My grandmother Eva was a schoolteacher for decades in rural Ohio, but she was perhaps better known around town for her baking. (It was a tiny little township, and everybody knew everybody, for good or for otherwise.) Over the years Eva’s kitchen generously produced fruit pies, layer cakes, quickbreads and candies, every conceivable flavor of fudge. There were ribbons won at heartland fairs and church bazaars, racks of cookies cooling in every corner of the white clapboard house where my father grew up.
Eva’s reputation as a baker was so well established, in fact, that nobody in my family thought to share with me, until two weeks after I finished culinary school, that Eva also baked wedding cakes for the brides in town. (My final project was a three-tiered wedding cake, for Pete’s sake! Nobody thought I’d find that interesting?) No, they just assumed everybody knew Eva was the de facto wedding cake decorator of Arlington County.
Anyway. One of my most favorite treats from Eva’s oven were her peanut butter cookies, the ones with the little criss-cross of fork tines pressed into the warm, chewy rounds. The salty-sweet warmth of brown sugar and roasted peanuts, washed down with a cold glass of milk: these cookies are the edible version of a hug.
Or the edible version of America, maybe. Because does anything really get more American than peanut butter? Beloved by fresh-faced schoolkids of every creed. Pulled up by its bootstraps with the aid of botanist George Washington Carver, whose peanut research rescued the South’s decimated cotton fields and elevated the status of its former slaves during Reconstruction. Patented during the Industrial Revolution, that sparkling era of American ingenuity. One batch of these peanutty beauties should be enough to whip just about anybody into a patriotic frenzy. USA! USA! USA!
(And, I might note, that peanut butter is utterly disdained by the French, but perhaps we’ll ignore that today, oui? They loved us enough to gift us the Statue of Liberty and get us to the very first Independence Day, so merci beaucoup!)
As with a lot of grandma-era recipes, Eva’s version calls for shortening, but I prefer to use butter. (I like the flakiness which shortening imparts for pie doughs, but the flavor of butter for most everything else.) Since butter is about 80% fat and 20% water (compared to shortening, which is 100% fat), they can’t be substituted directly; the liquid in the recipe will need to be adjusted. As if by magic, Eva had an extra 3 T water in her original recipe, which I’ve omitted.
Switching to butter will slightly affect the texture of the cookies, so I’ll let you make the final call. (Shortening and butter have different melting points; butter-based doughs will spread and make a slightly crisper cookie, though I have some tips to mitigate that. If you still prefer an even chewier cookie, substitute the shortening and add the 3 T water after the first incorporation of flour. See below.)
If you do go the shortening route, you’ll be happy to know that Crisco and Spectrum Organics brands now make a trans fat free shortening. How’s that possible? Well, I’d go into an explanation of “trans fats” here, but it requires a doctorate in biochemistry, as far as I can tell. Basically, partially hydrogenating oils (turning liquid fat to a solid or semi-solid, in other words) produce terribly-bad-for-you trans fats. (All those grandmothers gone before us can rest vindicated: lard, its reputation so besmirched during the 1980’s anti-fat campaigns, is actually much healthier than all that can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter stuff. Grandma was on to something, it turns out.) Fully hydogenating oil, as with these new products, reduces the chance that there’s trans fats lurking in your shortening. Easier instead to just follow this mantra: butter makes it better.
Oh, but enough of this trans fat chitchat, friends. There are fireworks to set off, flags to unfurl and hot dogs to grill! Have a very happy Fourth of July, everyone. USA! USA! USA!
Eva’s Peanut Butter Cookies
makes about 30 cookies
- 2 sticks butter (8 oz), room temperature
- 1 C sugar (plus additional sugar for garnish)
- 1 C brown sugar
- 1 C crunchy peanut butter (look for the kind labeled natural, with just salt and peanuts for ingredients)
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 2/3 C all purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt (plus additional for garnish)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk.
In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the sugars and butter together on medium-low until light and fluffy, stopping the machine periodically to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
On low, add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl in between. Add the peanut butter and vanilla and mix until incorporated.
With the machine off, add half of the flour mixture. Mix on low, 2 minutes. Add the rest of the flour mix. Mix until just combined.
Tear off two large rectangles (two feet, we’ll say) of plastic wrap and form two logs of dough in the center of each. Wrap, tie off the ends and refrigerate (up to 2-3 days) or freeze (up to 3 weeks, double wrapped) until ready to use. If you’re going straight through, skip the wrapping step and pop the whole mixing bowl in the fridge for an hour or so until chilled. (Impatient types, and I’m among you, can attempt to cram the bowl into the freezer to hurry things along.)
Use a small ice cream scoop or spoon and shape the chilled dough into 1 1/2″ rounds. Place on a baking sheet about a few inches apart and press each cookie with a fork to make a lattice pattern. (Dip the fork in a little water if it starts to stick.) Sprinkle with sugar, and again with a little kosher or finishing salt. If your kitchen is warm, pop the trayed, unbaked cookies back into the fridge; unbaked cookies that feel cool to the touch won’t spread as much during baking.
Bake 10-12 minutes, turning baking sheet halfway through, until the cookies are fragrant and very lightly browned on the edges. (These cookies won’t take on a lot of color; I’ve over-baked batches trying to go for a darker bake, but it just dries them out.) Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.