Chocolate Hearts and a Cookbook Appreciation

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Eight or nine years ago I took a cookbook writing class at L’Academie de Cuisine, in Bethesda. I don’t know what prompted me to sign up for it; I never imagined I would be writing a cookbook. Writing cookbooks was for people like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and Marcella Hazan; certainly not for a home cook like myself.

And yet, at some level, it must have been on my mind. Otherwise, what was I doing in that class? I had recently left my full-time job as a senior writer for The Chronicle of Philanthropy to begin a new career as a freelance food writer while I took care of my two young children. My kids are 20 months apart, so maybe in my sleep-deprived state I thought the class would be a good idea.

It was. The class was taught by Nancy Baggett, an award-winning author of numerous books on baking, including The All-American Cookie Book, which had just been published, and which I promptly bought. I don’t remember everything about the class (as I said, I was sleep-deprived in those days) but I do remember that Nancy was matter-of-fact, and that she put a lot of emphasis on the importance of good writing, whether in crafting a recipe or its accompanying head note. Good food writing, she said, is like good broth: clear, concentrated, and well-seasoned.

It was a couple of years before I felt I had enough experience, and enough confidence, to turn my ideas into a book proposal, but Nancy’s broth analogy stayed with me, and I still consider it to be great advice for anyone who wants to write about food. The All-American Cookie Book remains one of my favorite books on baking. It is filled with an astonishing variety of recipes that delve into America’s history as a “cookey” nation, and each recipe is accompanied by a headnote that tells the story of that cookie. This book had a recipe for whoopie pies before whoopie pies were…you know, whoopie pies.

The first cookies I made from the book were Iced Apple Softies. The recipe calls for both fresh apple (grated) and dried apples (chopped), and I liked the idea of giving my young kids a cookie that contained real fruit–and they liked the cookies. I will forever have a soft spot (so to speak) in my heart for those cookies. My current crush, however, is–appropriately–the Chocolate Hearts. Not just because they make a perfect Valentine’s Day treat, but because they are unusual–and delicious. According to Nancy’s headnote, the recipe is adapted from a 1909 edition of The Good Housekeeping Everyday Cookbook. It contains no flour or fat–just melted chocolate, cocoa powder, confectioners’ sugar, egg whites, and vanilla extract. Together these ingredients comprise a tender chocolate meringue dough that is rolled out and cut into heart shapes. The cookies puff slightly in the oven as they bake, creating a thin, crackly top layer and a chewy center. Biting into one is a thoroughly satisfying experience.

Nancy’s and my paths did not cross again for quite awhile, though I thought about her from time to time when I baked from the book (at Christmas I always make the Cranberry-Cherry Icebox Ribbons–festive layers of vanilla cookie sandwiched with a garnet jammy filling). A little over a year ago we met up again when we were both speakers at a food writing seminar sponsored by Les Dames d’Escoffier’s D.C. chapter (she is a longstanding member, and I am a new one). I’m now happy to count Nancy among my friends in the world of food and (not surprisingly) we are also friends on Facebook and Twitter. Nancy’s Twitter handle is @tweetsontreats and she often sends out great little tidbits on the origin and history of ingredients. However, whether you are on Twitter or not, I recommend getting to know Nancy through her wonderful cookbooks and recipes. You can start with this one.

Chocolate Hearts

from The All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

These unusual, tempting chocolate meringue cutout cookies are a hit whenever I serve them, but especially on Valentine's Day. They are adapted from a 1909 edition of The Good Housekeeping Everyday Cookbook. Because the original recipe was a bit sugary for modern tastes, I've made several changes to reduce the sweetness. I've also added a little vanilla to round out the flavor. Additionally, I've provided a baking temperature to replace the cook's thoughtful, but for most modern readers unenlightening, guidance: "The oven should not be as cool as for meringues, but not quite so hot as for sponge cakes."

These cookies have a pleasing chewy texture, an intense chocolate flavor, and, due to the way the meringue bakes, a puffy, layered look that always provokes comments. As appealing as they are, it's surprising they aren't a standard in cookie bakers' repertoires today. Now, perhaps they will be.

[Domenica's note: The dough for these cookies can be a little bit tricky. It should be firm enough to roll out, but soft enough to yield a tender cookie. I found that I had to add more powdered sugar than originally called for in the recipe in order to achieve a dough that could be rolled. If you do add additional powdered sugar, just be sure to add it in small quantities so that you don't add too much.]

Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped
  • 2 2/3 cups powdered sugar, divided; plus more if needed
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened American-style cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
  • 1/3 cup egg whites (from 2 to 3 large eggs), at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Powdered sugar, for garnish

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chocolate on 100 percent power for 1 minute. Stir well. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stirring at 30-second intervals. Stop microwaving before the chocolate completely melts and let the residual heat finish the job. Alternately, in a small, heavy saucepan, melt the chocolate over lowest heat, stirring frequently; be very careful not to burn. Immediately remove from the heat. Let cool to warm.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on low speed, beat together the chocolate, about one-third of the powdered sugar, and the cocoa powder until well blended. Gradually add about one-third of the egg whites and beat until evenly incorporated. Add another one-third of the powdered sugar, then another one-third of the egg whites, and beat until smooth. Repeat the process, adding the remaining one-third of the powdered sugar, then the remaining one-third of the egg whites, and the vanilla. Increase the speed to high and beat for 2 minutes more, or until very smooth and well blended. Let the dough stand for 5 minutes to allow the egg whites to be more fully absorbed. At this point, if the dough seems dry and crumbly, beat in 1 to 2 teaspoons water until it holds together. If the dough seems sticky and wet, beat in 1 to 2 tablespoons more powdered sugar to stiffen it just slightly. [I had to add more to achieve a stiff enough dough.] Beat the dough for 1 minute more, or until very well blended.

Divide the dough in half. Place each portion between large sheets of wax paper. Roll out the portions a scant 1/4 inch thick; check the underside of the dough and smooth out any wrinkles that form. Working with one portion at a time, gently peel away, then pat one sheet of wax paper back into place. Flip the dough over, then peel off and discard the second sheet. Using a 2- to 2 1/4-inch heart-shaped cutter, cut out the cookies; if the cutter sticks, occasionally dip it into powdered sugar, tapping off the excess. [NOTE: I did not roll the dough out between sheets of waxed paper; I simply dusted my counter top with powdered sugar and rolled out the dough.] Using a spatula, carefully transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 1 1/4 inches apart. Reroll any dough scraps. Continue utting out the cookies until all the dough is used.

Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, in the middle of the oven for 9 to 13 minutes, or until dry on the surface but soft in the centers when very lightly pressed. Slide the cookies, still attached to the parchment, onto a wire rack. Let stand until completely cooled. Carefully peel the cookies from the parchment.

Store in an airtight container for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 1 month. To serve, arrange the cookies on a decorative plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

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8 Responses to Chocolate Hearts and a Cookbook Appreciation

  1. Nina February 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Your cookies look wonderful. What a lovely tribute to your friend! I love Nancy’s books…this one is a true treasure.

  2. Liz February 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    They look delicious! I know three Valentines in my house who would love to eat them.

  3. Nancy Baggett February 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Domenica, I am so touched by your generous and flattering post. I always hope when I teach food writing classes that attendees will go away with something useful, and that I’ve helped them along the admittedly challenging career path they’ve chosen in some small way. Now, it’s exciting to know you as a culinary colleague and friend whose work I admire. Happy Valentine’s Day and may you enjoy continuing success!

    • Domenica February 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

      Thank you, Nancy. I’m glad you liked the piece. You should see my copy of The All-American Cookie Book. So dog-eared. Much loved and much used in our house!

  4. Barbara | VinoLuciStyle February 11, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    The cookies sound perfect and your presentation…well, adorable comes to mind. I’m having a wine and chocolate party here tonight; how I now wish I had some of Nancy’s cookies to serve…would be perfect!

  5. Lael Hazan @educatedpalate February 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Lovely cookies and post. A well seasoned post 🙂
    Marcella was a home cook before she started teaching cooking. Both she and Giuliano never call themselves chefs, their writing and teaching method is for those who enjoy cooking for their friends and family. They welcome people, like yourself, who enjoy the discovery of fabulous food.

    • Domenica February 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words, Lael. You make a great point about Marcella and Giuliano viewing themselves as cooks rather than chefs. That is also how I perceive myself and, in fact, I feel silly (not to mention insincere) when I’m introduced at cooking classes or demos as a chef. I always make a point of correcting that. Also, to my mind, this is why Marcella’s and Giuliano’s recipes are so beloved–their recipes (even the challenging ones) are accessible to home cooks. Grazie!

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