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?
While most cookie tables reflect the gold standards in a family’s collection of recipes–and we do have our fair share of those–I also want my cookie table to include some recent favorites, recipes I’ve picked up along the way, and to showcase some of my favorite flavors, like buckwheat flour, halva and matcha. It’s a tall order to fill. The undertaking itself is massive and requires months and months of testing (let’s not even contemplate the amount of butter required). You need to know how the cookies will freeze, what the exact yield of a recipe will be, if the recipe can easily be doubled and, ultimately, if all of this fuss is necessary since, when it comes to cookies, most people will be satisfied with good old chocolate chip or even peanut butter blossoms. But even knowing that, I know I will continue to insist on a few additions.

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.

For me, these were unquestionably the Cookie of 2015. Thanks to a small amount of buckwheat flour (3/4 cup) and two sticks of butter, they are wonderfully dark and rich, with a crumbly texture that melts in your mouth. If food could be said to have a personality, they would be moody, mysterious and just a touch otherworldly, the cookie equivalent of the main female character in a Murakami novel. As you can see from the photo below, even Elektra, resident food thief and (would-be) gourmand, sensed that I was onto something when I first baked these in April 2015.

It was one of those perfect California spring days, all sunshine and gentle breeze. Before heading off to Sonoma, the Greek went to check on things at the lab, while I stayed home with my gourmand and decided to bake the buckwheat cookies from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert. There was nothing, at least at first glance, that immediately struck me as special about these cookies. In fact, besides the addition of buckwheat, they seemed perfectly ordinary, easy even: the ingredient list was short, you could cream the butter and sugar by hand and then, after lightly kneading the dough (it is delicate and can be a little tricky to work with), you formed it into log, which you would refrigerate before baking. It turned out that I didn’t have the exact amount or type of cocoa nibs that Medrich’s recipe called for, but I solved this problem by using the ones I had on hand (Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered cocoa nibs) and by also finely chopping dark chocolate and adding it to the cookies to provide an additional note of semi-sweet bitterness. 

When that first batch came out of the oven, we were smitten, so much so that we soon made them again for the Greek’s birthday/graduation party and again before moving. Now, I can’t help but think of them as California cookies, partly because of Medrich, partly because of how they will always be connected in mind my mind with that trip to Sonoma in April, to our last lunch at the Fremont Diner, to the days when wine country was just a hop, skip and a jump away.
In all the times I’ve made these cookies, there has been only one dissenting opinion. It was when I took them into work and my friend (the other paralegal) told me, “You know, I like the buckwheat cookies, but I just don’t love them like you do. They’re good, but they kind of remind me of what British people would have with their tea.” (Apologies to my British readers.) I remember telling her that I know, that that was what I actually loved about them: their utter simplicity, the hint of everyday pleasures that they promised. 
And while I can certainly tolerate disagreement, I’m happy to report that the Greek feels the same way about them as I do. Not only did he tell me after my recent bout of baking that these were his favorite, but after his birthday party in May, he also told me that he could happily eat them forever. It may be that I’m well past the point in my life when I would base my compatibility with a man on our common taste in books, movies and cookies, but I still can’t help but consider this a good sign.
You’d better believe that these buckwheat cookies will be making an appearance at our Pennsylvania wedding, no questions asked.

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.

2 thoughts on “Cookies Galore

  1. I am so excited for your wedding! And the cookie table!! It will be my first experience with this glorious tradition, so I am thinking about what will be my (air-travel-friendly) contribution. I cannot wait to try these buckwheat cookies too! Cocoa nibs in cookies just smacks of genius to me, though I should not be surprised–Medrich knows what she's doing. I must say that seeing these pictures of you just makes me miss you so terribly! Skype soon? Or maybe just have an afternoon of manic texting? 🙂 Also, amen to the December madness. I think we have finally reached the stage of adulthood when this affects us acutely, as opposed to the good old days (terrible old days?) when December just meant lots of exams and papers due. January feels like such a wonderfully clean and fresh breeze by comparison. But I'll take December any day, if only for the cookies:)

  2. Hello, dear friend! Thank you for your kind words, your excitement for the weddings and your plans to contribute to the cookie table (we would be honored to have anything you would or could bring!)! Oh, the buckwheat cookies; I may have many cookie love affairs in my love, but I don't know that any cookie will top these! They would have made our afternoon cup of tea in grad school 100% better, a feat that is hard to imagine!

    As for Skyping or reading a Russian story or novel together (in Russian; I read your posts, but haven't had a chance to comment yet), yes to both! I have been wanting to get back into the groove of using my language skills again (and I need to get back to the Greek…) and it would also be lovely to see you and to hear all about your live and travels.

    And you're right about December madness. It is nice to actually be affected by it all instead of writing papers until December 20th and feeling nauseous about the outcome of all of them on a plane ride home…

    But I guess it never could have been that bad since there were always cookies waiting on the other side, right? 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s