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.

 

Brownie Chunk Cookies update

No new recipe today, I’m afraid, for though I do know what our soup for March is, a combination of being back in school for the semester and unexpectedly running out of eggs has not left enough time for composing and photographing a final February dish.

That being said, if you need a sweet baking project in the next week, may I suggest this one? And may I suggest further, after a little experimentation this weekend, that the addition of about 2 teaspoons of instant espresso powder to the brownie component, and about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon to the cookie component, makes something even more transcendent?

Food Blog December 2014-0972

Till next week, my friends…

Brownie Chunk Cookies

Despite my self-effacing proclamations of cookie-production-failure last week, earlier this week I pushed through my grading, closed down the semester (email? What email?), and made another batch of cookies. These, while not Christmas or holiday themed, per se, are a cookie I’ve been playing with for some time now, and the final result is so big, so decadent and comforting and butter laden and jammed with chocolate, that not including them on a holiday cookie platter feels unacceptable. Unless, of course, that’s because you ate them all before you had a chance to assemble that platter. In which case, carry on. I think you’ve got the right idea.

Food Blog December 2014-0972I found the original recipe for these cookies in an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine – a contribution from a place called Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering – and was bowled over by the concept: brownie chunks folded into walnut-spiked, brown-sugar forward cookie dough, baked into a, what? Brownkie? Cooknie? It means two separate baking projects, but really? If the end result is two casual, much beloved hand-held desserts in one thick, golden, oversized package, I’m willing to put in the extra time.

Food Blog December 2014-0961Food Blog December 2014-0962And yet, as I played, I wanted more. The recipe already calls for walnuts; I wanted mine toasted for that extra, almost bitter buttery richness. The deep chocolate-y squidge of the brownies, on the fudgy side (as opposed to cake-y, as you might expect), is good, but baked into the cookies they don’t have that same melty purity as chocolate chips or chunks might. Easy solution. A handful of chopped bittersweet chocolate joined the party. I replaced some of the all-purpose flour with bread flour to give the cookie some extra chew. And as a final coup de grace, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt over the top of each innocent not-so-little scoop of dough. Chocolate and salt are old friends, suitable for mergers beyond that classic dipped pretzel business. (Seriously, try it. If you don’t like a little salt sprinkled atop a chocolate chip cookie, I’m not sure we can be friends.)

Food Blog December 2014-0966Food Blog December 2014-0967This is a big cookie. I like it that way, because it means the brownie chunks and shards of chopped chocolate inside can be big enough to retain structural integrity. I will admit, though, that devoting almost 1/2 a cup of batter to each cookie makes for a large serving. If you were so inclined, I’m sure you could chop the additions smaller and scoop out more petite dough balls. I just… haven’t. Though I will admit to having thought hard about the opposite: smashing a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two of these monsters and giving up on eating any other food ever again. Because hey, holiday.

Next week I’ll be back with my final sauce offering for the year, and some concluding words on that project. But for now, I’ll keep it short, and wish you joy, warmth, and food as gorgeous on the tongue as it was on the plate. Or maybe more. Happy holidays, friends, no matter what you celebrate.

Food Blog December 2014-0976

Brownie chunk cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine

 

Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a 1/2 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, 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 3/4 of the slab for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

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
1½ cups walnuts, toasted, then chopped
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
¾ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into 1-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper
  • 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 homogenous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts 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 Ginger Thumbprint Cookies

Food Blog December 2014-0956Up until I was in college, almost every year my family received a heavy box a week or two before Christmas. As soon as we tore through the tape we could smell them: Nana’s cookies. Ladylocks or cream horns, nut-rolls, pizzelles, thumbprints, sometimes chocolate dipped apricots or seven layer bars; everything nestled in its own individual wrapping and ready to be devoured. And she didn’t just send them to us, but to the families of her other two children as well, and who knows who else. I’m sure she saved a few for herself and Pap – who was quite the cookie fiend – to eat as the holidays approached.

Food Blog December 2014-0943I never thought about it when I was a kid, but this must have taken her weeks to do. I can only imagine the organization that went into it – I’m sure dough was made ahead of time and frozen until she was ready to bake, and what a baking day(s) it must have been! How many cookie sheets would that be, all rotating in and out of the oven? How many measuring spoons and bags of flour and sugar and butter?

Food Blog December 2014-0941I had big plans this season. I was going to give you with a week of cookies, presenting my favorite holiday offerings with which you could grace your own dessert bar (and if you have one of those, I politely demand to be invited over). Just one cookie recipe a day, and you and I would both be set for the whole season.

Food Blog December 2014-0944Alas, as usual, that whole having a day job thing took over. Amidst the stacks of papers, however, one cookie managed to sweet talk its way through: a modest tray of thumbprints that, offered up in my department’s mailroom, disappeared in less than two hours. My people are cookie people.

Food Blog December 2014-0946Thumbprints were always included in Nana’s Christmas cookie box. Somewhere between a sugar cookie and shortbread, but with brown sugar rather than white, the soft dough gets rolled into a ball, dunked in egg whites and then coated in chopped nuts. A gentle squash in the middle of the ball gives the cookie its name, and provides a little receptacle for more sweetness – after baking, Nana always filled the little cavity of the cookie with pink or blue royal icing.

Food Blog December 2014-0948I hadn’t thought about thumbprint cookies in years, but at some point this summer, something reminded me of these pretty little sweets and I knew I wanted to make my own version. None of my relatives – good bakers all – had a copy of Nana’s recipe, but one of my aunts told me to start with Betty Crocker, and gave me a few hints about how Nana might have adapted her version. In mine, I’ve replaced the margarine I’m almost sure Nana used with butter, and gone with a fruit-based jammy chutney for the center rather than the sweet icing she favored. Apricot and crystallized ginger, chopped fine or pulverized in the food processor, cooked down with some water, some sugar, and some lemon zest create a beautiful glossy compote reminiscent of those tubs of candied fruit that show up in grocery store produce sections this time of year, but with fresher, cleaner flavor.

Food Blog December 2014-0949It has been a long time since I tasted one of Nana’s thumbprints, but my first bite of these, still warm from the oven, told me I was close. The cookie itself is buttery and crumbly, both features enhanced by its walnut coating, and not overly sweet. The apricot and ginger filling give it a spicy-sweet character that went as well with the walnuts as I’d hoped, and they are actually tastier the day after baking. My recipe wound up making a mere 2 ½ dozen cookies, which doesn’t sound like a pittance, but when I brought home an empty tray after making my offering at work, N. and I wished we’d saved more than the four cookies I’d laid aside for us.

Food Blog December 2014-0952As a friend shocked me by revealing last night, it’s only ten days till Christmas, and Hanukkah starts tomorrow already. I hope your plans are going well, and if you do have the urge to bake something sweet for someone you love, this little gem of a cookie should be hard to resist.

Food Blog December 2014-0955

Apricot Ginger Thumbprints
Adapted from Betty Crocker
Makes about 2 ½ dozen cookies
For the filling:
1 cup dried apricots
¼ cup crystallized ginger
Zest of one lemon
¾ cup water
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Pinch salt
For the dough:
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup butter, soft but not melted (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ – 2 cups finely chopped walnuts

 

  • Make the filling first, since it will need time to cool after cooking.
  • With a sharp knife or a food processor, chop the apricots and ginger until very fine.
  • Place apricot and ginger bits in a small pot with lemon zest, water, brown sugar, and the pinch of salt. Bring to a bubble, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the mixture becomes thick, 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  • When mixture is a thick, jammy consistency, remove from heat and set aside to cool completely.
  • While apricot ginger mixture cools, preheat the oven to 350F and make the cookie dough.
  • Cream the butter until light and fluffy – about 2 minutes.
  • Add the brown sugar and cream together another 2 minutes, until this, too, is light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, and mix well to combine.
  • Sprinkle in the flour and salt, mix well to combine into a clumpy dough approximately the consistency of wet sand.
  • If at this point the dough is too soft to work with, stow it in the fridge for 15 minutes or so to let the butter harden up a bit.
  • While the dough chills, use a fork to lightly beat the egg whites, reserving them in a small bowl.
  • Chop or process the walnuts into small crumbs.
  • When you are ready to form the cookies, use a spoon or your fingers to portion out and roll 1-inch balls of dough. Dunk each ball in the egg whites, then roll in the walnuts until well coated.
  • Place each ball on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.
  • When your cookie sheet is full, use your thumb or finger to push down into the center of each cookie ball, making a depression. That’s the thumbprint!
  • Bake at 350F for 15 minutes, until cookies are lightly golden and have swelled up.
  • Upon removing the cookies from the oven, use the back of a spoon to lightly press down on the depressed area again, as it may have puffed up during baking.
  • Let cool on cookie sheet for 1 minute, then remove to a wire rack. While still warm, fill the center with apricot ginger mixture – each cookie should fit about ½ a teaspoon of the fruit filling.
  • Cookies are best cooled completely, and only get better the second day, though I suspect they won’t last much longer than that.

 

Espresso Molasses Spice Cookies

As Molly said a few weeks ago, sometimes recipes are so good they need no long-winded, story-laced introduction.  These cookies are like that.  You should just go and make them right now.  But for the sake of propriety, or normalcy, or expectations, I’ll just explain how these – perhaps the best cookies I’ve ever made – certainly the best cookies I’ve tinkered with my own recipe for – came about.

Food Blog July 2013-1915Perhaps months ago, a friend mentioned molasses spice cookies on Facebook (incidentally, and perhaps obnoxiously, have you acquainted yourself with the blackberry eating Facebook page?  Come on by, if you’d like), and suddenly I had to have them.  So I poked around, checking one recipe and another, and finally, as I often do, turned to Smitten Kitchen to see what Deb’s take on the issue looked like.

Food Blog July 2013-1890I mixed up a batch of Deb’s recipe, subbing out white sugar for all brown, adding some espresso powder for a bit of kick and rolling the cookies in coarse, crunchy turbinado sugar rather than standard granulated.  And then in between bouts of shoving them into our faces, I sent a stack to a few friends, who proclaimed them some of the best cookies they’d eaten.

Food Blog July 2013-1891For normal people, I’d wager this assessment of “best ever” would be enough to declare the recipe finished.  But I’ve never been entirely normal.  Yes, these cookies were good.  They were soft and spicy and warm, and the crunchy sugar on the outside was a perfect contrast.  They crinkled into little cracks on top and would have made ideal “bread” for a sandwich of ginger ice cream.  But I wasn’t done.  I upped the quantity of espresso powder so you could really taste a hint of it against the molasses.  I added orange zest for perfumed freshness and black pepper for an additional and different kind of zing.

Food Blog July 2013-1894And then I thought about texture.  For years, my dad has been searching for the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie (more on this achievement in the future, I suspect…), and remains unsatisfied with recipes that churn out cakey or fluffy domes of dough.  The first batch of these molasses wunderkind were like that – lovely spice and flavor, but a bit on the soft side for me.  Some of this softness was my choice of sweetener; using all brown sugar is always going to leave you with a softer product than white sugar.  So will honey.  Both are hydrophilic, which simply means they attract moisture and thus stay flexible and soft, even after a few days (case in point: my friends who received theirs via post had no complaints about stale cookies!).  But some of this textural challenge is also related to flour.

Food Blog July 2013-1895Let’s talk about flour for a moment, if you’ll permit me.  “All-purpose flour” is one of the most misleading claims in the baking universe.  Flour – at least wheat flour – does what it does thanks to gluten, which are the little strands of protein that form snaky, chewy chains that result in the stretchy but still pillowy texture of bread.  The higher protein content your flour has, the more gluten it has and the more developed those chains will be.  The issue is, all-purpose flour is going to have a different protein content depending on the company whose flour you buy, the particular type of wheat used, and, to some extent, the year’s harvest itself.  So if you’ve ever made a batch of cookies that turned out perfectly the first time and then somehow, subtly different in texture the next time, you might have used a different batch of flour with a higher or lower protein content.

Food Blog July 2013-1896So how does this relate to the chewiness I was after?  Here, as should surprise no one (at least no one who knows me), I turned to Alton Brown.  If higher protein flour results in chewier cookies, why not sub in the flour made specifically for gluten development?  Bread flour.  And that was it.  Replacing just a ¼ cup of the all-purpose flour from the original recipe with bread flour produced a cookie that still crackled on top and felt appealing between our teeth, but held up with a bit more resistance, demanding an extra chew or two.  The perfect chewy cookie.  We planned to bring a batch of these to my family when we went to visit them last week, but as we each took yet another from the bag mid-drive, we realized there were only three left from the whole endeavor – enough for my family to each taste just one.

Food Blog July 2013-1905
Espresso Molasses Spice Cookies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who got them from the Cooks Illustrated Best Recipe Cookbook
makes 18-20 large cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup bread flour (this makes the cookies a bit chewier.  If you don’t care or you don’t have bread flour, use 2 ¼ cups all-purpose.  The cookies will be a touch softer, but still amazing)
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
¾ tsp cloves
1 TB instant espresso powder
¼ tsp black pepper
12 TB room temperature butter (1 ½ sticks)
2 tsp orange zest
1 cup brown sugar, packed (I used golden brown; I’m sure dark would be delicious as well)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
1/3 turbinado or other coarse sugar, for rolling
  • Position your oven racks in the top third of the oven, preheat to 375F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk flours, baking soda, salt, and spices through the black pepper.  This will leave you with a beautifully flecked mixture.
  • In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), cream the butter with the orange zest and the brown sugar for about 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  • Slosh in the vanilla, the egg, and the molasses, and mix well.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl again so everyone is included.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat until all signs of flour are evenly mixed into a thick,sludgy dough.  Again, scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure full incorporation.
  • Pour the 1/3 cup coarse sugar onto a plate or a shallow bowl.
  • Scoop 2 TB (1/8 cup) portions of cookie dough, roll them in your hands briefly to make a ball, and coat the ball in the coarse sugar on all sides by pushing it lightly around the plate or shallow bowl.
  • When each ball of dough is coated in coarse sugar, set it on your prepared cookie sheets.  Cookies should be spaced an inch or two apart; I wouldn’t do more than 6 per sheet, as they are large and do spread a bit.
  • Bake each sheet 11-13 minutes, or until cookies are puffed and set at the edges.  The middles will still be soft, but don’t despair.  They will continue to cook as they cool.
  • Cool cookies on their sheet for 2-3 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before consuming, if possible.
  • You’ll hardly need to know this, I suspect, once you put one in your mouth, but enclosed in a zip-top bag these will stay fresh for up to a week.