There's this time of year, this micro-season—for lack of a proper name, let's call it September 19—that by all rights ought to be bottled. When we're standing between barely summer and not-quite-fall and the world seems hard-pressed to do better. When even though your tomatoes are staring you down, bleating COOK US NOW OR ELSE, there are tomatoes, barely, but still. And Sweet 100's, the last 12, to pick, dew-damp, in slippers, for lunches. And sauce to crank through after school, to twirl into pasta and layer between eggplant and spoon over pizza to make up for the simple, inexorable fact of Monday.
When well-north-of-ninety days finally give way to invisible air. That exquisite absence of anything air, not-too-hot, not-too-cold, Goldilocks stuff. Just right air. Baby Bear air.
When despite the ordinary wounds and kerfuffles and tears and traumas that make up a week, there is rain. Rain. And with it, slickers, and galoshes, and bumbershoots, big and small. (And the wish for words in all walks of life that shiny up so well the mundane. Imagine taxes and toilet-bowl-scrubbing, if only more and better syllables were involved.)
When, for the first time since muggy May, a person can make a proper granola. Can expect it to go shattery-brittle and stay that way, right through next week. When apples and eggplant and plums and pears and every good edible thing co-exists. When you drive by the shops and see at the entrance pumpkins piled on the left, watermelons on the right. When seasons don't abut, but overlap, like transparencies in old anatomy books, nerves over muscles over bones.
When flowers and color and life and chard still thrum, obligingly, in the garden. Heavier. Lower. Leaf-studded. But there.
When mornings dig their toes into dark, like Thursday kids—and their parents—to sleep. When after dinner you round the corner and come face to face with clear butterscotch light. When twilight outside is watery, viscuous, light into liquid, transubstantiation, liquid light.
When cracking eggs and firing up the oven for popovers seems not only not preposterous, but advisable. When the gutsy minestrone you've been craving for weeks finally becomes reality. Three vast, bubbling vats, which hit the spot hugely, and swallow a fridge-full of produce, whole. (Bonus!)
(And generate an admirable scrap heap to keep the compost heap going).
When dashing to the store for milk can entail two wheels and a helmet. When houses blink open their eyes and ears, temporarily, greedily, to gulp fresh while they can. When the interminable popover wait can be passed instantly, pleasantly, outside sketching.
When even though there are aches still and pains and pests and tests and laundry neverending, there is this: the rogue thought, fleeting, firm, that this, probably, is as good as it gets. That when you look back, it will be to this moment, trudging clean towels up the stairs, the wash for one day entirely done and the weather the best of both summer and fall and everyone healthy-ish and not one Terrible Thing, and this here now is what passes for peace.
Then again, you might just be suffering from a surfeit of peanut butter cookies.
A full cookie jar, in our house anyway, has long been a part of back to school. What's different, this year, is what's inside. Or rather, what's there, and then soon gone. Peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and I have a long checkered largely inedible past. I baked my first batch at age seventeen. I thrilled over my first batch, last November. The intervening years add up to a lot. Also, the intervening failed cookies.
So much can go wrong with a peanut butter cookie, see.
For reasons unknown, peanut butter cookies tend toward the tough. Or the dense. Or the dry, stiff and heavy. Or chewy, in ways I want to like, but don't. Or one-dimensional, all peanut, no pluck. Or transient, good today, lousy tomorrow. Or tempermental, as in they fall apart at a glance. Or, worse, and all too often, many of the above.
I'm not exactly a novice; I've made a few cookies in my time. None has proved more maddening, more elusive, than plain old peanut butter. Make that 'had'. Suggestions for a new quest? This one's (finally) over.
The tides turned last November, as I flipped through Leslie Mackie's latest. Mackie, founder of Seattle's storied Macrina bakery, one of my regular haunts when home, knows a thing or twelve about top-drawer baked goods. So when my eyes landed on a page with the words Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookie, I dropped everything.
I think it's all still there where it landed.
Here, finally, was the cookie I was after, the one that took twenty-three years to find. I fiddled with it, admittedly, significantly, to tweak it to my particular tastes: omitting the cinnamon; upping the peanut butter; doubling the vanilla; quadrupling the salt and chocolate; swapping in whole wheat flour for white, our SOP now for all chocolate chip cookies, we love its nutty flavor so. But! At heart, this is Mackie's genius, her pitch-perfect proportions nailing the whole.
There's just enough flour to bind but not toughen, cut with an equal measure of oats, which toast and texture things up, brilliantly. There's enough peanut butter to stand up and be noticed in a deep, pleasing, rumbly peanut-ty way. And enough ordinary butter for backbone, plus a crumb I still can't quite get over.
Just crisp at the edges, melting in the middle, tender and almost but not quite flaky, it is a wonder, and unlike any previous peanut butter cookie I've known. It took me batches (and batches and batches) to place the texture, until it hit me: shortbread. The texture's impeccably short, as in butter-rich and crumbly and endlessly more-ish and suited for pinkies, uplifted and gloved. But loaded with chocolate, tipsy with salt, heady with peanut, nubbly with oats. And assembled with the ease and unthinking of ordinary drop cookies, cream, plop, flatten, dunk.
They're the best of both worlds, this generous overlap, crunch and flake, salt and sweet, melt and swoon. Sort of the September 19th of cookies, at least in the peanut butter chocolate chip department. I honestly thought I'd never see the day. But in retrospect? Worth the wait.
Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
adapted from More from Macrina, by Leslie Mackie with Lisa Gordanier
Do read the baking notes closely for timing; these need 20-30 minutes, post-oven, to set. Dough can be scooped and individually frozen, then bagged, for instant gratification later. Also: I am terrible at taking cookies seriously, and never, ever assemble my dry ingredients separately. I tip them straight into the bowl, sprinkling the soda democratically and leaving even distribution to fate and my mixer. The recipe is written accordingly. Feel free to go textbook.
As to peanut butters, pick something crunchy, salted, and natural. Unable to buy Adams (*sniff*) in Ohio, we've become pretty devoted to Whole Foods 365 Crunchy. Good stuff. And yes, that reads 4 cups of chocolate chips.
14 tablespoons salted butter (1 3/4 sticks)
1 cup chunky, salted peanut butter
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (old-fashioned or thick cut; not instant)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325°. Place racks in two middle positions. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place butter, peanut butter, both sugars, and salt. Mix on low speed until just combined, then increase speed to medium-high, and beat until light and fluffy, scraping occasionally, 5-8 minutes. Seriously. Scrape again, add egg and vanilla, and beat on low until fully incorporated. Scrape again, then add flour and oats, and sprinkle baking soda evenly around the top. Mix on low, until mostly combined. Scrape sides, add chocolate chips, and continue mixing on low until combined, around 30 seconds.
Scoop dough into generous 1" balls (I use a small ice cream scoop, 1 1/2" across), placing them 1 1/2" apart. I get four rows, alternating 2 and 3, for a total of 10 per tray. Flatten slightly to 1/2" thick, then place both trays in preheated oven. Bake 10 minutes, then reverse trays, top to botom, front to back. Bake another 4-6 minutes, until cookies are just going gold at the edges; just losing their gloss on top; and smelling heavenly. Cookies will be soft and tender still, but will continue to set up on the tray; do not overbake. Remove from oven, and let cool on tray, 20-30 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Store airtight for 3-4 days.