SAVEUR.com's Sites We Love Saveur Magazine has listed The Skinny Gourmet among its "Sites We Love"

I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies for My Father

Yesterday I went to great lengths to bake peanut butter kiss cookies to reminisce. Sometimes the weight of what we remember seems to dictate and equally weighty act of commemoration. But memories don’t always conform to this neat little formula. More often than not the most absurdly mundane things get embodied with special significance in the stuff of memories. My father died two and a half years ago. Immediately afterwards I discovered all the small mundane things that I had quietly and persistently associated with my father, because now seeing those things brought back a thousand little memories of him.



My father was a consummate junk food eater. I never really knew him to cook much himself, although I believe he grilled a burger now and then. The first time I went to visit him after my parents separated we ate nothing but Dominos pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a full seven days. I couldn’t so much as smell Dominos without feeling ill after that overload. However, after his death the sight of a Dominos left me feeling nostalgic for the image of my father as a bachelor.

My father lived in Michigan and I lived in Wisconsin with my mother, so visits to him were always bookended by car-trips. Without fail, whenever we stopped at gas stations he would buy a small bag of Lays Cheddar Cheese and Onion potato chips, a stick of beef jerky, and a giant bottle of Mountain Dew. The Cheddar Cheese potato chips also made featured appearances (with chip dip) every time he watched motorcycle racing on TV. But the beef jerky and Mountain Dew were somehow particular to car travel. To this day whenever I am driving distances in the car I crave the saltiness of beef jerky and the sweet Caffeine jolt of a Mountain Dew.

I know only a few of my father’s favorites, but I know his favorite cookie was a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey’s kiss on top. Every Christmas grandma made a variety of cookies, but my father and I would always wind up competing for the last of the peanut butter kiss cookies.

His birthday was yesterday.

So I am eating Mountain Dew, Chips, and Beef Jerky for lunch. And I am going to try to make peanut butter kiss cookies, even if I have to substitute for the kisses and bake the darn things in the rice cooker. The act of making these cookies was one part memory lane, one part strange recipe search, and one part odd baking experience (in a rice cooker, people!).



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to This Recipe…

A funny thing happened while preparing this post. I’m living far from home which also means far from all my most familiar and time-tried recipes. I have a recipe for peanut butter kiss cookies that is the only peanut butter cookie recipe I have ever used but it is at home in a dog-eared recipe file. Many of my newer recipes are in soft copy on my computer, but the real golden oldies, the ones I inherited from my mother or grandmothers, those are all in paper form back in my home in Chicago.

Peanut Butter Cookie Who?
I wanted a good variety, so I investigated the recipes from Southern Food, Elise, Betty Crocker, Cooking for Engineers and one from Recipes.com that I apparently forgot to get the link for.
So I took to the internet, rounding up some of the most highly rated peanut butter cookie recipes. I thought I would get about five recipes, give them a gander, and work from there. Sometimes I wind up just picking one recipe outright, but more often than not I look through them for similarities and differences, get a sense of the range, make a few educated guesses and pop out my own take on the recipe.

But this time around a funny thing happened. All five recipes were almost exactly the same. They all called for the exact same amount of peanut butter, fats, and flour. They all called for the exact same combination of brown and granulated sugars. They all had one egg. What was going on here?

Even stranger than their marked similarities were their few differences. The area where these recipes diverged the most was in the amount and proportion of leavening agents. I have never seen such reckless abandon in the arena of leavening agents. Normally this is something I respect with an awe comparable to gravity: this is a fundamental law governed by unseen but awesome principles and frankly shouldn’t be messed with. But here were these recipes, so nearly identical in every detail. And the only detail where they varied widely was in the leavening agent. What is up with that? One recipe calls only for a half teaspoon baking soda. One calls for a half teaspoon each of baking soda and baking powder. Another calls for ¾ teaspoon of baking soda and half of baking powder. Another called only for one teaspoon of baking powder, no baking soda at all. It was mayhem and, I admit, totally crushed my previously meticulous respect for leavening proportions.

The other slight differences was that while they all called for the same basic amount of fats, some called for only butter, some only shortening, and others called for a mix of the two. I remember a Home Economics teacher in high school explaining why a mix of the two always made for a great cookie, but I can’t recall the explanation now. Shortening is some pretty scary stuff in terms of health, so I rarely use it in baking anything other than a pie crust.



In a flash of insight I thought that the differences in baking powder to soda proportions would be explained by variations in using butter and/or shortening. I thought there was some nearly unfathomable chemical process in the two fats that meant something different for leavening. That may still be true, but nothing from these recipes suggests a correlation. There was no discernible relationship between fats and leavening agents.
Sweeten Up!
More often than not when baking I like to add a little extra extract and reduce the sugar by a bit. Refined sugar is, by most accounts, pretty terrible for you. But natural extracts gives a lot of sweetness without all the hassle and heartache of refined sugar.


Only two of the five recipes called for any vanilla extract, but I like it, so I figured it could go in. One of those two also called for adding some ground black pepper. While it may make for an interesting cookie (and I’ll admit it had daydreams of spicy cayenne peanut butter cookies, an homage to Ghanaian flavor sensibilities) I figured it wasn’t particularly a part of a nostalgic cookie for me, so it stayed out.



The Recipe

Ingredients

1.25 cups flour
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup butter and/or margerine shortening
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp vanilla



Directions

In a large mixing bowl mix butter and peanut butter until roughly combined. Do not overmix as it will melt the butter and affect the structure of the cookie. This is a particular risk if using a high powered mixer rather than mixing by hand.

Add granulated sugar and brown sugar. Cream together.

In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, salt, leavening agent, and vanilla. Add to the large mixing bowl. Mix to combine.
Chill Out?
For softer cookies be sure that you refrigerate the dough for an hour after mixing. Then form the balls and shape with the fork. Then back into the chill for another 15 minutes to allow the formed proto-cookies to firm up before heading into the oven. This gives the fats in the cookie better structure, so the cookie won’t spread as much while baking, resulting in a chewier final product!

Add flour gradually. Mix to combine.

Cover or wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about an hour. Elise actually recommends chilling the dough for three hours, but I can never ever imagine having that much patience with cookies on the line. Most days I am too impatient for this chilling process at all, and so I can tell you with certainty that your cookies won’t totally suck if you skip it. Although chilling the dough does make them just that much more yummy for the waiting.

Shape dough into 1 inch balls by rolling gently between the palms of your hands. This is also a great chore to give to any nearby children, as it will both delight and occupy them with little chance of death or dismemberment.



Roll balls in granulated sugar. Place balls on cookie sheet. I like to use stoneware, which has a natural nonstick surface that is the product of years of use, so I rarely have to worry about greased vs. ungreased vs. lined. But the recipes I looked at suggested everything from greased to ungreased, so I believe it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Greased will always make it marginally easier to remove the cookies after baking, so if you are having any trouble removing the first batch, go ahead and grease the pan thereafter. I like using a spray of olive oil from a oil spritzer.

For Plain Peanut Butter Cookies: Using the tines of a fork, gently flatten the balls. Press the tines in to make a criss-cross pattern on top of the cookie. The cookie will spread out while cooking, so resist the urge to completely flatten it out now, or later you will be eating a wafer thin cookie.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Bake for nine minutes. Remove from oven. Nudge the cookies off the sheet onto a wire cooling rack.

For Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies: Instead of crossing with a fork before baking, pat the rounded balls down into disks. The cookies bake without the chocolate kiss. When you remove them from the oven onto cooling racks immediately press one unwrapped chocolate kiss onto each cookie. If you like a higher chocolate to cookie proportion, you can also make the dough balls slightly smaller than one inch.

For the softies: If you love your cookies super soft, try baking them at a lower temperature. Cooking for Engineers recommends baking the cookies for 15 minutes at 300 degrees.

Save ‘em for later?: You can also freeze the dough pretty well for up to a month. I find it easiest to roll the dough into individual balls before freezing. That way you have little single serving cookies waiting to be baked whenever the cookie monster strikes you.

More on baking with rice cookers For the less fortunate like myself: Gentlemen, start your rice cookers! Because the rice cooker heats at a lower temperature than an oven, the cookies will need to “bake” for longer. I tried repeatedly to trick the rice cooker into staying on “cooking” rather than flipping to “keep warm” with no success. But if you press the cook button on our rice cooker it will stay on that setting for at least three minutes, so I just kept pushing it, waiting, and then pushing again. I tried cooking all the way through on warm and that didn’t really work.

The astute observer will notice two particular oddities of baking these cookies that I was forced into by the rice cooker and the nature of Ghanaian chocolate. Because of the rice cooker I was forced to flip the cookies halfway through heating them, so they are flat on both sides rather than delightfully puffed from oven baking. Some even turned out a bit “scrambled” when I burned my wrist on the hot edge of the rice cooker and dropped the cookie from a great height. Second, chocolate produced in Ghana for local consumption is differently formulated than the chocolate we usually eat in temperate regions. I have no idea whether this is from science, local taste preference, or some combination, but the chocolate is made not to melt at room temperature, which hovers between 85 and 92 year round. Yet, once heated the chocolate is nice and soft and melty goodness. Because of this, I had to add the chocolate pieces to the tops of the cookies two or three minutes before removing them. If you are baking at home in an oven just bake the cookies, remove them, and press the unwrapped kiss into the still-hot cookie.

8 comments:

StickyGooeyCreamyChewy said...

Erin- I'm so sorry about your Dad. I lost mine last year right before Thanksgiving. Cheers to you for honoring him this way. I posted a tribute to my father in November, on the anniversary of his passing. It made me feel a little better.
Take care.

Erin said...

Thank you so much for your kind comment. I am sorry to hear about your father. It has been a few years since he died, but every once in a while it still sneaks up on me. These little rituals help me feel he is still a part of me.

Lalaine said...

Hi Erin. What a touching post!

Good luck with your upcoming blog event...I am sending my entry in a few days.

Erin said...

Thanks Lalaine. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to your event entry.

kazari_lu said...

Great post Erin!
Perhaps an answer to your chocolate mystery:
Australian chocolate usually has a preservative added to cope with the warmer temperatures. It stops it melting a little bit, but it also gets a white dusty colouring on the surface if you leave it in the fridge.

amanda said...

I think that food evokes memories because it plays such an integral part of our life. I am sorry for your loss, but at least you can savor the memories and good times you had with these delicious cookies :)

Queennie Lee said...

Hi...
I wanna try baking cookies using a rice cooker...
But I don't really know how...
Do i mix and shape my cookies dough and put them straight into the cooker?
Or do i need to grease the surface first?
And since the cooker has no timer or temperature setting, is it the I'll need to check on my cookies every minute? And particularly how long do i need to wait till it's baked?

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Kazari: Interesting bit of information. I figured that chocolate made for tropical temperatures had to be formulated differently.

Amanda: Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Queenie: First, let me say that in my experience baking in a rice cooker is a choice of last resort. You'd be better off baking in either a slow cooker or an oven, if you have either available. If not, here goes: your big problem will be cooking time, because rice cookers (I believe) set cooking time by weight. So if there isnt a lot of weight inside, most will only stay on for 1-2 minutes before slipping into 'warm' mode. If you look above at the recipe I found that I had to push it down about twice per side, and that I had to actually flip the cookies and "bake" them in the cooker on both sides. So they will look a little differently when they come out than regular oven cookies. Use your judgement, if it doesnt look done on the bottom, push the button down another time. But remember, you will have to flip them so that both sides of your cookie get a chance to be exposed to the warm bottom of the cooker. The air temp in the cooker won't get high enough to cook the top without burning the bottom first.

If your cookie has a fair amount of grease and you have a nonstick rice cooker, you won't need grease.

LinkWithin Related Stories Widget for Blogs