When great chefs are interviewed, they often recall that as children, they were always helping out in the kitchen. They wanted to learn, experiment, and become familiar with that mysterious act of creating good food from everyday ingredients. It is then telling that when I was a child, I had little to no desire to learn to cook. I was a bit more interested in being a part of the baking process, but even then I'd mostly stir something for two minutes and then get tired of it and revert back to my default "Call me when it's done" self.
Yes, I confess, I have few memories of actively wanting to bake when I was very young. I do, however, distinctly recall every mention of a baked good in the books I read. Those were always my favorite parts of the stories, and twenty-some years later, they're pretty much all I remember. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," I got my greatest thrill when the poor protagonist finds some money in the street and uses it to buy fresh, sweet rolls from a bakery nearby, only to give them to a little homeless girl (now that's willpower!). In "Curious George Flies a Kite," I remember absolutely nothing of the kite-flying -- instead, I remember being furious when George decides to go fishing and uses pieces of chocolate cake for bait. What a waste of cake!
Perhaps the most well-known baked-sweet story to people of my age was, of course, "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie." Although I loved the circuitous tale of the very demanding rodent who inexplicably wears very tiny suspenders, some part of me would have been perfectly content if the story were shorter and more realistic. Now, when I say "realistic," I do not mean something like, "If you give a mouse a cookie...... he is going to bring in one thousand of his friends and relations and eat you out of house and home." No, I was never that logical. But from time to time, I'd let my brain wander and imagine how the story would unfold if I had written it my way -- though I could never quite decide how it would end.
So although I was not kitchen-precocious, it seems that my love for baking has always existed, even before I was aware of it. More often than not, when I'm quiet and put on my thinking face, I'm pondering what sort of things I can bake in the few hours I have between coming home from work and going to bed. Or, as in the recipe below, wondering how to transform the memory of a delicious ice cream cone enjoyed in Quebec (vanilla ice cream with swirls of maple in a chocolate-dipped cone with nuts) into a cookie. I ended up deciding to omit the chocolate, for fear that it would dominate the delicate caramelized flavor of the cookie, and I think it was the right choice. The resulting cookie is extraordinarily buttery and, when baked until just golden, delightfully crisp. Perfect for accompanying milk, vanilla ice cream, tea, or just plain.
The young me probably would have scoffed at the idea of eating a maple cookie (unless there was a pancake cookie to accompany it), and would almost certainly have scoffed at the idea of spending time to make one. But that's one of the joys of growing up -- things that were once fuzzy become clear. Because now that I'm older, I have finally figured out how the story would have played out if I had written it. It would've gone something like this:
"If you give a mouse a cookie .... he will live happily ever after."
Vanilla-Maple Butter Cookies
Adapted from Alice Medrich's butter cookie recipe in her book, "Cookies and Brownies"
16 TBS unsalted butter, softened
~ 1 1/8 cup maple sugar (pricey, but worth it -- can be found at Whole Foods Market)
3/4 cup pecans, chopped
the contents of 1 vanilla bean, scraped out with a sharp knife
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups flour
a bit less than 1/4 cup large maple sugar granules (can also be found at Whole Foods -- not the chunks, just bigger than the fine-ground sugar)
1. In a large bowl, beat butter until smooth using wooden spoon.
2. Cream butter, maple sugar (the finely ground one, 1 1/8 cup), salt, and vanilla until smooth and creamy but not fluffy, using a wooden spoon.
3. In a separate medium-sized bowl, sift flour using a wire whisk. Add large maple sugar granules and pecan pieces, and mix further using the whisk.
4. In 3 parts, slowly combine the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with the wooden spoon, until just incorporated. [This may take a bit of effort.]
5. On a clean surface or a large piece of plastic wrap, knead the dough a couple of times to make sure it's smooth and combined.
6. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a round log, ~ 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each log separately in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.
-- When you're soon going to be ready to bake --
7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. If you want a lighter cookie, bake ~12-14 minutes, or until light brown at the edges. If you want a more caramelized cookie, bake a few minutes longer, keeping a watchful eye to make sure they don't burn, until they turn a bit golden and your kitchen smells so mapley that you become convinced you've been magically transformed into a waffle.
Yield: ~ 40 cookies