Max walked into the kitchen a few nights back, surveyed the landscape, considered, then asked: "Is this the week you bake the good cookies?"
He's my eldest. He knows the drill. He's wise to my ways. He remembers the first days of Christmas baking are entirely yawn-worthy. At least to some.
After years of trial and error, I've arrived at a careful choreography, a balancing act between shelf life and yum. First orange peels, then brittles, then shortbreads, then doughs. Nothing frozen, everything paced, according to its merits. It all works brilliantly for me, the baker. It's a long, drawn-out tease for him, the chocolate fancier. He'll eat the odd gingerbread shorty, sure.
But what he anticipates is all that comes after.
"All", here, being short for "all things chocolate". Week Two, also known as the Final Week, is when we finally let loose with the chips, chunks and bars. Chocolate, as you know, is a bit finicky for the home cook, prone to white spots within a week's time. (Temper, temper!) We tend, for this reason, to save all chocolate for the end, a dark, bittersweet blur of a half-dozen family favorites. Peppermint bark, almond roca bars, mudslides, fudge, florentines, and buckeyes. A triple batch of that last one, for reasons soon apparent.
"Yes," I smiled. "Yes, this is the week."
(This is also the week we got a tiny taste of snow. It didn't last long, and didn't stick worth beans, and the height of its "accumulation" is evidenced below. An eighth-inch, perhaps? Maybe a sixteenth? An amuse-bouche, at best, but a start. A start.
It's the week when the very best school artifacts come home, foam snowmen, giant paper trees, a clothespin St. Lucia and Star Boy. The one when the peak number of playdates are scheduled, children inhaling pre-break play the way fall bears devour berries. The one after which lunchboxes are scrubbed, aired and archived, packed away for a long two-week's nap.)
(It's the week when I lean, heavily and often, on our weekly pot of brown rice and black beans. When cookies might just comprise breakfast, some morning[s]. Wherein steamed broccoli is dinner, and the height of my culinary derring-do.
(It's the week in which the very last cookies get baked, the short-shelf-life lovelies, the here-and-gone confections. When I separate the thumbprint wheat from the chaff, [pretty] raspberry thimbles here, [ugly] buttersweets there. When the deck's pressed into service as a flash-freezer, and the garage re-purposed as cold storage. When every last surface is covered with dough, sprinkles, frostings, trays, pans, papers, racks, cutters, sieves, tins.
It's the week when, if you dare enter my home, I'll place a cookie in your hand and an apology in your ear. "So sorry about all those crumbs underfoot. And that powdered sugar on your elbow. And that butter... want another?"
(This is the week when my to-do list includes line items like (1) frost and fill, and (7) deliver!!!, and (32) excavate dining room table. (58) Keep family in clean socks is in there, somewhere, also, though standards may temporarily slide toward unmatched mish-mash in a basket.
It's the week when this whole crazy cookie business wraps, when those towers of tins are emptied, boxed, plated, wrapped, given. I like the baking. An awfully lot. But I always forget I like the giving even better. Especially when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but two not-so-tiny elves to write to-and-from tags.)
(It's the week I decide Thursday to whip out a post, and wake up and it's Tuesday. Hello? Last five days??
Just replace all those ises with wases, if you would, thanks. Not that it much matters, because buckeyes are timeless.)
Do you know buckeyes? They're a bit of an Ohio thing. Though they needn't be. Shouldn't be. Mustn't be. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but last I checked, peanut butter plus chocolate is a fairly all-American slam-dunk. Make that salted, sweetened, buttered-up, melty-velvet peanut butter, bundled into a ball and dressed up in dark chocolate and, well. All in favor say AYE.
Hel-lo, legions! Y'all and me, both. (And I consider myself chocolate ambivalent, at best.)
I could tell you all manner of buckeye trivia. Of their namesake, the fruit of Ohio's state tree. Of their better-known brethren, OSU's famed football team. Of how, all Ohio associations aside, they're dead-ringers for the glossy horse chestnuts I collected as a child, with my Nana, walking Olmstead's Volunteer Park. Of how I tore this recipe out of an old Saveur before we moved. Before Ohio held any more significance for me than Missouri, say, or New Mexico, or Outer Mongolia.
Before, in other words, I had any reason to make them. Because even in print, their excellence was obvious.
I could even go on about buckeyes' hidden assets. About how they are made entirely by hand (nix the mixers), a detail vital to any mother who's ever baked after bedtime. (Like, all of us.) About how they include neither gluten nor eggs, making them eminently almost-every-man. About how, despite their fussy chocolate robes, they keep swimmingly for two weeks if refrigerated.
So I'm told. Personally, I can only vouch for eight days, after which they are still like fresh-made, first-rate. In fact, I ate one just now, alongside coffee (highly recommended). One of two remaining. A fortnight's not going to happen.
Enough puff. All that's left is to set down a few quick notes on the mixing and making.
I've taken a few liberties with the original, no major deviations, just tweaks to my taste. Commercial buckeyes, if you've had them, can be absolutely awful (pardon my french), cloying and waxy and relentlessly sweet. The recipe I began with was better, much better, but I adapted at the edges to suit myself. I increased the salt, ditto the vanilla, and upgraded the chocolate to a swarthy bittersweet. (I'm the one forever wishing for an Almond Joy-Mounds merger, with Mounds securing coating rights.) The end result is a filling not just sweet but interesting, deckled with salt, inexplicably roasty.
Did I mention the melt-in-your mouth bit already? Because that's perhaps the best part, and the brilliance of buckeyes, the way they take sticky-gluey peanut butter and transform it so. (Two cups of powdered sugar help. So does some butter. Still. No small feat, making nuts melt like chocolate.)
Let's see, what else? Oh yes, do use your hands to mix the filling, once the wooden spoon begins to balk. After sixty seconds of easy kneading with clean hands, the once-intractable mixture becomes the world's best clay. Do use a serrated knife to chop chocolate, offset if you have it, ordinary if you don't. It makes all the difference between ten fingers and seven.
Do melt more chocolate than the six ounces originally called for, because scrooge-ing around for dregs is no way to coat a peanut butter ball. Do remember to refrigerate them; I left a tin at room temperature overnight, and they were notably worse for the wear. And don't think buckeyes belong only to the holidays. Because although this is the week I make them for Christmas, there are fifty-one others, just waiting in the wings.
Dark Chocolate Buckeyes
adapted from Saveur
yield: about 30
The dab of shortening adds gloss and helps prevent the chocolate from blooming (developing those unattractive, entirely harmless white blotches). I keep a trans-fat free tub on hand, pretty much for this purpose alone. If you have none, never fear: just add a teaspoon of corn syrup and/or 2 teaspoons of butter. Both will work toward the same end.
If you're using unsalted peanut butter, increase the salt by 1/4 teaspoon, for a total of 3/4 teaspoon.
Please note: you will need several skewers or toothpicks for dipping.
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
3/4 cup creamy, salted peanut butter
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
9-12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I like Lindt's 70% bar)
1 teaspoon vegetable shortening
In a medium mixing bowl, place powdered sugar, peanut butter, melted butter, vanilla, and salt, and beat well with a wooden spoon until no streaks of powdered sugar remain. I prefer to spend the last minute kneading by hand, which pulls it all together spit-spot. When mixture is homogeneous, roll into 1" balls and place on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet. Freeze until firm, 15-20 minutes. (If your freezer is inadequate, decks and garages work well this time of year.)
Melt chocolate and shortening (or butter and/or corn syrup, if using) in a small, heatproof bowl, set over a small pot of simmering water, stirring often. Using a kitchen towel to protect your hands (bowl may be hot), remove bowl, and wipe any water from the underside. Remove pot from heat.
Use a wooden skewer (or toothpick) to spear a peanut butter ball, then dip the ball almost but not entirely into the melted chocolate, leaving a small circle (1/2" in diameter) of peanut butter showing. Holding skewer, twirl gently to release excess chocolate, then set circle-side up on a second wax paper-lined cookie sheet. Carefully remove skewer (I use two skewers, the first to hold the buckeye, the second to release, as follows: gently press blunt end against peanut butter circle, until buckeye releases from first skewer.) Repeat, until all peanut butter balls have been dipped, reheating chocolate if buckeyes begin to get mired in the bowl.
Freeze buckeyes until firm, 1 hour or overnight. With a clean, dry finger, smooth toothpick holes left in peanut butter, nudging a bit until no hole remains.
Buckeyes keep well, sealed airtight, 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator. Good luck with that. Serve chilled or at room temperature.