Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A reserved cookie


Lately, I’ve realized with both horror and relief that I seem to be losing my sweet tooth – the same sweet tooth that drove me, as a kid, to raid fridges and create secret stashes and stretch truths, all with the ultimate goal of getting more cookies. It’s fair to say that I obsessed unhealthily over that goal, and got into hot water over it a few times, too. Sugar was a huge focal point of my childhood and early adulthood, and at times I was a slave to its wiles. My career, for a spell, centered around the pastry station of a busy restaurant, where I assembled desserts and subsisted largely on ice cream, since family meal wasn’t served until the wee hours of the morning. That followed a career that drove me, out of boredom, to eat piles of sweets at my desk during flat, uninspired afternoon stretches as I tried to compose inspired copy about house kits and ugly bath fixtures.

The thing is, all those sweets made me feel lousy. I knew it, too, but they tasted so damn good in the short term that I couldn't hold myself back. Now, recently, I’ve noticed I go for days without even thinking about dessert, much less wanting to bake. Since my husband doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, either, we're more than content to chip away steadily at a bar of dark chocolate, if the craving arises (my favorites are the Jacques Torres Wicked Bar and Mast Brothers almond, sea salt, and olive oil). This is not out of virtuousness or an abundance of self-control, it’s just the way our taste buds seem to have re-aligned over the years.


I still ogle photogenic treats (here is some of my favorite eye candy). I like the thought of firing up the oven and baking something sweet, and smelling the way the sugar and the butter deepen and meld into something new and handsome together. So it was while hunting through Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cookbook for a savory recipe that I lost my way in the dessert section and stumbled upon this little gem. It's a different sort of cookie, one that won’t make your teeth ache or your hands tremble. The buckwheat was what grabbed me – ironic, since my love affair with buckwheat began with the Aunt Jemima pancakes my mom used to make, and onto which I unleashed torrents of syrup (not maple syrup, mind you. Just syrup), then swigged straight from the bottle for good measure. Later, I chomped on plain buckwheat groats as an ascetic young vegan, then chowed down on buckwheat
crêpes with gruyère in Paris, as a liberated ex-vegan. Buckwheat just has that compelling earthy/mineral flavor, any way you dress it (incidentally those plain groats, also known as kasha, weren’t half bad).

I’d never heard of a buckwheat cookie, though, and immediately knew I had to try one. In fact, the promise of a sweetish buckwheat dessert got me to bake cookies for the very first time since Christmas. I like Hesser’s description of the flavor “like sweet wet stone–in a good way, I promise”. She also points the reader to “a similarly reserved cookie, …the Honey Spice Cookies on p. 685,” as though this were a special category of cookie, one confident enough in its subtle charms that it doesn't have to ooze chocolate or wear gaudy icing. This is the kind of cookie I can share with my kids over tea, after a blustery day on the playground now that the days are getting longer. I’m not about to renounce sugar altogether, as healthy as that would be; I think sweet things have their place in our lives, in moderation, and I do look forward to summer’s fresh fruit desserts. This cookie is plenty sweet, just not jarringly so, and with a slight graininess that gives it wintry substance. It’s kind of like a sablé with a little something extra, and best enjoyed with milky earl grey tea. 

Note: If you enjoy the nuances different grains can bring to baked goods, I recommend you check out Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain

Buckwheat Cookies
 
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century

Ingredients:
 
  • 1 cup buckwheat flour (such as Bob’s Red Mill or Arrowhead Farms) 
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour  
  • 2/3 cup sugar (preferably natural, evaporated cane juice) – even a little less, if you like
  • ½ tsp. salt  
  • ½ tsp. baking powder  
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed  
  • 2 large egg yolks, beaten (from extra-large or jumbo-sized eggs)
Instructions:  
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Put dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse together briefly to mix. Add butter and pulse until pea-sized lumps form in the mix. Add yolks and pulse some more until dough just holds together. It may still seem rather crumbly, but do not over-mix. (Alternatively, whisk dry ingredients together in a bowl. In separate, large bowl, beat butter until fluffy and add egg yolks. Beat in the dry ingredients in two additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally)

Next, in your palms roll dough into balls of at least 1 tablespoon worth of dough apiece. You may have to press dough together. Arrange balls on silpat- or parchment-lined trays with at least 1 inch of space in between. Using a fork, carefully press down on cookies until they are just about a half-inch thin. Bake for 15-20 minutes, maybe more, until beginning to turn golden around the edges – check and rotate trays after about 15 minutes. Allow cookies to cool for a bit before carefully removing to plate or cooling rack – cookies will still be delicate and crumbly when hot. 

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