I had such high hopes for December. It was the month when I was going to sit down and compose blog post upon blog post. I was going to write about the Grand Canyon and New Mexico and finally share my favorite pizza recipe (it’s got a Berkeley flair to it), as well as all the other recipes I’ve been sitting on since the move interrupted the normal rhythms of my life. But lo and behold, none of this was meant to be because I fell victim to the worst December ailment out there, one even worse than the flu. It is something that I like to call December madness. It’s a strange thing, too: one minute you’re enjoying the brief respite after Thanksgiving, thinking that the turkey hurdle having been successfully jumped over and all the dishes done, you’ve got time to rest on your laurels, and then, at the next, you’re suddenly in the thick of it all again, pounds of butter softening on the counter, presents piling up to be wrapped and another holiday menu asking to be planned. It’s enough to make you think you are hopelessly behind and that maybe you will never manage to catch up. If you add to this the fact that in 2016, you are having not just one, but two, weddings and that both will be here before you know it, you may just start to realize you’ve got bigger problems on your plate than when you might finally manage to sit down and write your Christmas cards.
But methodical(ly mad) creature that I am, I realized that there was a simple way to combine wedding prep with a good dose of holiday cheer: to bake cookies, cookies galore (the Christmas cards would just have to wait)! While I believe I can say without too much hyperbole that most problems in life can be solved by baking cookies, the truth is that, in this particular case, they really were the answer. Cookies, a mainstay of the Christmas table, also happen to feature prominently in southwestern Pennsylvania weddings (even the New York Times wrote about it). They represent the party favor, as well as years of family and regional tradition. I would even go so far as to say that a wedding is only as good as its cookie table, but that’s probably only because it was my favorite thing about having to go to weddings when I was growing up. And though I hardly consider myself Bridezilla material, it just may be that where the cookie table is concerned I will demonstrate borderline Bridezilla tendencies. I just can’t help it, though; I’m obsessed with the idea of having a fabulous one. And the world of cookies is so wonderfully vast, how could I not be tempted to explore it?
In the past week, I pulled out a few new baking books (a real weakness of mine), Food52 Baking and Cookie Love, and got to work. I had decided to make the cookie recipe that most appealed to me in each. For the Food52 book, it was a relatively easy decision since there are only about a dozen cookie recipes in the whole collection (they lump cookies and bars together, which makes sense, although I do think it was a bit of a stretch to include brownies in this section. Call me a purist, but brownies represent the perfect union of fudge–a candy–and cake); the dark chocolate and cherry mandelbrot seemed the obvious choice, given its creative use of almond paste to soften the cookie’s texture. It was much more difficult, however, just to choose one cookie when reading Mindy Segal’s Cookie Love. As the title suggests, this books celebrates cookies in all shapes and sizes, from drop cookies to spritz, all while using ingredients as wide-ranging as praline, homemade jam, hot fudge and passion fruit. It strives to show you that, though cookies may be an afterthought in the current pastry landscape, they are every bit as fancy and fine as cakes and pies (perhaps the current and eternal darlings of pastry) and equally deserving of our attention. Because I am a sucker for most things blueberry and have a soft spot for Eastern European pastries, I went with the blueberry jam kolachkes with orange blossom almonds. Between these two cookies alone–one sturdy and with pockets of sweetness and the other like a miniature flaky, fruit-filled pie–it has been a glorious week of snacking. But as much as I enjoyed them (and keep in mind that I say this knowing I would bake both again), neither could ultimately hold a candle to the simplest and best cookie of them all: Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies with Cocoa Nibs.
Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies with Cocoa Nibs
Yields 30-36 cookies
adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert
As I mentioned above, these cookies are very delicate–Medrich says that the buckwheat flour, low in gluten, works more like cornstarch– and it can be tricky to form the dough, especially if you make the cookies by hand. That said, there is great pleasure in making something completely by hand and in not dirtying the mixer. Whatever you decide, do not overmix the dough; these cookies are meant to be light!
Another important note: if you refrigerate the dough overnight, give yourself one to two hours to let it soften before attempting to cut your cookies. The dough, as I already mentioned, is crumbly and will easily shatter if pressed too hard. If this happens, though, you can salvage the situation by gently pressing the cookie back together since the heat from your hands will soften the butter.
Finally, in her recipe, Medrich says that you should get forty-eight 2 1/2-inch cookies from one log; I have never gotten that in all the times I’ve made these. At most, I think I’ve gotten 36, but this may be because my log is usually on the smaller side (she recommends a 12 by 2-inch log). The worst case scenario is that you double the recipe to increase your yield.
1 1/4 cups (5.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (3 ounces) buckwheat flour
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar (you could also use 1/3 cup granulated, 1/3 cup brown; I’ve done this to great success)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ounce chocolate-covered cocoa nibs or plain cocoa nibs (this just shy of 1/3 cup)
1.5 ounces of 60% chocolate bar, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, whisk together the buckwheat and all-purpose flour. Set aside.
In another medium bowl (using either a wooden spoon or an electric/standing mixer), beat the butter with the sugar and salt until it is smooth and creamy. It should not be fluffy. Stir in the cocoa nibs, vanilla and chopped chocolate. Add the flours and mix until just incorporated. If the mixture is still crumbly and hasn’t quite formed into a dough at this point, dump it onto a sheet of parchment on the counter and knead it gently with your hands until a dough forms.
Form the dough into a log (preferably 12 x 2), then cover it with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
Remove the log from the refrigerator one to two hours before you are planning on baking them. You want to give the log time to soften so that you can cut the log without breaking the cookies.
Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 F. Line the cookie sheets with either parchment or silpat mats.
Using a sharp knife, cut the slightly softened log into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick cookies. Place the slices at least 1 1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets (ideally, you should bake one dozen per cookie sheet).
Bake the cookies for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets halfway through the process. The cookies are done when they have started to brown along their edges. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets on a rack and let cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookie dough.
The cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to one month. Alternatively, they freeze well.