Kung Hei Fat Choi! (Valentine’s Day got the lion’s – or tiger’s, rather – share of the press this year, so it only seems fair to give a nod to the Chinese New Year!) And without further ado, welcome to my post about chocolate cookies, the natural accompaniment to your Chinese New Year menu!
I discovered the recipe for this unusual treat in the Toronto Star’s Christmas cookie countdown, itself an adaptation of a recipe from J. Scharffenberger and R. Steinberg’s The Essence of Chocolate. One of the ingredients required for this cookie was cacao nibs, which hadn’t even been registered into my consciousness so I didn’t fancy my chances at finding any in the local shops. Wonders never ceasing, however, I did manage to get my paws on a tin of this strange new ingredient, from the local Waitrose. A quick scan of the package revealed why it was kept in stock; the cacao nib appears to be a fairly recent arrival to the Superfoods neighbourhood. (Late to the party again, I know. I’m still on chapter Pomegranate in the Superfoods Diary.) I tipped a few nibs into my palm for closer inspection. They looked rather unremarkable, like broken coffee beans or discarded nut husks. The promotional blurb on the tin declared that the shrivelled hardscrabble I held in my hand was the closest I was likely to get to chocolate in its wildest and rawest form. Quite frankly, it didn’t even look edible, but, always being up for a dare, I popped a few into my gob. Mildly bitter and tasting of chocolate and coffee, it crumbled in my mouth, with a slightly waxy texture despite its fibrous appearance. Packed with antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, the label gushed, they give one all the mood enhancing benefits of a chocolate bar without the unwanted baggage of extra fat and refined sugar. Add them to smoothies! Eat with bananas! Sprinkle on your muesli! There was no mention to what heights they might elevate a humble piece of shortbread, but I was willing to give it a try in the name of science.
The recipe directions were straightforward and simple enough, but still I managed to get myself flustered so I’m waving my red flag here merely as a precaution. When the instructions directed one to shape the dough into a square, I interpreted this as a direction to roll the dough into a long rectangular log, with an eye to slicing off pieces as one does with refrigerator cookies. In all fairness, there is no reason why this couldn’t work, but this method would not and did not produce the sharp, clean lines that I was after. To achieve that, you do need to roll out the dough, trim away the rough edges with a pastry scraper or whatever clean, straight edge you have at hand, and then section your dough out in grid fashion. If you’re pressed for time or simply not bothered about the geometry of your cookies, you could go right ahead and use any manner of cookie cutter once the dough is rolled out.
A word of warning to any and all who dare attempt this recipe – before you unleash these little beasts upon your unsuspecting audience, please be aware that they have a rather polarising effect on people. Think of it as the Marmite Effect – you will either love these cookies or you will hate them. There is no middle ground here. I had my own moment of doubt after snuffling up a crumb of cookie that had been broken off during transfer to the cooling rack. It was an automatic reaction which I’m sure many of you will recognise – “Broken cookie detritus spotted. Target acquired. Evidence of imperfection…ERADICATED.” For the most part, my selfless acts of cookery hoovering have been rewarded with sweet morsels, but this crumb of alleged chocolate was face-crumplingly salty. Horrified, I stared at the ranks of cookies lined up with military precision on the cooling rack. Did I miscalculate? Did I oversalt the pudding? If they all tasted like that, I wouldn’t be able to serve them up to anyone save my worst enemy, and even then I’d have misgivings. No, there was nothing for it – I had to try one in its entirety. I nibbled a corner warily, anticipating another mouthful of salt, but happily, I tasted nothing more sinister than rich, dark chocolate. I bit deeper to get at some of the fleur de sel sprinkles and, yep, I did find them, but it wasn’t the jarring experience I’d had but a moment before.
It’s not the smooth, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread that Auntie X makes at Christmastime – this is Sophisticated Shortbread, for adults only. They’re not terribly sweet, these cookies, but they are immensely rich and chocolatey with a slightly chewy texture, gratis the nibs. This richness is, in turn, tempered by the crisp flakes of salt. Fear ye not about the fleur de sel as wildcard ingredient; salt is not this cookie’s predominant flavour (…unless you happen to hoover up the one crumb concealing a nugget of pure salt. Try to avoid this.). It’s far, far more than the sum of its parts. Don’t ask me how it works, it just does.
When offered to my flock of test gannets, these cookies divided the population right down the centre. Half of them thought the saltychocs were foul abominations, but at the end of the day, the cookie plate had mysteriously been cleared. So, the fifty per cent of the sample population that DID enjoy them, did so right down to bare crockery. Result! Personally, I found these cookies made me dance around the kitchen in delight. Him Indoors’ reaction was far more subdued, but he’d rather I described it as dignfied.
And don’t just save them for a special occasion. Why wait for one specific day of the year to show your nearest and dearest that you love them? EVERY day should be Valentine’s Day! Tell your Specials every day of the year! Make and share these cookies with EVERYONE you love, and maybe even some of the people you’re not so wild about.
Salted Chocolate Shortbread Squares
(adapted from a recipe in the Toronto Star)
1 cup flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder (use a good quality cocoa)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp cacao nibs, crushed fine with rolling pin
1 tsp fleur de sel + a little extra for sprinkling (do not attempt with any other formulation of salt!)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Preheat your oven to 325F/160C/Gas Mark 3. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or greaseproof paper.
2. Sift flour and cocoa powder together into small bowl and set aside.
3. In another small bowl, combine the crushed cacao nibs with 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel and set aside.
4. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla essence.
5. Next, add the flour and cocoa powder mixture and beat just until the mixture is moistened. Follow with the cacao nibs and salt mixture. Stir to blend the two until the mixture comes together. (It will now be getting a bit difficult to stir, but persevere! It can be done!)
6. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and pat it gently into the shape of a rough square. Cover this with another sheet of plastic wrap. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a square about 1/4-inch thick. You can adjust the edges of your dough square to clean, straight lines with a metal scraper. Cut the dough into 1-inch squares. Don’t pitch the scraps – set them aside for reassimilation.
7. On your baking sheet, gently place the squares about 1 inch apart from each other. Bake them in the centre of your preheated oven until the tops look dry – about 12 to 14 minutes. N.B. Halfway through baking time, remove them from the oven and dust them lightly with pinches of the fleur de sel. Return them to the oven for the remainder of their baking time. Once done, remove the sheet from the oven and allow to rest for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.
8. Whilst waiting for the first batch to cool on the sheet, load your second prepared baking sheet with squares and begin round two of the baking.
9. Gather up the scraps and re-roll them into 1/4-inch thick squares. Cut into squares and add to baking sheet. Lather, rinse and repeat the baking process.
You could, as the recipe originally advised, also use an electric beater in order to spare your poor arm muscles, but I wanted to see if it could be accomplished with good results using old-fashioned elbow grease. And guess what? You can!