You know how, when you do something foolish, your knee-jerk response is: I, and I alone....
How you think, Surely, no one else is so dunderheaded. Or, Who would ever do such a thing? Or, It takes TALENT to pull off this blunder.
And then, five minutes (or two weeks) later, you come to your senses, set aside your myopic, realize everyone makes mistakes. That you're in good company. That we've all been there. That silly as you feel, you're not really alone. That the world is no doubt full of folks who've, say, misplaced eight dozen chocolate thumbprints.
(And then, there you are all over again, giving a speech in your Fruit of the Looms.)
What can I say. Somewhere along the line, between the ornament-making and cookie-baking; between the tree-trimming and sugar-sprinkling; between the gingerbread-house building and knitting-learning;
between the kitchen failing and (glory-be!) succeeding; the top-secret making and cookie-plating; the santa-crafting and cookie-sharing; the dishwasher breaking (there oughta be a law); the end-of-school parties and projects and overall busy and dizzy December rains down, I lost track of the tin.
Tucked it away.
Thought to myself, I'll just put them here...
(The new reading and writing is pretty distracting, also. Actually, I'm lucky I didn't lose the tree.)
Out of sight, out of mind, apparently. Until very nearly almost too late.
Most of our boxes went out without them. Indeed, it wasn't until I assembled the kids' cookies (a one-of-each plate I prepare every year), that I realized what was missing. Mudpuddles! Âllo? Mudpuddles? Where in tarnation are the Mudpuddles?
It is one of the hazards of cookie-baking the way I do, which is one part military precision, six parts Swedish chef. The upside is that I've a keen understanding of doughs, their shelf-life, their best bake-off dates, and pretty much every last nuance of their very souls. The downside is that, were I running an army, I'd have lost four humvees and the entire left flank.
Anyhoo. Lucky for us all, the cookie-baking has wound down, here, and we're gearing up for a big week of nothing. We picked up Mamo at 5:40 (!) Monday morning. We saw the Nutcracker for the first time (!!), ensemble. We've opened every last box and bag. And now, we switch gears to intense lollygagging, leftover-noshing, serial napping, and epic puzzle-piecing and gameplaying. I may or may not be back by January. (Zzzzzzzzz.)
But I wanted to set these down now, for later, because they're a biscuit some fifteen years in the making. A biscuit I'd all but given up on, in fact. Until a small dough breakthrough this year.
These chocolate mudpuddles began life as Chocolate Caramel Treasures, published 14 years ago, in (*sniff*, weep, RIP) Gourmet. The picture that ran alongside—like all Gourmet pictures that ran alongside—was dreamy. I lost no time in making them, that year, and the year after, and the year after that.
It was somewhere around that third year, when I would've had a toddler, and little time on my hands, and less time to fiddle, and no time to waste, that I forced myself to face facts and admit these showstoppers were a waste of butter and time, both.
They suffered from the classic cute cookie complex: gorgeous to behold, ambivalent to eat. The packaged caramel centers were gacky-sweet. The nuts, a hassle, and unnecessary. And the dough, like so much chocolate dough, a trompe l'oeil, brown, but flat. It's a chronic problem, chocolate cookies. For all the chocolate I've talked, here, and for all the cookies, there's not a one that's chocolate. This is no oversight. This is experience. Chocolate cookies—by which I mean not chocolate-chipped or chocolate-draped or chocolate confections-masquerading-as-cookies, but biscuits fraught with chocolate, every last atom—chocolate cookies are hard. I've made many. I've rejected pretty much all. Until the one I spied this year, here.
I realize that, in the Food and Wine spread, they look more like shortbread fingers than thumbprints, and further, like sandwiches, and further still, like they are filled with peanut butter. All true. No matter. I could tell in a heartbeat that here was the chocolate thumbprint dough I'd been hound-dogging well over a decade.
No silly whole milk, no excessive eggs, no nuts to clog up the works and fingers. Just straight-up shortbread, cut with cocoa powder, smartly salted, wisely unencumbered, and brilliantly, spliced with rice flour. Rice flour, like cornstarch, makes genius shortbread, ethereal, melting, angel-wing stuff. I lost no time in making a double-batch. And confirming my suspicions. And exceeding them, wildly.
Now this, this is a chocolate cookie.
The dough was an absolute joy to work with, pliable but not sticky, firm but not dry, friendly as play-dough, intense as Callebaut. No wetting of hands, no dustings of flour, just pinch, roll, print, repeat. Baking time, always tricky with chocolate, whose dark dough makes it hard to gauge browning and done, I soon determined could reliably be figured by flipping a few biscuits near the finish. Bake until undersides are dry and no longer glossy and you are home free.
The resulting cookie is a true shortbread, fragile and melting and just firm enough. But it is also chocolate shortbread, intense with the baritone rumble of chocolate, dark, staunch, serious, so deep it almost reads savory. No matter, again. We're only half-done. Because thumbprints aren't meant to be eaten empty.
Into those wells goes a splash of Claudia Fleming's caramel, a longtime favorite in our house. As I explained years ago, if you can burn sugar, you can make caramel. It's fifteen minutes of mindless stirring for untold excellence. A smashing deal. Unlike one-dimensional hairball-sweet squidgy squares, homemade caramel is dark and sultry and swanky and salty and sweet and edgy and for all that I am only just scratching the surface. It also plays off midnight-shortbread brilliantly. You'll have to trust me. I didn't really share.
For all that, I don't want to see or eat or think cookies for the next six months, minimum. At least eight days. I trust the same is true of you, too. But I know, eventually, I will want to come back to these Mudpuddles, so many years in the making. So I'll just put them here. For you and me, both.
Unfilled, the chocolate thumpbrints store beautifully for two weeks. Most filled thumbprints are best eaten within 24 hours, but honestly, I found these just as awesome at five days. Score! The caramel filling here is the same caramel we use for apple-dipping, spoon-licking, stuffing tarts, etc. I'm re-printing it here for ease of use, and because it can't be re-printed enough. If caramel's not your thing, consider peanut butter cream, boiled raspberry jam, softly sweetened cream cheese, or for you true diehards, Nutella... If you do choose caramel, you will have some leftover. You will have no trouble whatsoever putting it to good use.
1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 Tbs rice flour
1/3 cup Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 oz.) salted butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Into a wide shallow bowl, sift both flours plus cocoa powder and salt. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar until smooth and homogenous, but not fluffy, 1 minute. Scrape sides, add dry ingredients, and set to lowest speed, mix until just combined. Scrape dough onto a stretch of plastic wrap, shape into a rough disk 1" tall, wrap, and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour, or up to 5 days.
Preheat oven to 350°. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Pinch off small walnut-sized knobs of dough, roll into a sphere, and set on sheet. Repeat until all dough has been rolled. Press a thumb or forefinger into each dough ball, spacing cookies 1" apart (they don't spread much). Bake for 17-20 minutes, reversing trays top to bottom and front to back, mid-way through, until cookies smell fantastic, are no longer glossy, and when flipped over, are dry and no longer shiny underneath. (Baking times for chocolate cookies are notoriously difficult to nail, given their color. The bottoms are the best test: check the undersides of several.) I like to give thumpbrints a quick second pressing with the back of a wooden spoon when they first exit the oven, to firm up their depression, and ensure maximum capacity for the caramel that is to come.
Remove from oven, let cool on pans ten minutes, then remove to racks to cool completely. Store in airtight tins up to two weeks, or fill as soon as cool, with caramel filling...
Use a light-colored pan—plain old steel, or pale enamel, anything other than black non-stick—so that you can see the sugar change color as it cooks. Also, size matters here—the ingredients don't begin to fill up a large pan, but will bubble and rise considerably at the end, when the cream is added. A large saucepan will contain the commotion.
Fleming's original includes 2 Tbsp. creme fraiche, which I'm sure adds a lovely twang but which I don't usually have on hand. Add it, if you do. I've also added salt, which I adore in caramel. Your call.
1/2 cup water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
Into a large, heavy saucepan, place water, corn syrup and sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, 10-15 minutes, swirling occasionally, until sugar turns a dark amber, the color of a crisp turkey skin, or an oak leaf in October. (It might be helpful here to know that caramel goes through three stages when cooking: first, the furious boil; second, a calmer, quieter burble; third and last, near-silent, barely visible blips. Like a toddler, caramel's self-sufficient when it's loud, but when it gets quiet, hurry yourself right on over. That last, silent stage is when it all happens, two minutes or so when it zips from clear to chestnut.)
Wearing an oven mitt (there will be steam), whisk in butter and cream until smooth (caramel will bubble and rise a few moments, when these are first added.) Stir in salt, if using. Caramel will firm up as it stands. Simply reheat on the stove a few minutes, or in the microwave briefly, to melt again.
Caramel can be refrigerated 7 days, or frozen.
Warm caramel, if previously made, until it is runny (see above). Using two tiny spoons (baby spoons or old tea spoons work well), spoon a bit of caramel (1/2 -1 teaspoon, depending on cookie size) into the well of the thumbprint, using second spoon to help guide caramel. Repeat until all cookies are filled. Re-warm caramel, as needed. Allow 30 minutes for caramel to firm up, then store cookies in a single layer in an airtight tin.