Baking without the baked taste

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 1

I woke up with my high school’s fight song in my head. Fight for Boise, we are with you, with you all the way… Is that how it went? Or was the other verse first? And what was the other verse? Pondering such important things, I walked into the kitchen and poured the coffee beans directly into the filter without grinding them first. Oh, I see what kind of day it’s going to be.

I’d hoped to wake up and bake cookies. We’re heading to San Francisco for a long weekend, to see my brother, and I wanted to make something without what he’s termed “the baked taste.” I don’t understand it, to be honest. It’s apparently a cross between burnt flour and old cinnamon; it crawls onto the bottoms of unsuspecting muffins and cakes and just loiters there, tasting dusty. The way he tells it, baked taste can kill a person.

But the coffee beans, they were a sign. Cookies were not to be. Besides, I’ve been cranky about cookies for days.

Have you seen the cover of Gourmet’s December cookie issue? They’re all different, so you may not have seen the same cover got, the one with lemon sandwich cookies, dressed up like little pink pompoms.

I love that we all got different covers, for sure. That’s exciting. But the cookies? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but food coloring is so out. There should be a clear dividing line between something one gives to one’s neighbors, to eat, and something one hangs on a Christmas tree. Just my opinion.

But speaking of Christmas trees, did I tell you? Someone stole my neighbor’s California cyprus. Stole it. Just wandered over in the middle of the night, about a week ago, and dug it out of the ground. My neighbor knocked on my door in a tizzy the next day, after tromping all around the perimeter of my house to make sure I hadn’t fallen prey to the digger, too. We were lucky, I guess. But the neighbor was furious. I told him to write a eulogy, and post it on a sign where the tree had been. He did a good job, I think:

A natural beauty stood here
A tenacious tree known for withstanding the wild winds off the Pacific
Regrettably, it could not withstand someone’s stupidity
On the night of Dec. 2nd, someone dug this tree out of the ground, and took it

I nurtured you, shaped you, and watched you grow. You brought me great joy.
I fear you were taken for use as a Christmas tree.
I hope that instead, you may have a successful transplant and live on to show your beauty to others.
I know you will bring joy to those undeserving folks who now possess you.

Seriously.

Anyway. Back to that cover, with the cookies that look like they belong on trees.

Some covers say cook me. Or doesn’t this look interesting. But the one my mailman delivered just says Yes, Christmas cookies are a direct reflection of how perfectly you live your life. And, If your cookies don’t look like this, you’re a failure. And, worse still, If you don’t attempt to make cookies like this, you’re a sucking the life out of people you love. Who wants to make cookies after all that?

Course, all this internal turmoil over a magazine cover must be the result of hormones. I normally love Gourmet. But this month, I hate it. Hate. It morphs cookies from a symbol of holiday cheer into a contest. And instead of making perfectly round samples of the obsessive compulsive behavior I try my very best to avoid this time of year, I decided, after the coffee thing, that I will be boycotting cute cookies this year altogether. In fact, I will make an attempt at the very ugliest, least photogenic cookies bake-able, because darnit, it’s the thought that counts. I just want a lump of a thing, the kind of cookie you’re not afraid to put your whole hand on. Who wants a cookie you can only touch on the sides? Or worse, one you’re afraid to eat?

The lumps, though, they’ll have baked taste, which I happen to love. Which means today, for my brother, I’ll be bringing a classic version of the Altoids buttercrunch I made last year. (Even the ugly pieces.)

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 3

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch (PDF)

This crunchy candy, based on a top-secret family recipe from someone else’s family, is my answer for the cookie-averse recipients on my holiday baking list.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 3 dozen pieces

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
1 pound high-quality bittersweet chocolate (I prefer 70%), finely chopped
2 cups toasted walnuts, very finely chopped

Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (or greased foil) and set aside.

Combine the butter, sugar, Karo syrup, and water in a medium non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 290 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (It will take 10 to 15 minutes, but this is not the time to wander around the kitchen, as overcooking the caramel will cause it to separate. Be patient.)

At 290 degrees, carefully pour the toffee mixture onto the lined baking sheet, tipping the sheet and/or spreading the mixture with a small offset spatula until the mixture makes a roughly 12” by 15” rectangle. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

When cool, melt the chocolate: Place it in a saucepan over very low heat, and stir constantly until almost all the chunks are melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Set aside.

Spread half the chocolate mixture in an even layer over the cooled toffee, and sprinkle evenly with half the walnuts. Cool until the chocolate is dry and completely firm (this may take a few hours), then carefully flip the toffee. Rewarm the chocolate over low heat, if necessary, then repeat the spreading process with the remaining chocolate and sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top. Let cool completely, then break into bite-sized chunks. Store in a tightly sealed container up to 3 weeks.

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9 Comments

Filed under Cookies, dessert, recipe

9 responses to “Baking without the baked taste

  1. Jess–
    I love the way you write.

    And yes, I’m down with ugly cookies. Ugly, hearty, delicious, food-coloring-free cookies. Preach on, sister! ;)

  2. j

    I cannot believe someone stole your neighbor’s tree!!

    I think your cookies are still pretty. Those so called ‘perfect’ looking cookies at christmas parties are always disappointing anyway. I typically will take one thinking they will taste good, but they just are for show apparently.

  3. Angela

    I am so glad to see someone is sharing my feelings about cookies this year. Just be forewarned, small people ie children think they are very fond of food colored cookies. My daughter says she loves them, she wants to make them, but she doesn’t actually eat them and plain chocolate chip always go down better. So I just don’t want to make colored cookies that no one in the family eats. Now that you admitted your cookie feelings, I feel much better.

    Now crunchy toffee like candy stuff, that’s a whole ‘nother story…

    Question: When you say Karo syrup do you mean dark Karo or light Karo/corn syrup?

  4. Good question, Angela – I mean light…

  5. Pingback: Snow days « hogwash

  6. Sam

    I made this for holiday care packages and so far it’s been a huge hit. Thanks for the wonderful recipe. Somehow it seemed way more accessible than most other candy recipes I see.

  7. Laura

    Jess-
    Just made this recipe and the results were awesome! This tastes great and the pieces wrapped up beautifully for little gifts. I was a little nervous because I tried making a brittle earlier in the week and it was a flop (It was too thick–didn’t spread out enough). But this stuff was light, not sticky/chewy at all and the taste is fantastic. Thanks for the great idea & recipe!

  8. Great to hear, Laura!

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