Sunday, October 21, 2007

How to Sweeten Up a Grump

When I'm tired, I get grumpy.

Maybe you feel that way, too. But when I'm really tired -- and I am really tired -- I get so grumpy that I'm truly anti-social. Hermits look like incurable gossips in comparison.

Don't get me wrong, I had a great time away from home visiting with friends and all, but it was a wearing week, and yes, I am well worn. From what others around me have been saying, the past week hasn't been all beer and skittles for them, either.

So what can you do? Me, I usually hole up in my cave (er, loft) and snooze or otherwise relax until I feel somewhat human again. When that happens, I start feeling hungry.

And when I get hungry, I usually want comfort food. Today, that meant lots of good vegetables, but it also meant that it was time for me to bake.

While visiting the fair Titania last weekend and indulging in out-of-this-world chocolate, we discussed a possible variation on a chocolate-hazelnut cookie recipe that I like, substituting spiced pecans for the hazelnuts and lacing the dark chocolate with cinnamon and chili powder. So I pulled out the recipe today, mixed together the ingredients, and started rolling... well, in the dough.

About half of the lumps of dough got rolled in a mixture of regular and black cocoas, giving the dough a truffle-like appearance.

And for the first sheet of cookies, I added a tiny sprinkling of sea salt to the top, just as an experiment, inspired by one of the truffles I sampled last week.

As the cookies baked, they spread and made the cocoa dusting crackle, creating a light crust. Inside, the finely ground nuts added just the right texture to a soft, slightly underbaked center. The chili powder cut the sweetness of the cookie, and the straight cocoa coating gave just a touch of bitterness to balance the rich texture.

And that sea salt? Oh, yeah... salty and sweet, smooth and crusty, all those marvelous opposites came together in a satisfying treat.

Being in a contrary mood, I decided that the recipe deserved a contrary name that reflected the crusty nature of the cookie, the salty-tongued morsel that is just a little bit nutty. And so I give you the curmudgeon cookie, destined to bring a smile to even the grumpiest of faces.

I should know... I'm not grumpy any more.

Curmudgeon Chocolate Cookies

Derived from a recipe for "Chocolate-Hazelnut Zebras" from Vegetarian Times, this cookie contains an inordinate amount of spicy crunch for as light as it turns out. The secret is to remove them from the oven when they're still soft in the middle (soft-hearted?) so that they remain tender and melt in your mouth once they cool, despite the crusty exterior.

Spiced Nuts
1 c pecan halves
1 T pure maple syrup
1 T maple sugar (or Sucanat or brown sugar)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chili powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. In small bowl, toss pecans with remaining ingredients. Spread on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, tossing the nuts every 5 minutes to keep from sticking and to distribute the sugar. Remove from the oven and cool. Chop finely. Set aside.

1/2 c unsalted butter
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 c sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 c whole wheat flour (or half unbleached, half whole wheat)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cloves
cocoa for coating (I like a 1:1 mixture of regular and black cocoas)
sea salt (optional)

In top of double boiler over barely simmering water, melt butter and chocolates, stirring until smooth. Remove top pan from water and allow to cool.

In large bowl, beat sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla and cooled chocolate mixture. Stir in reserved spiced nuts.

In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. Add to batter, about half at a time, beating well after each addition (dough will be very soft). Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into 1" balls. Roll in cocoa, coating well, then place on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2" apart. If desired, press slight indentation in top of cookie and add a tiny amount of sea salt.

Bake until puffy and cookies seem underdone when poked, about 13 minutes. Transfer baking sheets to wire racks and cool 10 minutes, then remove cookies to rack and cool completely.

Makes 4 dozen or so


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