Halloween treats - peanut butter chocolate cookies

As a kid with a serious sweet tooth, spilling out candy I scored from my plastic jack-o-lantern pail, after trick or treating rank up there with some of my best childhood memories. The vision of digging through the treats I had been given, separating them into piles of good, better, and best candy (as well as wrapped and unwrapped for those of us that remember the razor blade scare) are crystal clear. For some reason, mini Reese's peanut butter cups is synonymous with those Halloween memories, always being a kind of candy that I was psyched to find, not to mention for that great vampire commercial they played around Halloween that I could never get out of my mind. I started thinking about treats to make for Halloween this year, and decided I would try to recreate a peanut butter cup in a cookie.

Truth be told, I don't mind peanut butter cookies, but I don't really love them either. Not the way some people do. I have made them in the past, but I really only love peanut butter when it's mixed with something else - jam, bananas, and of course chocolate. This cookie was a no brain-er. I started thinking that all candy bars, should have a cookie counterpart. The dough for this cookie, came from my best peanut butter cookie recipe, which I found in the Home Restaurant cookbook. It's basically one of the best American comfort foods cookbooks I have. These cookies were meant to be a drop cookie, meaning take spoonfuls of the dough and drop it onto the cookie sheet, like you do with chocolate chip cookies. Since I had decided to try and cut these little babies out into their candy counterpart's shape, I had to chill the dough for a bit first, in order to be able to roll it out. This dough is soft and a bit sticky. I found that 30 minutes in the fridge was not enough, but 15 minutes in the freezer after that helped. I also strongly suggest rolling it out between pieces of cling wrap, to minimize the sticky problem too (not to mention, minimizing clean up). They baked up thin and crisp. Exactly the way I wanted them. If you want them a bit denser or softer, I would just not roll them too thin before cutting. Unfortunately, their edges weren't as sharp after baking. Also, unfortunately I over baked a batch, as you can see below, while I was on twitter wishing everyone a happy Halloween. Yes, I am dressed as a big dork this year, thanks for noticing. After letting them cool, and taking a test cookie, or three, it's time to coat with chocolate. It's your call really, if you want to dip them and completely coat them with the chocolate, or just smear the top with it. Either way, they have to go into the refrigerator afterwards to help the chocolate dry a bit. The mini-sized cookies were my favorite, completely addictive as one-bite cookies. The situation quickly became a throw-back to those days when as a kid you'd lose count of all those miniature candies you'd eaten. They just go so fast. Good thing there's no one here to tell me to slow down before I get a stomach ache.

Peanut butter chocolate cookies Adapted from the Home Restaurant Cookbook.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon sea salt 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 brown sugar 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter 1 egg 1 tablespoon vanilla 1 1lb. semisweet chocolate, melted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

With an electric mixer, cream butter with the two sugars, and the peanut butter for 3 minutes. Add the egg and the vanilla, beating for another minute.

Slowly add the flour mixture on low speed, and beat until all is incorporated. If dough seems to be clumping. Mix the rest by hand till all the flour is incorporated. Flatten dough into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour, or 30 minutes plus another 30 minutes in the freezer.

Roll out dough between two sheets of plastic wrap until 1/4 of an inch thick. Cut out shapes and bake for about 9-11 minutes, or until golden brown around edges.

Cool cookies on a rack, and once they are ready dip or spear top with melted chocolate.

There is a lot you can learn about love by making pudding

The hopeless romantic in me adores all things associated with Valentine's Day, the chocolates, the flowers, and the forced showing of affection. Actually that last part can't be counted on because as we all learn eventually love is fickle and at times fleeting, what can start out so promising and seem so perfect between two people can end up a complete disaster. This is why we should all be forced to make chocolate pudding before starting to date. I realized the similarities between turbulent relationships and custard as I sat home with the best of intentions making a batch of chocolate pudding the day before Valentine's. Home-made chocolate pudding can be made on the stove top, but there is the custard-based version that needs to bake in a water-bath before cooling. I grew up eating chocolate pudding that was made for me as a special treat. I was allowed to lick the spoon as a consolation prize for having to wait until the little serving bowls chilled. This was the extent of homemade dessert making in my house, and, I loved every minute of it. But, as I learned this Valentine's Day weekend, real pudding is more complicated than a box of My-T-Fine. Making custard, is an undertaking that one must know a little bit about before naively plowing ahead. When treated wrong, there are several things that can ruin a custard as it bakes, resulting not with the velvety smooth pudding of your dreams, but scrambled eggs. chocolate pudding gone wrong I was heartbroken that my pudding, which was as silky as a bowl of melted chocolate when it went into the oven, didn't have a happy ending. I searched frantically to try and find an explanation as to what went wrong. I sat down and stared in disbelief at the curdled mess in the ramekins. I tried to stir them and make them smooth again, but what's done is done. Then I realized (it being Valentine's Eve and all), that my shock at how this didn't go as expected reminded me of certain past relationships. Sometimes you can't just smooth things over. This is a lesson that all girls and boys should learn about love, because getting over a failed custard is a lot easier than a getting over a broken heart. Just the knowledge that pudding made with the best of intentions can morph into something utterly unattractive if things don't go as planned, might remind one to proceed with some caution in matters of the heart, as well as the oven. (I did finally figure it out what caused the disaster when a friend pointed me to Harold McGee's chapter on custard in On Food and Cooking -  now I know for next time, and have adapted the recipe to include the fix).

I say all this not to scare people off from making chocolate pudding (or falling in love). When done right, it's worth the extra effort (and infinitely better than some second-rate option that comes in a little plastic container). Like love, if it works it should feel comfortable, and something that is so pleasurable you're content to sit at home enjoying it, rather than the kind of dessert that needs to be dressed up with fancy swirls of decorative coulis to make you think it's worth your time. No matter how your chocolate pudding turns out, at least you'll have tried. And if it turns out you fail, you'll know more for next time. And, of course, there's always more pudding in the sea.

Chocolate Pudding Adapted from the Recipes from Home Cookbook, by David Page and Barbara Shinn. Do not tightly cover your baking dish with the ramekins or the temperature of the water bath will rise too high and the steam trapped inside the dish will cook the eggs too quickly causing them to curdle.

2 cups heavy cream 2.5-3 ounces best quality bittersweet chocolate (finely chopped) 3 large egg yolks 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Set out 4 ramekins and a deep baking dish large enough to hold them and a water-bath.

Bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a saucepan and then remove from the heat. Place the chopped chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and pour half of the cream over the chocolate. Let stand until melted. Stir until mixture is completely smooth and then add the other half of the cream.

Whisk egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and salt in a separate bowl. Gradually whisk in the melted chocolate mixture. Strain the pudding through a fine-mesh strainer and skim off froth on the top.

Pour the pudding into 4 small ovenproof (about 6 oz) ramekins. Place them in a deep baking pan and put pan in the oven. Add enough hot water to the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover loosely, with tin foil. Make sure there is room for air to escape and ensure that the pan does not trap the steam. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until puddings look set around the edges, but not quite in the center. Give them a shake to tell.

Remove ramekins from the water bath and let cool to room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to cool completely.


So, I found a wonderful reason to bake (cause I always want an excuse to bake) without feeling guilty about making large quantities of dessert for myself. A few really clever people who help run The Greenpoint Soup Kitchen thought up a way to include home-baked desserts on their menu, and in the process get more volunteers involved at the soup kitchen who wouldn't otherwise have had the time to help out. Thus, Dessert Corps was born, a team of volunteers who regularly sign-up to bake the assigned dessert for the week, when they have the time. This concept is really great for baking addicts like me who want a reason to indulge their crazy need to bake, and do something good for the community in the process. A win-win situation. I really hope that other soup kitchens around the city implement similar projects. There are so many baking fiends out there that, it shouldn't be hard to find volunteers in most neighborhoods. For more info, check out their blog: http://craigskitchen.wordpress.com Back to the oven...this week I signed up for brownies.

In the past, I have steered clear of making brownies for others, having always failed to find a recipe that seemed to deliver the type of fudgey-chocolately brownie I wanted. I've tried recipes with a twist (adding coffee or banana) that all seemed intriguing, but the classic is what I wanted to master. I've tried recipes that utilized different types of chocolate, such as bittersweet, unsweetened, or cocoa powder, but there was never a clear winner (except maybe a clear loser, cocoa powder). I've also tried recipes that required an obscene amount of expensive chocolate, thinking that would surely be a winner for a chocoholic like myself, but the results weren't worth the expense. Why was it so difficult? Then I read an article from Cook's Illustrated, where an in-depth analysis of what was needed to concoct the perfect brownie was undertaken. Of course, I had to test their theory. Their attention to detail may have paid off in coming one step closer to perfection. I've tested their method three separate times so far. I've varied the brand of chocolate and the amount of sugar. The first time I made it, I pretty much followed the recipe verbatim, and used a higher quality chocolate. They came out super fudgey, almost gooey (possibly from being slightly under cooked) and a tad bit too sweet for my taste. I'm talking possible sugar shock sweet. Still, to my surprise people at work went gaga for them. I was flattered...but I was still not satisfied. I'm a perfectionist when it comes to my sweets. I promised my office taste-testers a few needed tweeks and another batch. Round-two, I used a smaller pan (8-inch, rather than the 13x9 inch) to have a higher brownie. I also decreased the amount of sugar by a bit and made sure not to under cook them. I thought they looked much better, although they received a much more lackluster reaction. Hmmm...stumped. Still through all this, this recipe is the closest I've ever come to a batch of brownies I can proudly offer up, even if the voice inside my head still thinks they're not perfect. This is one of those things I think I'll always be wondering what else is out there...but until I find it, these will do nicely.

Better-than-Before-Brownies Adapted from Cook's Illustrated The original recipe calls for cake flour, which should lead to a more delicate texture. I have read that cake flour is treated with chlorine, so I prefer not to use it. A quick substitution is 1 cup AP Flour minus 2 tablespoons.

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon baking powder 6 oz. unsweetened chocolate 12 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 cups sugar 4 large eggs 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degree Fahrenheit and take a 13x9x2 inch pan. Take parchment paper (or foil) and place on the inside of the pan with an overhang on both sides. Do

two pieces one going the length and the other going the width of the pan. This will help lift the brownies out of the pan. (If using foil, remember to butter or spray it to prevent sticking).

Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Set up a large bowl over a pot of boiling water (or use your double-boiler) and place the butter and chocolate in to melt. Keep an eye on it and stir frequently to prevent burning. When mixture is completely melted, whisk in sugar slowly. Next, whisk in eggs, one at a time. Then whisk in vanilla. Fold in flour mixture in three additions, folding and blending until batter is smooth.

Pour batter into pan and spread into corners and smooth out the surface. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out almost clean (just a few crumbs is perfect). Cool on a rack until completely to room temperature. Then lift brownies out of pan and cut into pieces. Note - If you try to cut them to soon they will be a mess and the insides will stick to your knife. Patience Grasshopper.