Advice: buy them blanched

I was having another of my “kitchen sink” moments the other day. Meaning, I take stock of food I have in my kitchen, and because I’m too lazy or it’s too cold to go to the market, I concoct something based on what I have.

On this occasion, I was in the mood for a cookie, and I had some almonds to play with. I usually like to keep a nut in my kitchen. Sometimes it’s a walnut, sometimes a pistachio, sometimes a pecan. I hadn’t had a good almond cookie in a while.

A lot of almond cookie recipes call for almond extract or almond paste as a flavor enhancer, but I did not have either of these, so I searched for a recipe that relied strictly on almonds for the flavor. I found the following:

1 lb. unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 cups finely ground blanched almonds
3 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Preparation:
Cream butter until light; gradually add sugar. Add finely ground almonds and flour and mix thoroughly. Chill dough for several hours. Pinch off bits of dough about the size of walnut. Place on ungreased baking sheet and press each with bottom of glass until about 2 inches in diameter. Bake at 325 for 12 minutes or until cookies are pale beige. Meanwhile, cut vanilla bean in half and scrape. Mix with the sifted confectioners’ sugar. Sift lightly over warm cookies. Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

A simple recipe, notable by the absence of some common cookie ingredients, namely eggs, vanilla, baking soda, and salt. I was curious as to how they’d turn out. I had a hunch they would be very buttery and a bit dense as well, since, among other things, eggs add structure and leavening to baked goods. I wasn’t sure about the almond flavor either.

One thing I did NOT bargain for was self-blanching my almonds. Blanched almonds are almonds without their brown skins. You can buy them pre-blanched, but, sadly, I did not have the foresight to do that. I had to blanch them myself.

Anyone out there ever done this? It’s a good, old-fashioned pain in the rump! You pour boiling water over your almonds and let them stand for about a minute. Drain, rinse with cold water and pat dry, and then here’s the good part: you take the almonds, one-by-one, and peel the skin off. It’s not hard. The skin comes right off. But, see, almonds are small. And to produce 2 cups worth of (ground!) almonds? That’s a lotta nuts.

I cut the recipe in half so that I only had to do one cup of almonds. It still took a good 45 minutes to get that cup. It would have taken me less time to go to the market and buy blanched almonds! It was tedious, but I got it done.

Production of the rest of the batter was quicker and I suppose more relaxing. I refrigerated it for about 3 hours, which seemed to be plenty of time, because the dough was pretty solid when I removed it. They did take pretty much 12 minutes to bake up, and they turned out roughly as I expected – buttery, not too dense, with a definite, though not overwhelming, almond flavor.

I also decided to skip the powdered sugar sprinkled on top, since most of the cookies were just going to be thrown in my freezer. They did need a dose of pizzazz, so instead I drizzled some melted chocolate over them.

The finished product:

almondbuttercookie

The moral: buy your almonds already blanched, if the recipe calls for it, unless you’ve been bad and need a punishment.

A low-fat experiment

Last night, I was looking for a cookie. Show me someone who isn’t usually looking for a cookie, and I’ll show you a liar. Now, this is not my style (it was not my house, either), but there was some Toll House cookie dough in the refrigerator and, even though it was clearly past its prime, I thought maybe I could get away with it (pre-made cookie dough – you know the kind in the plastic tube – is what I affectionately refer to as “slice-and-shove” … you slice the tube of dough into a cookie shape, and shove it in the oven), but I checked the use-by date, and it was something like July (!). So no thanks.

I realized I had the ingredients for peanut butter cookies. A basic recipe includes the PB, flour, sugar, brown sugar, butter, eggs, baking soda, and salt. I had all those things. But the butter I had was “light” butter, and the peanut butter was reduced fat. I’m used to baking with full-fat versions of these ingredients, and I suspected this little experiment could go wrong, but I threw caution to the wind and made the cookies anyway.

They were not the greatest peanut butter cookies ever made. Why not? Well, “light” butter has less butterfat and more water than real butter. With less fat, the flavor of the product won’t be as pronounced, and it will not be as moist or tender. The butter was salted as well, and this can be a problem too, because many baking recipes call for salt as an ingredient, and too much or too little salt in the recipe can throw off the product’s flavor or texture. Using unsalted butter lets you control the amount of salt.

Reduced fat peanut butter, according to Cook’s Illustrated, replaces about 25% of regular peanut butter’s fat with stabilizers such as corn syrup solids. This will not affect the product’s outcome as much as light butter, because the PB is a flavorant and not a base ingredient, and you’re not using as much of it (if you do want to use reduced fat PB, Cook’s Illustrated recommends the Skippy brand).

It appears that using these ingredients in tandem is not such a hot idea. My suggestion: if you’re baking, try to use the real stuff, and if you’re concerned about the calories or the fat … hands out of the cookie jar!