The Cookie Conundrum

When is a cookie not a cookie?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen that cookie’s fate rests upon it not being a dessert, but a snack.

For the past few years, it’s been my honor to help judge a few of the food competitions at the State Fair.  One of the juries I sat on was for pecans.  It was also the very first outing for The Kid.  Our child studied for four years at culinary school, so has the chops and desire to be a fellow food judge.

The North Carolina Pecan Association were the sponsors of the contest.  The parameters were pretty wide open—except, no desserts.  For a few reasons.

pecan desserts

Nope. Sorry.

Most pecans are purchased in early October through late March and are used for holiday baking.  Bakers and confectioners are actually the largest buyers of shelled pecans.  Pecan trees are also AB; or alternate bearing.  This means if you have a bumper crop one year, the next year will literally be slim pickings.

Because of this, growers are keen to expand the list of non-dessert use of the nut.  Consistent, stable use throughout the year is a good thing, and a familiar goal for pecan farmers.

A pecan grove.

Another bit of pecan intel?  They are the only native American nut and were only domesticated in the 1880’s.

So, back to the contest.

The field was wide open, except for the forbidden desserts.  Which made it kinda worrisome when one entry turned out to be a cookie.  But if it really was a cookie, and thus a dessert, it wouldn’t be able to compete.

All of this led me back to the original question, “When is a cookie not a cookie?”.I argued as valiantly as Perry Mason in a death penalty case.  But it became moot when enough foods were sampled that were ranked higher by the judges. and were not desserts.

But not all the judges; they were my favorite bite of the day.

NC Pecan Cookiespecan cookies1 cup butter, softened

1 egg

½ cup brown sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup pecans

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup powdered sugar (for decoration)

In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar, salt, egg, and vanilla. 

Add in flour and mix well.  Cover and refrigerate at least two hours. 

Preheat oven to 375.  Using a mini ice cream scoop, scoop the dough and place them 2 inches apart on cookie sheet.  Flatten the dough with the bottom of a glass.  Then press a pecan into the top of the dough.

Bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.  Dust the tops with powdered sugar.

Enjoy!pecan cookies 3I have a couple of thoughts about the recipe and directions.

Even after placing a pecan on the top of each cookie, you’ll be left with a lot of pecans.  I would keep a couple dozen whole with which to top them, then chop the rest into chips.   I‘d toast the chips in a frying pan on medium until they’re mid brown and fragrant.  When adding the flour, I would also add the cooled, toasted nuts.One of the things I liked best about the cookie was the crispy/chewy texture.  And, they were flat-out delicious.

Ag commission employee, television host, and specialty food competition organizer Lisa Prince works crazy hard and is one of the nicest people I know.  Today, during the final contest of the fair, Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler came in and presented her with the superintendent of the year award.20171022_143737She deserves it; and I hope it came with a big, fat check.

Thanks for your time.

Nuts about pecans

I think my sister-in-law hates me.

Leah is a perfectly nice woman and she makes my brother happy.

The problem originates with her father.  Her parents live in Camden County on a farm and have a small grove of pecan trees.And there grows the source of my strife.

Every so often after having visited, Leah will bring back bags and bags of big, fat, shelled pecans.  They put the store-bought version to complete and utter shame.

So, what’s the problem, you may ask?

The problem is that on occasion, the booty will include a bag of pecans which have been salted and toasted in butter.And any so-called self-control that I may tenuously possess goes right out of the window.  Soon I find myself diving into that delicious, delicious bag in a downward shame spiral that only concludes when I find myself with buttery hands and face, gazing guiltily into the now empty bag.

The girl (me) can’t help it.

Peanuts can be bitter and in quantity makes me queasy.  Macadamia nuts are really greasy and waxy feeling and are horrifically expensive to boot.  Cashews taste good, but the flavor is kind of one note.  Almonds are okay, but to me they don’t play well with others.  Pistachios are awesome, but go much better in baked goods and ice cream.

But pecans have many different layers of flavor.  When sautéed in some butter with a little salt, they obtain a whole new profile.  They enhance every dish to which they are added. In salads, I use them in place of bacon.  Pecans are a healthy, flavorful textural addition to rice.  Ground up you can use them as a coating for chicken and chops.  Ground even finer they add a rich, slightly sweet note to pastry and pie crust.

For Christmas I made pecan sandie’s for my dad.  But another cookie I made for him a while back was an even bigger hit.  In addition to the pecans, there’s chewy, tart dried cherries and chocolate.And if Leah wants to hate me some more with a couple pounds of buttered, salted pecans—I’m in.

Chocolate chunk-oatmeal cookies with pecans and cherries

Recipe courtesy America’s Test Kitchen

Makes sixteen 4-inch cookiesdried cherry pecan cookies1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder  

½ teaspoon baking soda  

½ teaspoon table salt  

1 ¼ cups old-fashioned rolled oats 

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped 

1 cup dried cherries, chopped coarse 

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate , chopped into chunks about size of chocolate chips (about 3/4 cup) 

12 tablespoons butter, softened but still cool 

1 ½ cups packed brown sugar

1 large egg  

1 teaspoon vanilla  

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. In second medium bowl, stir together oats, pecans, cherries, and chocolate.
  3. In mixer, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until no sugar lumps remain. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula; add egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low speed until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl; with mixer running at low speed, add flour mixture; mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. With mixer still running on low, gradually add oat/nut mixture; mix until just incorporated. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed.
  4. Divide dough evenly into 16 portions, each about 1/4 cup, then roll between palms into balls about 2 inches in diameter; stagger 8 balls on each baking sheet, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart. Using hands, gently press each dough ball to 1-inch thickness. Bake both baking sheets 12 minutes, rotate them front to back and top to bottom, then continue to bake until cookies are medium brown and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will seem underdone and will appear raw, wet, and shiny in cracks), 8 to 10 minutes longer. Do not overbake.
  5. Cool cookies on baking sheets on wire rack 5 minutes; using a wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature.Thanks for your time.

Totally Nuts

I’ve got a riddle for you.When is a pound cake not a pound cake?

When it’s a pound cake (I’ll explain later, I promise).

A few days ago I had my third and final session as one of the judges for the specialty cooking contests of the 2016 state fair.  I was really looking forward to it, because the category was pecans.

Uh oh; here comes the educational portion of the program…

The pecan, or Carya illinoinensis, is actually a variety of the hickory.  The trees, which can grow up to 144 feet tall, are native to Mexico, and from the Gulf coast of Texas up to Illinois.  It is one of the most recently domesticated crops.  Until the 1880’s it was solely harvested from the wild.

A pecan orchard.

And although they have been enjoyed since well before the Europeans showed up, people can still not agree on whether they are “pee-cans”, or “pick-kahns”.

But regardless the pronunciation, these nuts are absolutely delicious, and work well with both savory foods and sweets .  As much as I love pie and pralines, my favorite preparation is salt & pepper pecans; merely generously seasoned pecans sautéed in butter.

I have to ruthlessly limit my exposure though, because I can devour a pound of them while in a pecan-induced fugue state.  Then I regain consciousness into a pecan-induced shame spiral.

The contest last week, in addition to being a heck of a lot of fun, included a notable first in my role of cooking judge.  Heck, it was a first in my entire existence as a human.


This is literally porn to me…

It was cake that was too sweet.  I’ve never even understood the term “too sweet” before. I’m the girl who considers frosting a food group.  I always thought it was a phrase made-up by light weights that couldn’t hold their sugar.

But the phenomenon exists.  It felt like biting into tin foil with a mouth full of fillings.  My mouth recoiled from the sensation.  It coated my tongue and made my teeth hurt.

Happily, there was another cake which wasn’t too sweet, but just right.  It took third place; a pound cake from Chapel Hill’s Cherie Michaud.

Nana and Roux’s Butter Pecan Pound Cake

Cakepecan-cake½ lb. or 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ Tbsp. whole milk

½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

1 cup pecans

½ cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine 2 eggs, vanilla, milk, oil and butter in mixer. Begin mixing on low to medium speed. Once blended together, add the last 2 eggs.

In another bowl, combine sugar, flour, baking powder and salt. Sift the dry ingredients into the egg/milk mixture. Mix until combined, about 30 seconds.

Place pecans into a food processor and pulse for 30 seconds. Add pecans into the cake mixture and combine for 1 minute or until everything is well blended.

Spray a Bundt pan with cooking spray and sprinkle with sugar to coat. Pour cake batter into pan and tap on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake for 50 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool in pan 30 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely.

Frostingpecan-frosting3 cups powdered sugar

½ cup unsalted butter

½ tsp. cinnamon

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. whole milk

½ tsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. salt

½ cup pecans, chopped

Combine butter, milk and vanilla with a mixer. Once combined, add the powdered sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Mix on low-medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Spread frosting over cake and top with pecans.So, about the pound cake riddle.  Traditional cakes have one pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs, with no leavening (baking powder or baking soda).  It gets it rise from air whipped into the batter, and starting in a cold oven.

A modern pound cake uses leavening.  This reduces the possibility of failure, but purists feel it’s the cheater’s way, and an affront to all decent pound cakes.  Imagine Martin Luther with a Bundt pan and a manifesto.  A confectionary Luddite, if you will.                                                                              Thanks for your time.