Recently, during one of my customary browsing of the sale shelf of a local bookstore, I picked the mystery novel The Whispering City by Sara Moliner1 (pseudonym for the writing duo Rosa Ribas and Sabine Hofmann). The title and subtitle (Barcelona 1952) piqued my curiosity and the back-cover blurb made me decide to purchase the novel.
The story is set during the regime of dictator Francisco Franco, who was still alive when I was born. I remember his death in 1975 (after which Juan Carlos became king of Spain), so as dictatorships go, this one is clear in my memory. The civil climate described in the book is typical of dictatorships, where freedom of expression, information and thought are outlawed. Ana Martí Noguer is a young journalist aspiring to do more than write the society column for a newspaper that strives to maintain a certain amount of independence from the regime without running afoul of it. She is figlia d'arte, as her father was also a journalist.
Circumstances catapult Ana into the middle of a murder investigation and she ends up becoming entangled in it, together with her older cousin Beatriz, whom she had recently met. Beatriz is a linguist who has fallen on hard times due to her political leanings.
I enjoyed the story and the historical setting. As the NPR review2 says
The mental sepia tones evoked (and used on the cover — good job, Pegasus designers!) aren't just those of vintage photographs, but those of a city blanched of its color and vivacity by a right-wing regime.
One of the recurring themes in the book is scarcity, partly as a result of the time (post WWII in a dictatorship with mostly democracies as neighbors) and partly as a result of Ana's limited economic means. Sugar (zucchero) is a luxury food item, so when she is in a coffee shop, she indulges in it, adding it liberally to her coffee and licking the cup clean after finishing the liquid.
While reading the novel, I spent a weekend on a bicycle ride around San Luis Obispo, on the Central California Coast. In the oceanside town of Cayucos, The Brown Butter Cookie Company3 makes cookies and shortbread. I don't have a sweet tooth and was skeptical about the cookies, but after tasting a few options I had to admit that they are quite good. While nibbling on half of a chocolate chunk cookie (it was pretty big), I decided to try making my own version.
Serendipitously, a few days later, this recipe4 came to my attention and I chose to use it as my base because it was neither overly sweet nor overly buttery and also made a manageable number of cookies. Of course, I would change several things to make the recipe suit my taste. First of all, I use brown butter, like the bakery in Cayucos. Then, I substitute 3/4 of the white flour with whole-wheat / whole-grain flour (farina integrale). I decrease the amount of sugar slightly and omit the finishing sea salt. Finally, I choose good-quality chocolate and chunk it by hand.
Ingredients for 16 cookies:
- 1/4 cup / 2 ounces / 56 grams unsalted butter (to make brown butter, recipe below)
- Avocado OR walnut OR other mild-flavored vegetable oil to add to the brown butter to obtain 2 ounces
- 2 tablespoons / 25 grams granulated OR superfine sugar AND enough light brown sugar to obtain 3 1/2 ounces / 100 grams total
- 1 1/2 teaspoons / 1/2 tablespoon / 7.5 ml vanilla extract
- 1 large pastured egg at room temperature
- 6 ounces / 170 grams of a combination of flours:
- 1 1/2 ounces / 42 grams pastry flour OR all-purpose flour
- 4 1/2 ounces / 128 grams whole-grain flours: 1/3 whole rye, 1/3 whole-wheat pastry, 1/3 whole spelt AND sprouted whole quinoa
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 5 1/4 ounces / 150 grams extra-dark chocolate (I use 88%), cut with a knife into small pieces
Brown the butter5 in advance. Cut the butter into small pieces and put them into a small saucepan. Melt the butter while stirring then keep the melted butter on the heat, stirring. The butter will foam as water evaporates then the solids will caramelize. Remove the saucepan from the heat, pour the brown butter into a ramekin and let cool. The process is fast and requires full attention as the solids go from brown to black in a few seconds.
Let the brown butter soften in a mixing bowl. Weigh the butter and add enough vegetable oil to get to 2 ounces / 56 grams. Add both sugars to the mixing bowl. Mix with a spatula until the sugars are well blended into the butter. Add the egg and the vanilla extract and mix until well combined. While I prefer to mix butter and sugar with a spatula, I like to use the electric mixer to mix in the liquids.
Sift and weigh the flours into a small mixing bowl. Sift in the baking soda and baking powder, then add the salt. Add about half of the dry ingredients to the wet ones and mix briefly, using either a spatula or the electric mixer. Add the rest and mix just until the flour is incorporated. Finally, add the chocolate chunks and incorporate using a spatula.
Place the mixing bowl in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up the dough (it will be easier to handle and the cookies will remain chubby).
Preheat the oven to 350 F/177 C.
Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Take the cookie dough out of the refrigerator. Weigh approximately 32 grams of dough for each cookie. Shape each piece of dough into a half dome, tap the top to flatten it slightly and place on the baking sheet, leaving 2 inches/5 cm of distance between them.
Bake for 13-14 minutes. Check the cookies after 12 minutes and bake longer if needed. The edges should be golden brown.
Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then transfer them to a baking rack and cool completely.
Store the cookies in a sealed container.
My cookies neither look like nor taste like those I ate in Cayucos: they are less sweet, softer, and have a fuller, whole-grain flavor. They are excellent. I have come to rely on them as energy recharge after a long run or bike ride.
1 The novel's page on the publisher's website
2 A review of the novel on the NPR site
3 Brown Butter Cookie Company
4 Recipe for Chocolate chunk cookies with sea salt on Culinary Ginger
5 A more detailed post on how to brown butter
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the biscotti al burro nocciola con pezzetti di cioccolato audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
This is my second contribution to the 42nd edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I started over 14 years ago and that I continue to host.
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.