Monday, October 27, 2008

A Life Rich in Recipes

I have concluded that things are out of control around here. I realized, sadly, that saying, “Hey, I’m putting that recipe on my list of things to make!” means absolutely nothing. What it really means is this: “Hey, little recipe, get in line. It’s going to be a long, long time before you get your moment in the cooking spotlight.”

My list of things I want to cook is so long that I cannot even give you a number. I don’t even have a single list; instead, I have lists everywhere: a spreadsheet for the recipes found on my favorite blogs, little post-it notes stuck in my cookbooks, a handwritten list for things I’d like to cook out of Passionate Vegetarian. Recipe ideas swirl around in my brain like a cloud of dust, shimmering ephemerally in the sunlight, so many tiny particles that one couldn’t possibly hope to count them all. Then there’s the issue of my own cookbook ambition: how will I ever find the time and focus to work on my own recipes when I am so eager to cook a thousand recipes from other people?

One answer would be to cook, cook, cook and bring the leftovers to work, where a flock of starving scientists would inhale them so fast that you’d think they hadn’t eaten in days. Another solution would be to host a dinner party every night of the week and foist every last drop of soup and crust of bread on my guests. But both of these suggestions assume I have all the time in the world to cook (I don’t, unfortunately) and I have a bank account devoted solely to my belly (no again, but wouldn’t that be nice?). I’m just an ordinary cook, with ambitious kitchen plans, a day job, and a fridge that threatens to overflow on any given day of the week. The best answer is much more Zen. The recipe list will never be conquered, like a massive to-do list or the kitchen version of a military operation, where the distinction between victory and defeat is defined by the last man standing. I have decided that the recipe list is my ally. The best thing to do is to accept its presence in my life from here on out. Acceptance, much like grief in our culture, is undervalued. The ability to grant it is so freeing, so wonderfully wholesome and yet so very difficult most of the time.

I’ve been struggling with acceptance lately. I really believe in its power, but part of the reason it is so powerful is because of its challenging nature. Acceptance and faith go hand in hand. Once you have accepted yourself, your loved ones, your career, and just about everything else in life as imperfect and vulnerable to mistakes, misfortunes, and horrible, unrelenting loss, it’s tempting to give up hope. Perhaps scientists are especially vulnerable to losing hope because we assume that science will produce all the answers we need. But it doesn’t, and it can’t: science is about prediction and probability. Nothing is guaranteed. And so it is that even scientists need hope and faith.

Acceptance allows us to stop banging our heads against the wall, demanding answers: “Why? Why? Why?” When we accept, we can take a deep breath and say, “I don’t know why, but it is.” Life is full of mysteries. In the past few weeks, I found myself saying and hearing others say to me, “Have faith that things will work out.” Those are powerful words, especially when you believe them. They are soothing, like a couple of big fluffy pillows in word form, offered to the troubled soul who needs to sit down, drink a glass of water, have his back rubbed. With faith comes peace, and the strength to face whatever comes next.

I find that a few hours in the kitchen can be very good for the soul. With my impressively long recipe list, it’s easy to find a reason to hunker down in front of the stove. Every recipe holds between its lines a promise: Listen to me, follow my directions, and you will be rewarded with delicious food. When we try new recipes, we are following someone into the mystery. Some of us are swashbucklers in the kitchen, bravely cooking new recipes every night of the week. Others are a little more timid, preferring to stick to the well-lit trail of favorite dishes. And then there are those of us who work at the edge of a recipe: vegetarians, people with food allergies or intolerances, or even those of us whose local grocery resources are limited. After several years of tweaking recipes to suit my vegetarian tastes, I’m tempted to conclude that good, sturdy recipes can handle some tweaking without disintegrating. Or perhaps part of the process of becoming a good cook is learning the anatomy of a good recipe.

A cook can learn a lot about her palate by playing with recipes. My friend Daphna, for example, often cuts back on the sugar in sweet things by as much as one-fourth—one cup of sugar becomes three-fourths of a cup of sugar. I like this strategy, not just because it makes desserts a little bit lighter, but because it has taught me to pay attention to how sweet things are: can I taste the sugar? Does it bring out the other flavors, or is it overwhelming? Am I tasting every bite, or does the appeal start to fade quickly? What’s the ideal portion size for my palate?

The recipe I bring you today is a stellar example of how variable palates can be. I have a weakness for any recipe with peanut butter and chocolate in the ingredient list, so when I saw a recipe for vegan Peanut Butter-Oatmeal Cookies in the September 2008 issue of Vegetarian Times, I immediately scanned down the list of ingredients to see how this recipe compared to my Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies, which is adapted from another Vegetarian Times recipe. But the new recipe—at least as it was written—didn’t make the cut, as it calls for vegetable shortening and egg replacer, two ingredients I’m not eager to use in my cooking, especially if I’m not cooking for a vegan. But I was still intrigued by the recipe, especially after I read Lindy Loo’s complaint about how these cookies weren’t sweet enough. Perhaps it’s Daphna’s influence, but I’ve grown to like desserts that aren’t overly sweet, so I sensed that this new recipe, with a little bit of tweaking, had real potential.

I kid you not: I was floored by how good these cookies are. When they’re fresh out of the oven, they have a wonderful crispy outside and a softer, chewy inside. The peanut butter is very subtle; it tastes toasty and a little bit nutty once the dough is baked. One cup of chocolate chips—and make sure you use good ones, like Ghirardelli or something similar—is the perfect volume: each cookie is studded with chips, but there’s plenty of flavor room to enjoy the rest of the cookie.

An interesting thing happens when these cookies age a bit: their outsides go from crunchy to chewy, which I just loved. This effect seemed to vary based on how long the cookies cooled on their racks and what storage containers I used for them, but crunchy, chewy, or somewhere in between, I have loved every bite of these morsels. I think you will, too.

Toasty Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from this recipe published by Vegetarian Times, September 2008 issue
Makes ~20-24 small cookies

These cookies are perfectly sweet and perfectly delicious. They are among the best in their class.

You might think that using oat flour AND rolled oats is fussy, but I really like the texture that I get when I replace half the oats with finely ground oats, or oat flour. It makes for a smoother batter, with just a few toothsome oats mixed into it. I’m sure you can use all oats (that’s what the original recipe calls for) or try my version and see which one you like better. Oat flour is really easy to make: just whirl a cup or so of oats in a blender until they are chopped into a fine powder. One cup of oats will yield about one cup of flour.

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup oat flour (see headnote above)
1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter (half a stick), at least a little bit warmer than fridge temperature
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 cup good-quality semisweet chocolate chips, such as Ghirardelli’s

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine the flour, oats, oat flour, salt, and baking soda in a small mixing bowl.
2) In a medium mixing bowl, place the sugar, butter, and canola oil. Beat these ingredients with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add the peanut butter and beat until well-combined. Beat the egg and vanilla into the butter mixture until smooth.
3) Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat briefy until a batter forms. Stir the chocolate chips into the batter until they are well-distributed.
4) Get out either an ungreased cookie sheet or a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat*. Measure out rounded tablespoonfuls of dough into your palm**. Use your palms to smoosh the dough into a round ~half an inch thick. Place unbaked cookies on the cookie sheet about 3 inches apart from one another.
5) Bake the cookies for ~12 minutes or until dry on top. My cookies didn’t really brown that much, so I feel most comfortable just timing them because they were consistently perfect after 12 minutes in the oven.
6) Cool the cookies on their baking sheet for ~5 minutes and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

*I tested these cookies using both an ungreased cookie sheet and a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat. Both techniques worked fine for me; I prefer the Silpat because without it, the cookies did stick just a tiny bit, but it was nothing to be worried about if you have a good pancake-flipper for nudging underneath those cookie bottoms.

**I was worried that the dough might be too soft here, given that it’s made with canola oil and peanut butter. But handling the dough at room temperature was fine for me. If you prefer, you can chill the dough in the fridge for a while to let it stiffen up a bit. The unbaked dough keeps for at least a week in the fridge if tightly covered.


ttfn300 said...

thanks for visiting my blog! I LOVE you're writing and all throughout this post I assumed you were talking about me ;-) I have a weakness for all things peanut butter, too... I'll add these to my "list" (we won't discuss how long mine is, eek!). The way I think of it, is now I have options, instead of wondering what to cook! Except too many options can be a bad thing... here's to spending the day in the kitchen!

Rosiecat said...

Hello again, ttfn300! Your comment just made my day. How many of us are hiding our cooking lists with hundreds of recipes scribbled on them? From now on, we should be proud of our ambitious plans!

Personally, I think Saturdays were MADE for spending the day in the kitchen. Therefore, Saturday is the best day of the week ;-)

daphna said...

Yay, I finally have my cookie recipe!!! I'm so excited about making these, yum!

P.S. I thought you were talking about ME. ;)

Rosiecat said...

D, I was so inspired by your half-inch-thick stack of recipes! Impressive! I had been working on this piece before I got to flip through your cooking plans, but it made me feel like I was among the best of company with my own cooking ambitions :-)

This cookie recipe is about as easy as cookies get. You'll get a tenfold reward in pleasure for your effort. I think they are a good candidate for those "I really need to bake something!" moments. Don't you have those? I get them on a weekly basis.

You were definitely on my mind while I wrote :-) Hang in there, D!

ammie said...

I have those baking moments all the time lately! Hence the recent muffin glut. My list doesn't exist in actual list form so much as in the previously mentioned post-it-ed cookbooks, but still. It's like books: so many of them, so little time for me to devote to them.

Rosiecat said...

Ammie, your muffins are definitely making their way onto MY list! Yum. I've got two soups in the fridge right now that would LOVE to be paired with your Basil-Feta-Pine Nut Muffins.

Baking is so satisfying, such a wonderful way to be creative and productive. I love a task that can be started and finished in an afternoon's time. Unlike my real job, the rewards of baking are practically instant! Perhaps we are nudged into the kitchen by similar needs?