Back To Basics...

There were a dozen or so things I could have done this weekend. Summer festival season is in full swing; I could have checked out the Printer's Row Lit Fest in my own backyard, the humorously-named Sausage Fest in Lakeview (which, appropriately, raises money for prostate cancer research and awareness), or rekindled my interest in Germanic culture at the Mayfest in Lincoln Square. I could have gone out and enjoyed the decent weather we finally had today. However, I didn't partake of any of the interesting, blog-worthy events that were going on in my fair city this weekend.

We all process grief in different ways, and this time around, I really just wanted to stick close to home and have some peace and quiet. I read a book, took naps, and did some of the household chores that had accumulated while I was busy gallivanting with Katherine and going down to southern Illinois with Justin. It was productive and restorative, but in my world, no attempt at self-healing would be complete without baked goods.

I am a big believer in sublimation. When I am upset or frustrated, I tend to either go on cleaning sprees or baking binges as a more positive way of channeling my negative energy. Either way, I end up with a distraction from the thoughts that were plaguing me in the first place, and something tangible to show for myself in the end.

This time, I decided to try one of the newly interesting recipes I spotted during a recent leafing through Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share. Having recently developed a fondness for cream cheese in baked goods, I opted to test Martha's recipe for Cream Cheese-Walnut Cookies, which looked fairly simple to throw together, as they were basic icebox cookies. I also had almost all the ingredients on hand; all I had to do was pick up some cream cheese, and a trip to the grocery store was already on the agenda for my Sunday of domesticity. I was sold.

Sadly, though I find myself newly fond of cream cheese-based baked goods, these cookies were a bit of a disappointment. They did not showcase the tangy flavor of cream cheese whatsoever; instead, they came out like any standard shortbread recipe. If I didn't know there was cream cheese in the dough, I would have assumed that the cookies were just made with a high-quality, cultured, European-style butter. They were sufficiently tasty, just very plain, and lacked the special quality that I've come to expect of baked goods that will ultimately bear my name. Frankly, they reminded me of the kind of cookies you'd find on a holiday platter, baked for filler so it would look like a larger assortment, since they are quick and simple to make. I know it's snobbish of me to say, but I can do better.

One additional note: Something that's starting to drive me crazy about Martha's cookie recipes is that the yield predictions are frequently totally off base. I used to think the problem was me, in that I often eyeball the dough as I portion it out, instead of using a cookie scoop. However, when I've baked cookies that call for rolling out the dough to a certain thickness, using a certain size of cookie cutting, or forming dough into a specific size log, I usually use a ruler, and I still don't get as many cookies as Martha's staff says I will.

For instance, when I made her Maple Pecan Shortbreads in 2009, I got five dozen cookies when the recipe predicted two dozen. This time, the original recipe predicted I would get four dozen cookies, so I halved it, since that sounded like rather a lot for something I was just testing. Upon halving the recipe, I still ended up with 44 cookies, just short of four dozen. If I'd made it as instructed, I would have ended up with nearly eight dozen cookies! Just a word to the wise: completely disregard the yield instructions for this book.

Cream Cheese-Walnut Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. walnuts, 3/4 c. toasted and coarsely chopped, 1/2 c. finely chopped

1. Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl.
2. Put butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in sugar and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture, and mix until just combined (do not overmix!). Stir in toasted walnuts.
3. Transfer dough to a work surface. Divide in half; shape each half into a 8 1/2 inch-long log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each log in wax paper; freeze until firm, about 30 minutes or up to two weeks.
4. Preheat oven to 350. Unwrap one dough log, and roll in 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts, coating completely. Cut into 1/4 inch-thick rounds. Space 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
5. Bake cookies, rotating halfway through, until golden brown around the edges, about 18-20 minutes. Let cool on wire racks. Repeat with remaining dough log and remaining 1/4 cup of walnuts. Cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 3 days.

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