(First world problems, huh?)
So, I thought this would be a good time to post a recipe for a simple sweet that my family grew up eating: no bake cookies. They don't require an oven, they take less than 20 minutes and they are probably THE biggest reason why I love chocolate and peanut butter together. Think chubby mounds of chocolate-y oats shot throughout with the rich flavor of peanut butter. They have plenty of oat texture and just enough richness to go with a glass of cold milk.
My dad used to love these cookies and constantly begged my grandmother, my aunt Kathy, my sister and me to make him some. "No one loves me, or else they would make me some no bake cookies," he would sigh. (My dad is a character.) The problem was that, for my sister and me, these cookies were impossible to get right. Sometimes they refused to set. Sometimes they set so quickly that we could barely get the batter out of the mixing bowl. We could never figure it out. Was it that we substituted butter for the oleo (margarine) Grandma used? Was it that persnickety step calling for boiling the milk, butter, and sugar for exactly 1 minute? Did you have to live in Michigan and have a magic touch? It seemed that way. A good sport, Dad ate our failed attempts anyway.
A few years ago, Dad went through chemo and radiation therapy and lost his taste for sweets. Since the cookies didn't cheer him up anymore, we started experimenting with smoothies, braises and flavorful sauces. I somehow forgot all about no bake cookies, especially as Mark and I started to learn how to make more complicated things, like pie crust and brioche and marshmallows and wedding cake ... until a dinner at Hungry Mother (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) with my good friend Jyoti last year. When I bit into one of the cookies from the tray we received with the check, my determination to get these right was renewed.
The first time I made them in our Houston kitchen, I had an epiphany (I know this sounds silly but bear with me) -- this was not a "cookie" recipe at all. When the recipe said to bring sugar, milk and butter to a rolling boil on the stove, I realized that the goal of this step was obviously to change the properties of the sugar. This meant I should be able to apply the rules of candy making, which have you bring a sugar mixture to a certain temperature range for different kinds of candy, like fudge or caramel or hard candies. I yelped in excitement (Mark can attest to this), pulled out the candy thermometer, brought the mixture to the soft ball stage and formed the cookies -- technically, candies -- as usual. Perfection. More importantly: consistently achievable perfection.
No bake cookies aren't fancy. But these humble sweets were the first symbol, to me, that food you make -- even the simplest thing -- can make people happy. They don't appeal to Dad these days but I'm still a fan. And so is Mark, who would eat the entire batch if I would let him.
No Bake Cookies
yields 15 cookies
This recipe doubles well, but I prefer to make a small batch (as written below) because the cookies are truly best immediately after you make them. After you make them, the texture is soft and almost melty. After a few hours, though, the cookies begin to dry out -- perfect for dipping into a glass of milk, if that's your thing. I'm tempted to say milk is almost mandatory, actually.
I played around with my grandmother's recipe and made a few changes. First, I use butter instead of margarine, which alters the texture but adds more flavor. Rather than stirring in the cocoa powder at the end, I add it to the milk mixture because cocoa powder has more flavor when dissolved in liquid. I dial down the sugar. I use natural (i.e. 100% peanuts), crunchy peanut butter and add a dash of sea salt to compensate since my peanut butter has less sodium than regular. Finally, while my grandmother liked quick cooking oats, I like old fashioned oats. Quick cooking oats can be substituted and will yield a smoother, less oaty, texture.
The last thing: these can be made without a candy thermometer. In step 3, as written below, you need to bring the sugar mixture to the soft ball stage: you can tell if it is ready by dropping a bit of the sugar mixture into cold water and looking for a soft ball to form. This is easier said than done. If your sugar mixture doesn't boil long enough, you'll get cookies that refuse to harden. If you boil it too long, your cookies will harden too quickly. Learn from my mistakes; just use the candy thermometer.
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup milk (1% or 2% both work)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon sea salt (may omit if you use regular, salted peanut butter)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup natural peanut butter (creamy or crunch both work; may substitute regular peanut butter)
1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats (may substitute quick cooking oats, see notes above)
1. Add the oats and the peanut butter to a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
2. Set out an area for the cookies to cool: a sheet or two of waxed paper or a silicone baking mat big enough to hold 15 2-inch cookies.
3. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, milk, butter, cocoa powder and salt over medium heat. Stir to combine with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Place a candy thermometer in the saucepan and, stirring frequently, bring the mixture to 235 degrees Fahrenheit. The mixture will boil vigorously and become foamy and glossy. Watch the thermometer closely and, once the mixture reaches 235-240 degrees, take it off the stove immediately. On my stove, this process usually takes between 4 and 6 minutes but will vary depending on your stove. (I know it feels like it is taking forever but it's better not to step away from the stove during this step. Wait it out.)
3. Pour the sugar mixture into the mixing bowl containing the oats and peanut butter. Stir well to thoroughly combine the ingredients, working fairly quickly, so the mixture does not begin to set in the bowl.
4. Drop cookies by the tablespoonful onto the wax paper or silicone baking mat you set out earlier. Let cool until firm, approximately 5-10 minutes. The outer surface of the cookies will go from glossy/shiny to matte looking. I don't mind eating them when they are still a little shiny but they will hold together better if they are matte. Store covered. These cookies keep for a day or two but are best eaten immediately.