Much of the Southeast U.S. has been under a winter storm warning since we went to bed last night, and as I have watched tentatively out the window today, half expecting the power to go out from wind-toppled trees that have been coated with sleet and ice, I wrestled with my desire to be at the stove and the oven. There’s something very cozy about simmering a stew or pulling a loaf of bread from the oven on a blustery day, and this is definitely one.
The day was beautiful at first, with mainly fluffy snow falling at a steady pace. We knew it would morph into a nasty mix, though, so we bundled up and headed out early for a walk around the neighborhood with our dog, Nilla, who absolutely loves cold and snow. It was beginning to sleet when we got back to the house.
After much consideration, I finally gave in to the temptation to bake. It feels risky for many reasons. Our gas range is technically dual-fuel, with a natural gas cooktop but an electric-powered oven, so I had to choose something that could be done quickly (or at least put aside to bake later, should the power go out). Also, I come from a long line of highly accomplished cookie bakers, and that’s a lot to live up to, given that I hardly ever venture into treat baking. On top of that, my dear husband has made a reputation for himself with his own cookie baking, so I’m living on the edge in several ways today.
When Les makes cookies, they are almost always a version of chocolate chip; sometimes they have chips and chunks, with big, chewy bits of dried cherries or cranberries. Sometimes he adds cocoa powder to the dough itself, making them chocolate on chocolate with more chocolate. No wonder he is so popular, right? But he seldom strays from the chocolate chip category, and I wanted something different today.
Without my own arsenal of go-to cookie recipes, I reached for a family cookbook—this homemade, 3-ring binder notebook, chock-full of recipes submitted by various members of my maternal family, and especially my great-aunt Adele. She was my Gram’s sister, and she was a master cookie baker if there ever was one. She was so known for her baked goods that her grandchildren called her “Grandma Cookies,” and I have my own memories of the treats she joyfully baked and shared with everyone. At Christmastime, you could count on receiving a box of various homemade cookies—and it didn’t matter if you lived across the street or on the other side of the country. She saved up cracker boxes and tea bag boxes and coffee tins and filled them up with her goodies so you could always have a taste of home.
I’ll never live up to that standard, but I did a decent job with her peanut butter cookie recipe, with a few adjustments of course. First, I made a half batch, because we don’t need 60 cookies when we are stuck in the house. I never use only white flour in any recipe, so I subbed in an amount of whole wheat pastry flour which is nice and soft for tender baked goods. I don’t use shortening either, but real butter worked great. And, because my hubby is so fond of chocolate chips, I divided the dough in half and added mini chocolate chips to one portion of it for his taste, and the cookies turned out great both ways.
Some of the instructions in Aunt Adele’s recipe were a bit vague for this cookie novice but, thankfully, my Aunt Joy offered her experience to help me fill in the blanks.
1 stick salted butter, slightly softened* (see notes)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 cup light brown sugar, packed*
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in a small amount of hot water*
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp. regular salt)*
1/4 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)*
Butter should not be so cold that it’s hard, but not room temperature either. When you cream it with the sugar, you want it to be smooth and just slightly firm. I was impatient so I took a shortcut with my straight-from-the-fridge stick of butter.
My great-aunt’s original recipe suggested equal parts sugar and brown sugar, but I like a soft cookie, so I used all brown sugar. When you measure brown sugar, be sure to pack it snugly into the measuring cup. When you turn it over into your bowl, it should mostly hold its shape.
I have long wondered why some cookie recipes call for dissolving the baking soda in hot water. Given that it appears on many of the recipes my grandmother and her family have shared, I even considered that perhaps it was something they all learned from my great grandmother or something. But a quick bit of research (thank you, internet) turned up the real reason—dissolving the soda helps ensure that it can be evenly dispersed throughout the dough. If I were to mix it in with the dry ingredients, it would be prone to clumping. Now we know!
I cook and bake mostly with kosher salt, which has larger crystals than table salt. Those crystals take up more space in the measuring spoon, but some of that space is just air, so I use a little extra. My conversion is probably not exact, but I generally like to add a bit of extra salt to a baked good anyway to enhance the other flavors.
I used mini chocolate chips in half the cookie dough, and kept the rest as simple peanut butter dough. If you want chocolate chips in all the cookies, use 1/2 cup rather than 1/4 cup, as I did for my half-batch.
Cream together the butter, peanut butter and sugar until evenly combined and somewhat fluffy.
Add egg and beat until blended. Stir in vanilla, then stir in dissolved baking soda.
Add flour, beating only until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then mix again only long enough to blend in loose flour.
If using the mini chocolate chips, fold them into the dough. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about one hour before baking.
Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center position, or two racks roughly positioned near the center of the oven.
Roll cookie dough into balls about 1 1/4” diameter. Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Flatten in a criss-cross pattern, using a fork dipped in flour to prevent sticking.
Bake 9-11 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies will be very puffy, and slightly dry at the edges when finished. Cool on the sheet about two minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.