Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.
Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters.
Then the experts got involved. Southern farmers looking for new crops after the Civil War found that peanuts (being legumes, and fixing their own nitrogen) grew well in poor soil. Industrialists found that they could press the oil and, if especially clever, pass it off as olive. Nutrition researchers quantified its protein content, and cooking school instructors praised its economy. Vegetarian health reformers proposed it as a substitute for meat. Agricultural and domestic scientists scrambled to find new ways to prepare this wonder food. During the First World War, shortages of meat, butter, sugar, and wheat sparked some of the most dreadful culinary innovation in the history of Western cuisine, in which peanuts were made to fill the role of both meats and animal fats. A delightful book entitled Liberty Recipes featured a “cottage cheese sausage” made from the eponymous cheese, peanuts, peanut butter, bread crumbs, chopped onion, and seasonings and suggested, for the less adventurous, a salad of canned peas, peanuts, and mayonnaise.
Oddly one of the domestic scientists’ most successful innovations was the peanut cookie, devised initially in the 1880s as a way of sneaking protein and vitamins into children’s treats (no self-respecting adult being willing to consume such a thing). The first of these recipes called for adding chopped peanuts to a plain cookie flavored only with lemon juice; the cookie itself was barely more than a delivery system for sugar, though not near as much sugar as today’s children would demand. When commercial peanut butter became available, it was substituted for the butter in sugar cookies — even easier, equally nutritious, and more economical, but not especially tasty. This is commercial peanut butter, remember, from which a good portion of the flavor has been extracted in processing, and the resulting cookies aren’t especially rich. Here’s one from a crowdsourced cookbook published by a peanut butter manufacturer in 1913:
Put three tablespoons Larkin Peanut Butter, one teaspoon lard, one and one-half cups granulated sugar, and two eggs into a mixing bowl. Stir and beat until mixture is quite light. Add two and one-half cups sifted flour and one teaspoon soda dissolved in three tablespoons thick sour milk. Flavor with one teaspoon Larkin Vanilla Extract. Roll and bake in a quick oven. This amount makes fifty cookies. Submitted by Mrs. G. W. Parrins of Lyons, New York, to the Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book (Buffalo: Larkin Co., 1915), p. 87.
Not until the 1930s did peanut butter become a flavoring ingredient in cookies instead of an ersatz butter — paired with butter or shortening rather than replacing it — and that, not surprisingly, is when peanut butter cookies really caught on.
What few of these early recipes did, even the ones for peanut butter cookies, was focus on flavor. Nutrition, economy, progressivism, patriotism — but not flavor. Americans as a people loved roasted peanuts. Still do, I suppose, although fresh-roasted peanuts are hard to find, the nuts now having been hermetically sealed in plastic bags, shipped across four states, and rewarmed. Why, then, not try to devise a cookie that simply captured that flavor? Even today, the typical peanut butter cookie made with commercial peanut butter does not scream peanut. It does not scream hot nuts from a pushcart, fresh-roasted peanuts at the ballpark, roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint, peanut.
Flavor, frankly, was not what home economists were about. But one great cooking writer of the era, Marion Harland, had no formal training, had come of age long ago in the 1840s, and thus didn’t know any better than to create dishes that simply tasted good. Her real name was Mary Virginia Terhune, and she wrote fifteen novels and several cookbooks under that nom de plume while raising six children. She had learned nothing of cooking as a child, her family employing servants for the purpose, but despairing as a young bride of finding a decent cook for her own home had taught herself to cook from cookbooks — and then, despairing of the available cookbooks, had written her own. By the time peanuts were being invited off the streets and into America’s dining rooms at the turn of the century, Terhune was seventy years old but willing to have a go at making something of them actually worth eating. Here are her peanut cookies, from 1903:
One cupful of butter; one and one-half cupfuls of powdered sugar; three eggs; one cupful of freshly roasted peanuts, pounded, rolled to a coarse powder, and mixed with about three cupfuls of flour.
Cream the butter and sugar, add the beaten eggs, then the flour and crushed peanuts. The dough should be just stiff enough to handle easily. Drop the dough by the spoonful upon a floured board, pat it into round cakes with the fingers, grate a little nutmeg over the top of each cake and bake. A novelty, and one that is likely to be popular. Marion Harland, Marion Harland’s Complete Cook Book (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1903), 287.
When I baked these I was immediately disappointed, because what I wanted, what I held in my mind as the Platonic ideal of a peanut cookie, was a peanut butter cookie, and what I held warm in my hand was not that. Also it was redolent of nutmeg. But I let them cool and tasted another, and then I repented: Terhune was onto something. The chopped peanuts (I pulsed them in a food processor) gave a subtle but genuine peanut flavor to the cookie, which the nutmeg (once the cookie had cooled) sharpened rather than muddying it as vanilla would. This was, truly, a peanut cookie, made for eating and enjoying. A cookie is (and I think Terhune would agree with me) a cookie, after all. You want nutrition, eat some spinach. You want economy, don’t eat so many.
I still wanted the extra flavor and richness of peanut butter, though, so I thought, why not add coarse-ground peanuts to a good peanut butter cookie recipe and replace the vanilla extract with a little nutmeg? I started with the recipe in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, 1950, because the Picture Cook Book amuses me and it’s pretty reliable when it comes to cookies. Not that I necessarily want the recipe as written, but the adjustments are predictable: replace the shortening with butter and cut the leavening in half. But they always work, and they taste like cookies my grandmother might have made. And those recipes don’t call for as much sugar as a lot of present-day ones; even homemade cookies have gotten sweeter over the last half-century. So I figured I’d start with Betty Crocker, make the usual corrections, then add coarsely ground peanuts, replace the vanilla with a little nutmeg, and double the salt, because peanuts like salt.
To this point, the best peanut butter cookie I’d ever made came from a recipe in Cook’s Illustrated, which also called for adding coarse-ground peanuts. Out of curiosity I checked that recipe for comparison, and guess what? It is identical to Betty Crocker’s with my adjustments, except for the nutmeg — only the cookies are exactly twice as big. Betty Crocker, supersized. Take from that what you will.
One final change: I used natural peanut butter from the grinder at Whole Foods, because I don’t like extra sugar and shortening in my peanut butter, and it defeats the purpose of taking those things out of the cookies if I’m going to sneak them back in with the peanut butter. The natural stuff has more peanut flavor, and I didn’t notice any difference in the texture of the cookies, despite dire warnings from various cookbook authors and magazine writers. Maybe I would have noticed a slight difference in a side-by-side taste test, but who does side-by-side taste tests for dessert?
The result was a peanut butter cookie that tasted like somebody had taken roasted salted peanuts and magically turned them into a cookie. Which is, I think, exactly what we should have been going for all along.