Cookies for All Occasions

If there’s one thing I got really good at during the pandemic, it’s baking cookies.

  • Stuck at home with some spare time? Bake cookies.
  • Celebrating another holiday alone? Bake cookies.
  • Can’t sleep at night? Bake cookies.

In times of joy and sadness, there is always a case to make for baking cookies. All it takes is a solid formula and the flavor options are limitless. When grocery shortages kept me on my toes, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t put in a cookie. From oddball mix-ins to uncommon flours, nothing escaped my mixing bowl. Even ketchup and BBQ sauce became fodder for more sweet treats in my hands.

Infinitely scalable to feed an army or just one, I’m elated to increase the output again, as restrictions loosen and we approach a more “normal” festive season once again. Winterizing my trusty cookie formula with warm spices, tart and tangy cranberry sauce, and chewy bites of dried currants, you’d never know this approach was once born out of desperation and deficits.

Soft and toothsome, these morsels bake up with the ideal texture using common, inexpensive pantry ingredients. Approximately my 10,000th iteration of the basic blueprint, they’re definitely tried-and-true, worthy of a place in your kitchen, and stomach, too. There’s no wrong way to adapt them to your tastes; consider different nuts or dried fruits, like hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, or dried cranberries, just for starters. Cut the recipe in half for a smaller crowd, or toss “extras” in the freezer to keep beautifully until cravings strike.

I’m grateful to leave most quirky habits from the pandemic behind, but this one is staying with me. Keep on baking, my friends, but make sure you share now!

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Hello Sunshine

Craning their necks high into the sky with bold yellow blossoms, sunflowers seem as bright as the sun itself. Native to North America, one could argue that they’re one of the first authentic foods of the US, cultivated and farmed before corn or squash. Whimsical as they may look, sunflowers are much more than mere decorative elements for your bouquet.

Adding that same cheer and utility to the dinner table, their seeds transcend the bounds of conventional sweet and savory definitions, seamlessly enhancing flavors across the board. Since they’re so versatile and affordable, there’s always at least a handful hanging out in the pantry here. Beyond just snacking on them out of hand, they’re one of my favorite additions to bread. Adding a toothsome crunch and subtly nutty taste into every bite, sunflower seeds make every slice a textural delight.

So, when it comes time to clean out that pantry, there are all sorts of odd measures of various flours to use up, united by these tiny kernels in one incredible loaf. Dark molasses sweetens the deal without pushing it into sugary realms, making it ideal for sandwiches or toast. Soft and supple, cassava flour gives it a satisfying heft, alongside hearty whole wheat.

Such a remarkably simple yet comforting bread seemed like the perfect recipe to share for the 16th annual World Bread Day. There’s so much to celebrate when it comes to this staple food. I feel like I should create something extravagant that will turn heads or become a viral hit, but the fact of the matter is that all bread is good bread, and I think we’ve already had enough sensational headlines to last a lifetime. I just want an easy-going dough that’s as comforting to knead and create as it is to eat and enjoy.

Banner World Bread Day, October 16, 2021

Even on a rainy day, this loaf will still rise and shine. That’s the power of sunflowers, blooming brilliantly for thousands of years.

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Melon Drama

If it’s named for a melon and looks like a melon, then obviously, it should taste like… Not a melon.

Such is the curious case of melon pan. Captivating the imaginations and cravings of Japanese bakers since the early 1900’s, right around the time that Western influences made bread the trendy starch of those in the know, it gave traditional rice flour a run for its money. Simple, sweet buns wrapped in a buttery cookie exterior, the name has more to do with its deeply grooved, crackled exterior than flavor. Said to evoke the appearance of the delicate skin of a muskmelon, covering the fruit like natural lace, it’s one of many theories, though it strikes me as the most plausible explanation.

Some are round, others are more like ovoid footballs. Most are plain, but some are filled with cream or jam. A few intrepid bakers try to make sense of the misnomer by adding artificial melon flavoring to the dough itself. For years, that was my impulse as well, but I could never fully connect the dots. Melon extract is not exactly the most common ingredient in the pantry, and even as a special order, few genuinely tasteful options exist.

What I’m proposing instead might seem like a stretch, but it’s the most sensible extension of the concept I’ve devised yet. The melon family, cucurbitaceae, is a classification that includes a diverse array of plants both sweet and savory, starting of course with melons like cantaloupe and honey dew, but also squashes such as pumpkins. That connection was the catalyst I needed to finally make a melon pan I could better justify.

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Take it Easy

Rosh Hashanah without an apple cake would be like Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie; an unforgivable travesty. Combining the most essential edible harbinger of a sweet new year, you’re practically asking for another 365 days of misfortune if you should overlook this staple. As we turn the page on the year 5781, let’s not leave anything to chance.

Dense with tender fruit and a moist crumb, it’s a homey, humble dessert that’s as soothing to make as it is to eat. Anyone who can wield a spatula will pull out a perfect ring of dark brown cake, aromatic spices infusing the whole kitchen with their sweet bouquet. Fool-proof and crowd-pleasing, this formula has withstood the test of time, rising to the occasion to feed parties big and small. Such a generous cake is an excellent guest itself, perfect to make ahead or keep for days after the event.

Such an easy-going treat would be welcome for any celebration, but is also just as well suited for an everyday simple indulgence.

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Nuts and Bolts

Confession: I like peanut butter cookies, though try as I might, I simply don’t love them. Their alluring crosshatch imprints do beckon, and I wouldn’t turn down a nutty morsel when offered, but they’re never my go-to treat. I don’t crave them like I do a proper fudgy brownie, or chewy caramel candies. When offered the choice between peanut butter cookies and just about any other comparable confection, be it gingerbread, biscotti, thumbprints and beyond, it’s almost always going to fall to last place.

Perhaps this isn’t such a scandalous admission, especially compared to the controversy that merely including raisins in cookies can cause, but somehow it feels like a personal shortcoming. There must be something inherently wrong with me that I can’t appreciate the subtle art of classic peanut butter cookies more thoroughly.

Ultimately, it comes down to texture. I’m not talking about creamy versus crunchy spreads; the very foundation of the treat fails to meet my expectations for an ideal cookie. Coarsely textured, a bit crumbly and sometimes sandy, yet it doesn’t have the same buttery richness of shortbread. Plagued by dryness if over-baked for a single second, they’re easy to throw together, but shockingly unforgiving once they hit the oven. Making peanut butter cookies is a snap; making great peanut butter cookies is no small task.

The solution is surprisingly simple: add more peanut butter.

Peanut butter powder stands in for plain flour, adding an extra punch of rich, nutty flavor along with a more flexible foundation. Working in concert with cornstarch for a gluten-free base, the results are exceedingly tender, soft, and chewy. Better yet, there’s no eggs or butter anywhere to be found in such a spare list of ingredients. In fact, no extra oil is needed at all when you can harness the natural oil of the peanuts themselves.

Complete with classic crosshatching, they may look like the traditional sort of peanut butter cookies that deserve only a passing glance, but I’d implore you to look closer. These treats could upset the conventional cookie hierarchy as we know it.

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