Sunday, May 23, 2010

Peanut Butter Cookies


I love summer in the early morning, when the streets of Brooklyn are still quiet but for the bustle of shopkeepers and the ragged breath of joggers as they hurry past. The sky is a pale blue tinged with green and gold, and the air is both light and laden with promise and the scent of flowers in bloom.

I love summer when I’m standing at my counter, in shorts and an old t-shirt, barefoot, tossing strawberries and rhubarb with sugar and lemon zest for a tart, and across the room the door to the backyard is open and my cat is lying on her side on the patio, basking in the sun.

I love summer when I’m perched on my stoop, sticky with sweat after a long bike ride, eating ice cream (mint chocolate chip in a sugar cone, please) and listening to snippets of the conversations of passers by.

I love summer when I’m sitting on the couch with my dad, drinking lemonade and watching baseball, yelling at the TV when the Mets do something stupid (which is most of the time), clapping and shouting enthusiastically when they finally get something right.

I love summer in the early evening when the setting sun repaints my backyard in shades of pink and gold, and we sit on the patio with the umbrella up and vegetables on the grill, watching for the very first firefly to light up the darkness that’s to come.

I love summer when I’m sprawled out on bed, window open wide to catch the sounds of cicadas and late night traffic and boats in New York Harbor, limbs heavy and soft from a day in the sun and skin still tinged with the faintest scent of sunscreen.

But most of all, I love summer afternoons when I’m lying in the grass in my backyard, listening to Joni Mitchell on the radio, with a glass of water, a cookie, and a great book in my hand.

Look at my mom's pretty peonies!

Today that book was Sense and Sensibility (my favorite of Jane Austen’s; I’ve read it about five thousand times) and the cookie was peanut butter. It was sheer bliss.

These peanut butter cookies are delicious—dense and crumbly, crisp at the edges but still soft in the center, with lots of butter and just a hint of cinnamon. They go perfectly with Jane Austen and a summer afternoon.

Peanut Butter Cookies

1 ¾ cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon of salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup smooth peanut butter (because the oil in natural peanut butters tends to separate out, use a generic, non-organic brand)
1 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two large cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In another bowl, cream butter, peanut butter, and sugar till light and fluffy. Mix in egg, then dry ingredients.
Roll the cookies into tablespoon sized balls and create the checkered pattern by pressing into them with the tines of a fork. Bake for 15 minutes, or until puffed and browned at the edges.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Banana Muffins


So, technically I should have been studying for my Calculus AP this afternoon. (It’s tomorrow and I still don’t know what logistic growth is. Eek.) Or out running in Prospect Park. (I’m training for a 5K the first weekend in June. It’s my first ever race.) Or finishing my Senior Portrait for my English class. Or working on a poetry project.

But I had a not-so-great day at school, and then I found an extremely not-great email in my inbox when I got home (Hint: it has to do with a word that looks like but has a vastly different meaning from “collage”) so I chose to do none of those things.

Instead, I made muffins. Banana muffins.

If I were a baked good, I would probably be a banana muffin. Brown and unassuming on the outside, but with a beautiful moist interior. I’d be made with part whole wheat flour, and a half a cup of bran. But I’d also have a generous amount of chocolate chips tossed in my batter. Because no matter how delicious something is, it is always improved by chocolate.

Banana Muffins
(Adapted from Martha Stewart)

4 overripe bananas
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup butter, melted
1 large egg
1 cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup bran
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon (This is a lot, but I love cinnamon. You can cut this to 1 tsp if you like)
½ tsp nutmeg
½ cup pumpkin puree (Martha calls for sour cream but I had leftover pumpkin and decided to make these healthier)
1 tbsp vanilla extract

½ cup dark chocolate chips
½ cup of toasted pecans, chopped
(I made half of my muffins with pecans and half with chocolate chips. Unfortunately, my sister had friends over and the chocolate chip muffins all got eaten before I could take pictures.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease muffin tins or fill with paper liners.

In a large bowl, combine flours, bran, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. In another bowl, mash bananas with a fork. Then add sugar, oil, and egg and beat until smooth. Slowly add flour mixture and stir till combined. Do not overmix! Add vanilla and pumpkin and mix until combined. If using chocolate chips or pecans, add those now too.

Fill muffin tins ¾ full and bake about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. (Or ignore your burnt tongue and dive right in!)

This is a picture of the ocean I took while on vacation in Oregon a few years ago. It doesn't have anything to do with banana muffins, but it goes with what I've written below.

I can't think of anything creative relating to banana muffins to write. As I said, it’s been kind of an unhappy day. But I will give you a snippet from my senior portrait, something I've been tinkering with for a while:

The sea the sea, it tumbles and leaps and rolls and calls to me. It laps at the feet of this busy island city and calls to me in the darkness. At night, when my mind is wandering and the trees cast moon-shadows on my wall, I hear the eerie whistles and low bellows of ships in the harbor, the raucous honking of tugboats in the East River, and pieces of my heart seem to jump out of my skin and sail straight out my open window. I shift position, arms and legs sticky with sweat under the single sheet that is all I can bear on these sweltering summer nights, and try to make myself comfortable in my overly soft, unnecessarily warm bed. I pray for a breeze and try not to mind when it comes bearing the smell of salt and the promise of freedom.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies


I haven’t posted for a very long while. Hopefully I haven’t disappointed any avid readers. (Though I doubt I have any.) My only excuse is that I’ve been overwhelmed with the craziness of my senior year: choosing a college, AP tests, etc. Thankfully, all of that is done, or at least is on its way towards being done, and I can focus once more on the most important things: reading and baking.

I’ve been doing a lot of both in the past week. I recently went on a book-reserving binge on the New York Public Library website, and all the books I’ve put on hold have started coming in. Though I know that I still have work to do and scholarships to seek out, it’s hard to keep my nose out of new books once they’re in the house, perched tantalizingly in precarious piles atop my bedside table or scattered on the kitchen counter. I’ve particularly fallen in love with Andrea Barrett. She writes fiction about science and scientists, which may sound dubious but is actually wonderful. I especially loved her collections of short stories: Ship Fever and Servants of the Map. Each of the stories is so different and intricate, but when read together they weave themselves into a kind of treatise on humanity. On the ways science and knowledge affect us, the ways that searching for truths about nature leads us to truths about ourselves. I love it when writers—or anyone, really—can find that intersection between science and philosophy and art, and use it to tell a story that isn’t only thoughtful and beautiful but so engrossing that you can’t tear your eyes from the page, even when it’s past midnight and you have a calculus test the next morning.

I think that that mixture—science, philosophy, and art—is also part of why I love baking. Baking is unquestionably a science. Anyone who has tried a recipe fifteen different times, painstakingly noting each variation in baking time or the type of pan used can vouch for that. But it also requires an artistic flair—that dash of cinnamon added to your strawberry shortcake recipe based on what could either be the faintest whim or the most fundamental gut instinct. I even like to think that baking has a touch of philosophy to it—baking is, after all, about assembling a collection of diverse ingredients that alone mean nothing but together can make a masterpiece. How much more metaphysical can you get than that?

These cookies are like a collection of Andrea Barrett’s short stories. Each aspect of the cookie, like each story a collection, is delicious on its own but even better when consumed together. You take a bite and realize how well white chocolate and cinnamon work together, how the rich bitterness of the dark chocolate plays off of the sweetness of the pumpkin. There are scientific elements involved: the batter seemed to wet, but I didn't want to add more flour and make the cookies super heavy, so I decided to toss in hald a cup of oats on a whim. They have an aspect of logic and thought to them: if you're overly analytical, like me, you'll wonder about the spicy yet homey flavor hidden beneath the chocolate, about it's role in the batter, about what it means for cookie as a whole. Then you'll realize that it's nutmeg and laugh at yourself. Plus they're delicious. They even look cozy and inviting, like something you'd want to curl up in a chair by the fire with, along with a cup of tea and a good book. It’s a scientific experiment, a philosophical mind-game, and a work of art all in one recipe. Pretty impressive for a Wednesday afternoon.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies (heavily adapted from Joy the Baker)

These cookies are a funny sort of mixture between a muffin, a scone, and a cookie. They’re much softer than a regular oatmeal cookie and have a denseness similar to some scones. I’m going to keep toying with the recipe—I’d like for them to crisp on the outsides a bit more—but these are delicious (and healthy! Only 3 tbsp of butter!) even now.

½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup old fashioned rolled oats
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp allspice
1 egg
½ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons of butter, melted
½ cup pumpkin puree
½ tsp vanilla
¾ cup chocolate chips (I used a mixture of half dark chocolate and half white chocolate)

1.Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2.In a large bowl, whisk together flours, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
3.In another large bowl, beat egg and sugar until smooth and light yellow-brown in color. Beat in butter, pumpkin, and vanilla until blended. Add the flour mixture and stir until incorporated (be careful not to overmix). Add chocolate chips.
4.Place ice cream-scoop sized balls of dough onto baking sheets, spacing cookies at least 2 inches apart.
5.Bake about 15 minutes or until tops begin to brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry.