February 9, 2013

Peanut butter cravings

I can't pinpoint exactly when it started but I've got this fairly constant peanut butter craving that just won't go away.  I've always been more of a Nutella girl but lately, I've been reaching for the peanut butter a lot more often. 
Soft peanut butter cookies - crunchy PB and chopped salted peanuts boost their flavor
So what's a girl to do but make some peanut butter cookies.  I find that when I crave something, I should go ahead and have it or I'll just obsess about it and end up way over indulging.  So I've been eating peanut butter a few times a week and my favorite way of getting that PB kick is to it spread it on a toasted whole wheat English Muffin, which I genuinely prefer over regular.  It might not make a lot of sense but I spread the chunky variety over the already crunchy toasted English Muffin because I love lots of crunch and texture (okay...I sometimes mix a little creamy PB in there to make sure I've got every nook and cranny covered).  That love of texture partly explains this cookie I ended up with, which has crunchy peanut butter and also chopped salted peanuts thrown into the mix.
When I thought about peanut butter cookies, I considered whipping up a batch of proven favorites like these but you know something...?  I'd never had a traditional, pure, peanut butter cookie before - the kind with the classic crosshatch imprint on top - so I thought it was time to see if I've been missing something.  I've heard that classic peanut butter cookies like the kind I'm talking about can be dry, which is not something I want to hear about a cookie so I went in search of a recipe that promises a soft, chewy outcome.

The cookies I ended up with is something of a marriage between two recipes.  It's based largely on the recipe in David Lebovitz's cookbook as well as a recipe I recently came across in a magazine from America's Test Kitchen.  I also looked at the version from Flour Bakery, a recipe I tagged a while ago.  Ultimately, those 3 recipes weren't radically different.  The major differences came down to creamy vs. crunchy peanut butter, a slight difference in leavening, and in one case adding nuts.
I started with David Lebovitz's recipe because it clearly promised soft and chewy cookies.  I liked that, unlike other recipes, it calls for melted butter.  It made me think of a soft, gooey brownie, which usually starts the same way.  Instead of creamy peanut butter, I went with the other recipes' version using crunchy.  My husband and son both prefer creamy but I'm all about the super chunk.  I used a little more salt than the recipe suggests and, most importantly, intead of using just peanut butter, I did as America's Test Kitchen and incorporated finely chopped salted peanuts.  The total amounts were 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/2 cup of chopped peanuts.  If you opt out of the chopped nuts (particularly if you prefer using creamy PB), I'd go closer to one full cup of peanut butter to make sure I have enough PB flavor.

I probably put a little too much thought behind what should be a simple peanut butter cookie but I think it paid off (plus, that's just how I am).  These cookies had crunchy peanut butter flavor and texture, wrapped up in a soft and chewy package.  Overall, I think I orchestrated a compatible "arranged marriage".
Ultimately, I'm very glad I went with the crunchy peanut butter and added salted peanuts.  The bits of nuts really reinforced the peanut flavor and add texture while the extra salt gives the cookies more dimension so that it's not just a sweet cookie with a peanut butter profile.  So I say go crunchy and add more peanuts!

A few notes about this peanut butter cookie recipe I basically cobbled together...

First, the addition of finely chopped salted peanuts goes a long way towards bumping up that peanut flavor in the cookies.  The folks at America's Test Kitchen know what they're talking about!  That, along with the crunchy peanut butter, will go a long way towards making a more flavorful PB cookie.  Don't use natural style peanut butter for these cookies because they'll end up too dry.

If, on personal preference, you want to omit the chopped peanuts and maybe even use creamy peanut butter, I'd bump up the amount of peanut butter in the recipe closer to one full cup.
This recipe starts with melted butter, rather than softened butter like other recipes I looked at.  I think this helps make a softer, somewhat chewier cookie, which is what I was after. 
There's also a hefty tablespoon of baking powder in this recipe to lighten the dough.  As David Lebovitz says, use aluminum free baking powder to make sure there's no unpleasant aftertaste from using such a large amount of baking powder.  I have been using Rumford baking powder for the last couple of years and there is no aftertaste whatsoever in the cookies.

David Lebovitz's recipe does not call for vanilla extract while others do.  I usually like that special bit of sweetness that comes from vanilla in my cookies and I have to admit that I added 1/2 teaspoon to my batch.  In retrospect, I'm going to say skip it.  You don't need the distraction from the peanut butter and that what this is all about.

Importantly, the finished cookie dough should rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.  This gives time for the flavors to develop, as the ingredients meld together.  I think that resting time allows the dry ingredients to absorb the rest so that the cookies end up soft and chewy.  I baked a few for dessert after about 6 hours in the fridge and they were nice and soft (we ate them fairly quickly while they were quite warm though).  The rest that I baked the next day seemed a bit chewier and more flavorful to me.
I rolled my dough balls into heaping tablespoon size balls.  I found that it helped to very gently press them down a bit before making the crosshatch imprint with a fork so you have a more uniform thickness in the end.
About 9 minutes in a 350 degree oven is all it takes for these cookies. 
Don't over-bake them if you want a soft cookie.  They puff up nicely and set but should still be soft.  Visually, they don't brown very much so take them out within that 9-10 minute timeframe so that the cookies stay soft even after cooling.


Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from recipes in  Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz and America's Test Kitchen Christmas Cookies 2012

- Approximately 2 dozen cookies -

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder (use an aluminum free one such as Rumford)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 stick (115 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter (not natural-style)
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup finely chopped salted peanuts

In a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the melted butter, sugars, and peanut butter together on medium-speed until smooth.  Beat in the egg, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary.  Slowly add the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.  Finally, add chopped peanuts and stir until just incorporated.

Cover and refrigerate the cookie dough for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight so the flavors meld and the cookies bake up soft and chewy.

Before baking, allow cookie dough to come to room temperature.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees with the oven racks placed in the upper and lower third of the oven.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Roll heaping tablespoons of dough into balls, placing them on the prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart.  Lightly flatten the dough balls just slightly to make a more even surface, then make a crosshatch pattern on each cookie with a fork.

Bake, rotating the baking sheets midway thorough, for approximately 9-10 minutes.  The cookies will puff and spread a bit and still be soft when ready.  The edges start to brown but this can be hard to tell so to avoid overbaking, remove them from the oven when they still look soft and not completely done to ensure a soft and chewy cookie even once cooled.

Let cookies cool on the sheets a few minutes until firm enough to handle, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Store cookies in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 3 days.

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