essential oils from the zest, so its lemon flavor is enhanced. But more practically, it also makes the zest easier to integrate into the mixture (thus helping to prevent overmixing), so don’t skip this part!
  • Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda with the sugar and zest in the large bowl. Dump in the chunks of butter and use a pastry blender or your fingertips to combine – you are looking for a texture between pea-sized chunks of butter and “coarse meal.”
  • Add in the chopped blueberries, the ginger if using, and the buttermilk, and bring together with a rubber spatula or a fork. The dough might at first feel too dry, but in a minute or two as the buttermilk hydrates the flour it will become sticky and “shaggy.” Knead it by hand two or three times right in the bowl to ensure any dry chunks at the bottom are mixed in.
  • Transfer the ball of dough to a well-floured board, and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to divide it in half. Roll or pat one half into a ¾ inch thick round. With a sharp knife, cut it into 8 wedges. Using a bench scraper or a thin spatula, quickly and confidently move these to one of your prepared cookie sheets, leaving space in between each scone and its neighbors. Repeat with the second half of dough.
  • Bake in your preheated 400F oven for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the scones are beginning to brown and the exterior is set. The moment you remove them they will look underdone. Let them cool a minute or two on the cookie sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. As they cool, they will firm up.
  • Once scones are completely cool, either eat them immediately, or if you wish, whisk together about 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few dribbles of lemon juice to form a thick glaze. You can then spread or drizzle this over the tops of the scones, or dip each scone in for smoother coverage. Let them sit until the glaze hardens, and then get on with your snacking.

 

Haters Gonna Hate Pumpkin Spice Loaf: Now with photos!!

People have such vitriolic responses to the phrase “it’s pumpkin spice season” that by this point some of you have already stopped reading. I’ve heard a few interesting theories about why this is, including the idea publicized by a student at Swarthmore College a few years ago that since the drink that popularized this craze is popular among women, hating on it is another subtle way we’ve internalized sexism: pumpkin spice lattes are a girly thing, so just like other girly trends it must be devalued. Vox and various others picked up on this idea, also evaluating the pumpkin spice connection to capitalism, class, and being “basic.”

But I tend to sympathize more with the point made near the end of the article, and which I’ve seen in a few other places, which is simply: there’s enough trauma and horror and viciousness going on in that weird world we inhabit, so let’s let people find harmless joy where they can. And further, let’s face it: by and large, the mixture of warm autumnal spices that we mean when we say “pumpkin spice” are, even if you don’t want them in your coffee, frankly delicious.

So I’m on board the pumpkin spice train, and although I’m not terrifically enthused about them being swirled through my latte, a liberal dosing in pies, cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads of almost any kind is a-okay by me. And since my Trader Joe’s had a big end cap display of their pumpkin butter this week and Los Angeles is STILL resisting its usual September heat wave tendencies, I decided to take advantage of the season my calendar reports we’ve just fallen into (get it? get it?) and bake up a yeasted loaf infused with all those spices pumpkin benefits from.

My loaf started with an old favorite I haven’t worked with in a while: my Nana’s sweet dough. It’s a firm but soft product, elastic and pliable, and though in this incarnation it’s fairly sticky from all the wet ingredients, it just sighs when you roll it out in such a lovely way. I added a full cup of pumpkin puree to Nana’s original recipe, plus the requisite cinnamon and nutmeg the pumpkin spicing requires. You could use ginger and cloves as well, but this time around I decided to complete the trifecta with cardamom; its slightly citrusy brightness feels right for “fall” in Southern California.

To get that luscious, deep, spicy sweetness of the pumpkin butter into my creation, I decided to do a swirl in the center of my loaf: once risen, I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle, smeared it with butter, added a glossy layer of the deep orange spread, and on a whim, zested on some orange rind for additional lift.

This is a monstrous loaf. I bake so often with only sourdough anymore that I forget how high and how certainly active dry yeast rises. Even though it climbed in both its first and second rise, the oven spring as the loaf actually baked was incredible; I couldn’t believe it was holding its shape as it pillowed, hugely, almost like a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, above the loaf pan, and was disappointed but not surprised when it deflated a bit as it cooled; a huge air pocket between the bulk of the loaf and the mountaineering dome was the source of much of its swollen majesty.

Never mind that aesthetic imperfection, though; the loaf itself was a delight. Not too sweet, it boasts a pillowy, soft-but-chewy texture that reminds me of my mom’s challah, but with a subtle pumpkin flavor pushed along by the warm spices, and a just-toothsome crust for a pleasant contrast. The pumpkin butter slathered into the center is sweet and rich, but there’s only a bit of it swirled through the while thing, making the addition of jam or preserves extraneous: it’s baked right in. To me, that means you can eat this at any time of day, just like its latte-based inspiration. Haters gonna hate, it’s true, but that just means another slice for you.

Pumpkin Spice Loaf
Makes 1 very large loaf
About 4 hours
Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
½ cup warm whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup softened butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups bread flour
Filling:
¼ cup softened butter
¼ – ½ cup pumpkin butter spread
zest from 1 orange

 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm milk with the pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up.  It will begin to get bubbly and smell warm and bready.
  • While you wait for the yeast, add the ¼ cup softened butter, the pumpkin puree, the egg, and the vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl). Mix with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Add the yeast and milk mixture to the combined wet ingredients and mix them together briefly using the paddle attachment (if you are not using a stand mixer, an electric handheld or some elbow grease and a whisk will do nicely here).
  • Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, and 2 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment (or a sturdy wooden spoon if you aren’t a stand mixer sort of person), mix just until the flour is moistened and you have created a lumpy dough. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to begin hydrating the flour.
  • After the dough rests for 20 minutes, switch to the dough hook (or turn your dough out onto a well floured board) and knead for 5-8 minutes in the mixer, or 10-12 minutes by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first – we’ve added a lot of fat and a lot of moisture.  Don’t despair. Add more flour a ¼ cup at a time just until the dough cooperates (up to 3 cups of flour, though depending on the relative humidity of the day, you might not need that much).  It will still be a bit sticky, but it will become more elastic and supple and much easier to work with.
  • When your dough is smooth and stretchy and a bit springy, plop it into a greased or oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled, around 90 minutes.
  • Once doubled, punch down the dough to release trapped gas by gently deflating it with your fist. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×24 inches.
  • Smear the second ¼ cup of softened butter over the surface of the rolled out dough. Add the pumpkin butter and spread this atop the butter, leaving a half inch border at one of the long ends. Sprinkle on the orange zest, if using.
  • Begin to roll up the dough from the long side opposite the edge on which you left a border. Start with the middle and move out to the sides, as you would for a jelly roll.  Continue rolling until all the filling is enclosed, and then fold up the remaining, bare edge and pinch it firmly against the roll to create a seam.
  • Twist your log of dough a few times by gripping it and rotating your hands in opposite directions. This will ensure that a pretty swirl of filling is formed as it bakes. Fold the thinner ends underneath the fat middle and settle the whole thing into a buttered or greased loaf pan. Cover it lightly with greased plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • At the end of the second rise, remove the plastic wrap form the loaf and bake it for 35-40 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped or the internal temperature is between 180-200F (the thump test is the standard way of checking for doneness on bread, but it seems sort of impossible when you are baking a big loaf in a loaf pan. I prefer to take its temperature).
  • When it tests done, using whatever is your favorite method, remove it from the oven and let it cool for at least twenty minutes in the pan.  This will allow the structure to firm up so it slices nicely, rather than collapsing and squashing into itself when you so much as approach it with a serrated knife.
  • Slice and consume. I don’t think it needs a thing to accessorize it, but especially on the second or third day, a sweep of unsalted butter or a smear of cream cheese probably wouldn’t hurt anything…

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies

This is the story of a batch of cookies that almost didn’t happen. I’ve had them in the back of my mind for the better part of a week, now – a rehash of these brownie chunk cookies I’ve been playing with for a few years – and Sunday morning, as N. headed off to run a 10k in Santa Monica, I was ready to bake.

Until.

The previous night, I’d decided to make some little pesto swirled buns to use up a bit of fed sourdough starter, and plopped the kneaded dough right back into the bowl of my stand mixer to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. So of course when I got ready to make the cookies Sunday morning, I walked straight over to the mixer and only remembered after a few seconds of confused staring why the bowl wasn’t there: it was full of raw dough.

No matter. I’d just use my old handheld electric mixer ad my biggest glass mixing bowl… which, it transpired, was full of potato salad. A big old metal bowl it would be, then. Not as photogenic, but that’s a bit of a tiniest violin complaint.

So I creamed up the butter, added the sugar, lifted the electric mixer to clear out some of the collected mixture from inside the beaters, and the whisk part of one of the beaters – just the little bulb bit at the end that does all the work – fell off its metal post right into the butter.

I just stood there for a few seconds, considering the wisdom of options that included washing my stand mixer bowl and just throwing the butter and sugar blend I’d started right into the garbage, and decided on perhaps the laziest, least responsible option, which was to jam the beater back onto its post and mix the rest of the batch with that side smashed up against the bowl so it wouldn’t come off.

So I did. And everything was great. Until I went to add the flour, and realized I didn’t have any. Well, that’s not quite true. I had bread flour, and I had whole wheat flour. But who wants that in a cookie? (Actually, there is a bit of bread flour in these, but using such a high protein flour for the whole allotment was untested and might be less than pleasant.)

It turns out the Ralph’s down the street from my house is pretty uncrowded just before nine in the morning on a Sunday, which meant I got back from my unexpected errand quickly enough that I couldn’t be too annoyed, but still. How many setbacks is one batch of cookies worth?

The answer is at least this many. Many even one more. These cookies are triumphant. There are toasted walnuts. There are shards of bittersweet chocolate. There are hunks of brownie that somehow don’t get dried out and overbaked. And there are cherries.

I’ve never been a big fan of chocolate and cherries. Chocolate and strawberries are, of course, a worthy classic, and though I would go for one or two Mayfairs, those See’s candy creations with chopped cherry and walnuts inside, other incarnations didn’t thrill me, I think because most of the chocolate and cherry combinations I was tasting involved maraschino or other sweet cherries. These cookies, though, rely on the opposite: you need tart or sour dried cherries for this one. I used Montmorencies, which are still sweet but carry the same slight pucker as a dried cranberry – enough to make your mouth water just a little – and this hit of contrast is perfect in these chocolate-drenched cookies.

These are a project. Before actually baking the cookies, each tray of which require almost twenty minutes in the oven, you have to make the brownies and toast the walnuts, and the whole mission sets you back a full pound of butter. But when you are faced with trays of perfectly golden, chocolate studded cookies that are just crisp at the edges and softly chewy in the center, and when you crunch into the first flake of sea salt scattered decadently across the top, all of that extra preparation, even an emergency grocery store quest, feels justified.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine
Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a ½ inch slab of about about 10×15 inches
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (unless you’re lazy like me)
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed (see parentheses above)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, or parchment paper leaving at least an inch overhang on all sides to lift with.
  • Create a double boiler by filling a medium pot about half full of water and setting a glass or metal bowl over the pot, being sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water. Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl, and bring the water in the pot to a bare simmer over medium heat. Stir frequently until chocolate and butter are smooth, glossy, and completely melted. Set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.
  • When chocolate is barely warm to the touch, whisk in the sugar and vanilla. The mixture will become clumpy. Add the eggs and salt; whisk firmly until fully combined. Switch to a spatula and stir in the flour until no white streaks remain.
  • Dump and spread the batter over the prepared pan to create a thin, even layer. You may have to manipulate it quite a bit to get it to spread that far.
  • Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs; about 20 minutes. Cool in pan, then cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  • To remove from the pan, lift using the foil overhang and reserve about ½ of the slab (or maybe a bit more) for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
Makes 2½ – 3 dozen
1½ cups room temperature butter (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, + more for sprinkling
1 cup walnuts, toasted, then chopped (I like to pop them in while I’m preheating the oven – by the time it reaches 325F, the walnuts are usually ready)
1 cup dried tart or sour cherries, such as Montmorency
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
½ – ⅔ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into ½-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (toasting the walnuts while it’s preheating is a good way to multitask)
  • Cream the butter in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and the brown sugar and cream again until well integrated – be sure there are no errant chunks of butter.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and mix well to combine, scraping down the sides to create a homogeneous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts cherries, and chopped chocolate, stirring well to combine. Finally, gently fold in the brownie chunks – we don’t want to break them up too much.
  • Spray a ⅓ – ½ cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup with non-stick spray and use it to scoop the batter into rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart (this allowed me to fit six balls of dough on each sheet). Once spaced, press down with two fingers to flatten each ball slightly.
  • Sprinkle the top of each cookie sparingly with coarse or flaky sea salt and bake in the preheated 325F oven for 18-20 minutes, until edges of cookies are starting to turn golden and the middle is set but still very soft.
  • Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies

I love a great many things about my job. Being a community college professor is rewarding in a number of ways, and my biggest fears: that it would be just an amplified version of high school, and that there would be limited opportunities to make lasting connections with students, have proved fairly unfounded. In fact, more students follow me from class to class and contact me semesters and even years after they have left our campus than anyone at the university level ever did. It’s gratifying.

The thing I didn’t expect to miss, though, was a big library. Coming from a research university to a large community college, where the focus shifted from scholarship with teaching on the side to teaching with occasional, non-required research, was a big change for me, and it’s sometimes hard to access the materials I need. Yes, my library helps me get interlibrary loan materials, and I have a library card for UCLA’s massive collection, but sometimes things are missing. Sometimes things are checked out, or libraries say no. So I turn to other options: my research assistants. Funny enough, I probably have more unofficial, unpaid, unaware “RAs” than I would were I at a research university. And they aren’t RAs, really; they are just lovely people who sometimes help me access materials.

Most recently, I branched out from my usual RA – my sister – and got some help from E., who sent me a few chapters of a book no one local could or would loan me. I’d found an electronic version of the parts I needed through Google’s book preview which, oh so helpfully, didn’t have any page numbers! How’s a responsible prof to cite her sources, if her sources won’t cooperate?

So in thanks to E., who is revising his dissertation and clearly has much more important things to do than scan and send book chapters to his needy friend across the country, in spite of his loud insistence no such action was necessary, I decided to mail him a box of thank you cookies.

I’d considered this combination a month or so previous: dried apricots and white chocolate in an oatmeal based dough sounded different and delicious, and my sister and I had talked about playing with its clear granola resonances and adding, say, flaked coconut, and maybe chopped, toasted nuts or seeds.

For this version, though, I decided to keep it simple (though I did add guesses for quantities of coconut and nuts to the recipe, if you want to experiment). For the dough, I used an adaptation of my favorite oatmeal chocolate cookie recipe, one that Ghirardelli used to print on its semi-sweet chocolate chips bags, but has since changed to include both less butter and less flour. The products of that original recipe used to come with me, in great, craggy, unevenly shaped mounds, to field show competitions when I was in high school. After the first time or two, they never made it past the table at the entrance to the band room.

But anyway, egregious quantities of barely soft butter (thought it does make a lot of cookies, so don’t despair), heaps of rolled oats, and a generous dosing of both white chocolate chips and meaty, moist dried apricots get mounded into tablespoon-sized heaps and baked until they are barely cooked through – they come out still quite soft and a little raw looking in the middle – and set up as they cool. The butter should be malleable but still cool from the fridge, never melted, and the dough should be stowed back in the fridge to keep the butter cool in between baking each batch; as with pie crust or biscuits, this keeps the cookies from flattening out as they cook. In high school I used margarine instead; if you do this they will stay puffy, but I prefer the flavor and make-up of butter. The oats should be of the old fashioned rolled variety, not quick cooking, for texture in the final cookie.

When I sampled the first one, still quite hot from the oven, I thought it was good but a touch too sweet. But then I found myself eating another one, and then had to slap my own hand to prevent myself from downing a third in a row, so I figured I had to be on to something. Cooled, they lost a little of that initial saccharine hit, and considering that several dozen lasted all of two hours in my department mailroom when I brought them in last week, I’d say they were a reasonable success.

Oh, and my primary reason for baking? I won’t embarrass him by revealing how many he told me he ate at one go, but I will say they had a good reception and I’m glad they are there to comfort him as he plows through his dissertation revision process. A little cookie comfort in the middle of that trying process, especially when that is happening as only part of the weirdness and horror of the world right now, is so necessary.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies
Adapted heavily from the old Ghirardelli’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe
Makes approximately 4 dozen
About an hour
3 sticks unsalted butter, medium soft
¾ cups brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups rolled oats (not quick cooking oats) OR 2 cups oats and 1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (note: this is an approximation; I did not use coconut in mine)
12 ounces white chocolate chips
1 cup diced dried apricots
optional: ¾ cups roughly chopped unsalted toasted nuts, like walnuts or pistachios (note: this is an approximation; I did not add nuts to mine)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is broken down a bit. Add the sugars and cream on medium speed until very light in color and texture, 3-4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once to ensure even integration. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla and mix at low speed until incorporated.
  • At low speed, mix in the first ½ cup of flour with the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When it has incorporated a bit, add another ½ cup flour, mix to incorporate (don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl), then the final ½ cup flour. This ensures you don’t get flour everywhere.
  • If you are using an electric mixer, switch now to a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon and prepare to work out your upper arms. If you are in a stand mixer, continue at low speed. Stir in the oats until well incorporated, then the fruit and white chocolate chips just until mixed in.
  • Scoop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets. I did 8 per sheet, to ensure no overcrowding. Bake in the preheated 375F oven for 9-10 minutes, storing the remaining dough in the refrigerator while each batch is in the oven. When they come out, the cookies will look underbaked in the centers. Take them out of the oven anyway, and let them sit on the cookie sheet for 3-4 minutes to set up, then remove to a rack to cool for at least another 2 minutes before scarfing.

 

Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves

As I noted a few weeks ago, all I want to do in my kitchen, still searingly bright with sunlight from Southern California’s misguided attempts at “fall,” is bake. Luckily, one of the few cool weekend days we’ve had since then corresponded with a break in grading, and I had a chance to see if my dough skills are still in there somewhere.

Inspiration for these pretty, autumnal loaves came from a seasonal box of those lovely raincoat crisp crackers Trader Joe’s puts out, these a bright, turmeric-esque orange from pumpkin and flavored with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. I decided to see if I could translate them into a bread. The ingredient list on the box of crackers served as my starting point, but for quantities I returned to these loaves from last year, replacing the rye flour with whole wheat, dolling them up with the dried cranberries, a few additional seeds, and some fresh herbs, and running some of the seeds through the dough itself rather than reserving them all for the top. As before, though, the secret is cooking down the pumpkin puree first to dry it out. It adds a little time to the whole endeavor, but makes the dough much more manageable and more aggressive in pumpkin flavor.

The dough here is soft and elastic and slightly sticky, even after its first rise, and the hardest part of the process is convincing yourself not to use too much flour on your board when you shape them, because the dustier with flour they are, the harder it will be to get seeds to adhere to their surface.Internet forums abound with how to get seeds to stick to the outside of a shaped dough-ball; the easiest and most effective method seems to be dampening the surface of the dough slightly by spraying or brushing with water, then gently pressing it into the mixture of seeds and, in this case, oats. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t tumble off while you’re carving thick slices, but at that point, you at least have the option of spreading the slice generously with cream cheese* and sprinkling the rebels back on, where they are sure to adhere.

As for flavor, these delightfully toe the line between sweet and savory. Pumpkin is so commonly paired with sweet flavors, and the dried cranberries and nutmeg seem to push it in that direction, but the woodsy herb flavor (the crackers use rosemary, which I think I’d prefer, but in the moment I only had sage) and the nudge of heat from the black pepper keep it from feeling dessert-like. I’m not sure you would want to use this for sandwiches, but I could imagine it being a starchy side for a roast chicken or a big dinner salad. I find, though, as with many freshly baked loaves, I want it most in mid-afternoon, when it is still just warm from the oven, and I am slightly peckish and starting to dream about dinner.

*goat cheese is nice too, and though I suppose you could make it into frozen slices a la this peanut butter “hack” the internet responded to with hilarity a few weeks ago to prevent tearing your bread, you could also just let the goat cheese come to room temperature, at which point it smears pretty easily across the tender slice.

Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves
Makes 2 round loaves 7-8 inches in diameter
4 – 4 ½ hours
1 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1½ cups warm milk
pinch granulated sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons melted butter
1¼ cups rolled oats, divided
1½ cups whole wheat flour
2-3 cups bread flour
1 cup dried cranberries
¾ cup sunflower seeds, divided
¼ cup flax seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary or sage
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup raw pumpkin seeds

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick frosting. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin comes to room temperature, add the pinch of sugar to the warm milk, then stir in the yeast and let it sit to burble for 5-10 minutes, until it is bubbly and smells like bread.
  • Pour the yeast and milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add 1 cup of the oats, all of the whole wheat flour, the molasses, the melted butter, and the cooled pumpkin. Stir with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Now add 1½ cups of the bread ½ cup at a time, paddling in between, until a soft, sticky dough is formed. Dump in the rosemary or sage, the nutmeg, the pepper, the salt, the dried cranberries, ½ cup of the sunflower seeds, and all of the ¼ cup flax seeds, and paddle again just until integrated.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until it comes together into an elastic but slightly sticky dough, 8-10 minutes. If it doesn’t seem to be coming together, continue adding the bread flour ½ cup at a time as needed, kneading a minute or two in between each addition. You may not need all of the bread flour.
  • Cover the bowl of kneaded dough with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise until it has doubled, 60-90 minutes. While this is happening, combine the remaining ¼ cup rolled oats, ¼ cup sunflower seeds, and the ½ cup pumpkin seeds in a large, shallow bowl.
  • After it has risen, punch down the dough by gently depressing your fist into the center of it. Pour and scoop it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured board and divide in half using a dough scraper. One at a time, shape each half into a round by holding the dough ball in your hands and stretching the top taut, tucking the excess underneath. Each time you stretch and tuck, turn the dough a quarter turn or so. You can also do this while the dough is resting on your board, turning it and tucking the excess, which will form something that looks like a balloon tie or a belly button underneath. Check out this series of photos from the kitchn for helpful illustrations.
  • When you have a round loaf that is reasonably taut across its domed top, spray or lightly brush it with water, then gently press all sides of it into the mixture of oats and seeds you’ve prepared. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
  • Gently place the seeded loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, lightly cover them with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, and set them aside to rise again for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F.
  • After 45 minutes, with the loaves swollen, place them carefully in the oven and bake at 375F for 35-45 minutes, until they reach an internal temperature of 180-200F.