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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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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As of late, Martha Stewart, baking and food blogs seem to go hand in hand. With Sunday's launch of the cookie-centric contest at marthastewart.com, it is an appropriate opportunity to take a closer look at the prize up for grabs; copies of Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008). The latest cookbook from the editors of Martha Stewart Living, it is a comprehensive collection of 175 their most versatile and tempting treats.

With its ingenious imaged-based table of contents, coupled with chapter headings organized by cookie texture, this book speaks directly to cravings and their indulgence. I have read some recipes delightfully described as "everyday", a phrase that evokes idyllic notions of an overfilled cookie jar; these are chocolate chip cookies in a myriad of variations, fudgy brownies, delicate sugar cookies and shortbread. Other recipes range from the festive (from Crumbly and Sandy: Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths) to the elegant (from Crisp and Crunchy: Sweet Cardamom Crackers) to the downright decadent (from Rich and Dense: Chocolate Pistachio Cookies).

In regards to content it should be noted that some of these recipes have been previously published in various publications under the Martha Stewart mantle, specifically the special edition Holiday Cookie series. Some readers could be frustrated by this repetition, while others may appreciate having their best-loved favourites in a trade paperback version.

The layout of the recipes is clear and concise, each featuring a photo of the finished product. Although some follow the expected Martha Stewart aesthetic of colourful but simple styling, others depart from this look entirely. These shots are mid-range to close up photographs against a white background which, in comparison to the charm of the former, do seem a bit austere. That said, the minimalist approach does highlight the characteristic textures of the cookies quite well.

Two appendices, one on packaging and the other with information on techniques and cook's tools, are helpful additions. Inspired presentation ideas show off the cookies beautifully for giving, and the instructions frequently include step-by-step photos. The baking notes serve as a useful introduction to the novice baker and as helpful reminders to those more experienced.

In the name of research, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars (above and below) were the first to be made from this book. The luscious batter inspired nostalgic thoughts of childhood. Its rich scent reminiscent of the best peanut butter cookie crossed with Reese Pieces; the sort that has greedy fingers fighting over rights to lick the bowl. The finished cookie lived up to the charms of the dough, with tender cookie underneath, a layer of tangy-sweet jam in between and the salty crunch of peanuts and crisp crumble as a crowning crust. Perfect for a lunchbox or after-school treat, these cookies will surely become a household classic.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
From Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies 2001.

The recipe featured in the book is subject to copyright but is quite similar to this version.

Notes:

• I used a combination of mixed berry jam and homemade mixed berry compote for the filling as I wanted a bit of tartness to offset the buttery-rich cookie layer.

• Toffee bits, coconut, honey-roasted nuts or white chocolate chips would be a wonderful substitution or addition to the peanut topping. For those looking for true excess, a chocolate spread or dulce de leche could be used instead of jam filling.