This post has been a long time coming. I first made peanut cookies in mid-September after obtaining a scanned copy of the recipe from Mum. In the weeks prior I had experienced a frustrating spate of cooking failures; recipes which had been intended for this blog but had turned out to be disappointing in some way – a grapefruit yoghurt cake that promised spring-freshness but retained too much bitterness, a roasted eggplant salad that I ruined by over-roasting, and a braised fennel dish that was distinctly underwhelming. I was getting desperate for quality material and needed a sure thing.
Mum’s recipe for Peanut Cookies was given to her by her mother shortly after she got married over 40 years ago. Mum made them frequently as they were a favourite in our house, of my father’s in particular. They are knobbly and brown; hardly a fancy biscuit, but nothing tastes so good as a crisp Peanut Cookie eaten in the briny sea breeze while out fishing on Dad’s boat. They almost always had a place in Mum’s impressive annual Christmas baking production line. Even now she doubles the recipe every time she makes them, since they keep for weeks in large jars tightly sealed with greaseproof paper (as seen in the photo below).
It was time, I felt, for me to take up this legacy and claim Peanut Cookies for my own.
Although I had never made them before, I believed that years of Peanut Cookie consumption virtually guaranteed a perfect result. I had, no doubt, first encountered them in the womb and had inhaled their essence a thousand times since. This was going to be easy. In fact, it must be said that I felt quietly confident that I could actually improve upon Mum’s recipe, enhancing the qualities that I already knew I loved (such as increasing the cocoa to make them more chocolatey) and updating the recipe with a contemporary dusting of flaky sea salt over the tops.
You can just tell where this is going, can’t you…
Although it’s not specified in the recipe, the first step is to roast the peanuts. I knew this because I could easily conjure images of Mum emptying large bags of peanuts into the black roasting tray and sliding them into the oven. Mum always used peanuts that were still encased in their brown skins – an endearingly homely quality that I too wanted to reproduce.
From there, it all started to go subtly wrong. The sparseness of instructions in the recipe created an uncomfortable level of guesswork. The recipe said to “mix sugar and butter” – I assumed that meant to “cream”, but maybe it meant something else? Needing some guidance I turned to the expert, David Lebovitz, recalling some nugget of baking wisdom that I had read somewhere. Sure enough, David explained that when making cookies you should only cream the butter “long enough to thoroughly combine it with the sugar”. One minute was sufficient, he stated; more, and “the cookies will spread too much during baking”. Well then, one minute it was.
I added the unbeaten eggs “separately”, which I deduced meant one at a time, beating them briefly into the batter. The next instruction was to “add dry ingredients”. I have become quite vigilant about sifting dry ingredients, so I did so, one by one into the bowl. Part way through sifting I stalled, wondering if I shouldn’t have whisked the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl before adding them to the batter. This practice is frequently dictated in baking recipes I turn to these days, but in my confidence I had forgotten my own rule. I was also accustomed to stirring in the dry ingredients by hand, folding them gently to preserve that all-important air and avoid over-developing the gluten. Although some shadow of memory told me that Mum used her cake-mixer to beat the batter even at this point, I suspected that my intuition would triumph, producing an even lighter result than hers.
Finally it was time to add the peanuts. Upon doing so, I realised that I hadn’t roasted enough. The bag of Kingaroy peanuts weighed 375 grams, whereas Mum’s recipe stated the use of 1 pound of peanuts, or roughly 450 grams. I was hardly going to go back and roast another 75 grams (even my perfectionism has limits), so I folded in the smaller amount, only to find that the peanut-to-batter ratio appeared distinctly off, with far too many peanuts to be absorbed by the batter. The whole mixture started to feel too dry and rough, but I forged ahead, hoping that the heat of the oven would meld and soften the ingredients.
The recipe then stated to “drop on buttered paper on a cold tray”. Clearly this meant to place spoonfuls of batter (although how large the spoonful, I was not sure), but buttering the paper was surely unnecessary when I was using commercial baking paper? And a “cold tray”? That just seemed so bizarre that I chose to ignore it. I placed spoonful after spoonful onto my tray, sprinkled over a little flaky sea salt and, burying an increasing sense of disquiet, popped the cookies into the oven.
No sooner were they in the oven when I started to worry again because the instructions were to bake for “20-30 minutes”. I realised just how accustomed I had become to contemporary cookbook writers with their lengthy and precise instructions. While their time specifications might indeed be approximate, the author was usually careful to provide a qualifying statement, such as “until lightly brown” or “until firm to the touch”. I had no choice but to take a guess, pulling them from the oven at 25 minutes to cool on a rack.
Fifteen minutes later, when the cookies had cooled, the moment of truth arrived. They smelled the same; they looked pretty much the same; but dammit, they were not the same. The peanuts were too dry and seemed too large in my mouth. The flavour was strangely ambiguous and just didn’t hit the mark. The cookies weren’t bad, but because “not bad” wasn’t what I remembered, to me they were an undeniable failure. As if it couldn’t get any worse, I found their lumpy shape difficult to photograph attractively. What was I supposed to do with this batch of disappointing cookies, with the flaky salt now mocking me for being so mistakenly self-assured?
A few days later I emailed Mum to clarify the recipe instructions. It turned out that some of my decisions were correct (e.g. Mum agreed that the “cold tray” instruction must have been a remnant of the days when baking was done in a coal range), but others were way off. The biggest mistake seems to have been that I used unsalted butter because the recipe included salt separately. Mum uses salted butter as well as the extra salt, so this probably explains the so-so flavour. In response to my complaint about the lack of detail in the recipe, Mum said:
“The lack of detail….hmmm I never even thought of that because it is a simple recipe and the directions would have been standard in those days. Oh well, try again and hopefully they will be like you remember”
The problem was that I started to over-think it. I began to doubt my memory of those cookies and was no longer sure if I could recreate them. I also became intimidated by the ease with which Mum could whip up batch after perfect batch. She had been making them for 40 years! During this time she had no doubt developed all manner of tiny adjustments which she had seen no reason to record because she knew them like she knew the quirks of her oven. I became convinced that the recipe was the skeleton, and Mum the substance, and that despite the misleading simplicity of the recipe, without her guiding presence the cookies would always be missing something. Some kind of disruption had occurred to the lineage of this favourite family recipe: would I ever be capable of making Peanut Cookies, just like Mum’s?
A few weeks later I decided to make my own version of the cookies. I replaced the peanuts with slivered, unroasted almonds, increased the cocoa powder even more, formed smaller cookies, and didn’t bake them for quite so long. I avoided flaky salt altogether, suspecting that this had never been a good idea in the first place. The result was pretty good, and next time I might even add chocolate chips and dried cranberries. They’re my Chocolate Almond Cookies. And Mum’s Peanut Cookies? Well for now at least, I’ll leave those to the expert.
Mum's Peanut Cookies/Chocolate Almond Cookies
1 cup sugar
120 grams salted butter
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp cocoa powder (6 tsp if making the almond version)
350 grams freshly roasted peanuts / slivered raw almonds
Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F. Cream the butter and sugar together for one minute. Add the eggs one at a time, blending for one minute after each addition. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl and fold through until just mixed using a spatula or wooden spoon. Stir in the peanuts or almonds then drop spoonfuls onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 25 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. They will harden and become crisp as they cool.