I love the holiday season, so it is ironic that the soundtrack of the days just following Thanksgiving sounds more to me like the “bang!” of a track and field starter’s pistol than the festive sound of jingling bells we all expect. Maybe it is the endless reminders about “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”—ominous sounding labels for times when we are supposed to be acting as Santa’s helpers.
Yours truly and other like-minded folk take great pleasure in providing sweet treats for friends and co-workers at this time of year. This year I am determined that the cookies should be as much fun to make as they are to eat. (Apologies to the old M&Ms commercial.)
Jingle bells or starter’s pistol? It doesn’t matter: I’m in the mood to make cookies. Here’s a short background as to how I chose my first holiday cookie of the year.
I often grimace at food fashion. Somehow food seems to “hit” the same way clothes do. How many versions of braised short ribs or roasted Branzino do I need to see “celebrity” chefs demonstrate on TV? I love short ribs and Branzino, but throw in something else now and then, please. (This reminds me of a Bugs Bunny cartoon that always makes me laugh: Yosemite Sam is the chef for a Charles Laughton-esque king who signals his disapproval of each meal by bellowing, “Every day the same thing: Variety!”)
Cupcakes have been the objects of desire for quite a while now, to the point that they are even being served at weddings in place of the big multi-tiered cake. Yet, the New York Times featured an article a couple of weeks ago titled, “Pie to Cupcake: Time’s Up”. Could this mean that before too long folks will be waiting half an hour in line for a piece of pie? A la mode? (If so, my shirts should quake in terror.)
Grimace or not, there’s one bit of food fashion that I don’t mind: the combination of salt and chocolate or caramel. I’m starting off my holiday baking with something that harkens back to my childhood while also winking broadly at current food fashion.
In not-so-long-ago Massachusetts my Mom used to sneak us off to the dearly departed Bailey’s, the last of the old-time, marble-lined ice cream and candy parlors. There, at a cool marble table, in an even cooler metal dish, was served a hot fudge sundae – topped with both marshmallow and whipped cream, please –finished off with chopped salted walnuts. Those very salty, very crunchy walnuts transformed what was really just a bunch of wet sugar into what we in the twenty-first century would call an “artisanal dessert.” I know this sounds like I am over estimating my memory of a dish of ice cream. I am not. Sometimes food really does become special when you consider the sum of the parts instead of just the parts themselves.
The salty / sweet combination is certainly nothing new: salted caramel is old news to French candy makers. For Americans though, fleur de sel caramel and chocolate (fleur-de-sel refers to the type of sea salt used) has, in the past decade, gone from being a curiosity to almost mainstream. Now you can even buy sea-salted chocolate in the drug store. Granted, the product has gone mainstream, but I’m not sure that the taste has. Many folks are still put off by the thought of salt combined with caramel or chocolate.
In the spirit of the season, I’d like to do my bit to correct this.
The great thing about cookies is that they are so adaptable. Most cookies are based on the same basic recipe and technique: cream sugar and butter together, add eggs and liquid flavorings, then add flour, leavener, and dry flavorings. Scoop, or roll and cut portions of dough. Bake, and good night.
Easy, yes? So why do folks often seem to fall back on the same rather tired recipes during the holidays: sugar cookies or gingerbread cookies? I thought it would be fun to create a cookie dough that could be adapted to suit multiple flavors, and could be scooped, or easily rolled and cut. The emphasis on the latter is easily rolled and cut — or as easily as possible.
I think I have accomplished my goal. In addition, if you use a butter substitute, the basic cookie (not counting anything you add on top) is suitable for vegans. How am I doing so far?
Obviously this week’s recipe for Fleur de Sel Chocolate Caramel cookies is based on the above specs. The twist is that there’s an easy version, but advanced folks can easily spiff up the cookies if they desire.
The easy way, the basic recipe, is to scoop small balls of dough (approximately a half ounce or 1” each) bake them, dip them in the caramel, then sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt on the caramel. The cookie will remain slightly soft and chewy.
More ambitious folks can roll the dough to approximately ¼” thick, cut with a cookie cutter, bake, then dip—or even better—sandwich the caramel. The top cookie of the sandwich should be cut with a “window” in the middle to show off the caramel, and to allow access for the sea salt. Thin, rolled / cut cookies will have a happy crunch.
If you’re feeling ambitious but need a bit of cookie baking technique and guidance, consult the Butter Flour Eggs Cookie Primer 101 for some basic cookie-baking tips.
In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, start your ovens!
Click here for the recipe for Fleur de Sel Chocolate Caramel Cookies.
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