National Oatmeal Month + Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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It’s January. The weather is nasty, and is supposed to get nastier before it gets better (tomorrow the temp is a high of -12!!!!). Comfort foods are a necessity and my chosen breakfast has become oatmeal. I’ve been eating it every morning, and while looking for new recipes to make my daily oatmeal more savory, I discovered that January is National Oatmeal Month! My best guess for this designation is that everyone is trying to detox from the holidays. But instead of eating healthy, we’re going to discuss the history of oats as food, and then reward ourselves with oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the end. Let’s go!

It seems to me that oatmeal cookies, and oatmeal as food in general, are fairly divisive even today. Oatmeal raisin cookies in particular seem to be an issue for many. (I mean, can it really even be considered a cookie??) Present-day oatmeal cookies can be traced back to Scotland, where oatcakes, a less moist, crisper version of modern-day oatmeal cookies, have existed since the Middle Ages. Scotland seems to have been an early adopter of oats as a viable food option for humans. However, some other places were not as fast to catch on. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, written in the mid-1700’s, defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

Many Americans before the mid-19th century agreed with the English. While oats were grown in the United States since the 1600s, they were mainly used to feed cattle. It wasn’t until Ferdinand Schumacher, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States in the 1850s, attempted to change people’s minds about oats. Shortly after settling in Akron, Ohio, he founded the German Mills American Cereal Company. Realizing that oats, which were commonly used for porridge in his home country, were relegated to horse feed in his newly adopted land, he came up with a plan. At this time, oat kernels were ground very coarsely and would have taken a great deal of time to cook. Schumacher developed the “rolled oat”–literally a kernel that had been rolled flat–reducing the cooking time significantly. The timing worked in Schumacher’s favor, as it was around this time that the Civil War began. Rolled oats were a relatively cheap and shelf-stable food, making it an ideal food for both soldiers and civilians during lean times.

After the War, in 1877, Henry Seymour and William Heston registered the trademark for rolled oats as the first breakfast cereal. These two founders of the Quaker Oat Company chose perhaps the most famous face now associated with oatmeal in the United States: The smirking, elderly, Quaker man. He is not based on any real person, but was created for their logo by the two founders as “a symbol of good quality and honest value.”

Even before the cereal was trademarked, people began figuring out how to use oats in sweet treats. Oats were often used in the South during the War to make a cheaper version of pecan pie. And the earliest record I could find for an oatmeal cookie was in several newspapers from the fall of 1883 (though this means that recipes certainly existed before this, in unpublished form). The same recipe was circulated from New England to the Midwest, calling for the oatmeal cookie to be made “just like an ordinary cooky, using two-thirds oatmeal and one third wheat flour.” By 1896, a recipe for oatmeal cookies appeared in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer’s recipe is much drier than the recipes we know today. Her recipe instructs you to mix the ingredients and then “Toss on a floured board, roll, and cut into shape,” in something that sounds more like a scone than a chewy cookie. Farmer’s recipe also did not include raisins, which did not become the norm for oatmeal cookies until Quaker Oats began printing a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies on every carton of their oats in the early 1900s, the result of a collaboration between Sun-Maid Raisins and the Quaker Oat Company, who employed the same advertising agency. The recipe gained popularity during the difficult times of World War I and the Great Depression, again, as a somewhat cheap staple pantry item.

If you are comfortable knowing your go-to breakfast choice and common cookie ingredient were once horse food, then I think you’ll be able to get on board with these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (The recipe I made calls for chocolate, not raisins, but they could easily be substituted if you’re a oatmeal raisin cookie purist.)

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
For the recipe, I used a mash-up of the classic Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, and the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes 18-24 cookies.

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces, or a mix of both (approximately 3/4 cup total)
Flaky sea salt, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Beat until fully combined and smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until just combined so that no flour streaks remain.

Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix in oats and chocolate.

Use a tablespoon to create scoops and place at least two inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, optional.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pans 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before eating warm, or moving to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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These cookies have come a long way since the oatcakes of Scotland. Simple and so good. I could’ve gone with the traditional raisins, which I actually really like and maybe even prefer, but I can’t be trapped inside my house by the cold with a bunch of oatmeal raisin cookies. Like, I can’t trust myself. Plus, my husband likes chocolate and is, generally, a cookie fiend. And he’s really into these. I think you will be too.

Happy baking and, please, stay warm, my friends!

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Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Jennifer Breckner

I think the real highlight of this blog, for me, is the amazing ladies that I get to meet and work with. It gives me an excuse to shoot an email to someone and say, “Hey!” and then have a meet-up. I actually met Jennifer where it seems like everyone meets now: Instagram. I gave her a follow, she gave me a follow. We met for coffee and had a lovely time talking about food and family. Jennifer is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker, focusing on good food, craft beer, art and culture, and combining her background in nonprofit management and art history with her passion for sustainable food systems.

For nearly a decade she has served as a Slow Food volunteer. If you’re not aware of Slow Food, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Their motto is, “Good, clean, and fair,” meaning they believe people should have access to naturally produced, high-quality foods at a reasonable price. “The passionate writings of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini made a connection between my two interests: food and art,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Her introduction to Slow Food came when she was an art history major studying Italian futurists. She started as the Chicago chapter leader who produced the Farm Roast, the annual fundraiser featuring biodiverse Ark of Taste dishes created by local chefs. The Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s biodiversity initiative, is a catalog of delicious foods in danger of disappearing, that the organization highlights to keep in production and on our plates. Jennifer became the chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste Committee, working with regional volunteers who are passionate about agricultural biodiversity. “I love Slow Food because they advocate for joyful resistance and assert the importance of the cultural aspects of our foodways,” she says.

Jennifer is now stepping into the role of International Councilor for Slow Food, and will serve as a U.S. rep advocating for good food policy at her first global summit in China this October. Her increasing interest in agricultural biodiversity, support for small-scale sustainable farmers and producers, and desire to contribute to nonprofit organizations has recently brought her to Chicago’s venerable Green City Market Junior Board. Jennifer is also passionate about craft beer and serves as Lead Event Ambassador for Brooklyn Brewery in Chicago, where she conducts taste education workshops and promotes the brewery’s portfolio at events around the city.

Jennifer grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and her interest in food comes from her family. “I’m lucky that both sides produced good cooks—simple, working-class fare. I had many years of sitting down to family dinners at home or with extended family, or spaghetti dinners, pierogi and haluski, and potlucks at various churches.”

She decided to share a recipe with me that she remembers her grandmother making for Sunday dinner, a meal that was an important part of her childhood. “After my parents divorced in the 1970s and my father moved back in with his parents for a couple of years,” she says, “my grandmother insisted that we come on Sundays and sit down for dinner. She knew that in the chaos of a family post-breakdown that my brother Jeff, my sister Natalie, and I needed stability, unconditional love, and the comfort that only food and your grandmother could offer.”

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Her grandmother, Julia Henrietta Ryznar, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “She had a tough life. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized. Her father committed suicide,” Jennifer told me. “She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because at the time education for women, especially poor immigrant women, was not a priority.” Julia was married to Jennifer’s grandfather, Andy, for over fifty years. “Given my grandmother’s difficult and painful childhood one could understand if she ended up a bitter, sad person. Yet, she was happy and joyful. She lit up a room and you just loved being around her. She loved being a wife and a mother, but shortly before she passed away she offered that her only regret in life was that she never got a job in a ‘dime store’ so that she could have something of her own.” That lesson had a major impact on Jennifer. “My own desire to both have my own projects and passions and find solace and comfort in my home and at the dinner table are directly affected by that.”

Grandma Breckner

Jennifer said her grandma would serve her dumplings and gravy with chicken paprikash and lemon-garlic broccoli. When Jennifer makes this dish, she has her own version of the chicken and her brother has a slightly different way of making her broccoli. “The most interesting thing to me now,” she says, “is how we’ve all taken that basic recipe and added our own twist to it.”

Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Dumplings
Ingredients:
1/2 cup flour per egg (for example: 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried
Note: If using less than three eggs, add 1/4 tsp of baking powder to the flour.
1 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

Put a pot on the stove with water and bring to a boil.

Add 1 tbsp of water to the egg and beat until fluffy.

Slowly add flour, parsley, and baking powder (if using less than 3 eggs). Gently mix until slightly sticky but consistent. Add 1 tbsp. of oil to the mixture.

Spoon approximately 1 tbsp. of flour mixture into the boiling water. (Note: Put your spoon in the water prior to putting in the flour mixture to avoid the flour sticking to the spoon.)

Boil for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them because you don’t want to overcook. The dumplings will rise to the top. You can either pull them out individually or wait until all are done and put a cup of cold water into the pot then drain the dumplings into a strainer.

Season with salt and pepper.

Gravy
Ingredients:
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
4 tbsp flour
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1-2 cups of broth
2 cups water

Instructions:

Slowly mix the sour cream and flour together.

Add 1/2 cup of broth to the mixture and continue to stir.

Add this to the water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and stir continuously until it thickens.

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A delicious meal, made with simple ingredients. These are the recipes that I like to showcase on this blog. Not the flashiest or sexiest recipes, but those that elicit the happiest memories.

Jennifer agrees. She told me that when working at the Art Institute several years ago, Anthony Bourdain was visiting for a lunch and book signing. “Bourdain told the crowd that cuisine developed because of the contributions of poor people who often were given the leftovers of an animal or the least desirable produce and had to make something edible from it. He offered that if you are given the best cut of meat you need to do very little to make it taste delicious. His words meant a lot to me then for it was the first time that I understood the contributions of poor people to culinary life.”

If you want to follow Jennifer, you can check out her website, or you can follow her (and Ark of Taste) on Facebook and Instagram. Just look for the handle @jenniferbreckner  and @midwestarkoftaste.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s recipe and how it had such an impact on your life!

Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts

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Picture this: It’s the first week of summer vacation. I am a scrawny kid, probably 80 lbs., soaking wet, likely wearing uneven, homemade jean cut-off shorts and an oversized Marlboro shirt that my dad got when he bought a carton of cigarettes (don’t smoke!). More than likely barefoot and even more likely, eating Pop-Tarts. That was me, every summer, from approximately 1993 to 1998.

Alex and I stopped by my hometown on our way to and from a wedding in Cleveland on Memorial Day weekend, which was bringing up all kinds of warm feelings. On Memorial Day weekend, if I were 11 again, I would have been running around in my friends’ back yards, with all of the other neighbor kids, until the very last second before the sun went down. Then my dad would yell my name or, more likely, my nickname out the backdoor and it would be time to come in for the night. It was making me all nostalgic for childhood and, of course, Pop-Tarts.

For the most part, I try to lead a healthy life. I work out, I eat lots of vegetables, and yes, I make a lot of desserts for this blog, but for the most part, but I usually end up giving a lot of what I make away (after I taste it of course–quality control, you know). On top of that, I really try to avoid eating too many overly-processed foods now, which is a real struggle for me. Being a 90’s kid from small town Indiana means that I am, as my friend Kristina puts it, “90% Ecto Cooler and other preservatives.” For example, nowadays, I never buy Pop-Tarts, even though I love them so much.

Incidentally, the Pop-Tarts that we know and love may never have been. In early 1963, Kellogg’s competitor, the cereal company Post, had announced a plan to release a new breakfast item called Country Squares. However, Post was still months away from releasing their item, which allowed Kellogg to swoop in and develop their own version. In their attempt to best their competitor, Kellogg reached out to Keebler, the famous cookie makers, to create a quick breakfast that could be heated in the toaster.

Perhaps we owe our greatest debt to Bill Post, a plant manager at Keebler during this time who was tasked with creating a toastable treat. (Bill Post appears to have no relation to the Post corporation, but I’m looking into whether there’s a cereal gene in the Post family.) He tested out versions, originally called “fruit scones,” on his children and they were a hit. Pop-Tarts were first tested in markets in Cleveland at the end of 1963. People loved them and they were released to the general public in 1964. They were unfrosted at the time, and only came in four flavors: blueberry, apple-currant, brown sugar cinnamon, and (my personal favorite) strawberry. A few years later, after Bill Post convinced executives that there was a way to create a toaster-safe frosting, frosted versions were made available.

Though I might not buy Pop-Tarts anymore, my cravings for warm, frosted, strawberry goo-filled treats have not diminished. Especially in the summer. I don’t know what it is. So, I made my own version at home.

Strawberry Hand Pies

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Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts
Makes about 10 2 1/2 x 4-inch tarts.

Ingredients:

For the crust (using this recipe):
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
9 tbsp (1 stick, plus 1 tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1/4 cup-1/3 cup very cold water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
Egg wash, optional:
1 egg
1 tsp water

For the filling:
1 cup fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
1-2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp vanilla

For the glaze:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1-2 tsp milk

Colored sugar or sprinkles, optional

Instructions:

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Briefly pulse to mix. Add cold, cubed butter and process again until small clumps form, about 5-7 seconds. Add in 1/4 cup of water and apple cider vinegar. Pulse for an additional 5 seconds to combine. If the dough is still dry, add cold water one tablespoon at a time, not exceeding 1/2 cup.

On a well-floured surface, pour out the contents of the food processor. Gather the mixture, separate into two piles and form a disc out of each pile. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour, preferable overnight.

In a saucepan, combine strawberries, water, cornstarch, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is boiling. Boil for about 15 minutes. Lower the heat and continue to cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the pie dough. The pie crust should be quite thin, only about 1/8-inch thick, but you shouldn’t be able to see through the crust. You should be able to get about 10 rectangles from each disc, if you cut them 2 1/2 x 4-inches.

Place each rectangle on two large parchment paper-covered baking sheets. Spoon about one tablespoon of the cooled strawberry mixture into the middle of 10 of the rectangles. Place an empty rectangle over the top, carefully pressing down the edges. Then, seal the edges with the tines of a fork. Continue until all 10 tarts are filled. If using an egg wash, beat together one egg, with one teaspoon of water. Using the same fork, poke several holes into the top of each tart. Brush egg wash lightly on each tart.

Bake for 30 minutes, turning the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

Mix together the powdered sugar, vanilla, salt, and milk in a small bowl. Spoon one teaspoon of glaze over each cooled tart. Sprinkle with colored sugar or sprinkles, if desired.

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No, they’re not healthy per se. They are basically made from butter and sugar, but I guess you’re replacing the high-fructose corn syrup? Pick your poison, I suppose. I also don’t feel bad about not buying Pop-Tarts because their sales have increased every year since they were introduced. There are plenty of latchkey kids out there, like I was, looking for an easy snack. Then those kids become adults and say, “No, I’m too good for Pop-Tarts, I’ll make my own.” But they’ll secretly have a moment of yearning, every time they walk by them at the grocery store. Or, so I’ve heard…

Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeyes

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My apologies to every sports fan who stumbles upon this blog, only to find that there is absolutely no information about (any) college sports team. The Buckeyes I refer to in the title are not the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the tiny chocolate-covered peanut butter balls that were inspired by Ohio’s state tree. Alex and I were visiting Ohio (his first time to Ohio!) this Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the wedding of our lovely friends, Michael and Deborah, in Cleveland Heights. The ceremony was beautiful and rather dramatic because of a sudden thunderstorm. Plus, it was a Jewish ceremony, which meant Alex and I had to learn a Jewish wedding song and see some new (to us) traditions. On top of that, the bride is originally from Brazil, so there was also samba music and lots of dancing. We couldn’t have had more fun, or celebrated a better couple.

I grew up just across the border from Ohio, in Indiana, but I had seen very little of the state before. As we always try to do, we turned this short trip into a slightly longer road trip. After leaving Cleveland early on Monday, we drove down to Columbus, only briefly stopping to get coffee and to walk around the Short North and German Village neighborhoods. It was really the only urban area that we visited. Most of our road trip was spent driving by rolling fields and through one-stoplight towns, smelling Memorial Day barbecues. Today, we will leave my mom’s house in search of antique stores to buy knicknacks we don’t need.

In honor of our trip, I thought I would make a very traditional Ohio treat (and by traditional, I mean a mid-century invention of Midwest housewives). I’m using my mom’s ancient recipe for peanut butter balls. When mom made them, they were called peanut butter balls, and they were completely covered in chocolate. The only difference is that when you make buckeyes, you leave a tiny cap of peanut butter showing. Ohioans call them buckeyes, because they resemble the nut of Ohio’s state tree, the buckeye. My mom would usually make the treat for family get-togethers. In Ohio, they are often also served during Ohio State games.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeyes
Makes about 30, 1-inch Buckeyes.

Ingredients:
1 cup peanut butter
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips (or chocolate bar, chopped)

Instructions:

In a large bowl, combine peanut butter, powdered sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla extract with a hand mixture. The mixture will look thick, almost like a cookie batter. Cover with a dish towel and allow to chill in the refrigerator for about half an hour.

Cover a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a small spoon (the large scoop on my melon baller worked well), scoop portions of the peanut butter mixture, roll into a ball and set on parchment paper. Continue until all of the peanut butter mixture has been used. Refrigerate for another half an hour.

Fill a small saucepan with about an inch of water and bring to just a boil. Make a double-boiler by filling a small bowl with the chocolate and setting this on the saucepan, above the water. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water in the saucepan.

Stirring the chocolate often, allow the chocolate to melt above the heat. Once the chocolate has just melted, remove from heat and stir until the mixture is smooth.

Using a toothpick, skewer the refrigerated peanut butter ball and dip into the chocolate mixture. Keeping the toothpick in the top of the ball, slowly rotate the ball in the chocolate until all is covered, except for a small portion at the top. Return to parchment paper and remove the toothpick. If you like, you can lightly pat the the spot where the toothpick was to get rid of the hole.

Continue until you have coated all of the peanut butter balls with chocolate. Allow to refrigerate for at least another half hour before serving.

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Bear in mind, these little candies are very rich. Delicious, but rich. Even as a child, while other family members were gobbling them up a few at a time, I could only eat about half. The recipe above is a slight adaptation to my mom’s original, using slightly less sugar. I first tried to use much less, but didn’t have much success keeping the peanut butter in ball-form for dipping. So they’re still rich, but a little more balanced. They remind me a lot of the Reese’s holiday versions of peanut butter cups. You know the ones: egg-shaped for Easter, hearts for Valentine’s Day, always with a shockingly large ratio of peanut butter to chocolate, just the way I like it. My next plan is to make a batch, freeze them, take them to our next summer barbecue, and win the hearts of everyone.

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