Perfect Easy Nutty Cookies and Plum Jam, or: Recipes And How Not To Follow Them
It's genuinely hard to pinpoint what's the most Jewish part of me. I'm what one might call the very pinnacle of Ashkenazi Jewery: thousands of years of persecution and oppression rolled into a tiny round lady lady with curly hair, a much louder voice than she realizes, a strong genetic predisposition to neurotic breakdowns and avoidance of all issues via sarcastic humor, and a stomach that gets gassy if it looks at pretty much any food slightly askance.
Here are a few of my more Jewish traits that are relevant today: For one thing, I don't like rules or instructions. I think they're useful to use as guidelines, but I don't think of them as unbreakable or think that anyone, ever, achieves a point in life in which they should be followed absolutely and never questioned. While some people (my parents, my therapist, every teacher or boss I've ever had) would call this "issues with authority", I feel this is actually very healthy and everyone else's approach to authority and rules is the problematic one. It's impossible to get to the outcome you want based on your situation if you're following the directions leading you to the outcome someone else wanted and achieved in a totally different situation. If I want to go to the supermarket but I can only find directions to the drug store across the street, is it disrespectful to the authority of whoever gave me directions to follow those directions and then just cross the street? No! That would be very silly, but somehow this very silly attitude is the one most people use for any and all instructions, including recipes and cooking.
Which brings us to my second very Ashkenazi Jewish trait to explore: my deep love for what I consider the three magical "P" foods of Eastern European cuisine (though I wouldn't necessarily recommend combining these all in one dish): potatoes, paprika, and plums. I also have the distinctly Eastern European beliefs about food that the two best nuts (both to bake with and in life, generally) are almonds and hazelnuts, and also that there's nothing better on a Friday night than some chicken and kasha varnishkes.
With that in mind, this all started as a what was a trip to the metaphorical drug store: I had extra blackberry juice from my foray this summer into making my own lemonades and limeades, and I thought to myself - self, why not make this into cookies? What I had in mind was a nutty cookie underneath and a creamy, berry-tart frosting atop it. With that in mind, I got mascarpone at Trader Joe's (not an Eastern European food, but probably my favorite cheese, because in the strong tradition of all lactose intolerant people the world I will know I can't eat dairy and then five seconds later eat dairy if it tastes good enough that I feel like the cramps I'll get 20 minutes later worth it).
Anyway, this drug store trip didn't go well.
So let's break it down where I went wrong, what I chose to do to correct it, and how you, too, can use this kind of course correction to make literally whatever you want even if you can't find exactly the right recipe for it.
The first part went pretty well. After checking that my tried and true standby Smitten Kitchen didn't have the recipe I was looking for, I googled quickly and found a Martha Stewart recipe that gave me exactly what I was looking for (a crumbly, shortbread-y nutty cookie) and it went a little something like this:
1/2 cup blanched hazelnuts
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (Note from me and not Martha Stewart: I found this to be not quite enough butter and my dough was way too dry. I would suggest more like one and a quarter sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Preheat the oven to 350
Sometimes at the store you can find "hazelnut flour", or hazelnuts ground into a powder. If you can, use a half a cup of this. If you can't, make your own hazelnut flour by putting the hazelnuts in food processor. Be sure to stop when the hazelnuts turn into a powder, because if you keep going they'll turn into hazelnut butter/hazelnut paste.
In a stand mixer, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Then, add in all the other ingredients (nuts, flour, sugar, salt) until a wet, sandy dough forms
Make balls of dough and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. These are cookies that won't spread or change shape when baked, so make them the size and shape you want them to come out as - I made them about two inch balls flattened with the back of a fork. Bake in oven until golden-brown and crispy looking. Martha says this should only take 10 minutes, but I made mine slightly bigger than she suggested, I found it took more like 15-20.
If you like hazelnuts and no-nonsense cookies, these are great. But, and no disrespect to Martha, they're also a little plain. And maybe you don't like hazelnuts and want almond cookies instead. Or maybe you like hazelnuts but you like them better with chocolate (and who can blame you). And these cookies have a tendency to go dry and stale if you don't put them in a sealed container right away, particularly if you, like me, leave them out to cool overnight when it's humid. You might need to introduce something to them to make them moister again. This is where recipe tweaks come in.
The key to recipe tweaks is understanding what each ingredient does. In this case, it's fairly straightforward: flour is the base of the cookie, the hazelnuts add the flavor, sugar makes it sweet, salt adds some flavor depth, and the butter is the glue that holds it all together. This means you can make these into any nut cookie simply by replacing the half cup of ground hazelnuts with half a cup of ground anything else - almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, pecans, etc. If you want a less sandy/dry cookie, you add more butter. If you want a sweeter or more savory cookie, you tweak the amount of sugar. If you're using a saltier nut, you might not need the pinch of salt. If you want to dress it up, you can roll in some chocolate chips. You can add spices. You can bake these and dip them in melted chocolate. Or you can do what I did and add fruit flavors.
Fruit and dairy are hard to mix together. Mascarpone is particularly hard to mix with anything, because it has a tendency to curdle, or have the dense, fatty globs clump together and separate from the liquid in the cheese if mixed too vigorously. If you gently heat that curdled mixture in a double boiler you can make these dense, fatty globs melt and re-incorporate, but you can't re-whip it without curdling it again. It's especially prone to curdling if you add in fruit juices, because fruits are full of all sorts of acids and sugars that encourage curdling rather than stabilizing the texture. This is why I would suggest either adding mascarpone plain or using jam. (Or, if you're feeling crazy, add mascarpone and then jam on top of it! No one's stopping you!) Could you buy jam to add to these cookies? Sure. But why buy when it's plum season?
It's my firm belief that the reason plums are so underrated is because most people interact with them as prunes. Prunes are disgusting. They take what's perfect about plums (crisp, crunchy flesh, their perfect balance of sweet and tart) and gets rid of them, turning them into a stodgy, blandly sticky, cloying mess. Plums are also naturally high in pectin, a fibrous starch that naturally occurs in some fruits and causes them to become spreadable and jammy when cooked down instead of turning into liquid. Other fruits that are high in pectin are citruses and grapes, which is probably why they're such common jam or marmalade flavors. Most fruits, like berries and peaches, have very little pectin, which means you either cook them down into a thick juice or have to experiment with how much pectin you add based on the fruit to get the perfect not too runny, not too stiff texture. But with plums, you don't have to bother. I could write you a plum jam recipe, but there's a million on the internet and they're all the exact same, which is this:
Take plums. Wash and quarter them, removing the pit. Put them in a saucepan.
Put the saucepan over medium heat, stirring every few minutes. Slowly, the plums will break down and turn into a gooey mixture that starts bubbling. If you're getting impatient, you can use a potato masher or big serving fork to smoosh the plums as they're softening.
When your plums are bubbling and gooey, add and stir in sugar. I did four giant plums which made about half a jar of jam with only added a quarter cup of sugar for the whole thing, and I might even add less next time. It's a matter of personal choice, but adding a lot of sugar takes away the characteristic plummy tangy tartness, which means it goes from plum territory (delicious, richly complex) and straight into prune territory (cloying, flat, gross).
Keep stirring until it looks like jam, which it now is. If you're prissy about texture you can strain out the skins, but they'll have mostly broken down at this point and it's not really necessary. Stick it in a jar and let it cool, which thickens it even more. Spread it on everything. Including cookies.
The end result is... well to be honest, I haven't come up with a great name for them. They're nutty, they're crumbly, they're sweet and tangy, and they're delicious. They would go well with vanilla ice cream (though honestly, what wouldn't). They are little morsels of very Eastern European summery teatime perfection. But if they're not your idea of perfection, ignore my directions .Make up your own. It's truly the most Ashkenazi thing you can do.