The little things can make all the difference.

The perfect cup of coffee to start a cold winter's morning. Finding the paper within reach of the front door, rather than having to traipse across the front lawn in your robe and slippers. Catching a cab on the first try. Reaching your hand in your coat pocket to discover that ten dollar bill you forgot you had.

An unexpected thank you.

All of these are little things, but little things do add up. Little things can make your day.

And, as I just was reminded, little things can change your cookies entirely.

Any time it is requested that I bake peanut butter cookies, I automatically reach for this recipe. Nonetheless, I have kept to my word and have continuously tweaked and adjusted the ingredients and method - partially because I sometimes have a ridiculously-short attention span when it comes to cooking and cannot commit to following anything to the letter, and partially as I still am in search of the ultimate cookie.

On a recent occasion, as I was creaming together the butter and sugars, I recalled my fondness for peanut butter and honey sandwiches as a child. Without a second thought, I grabbed some honey from the pantry, popped off its lid, and watched as it oozed goldenly onto the whirring beaters. From there, I continued with the recipe as per usual.

The dough was softer and more pliable than before. Considering liquid sugars grant a toothsome density to baked goods, and also knowing my disdain for thin, dried-out drop cookies, I chose to freeze the shaped balls of dough rather than chilling the batter as I did in the original version. After a quick arctic blast they held up nicely against the pressure of the fork when marked with their distinctive pattern. Into the oven they went.

Assumedly due to the change in sugars, I noticed that after 16 minutes the cookies were already pleasantly bronzed, sporting a modest hump. The height remained after cooling, allowing for a slightly crunchy top but a cakey, moist centre. In comparison to the crumbled chewiness of their flatter predecessors, these were a wholly different cookie altogether.

The cookies tasted richer. Maybe it was depth of mellow sweetness from the honey that accentuated the roasted quality of the peanut butter; the peanutty-ness was more pronounced, but still well-rounded. Now this was my idea of a really good cookie - not to say the previous version doesn't have its slightly-crisper charms.

Sometimes magic is truly in the details.

Note: Some may notice that the above photo returns to the style of my Happenstance series. To be honest, I had not intended to write about this recipe, but I was so happy with the effect of small changes on the recipe that I felt compelled to share. As this was such a spontaneous impulse, shooting again in that format seemed appropriate.

SOFT AND CHEWIER PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (up to 1/2 teaspoon if you particularly like savoury sweets)
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons/1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup chunky peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed golden or dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • sea salt, optional, for sprinkling

METHOD

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Use parchment paper to line several standard baking sheets and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugars and honey and beat on high for three minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add the egg and vanilla, then mix on medium speed until well blended.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and stir to just combine. Using a 1 1/4" ice cream scoop dish out mounds of dough onto the prepared baking sheet (alternatively, use a generous 2 tablespoons of batter for each cookie), spacing them about 2 inches apart. Place onto baking sheet and freeze the batter for 10-15 minutes to set up and chill thoroughly.

Dip a fork into warm water and use the tines to press the dough balls lightly; you only want to slightly flatten their shape and leave the imprint of the fork. Freshly dip the fork between pressing each cookie. Sprinkle with sea salt, if desired.

Bake in the preheated oven for 16 minutes, rotating the sheets once during baking. Cool on pan for two minutes, then remove to a baking rack to cool completely.

Makes 18.

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These Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars look innocent enough, but are two bites of true, gooey indulgence. Photos courtesy of Irene Powell.

Even though one may not mean to become caught up in things, sometimes it is unavoidable. Such was my case recently, as a (thankfully-mild) strain of the chicken pox made its way through our little ones, forcing our household into a state of quarantine and oatmeal baths for two weeks. This was followed closely by an infection that had Mummy curled up on the couch, slippers on and blanket pulled up tight, for another few days. Suddenly almost a month has gone by, and it seems all in a blur.

Now we are about ankle-deep in holiday preparations; events with family and friends are already scheduled, decorations are already being considered, and menu ideas are already floating around in my head. Where did this autumn go? It feels like Halloween was just yesterday.

Lucky for us, I had the book In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics standing by at the ready. In it, chef Anna Olson offers up meals and menus that have a nostalgic appeal; a bit retro, a bit kitch sometimes, but always tasty. This is feel-good eating at its best, and just the sort of food one craves when life gets a bit hectic.

While the book does include entertaining-worthy recipes like unctuous Mushroom Potato Brie Tarts and an impressive Garlic Roasted Turkey Crown with Chardonnay Pan Sauce, it is the modern classics like the Contemporary Cobb Salad, Ultimate Cheese Fondue and Baja Fish Tacos, that are, in my mind, the real draw.

Through the craziness over the last few weeks, I found myself turning to this book numerous times for inspiration. And rarely did it disappoint.

I have pledged my allegiance to steel-cut oats, but I tried Olson's version using the rolled variety when I found my cupboard was bare of the former. Surprisingly light due to the addition of oat bran, the oatmeal was delicious. So good in fact, that when mornings dawned cold and grey, I reached for this breakfast again and again.

The Rockwell Bake, a savoury bread pudding that combines all the flavours of Thanksgiving dinner, was hearty and soul-satisfying. Anna's Pot Roast was fairly-standard comfort fare, brightened through a second addition of vegetables towards the end of cooking. While good, however, what stole the show that night was the recommended accompaniment of Fluffy Dumplings. True to their title, these dumplings were pillowy-light, and an ideal way to sop up the roast's beer-soused gravy.

For those visiting the Niagara Region, Olson's two specialty food shops sell dishes from In the Kitchen with Anna as some of their prepared foods. It is a wonderful opportunity to taste some of the food before purchasing the book and also a testament to Olson's confidence in standing behind these recipes - a true mark of quality.

It was at her St. David's, Ontario, location that we were able to try the Beef, Caramelized Onion and Smoked Cheddar on Foccacia sandwich. Hot off of the panini press, the exterior was shatteringly crisp, giving way to melt-in-your-mouth slices of beef, accented by sweet onions, a slathering of grainy mustard and subtly-smoked cheese.

Since Olson is famous for her desserts, far be it from me to ignore that chapter. The Lemon Cheesecake Mousse tarts had an beautifully light texture with the perfect sharp citrus note. They managed to be delicate but luscious, all at once. Dangerously-easy to make are the Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars (photographed above, please see recipe below); to call these rich would be a gross understatement. A sturdy crust of oats and graham is scattered with both toffee and chocolate, then almonds, and finally a blanketing of sweet condensed milk. This modest effort results in a bar cookie that is tender in its belly, but slightly burnished and crisp above. Ridiculously addicting stuff.

Only one recipe fell short of expectation; the Artichoke Asiago Squares. The appetizer, somewhat akin to crustless quiche, is billed to taste like the popular dip of the same name and readers are urged "if there is no other recipe you make from this book, please make it this one." With such an introduction, these were a definite must-try. But while the squares are good, none of my tasters thought them great. The consensus was that they were best served warm, but even then the texture was not a favourite and some found the asiago could have been more pronounced. I would not call this a failure, but I would say that there are stronger dishes in the book.

The book itself is bright and colourful. The food looks fresh, shot simply, but beautifully, by Ryan Szulc. Minimally styled by Olson, the images are homey and inviting, with little fuss marring our look at the the food.

I particularly enjoyed how the recipes were laid out. Accompanying each was not only general notes included in the header, but also a three-part footnote outlining the taste, technique and tale of that particular dish. This additional information included more in-depth information about the ingredients or preparation, and also were a peek into the personality of Olson herself; the chatty, convivial tone was charming to read.

From the every day to almost every celebration, for lazy weekends and when the weekdays are flying by, In the Kitchen with Anna: New Way with the Classics includes recipes that are excellent additions to any cook's repertoire. Showing us easy, accessible cooking with touches that make each dish feel special, Olson makes a lovely kitchen companion.

CHOCOLATE ALMOND TOFFEE BARS

This recipe is one of my most requested, so I'm happy to include it in this book. — Anna Olson

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup (250 ml) Skor toffee bits
  • 1 cup (250 ml) chocolate chips
  • 1 cup (250 ml) sliced almonds
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and line an 8-inch (2 L) square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

Stir the oats, graham crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds. Pour condensed milk evenly over pan (it will sink in as it bakes) and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into bars.

Store toffee bars in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes one 8"x8" pan.

Taste

This is decadence in a pan. The sinful combination of chocolate, toffee and almonds enveloped in condensed milk that caramelizes as it bakes is irresistible. At least these have oats in them to redeem themselves, just a little bit.

Technique

This is a simple recipe to execute—you gather the ingredients and layer them, basically. The challenge is in waiting for them after they've finished baking!

Tale

My head pastry chef at Olson Foods + Bakery, Andrea, brought this recipe to my attention. She is an excellent baker, and we go way back. She started with me as a high school co-op student, while I was just picking up professional baking myself on the job, so we learned together. That was about 15 years ago, and after her stint at cooking school and gaining other work experience, I'm thrilled that we are working together again after all these years.

Additional recipes from

In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics

Huevos Rancheros

Pot Roast with Dumplings

Luncheon Sandwich Torte

Permission to print recipe and cover image courtesy Whitecap Books.

It just so happened that I was watching Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection" on the same day that my dear Sean requested some peanut butter cookies. For those not familiar with the show, it follows the Michelin-starred chef as he seeks out the quintessential recipe for various dishes. Whether it be Peking duck or risotto, Mr. Blumenthal looks to understand every aspect of the recipe, studying (in great detail) the importance and contribution of each ingredient, preparation and cooking method.

In this episode he tackled trifle. He examined its historical origins, researched the way tastes move around the human palate, and considered the effects of temperature on textural perception. A fascinating half hour later he presented his final imagining of the dessert - complete with saffron syllabub, strawberry jelly and a sweetened olive pureé.

Throughout the exercise, I could not help but compare his to the "standard" trifle that appears on our holiday table; a base of fluffy lemon-scented sponge, then scarlet-red raspberries staining layers of creamy custard and mascarpone cream, all topped off with bronzed shards of almond brittle. A far cry from Mr. Blumenthal's version, but my family will settle for nothing less.

And although this trifle has been deemed "perfect", I am still one to tweak things a little, depending on the fruit available, the audience I am serving or to better suit my whims.

Now I was thinking about the search for perfection, and the infinite possibilities when it comes to food. Every person perceives things differently, every person responds to flavours and textures in their own way. Every person has their own set of memories that are conjured by a smell or a taste. Each of us has a different set of criteria to satisfy; the journey towards finding the definitive form of any dish really is, well, endless.

But I digress. Back to Sean's request. While he had provided me with a recipe for his cookies (from Martha Stewart's cookie book) I could not help but delve a little deeper. When I asked him what kind of peanut butter cookie he was looking for, Sean immediately replied "soft and chewy." The Martha recipe sounded perfectly delicious, but the photo showed a cookie that looked more crisp than tender. After that, I consulted Dorie Greenspan's book for her advice, but came away empty handed.

In the end, I combined a few recipes, and drew upon my experience with baking. Albeit a bit unorthodox in measurements, I patched together a recipe that uses brown sugar for tenderness and caramel tones, granulated sugar for body and a bit of crispness, salt for added depth, and crunchy peanut butter for texture. Upon first bite, Sean declared these the best he'd ever had. Not too bad for a first try.

I am already thinking about what to change on my next attempt.

Soft and chewy peanut butter cookies

Living up to their title, these cookies are unbelievably tender. A great candidate for ice cream sandwiches - with a dulce de leche filling perhaps? Although I specify chunky peanut butter, that was only for personal preference. This recipe would work perfectly well with smooth.

Ingredients

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (up to 1/2 teaspoon if you particularly like savoury sweets)

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons/1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup chunky peanut butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed golden or dark brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

sea salt, optional, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Use parchment paper to line several standard baking sheets and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugars and beat on high for three minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add the egg and vanilla, then mix on medium speed until well blended.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and stir to just combine. Refrigerate the batter for 10-15 minutes to set up and chill thoroughly.

Using a 1 1/4" ice cream scoop dish out mounds of dough onto the prepared baking sheet (alternatively, use a generous 2 tablespoons of batter for each cookie), spacing them about 2 inches apart. Dip a fork into warm water and use the tines to press the dough balls lightly; you only want to slightly flatten their shape and leave the imprint of the fork. Freshly dip the fork between pressing each cookie. Sprinkle with sea salt, if desired.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes, rotating the sheets once during baking. Cool on pan for two minutes, then remove to a baking rack to cool completely.

Makes 18.

Notes:

• For a crisper cookie, bake for 20 minutes.

• Toffee bits, chopped peanuts or chocolate chips would all be great additions to this cookie.

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