For Nick’s birthday last week, he asked me to bake him some cookies. Since I have yet to see a decent cookie in France (other than fancy little petits fours secs), I figured I had my work cut out for me. The lack of brown sugar and/or molasses here is probably a major culprit, so I set out to divine a substitute. (Note: I did actually see a bottle of molasses in a rare food shop after the cookies were made – it cost 12 euros for a pint! Outrageous.) I wrote an email to Michael Chu of Cooking for Engineers, asking if I could substitute a mixture of sugar and honey for brown sugar, and also if he knew anything about my recently acquired poudre à lever. He was kind enough to respond in a timely manner, saying that the levure chimique was, in fact, more akin to baking powder than baking soda (I’m going to have to give those pancakesanother shot). He also told me that while a honey-sugar combination would give me softer cookies as brown sugar would, they may have a honey flavor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re making peanut butter cookies, as I was planning to do. But because I love the flavor of brown sugar, and because I don’t really like the idea of beet sugar, I picked up some cassonade sugar (like turbinado but with smaller crystals). It took me forever to find the sugar in the grocery store. Just when I was beginning to learn where everything was, they closed for a week to redo the floor and moved everything around in the process. I eventually found it next to the water and UHT milk, nowhere near the flour (next to the chocolate) or the baking supplies (next to the Kosher foods). Anyway, it ended up being a good thing that I had to scour the store because I stumbled across a box of “bicarbonate alimentaire” in the health food aisle. A thorough examination of the box revealed that this was the baking soda I had been searching for. Looks like I’m all set.
Basing my recipe off the one on Cooking for Engineers, I started with butter, peanut butter, sugar, cassonade, and honey. I also like to add the salt at this point, to ensure even distribution in the final dough. I creamed these ingredients (by hand) until the mixture was homogeneous and lighter in color.
Next I beat in an egg and some vanilla until smooth, followed by the dry ingredients (flour and baking soda, previously stirred together). Now I had my cookie dough, and if you think I didn’t taste it several times to make sure it was ok, you don’t know me very well.
Michael Chu recommends letting the dough chill before baking, but I couldn’t wait. I pinched off a few pieces of dough and rolled them into balls. I then coated these in a combination of cassonade and white sugar and impressed the traditional pattern with a fork. Of course I had been preheating my toaster oven this whole time, so when my makeshift cookie sheet (tinfoil on the back of a metal cake pan) was ready, I popped it in. Nine agonizing minutes later, I was assured that my efforts would not be for naught.
A little darker than I wanted them, but crisp and buttery with good peanut flavor (I think this African peanut butter we have here is better than the partially-hydrogenated stuff we get in the States: it contains peanuts and salt, and that’s it). Subsequent batches, after I managed to let the dough chill a bit, came out wonderfully. I ended up with a plate full of cookies for Nick to take to work the next day.
The recipe has been requested, so now I have to figure out how to convert it all into metric. (I’m lucky enough to have some American measuring cups and spoons – thanks, Bill!) But I’m glad they were a hit, and this success has given me confidence in the baking-in-a-tiny-French-kitchen arena.
To be continued…