Out on this limb
I was planning to start this post with something about food, because that’s the way these things usually work. But I can’t seem to start much of anything, because this is sitting next to my chair.
This is Alice. As of last Friday, she has turned our family of three into a family of four. She is nine months old and weighs about 35 pounds, and though we have no idea what breed she is, we’re guessing some kind of pointer mixed with something else. Possibly a Muppet. Our friend Sam named her Peter Falk, which we changed to Mrs. Peter Falk before eventually settling on Alice, which was the name of Peter Falk’s first wife (though we changed the spelling). Our Alice was born on the border between Arizona and Mexico and picked up by a rescue group as a very young stray, and she’d been living with a family just outside Seattle until recently. For the past six days, I have spent most of my waking, non-work hours trying 1) to tire her out, and 2) to take a decent, non-iPhone photograph of her ridiculous, mop-like face. I have failed on both counts.
However, in the few moments when I was not following Alice around, I did manage to make two batches of salted peanut butter cookies, and I think they are – I am not afraid to go out on this limb – some of the best cookies I will ever eat.
Actually, that strikes me now as a somewhat depressing thing to say, because it seems so final, as though it were all downhill from here and I might as well hang up my apron, say goodnight, climb into a coffin, and close the lid behind me. All I meant was: I have found the peanut butter cookie recipe for me. I have found the only one I will ever need. I have an entire lifetime of outstanding peanut butter cookies ahead of me, and I find that a comforting thought.
The person I have to thank for this is Autumn Martin, owner of Hot Cakes Confections. She makes these cookies, along with take-and-bake chocolate cakes, caramel sauces, truffles, and other sweets, and sells them at a number of farmers’ markets and shops around Seattle. I first tasted her cookies at Picnic, where I often grab sandwiches (housemade corned beef! On a pretzel roll!) at lunchtime. They keep her peanut butter cookies in a jar above the cold case, and it feels like lying if I don’t admit that once, I cleaned out the entire jar. (I shared them with friends. Sort of.) They’re tender, chewy, exactly the right degree of crumbly, and intensely peanutty, and every other bite, you hit a chunk of milk chocolate. I knew that Brandi was also a fan, so when she and Olaiya invited Autumn to teach a class at the Pantry, I crossed my fingers that the salted peanut butter cookies would be on the agenda.
They were. And because she is a kind and merciful woman, or because she noticed the crazed and dangerous look I get when I am near these cookies, Autumn said that I could share her recipe with you.
On the surface, the recipe follows a standard route. It begins with the creaming of butter and sugar, followed by the addition of peanut butter, eggs, vanilla extract, and then dry ingredients. What sets Autumn’s cookies apart is the details: the quality of peanut butter, the quantity of salt, and the addition of chopped milk chocolate. She uses natural peanut butter, which tends to have a truer peanut flavor and fragrance than more processed types, with their added sugar and who knows what else. Her recipe also uses what might look like a daunting amount of salt, but do not be tempted to question it. The result isn’t beat-you-over-the-head salty – just tasty – and the salt serves the valuable purpose of giving the peanut flavor a giant boost. It also heightens the flavor of the milk chocolate chunks that Autumn stirs in at the end, just before scooping and baking. Dark chocolate is my default in most situations, but the milk chocolate here brings something important. I intend this as the very highest of compliments: imagine a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and then, imagine a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup as a cookie. Yes. Goodnight.
Salted Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from Autumn Martin and Hot Cakes Confections
Hot Cakes Confections uses a brand of natural peanut butter called Aunt Patty’s, but I used Adams Natural Peanut Butter, which is what I keep at home. (Note that I buy the kind that needs to be stirred well before using, not the no-stir kind. And make sure not to accidentally buy the unsalted one. Hate it when that happens.)
For the milk chocolate, Hot Cakes uses Theo milk chocolate. I also love the milk chocolate made by Scharffen Berger. I’ve also tried Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips, which aren’t great, but they get the job done. Whichever you use, note that I call for a larger amount than the original recipe: it calls for about 115 grams (4 ounces) milk chocolate, but I like 170 grams (6 ounces).
For kosher salt, I use Diamond Crystal brand. Note that different brands have different flake sizes, so measuring by weight is very important! (If you use Morton’s brand, for instance, 12 grams is only 1 ¾ teaspoons by volume.)
Lastly, Autumn’s recipe was written in ounces, but I have converted it to grams and cups.
Preheat the oven to 350°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine the pastry flour, baking soda, and salt, and whisk well.
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. (You can also do this by hand, with a sturdy spoon.) Add the eggs one at a time, beating between each addition. Add the peanut butter and vanilla, and beat on medium-low speed to blend. Add the dry ingredients in three batches, mixing on low speed until incorporated and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the chocolate, and beat briefly on low speed, just until evenly incorporated.
Using an ice cream scoop – mine has a capacity of about ¼ cup – scoop the batter onto the prepared sheet pan, taking care to leave plenty of space between cookies. (I limit it to six cookies per pan; if you add more, they run together.) Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and pale golden around the edges, but their tops have no color. (The cookies will not look fully baked, and this is important! The chewy texture of these cookies depends on it. They’re not nearly as good when baked until golden and crisp.) Transfer the pan to a rack, and cool the cookies completely on the sheet pan. They will firm up as they cool. (Also, they taste better when fully cooled. Promise.)
Repeat with remaining dough.
Note: This dough freezes beautifully. Actually, I like the texture of these cookies best when they’re baked from frozen. Scoop the dough onto a sheet pan and freeze until hard; then transfer the dough mounds to a freezer bag or other airtight container. Do not defrost before baking, and plan to add four or five minutes to the baking time.
Yield: about 20 large (4-inch) cookies