In Defense of the Peanut Butter Cookie

A strange thing happened to me in 1991. All of a sudden my peanut butter cookies started coming out hard – like rocks.

I have no idea where the recipe came from. It was the one my Mom always used, so it likely came from my Grandmother, a cookbook, or perhaps a Home Ec course when she was a teenager. It is exactly like the majority of recipes for peanut butter cookies found on the internet today, where creators of “original” recipes try to differentiate themselves by an extra quarter cup of peanut butter or by sticking a chocolate kiss on top.

In all likelihood, however, every peanut butter recipe in use can be traced back to an original recipe, which first appeared some time in the 1930s, possibly 1936.

Which never really explained why my cookies had started turning out hard.

At first, I blamed myself. I must have screwed it up somehow. But subsequent batches were also hard. I adjusted quantities and techniques, even considered that the oven might be acting up. Then I thought to consider the peanut butter itself.

In the early ’90s, the western world was going through a bit of a phase of environmental activism, much as we are today. I took these concerns to heart and started to change my purchasing habits, switching to all-natural or organic ingredients where I could find them. I was also, at the time, dating a guy whose relatives lived next door to a peanut farm, so all-natural peanut butter became a fixture in our house.

It was then that I realized what had happened. In switching to a freshly-ground, all-natural peanut butter, I had drastically altered the recipe without even knowing. The all-natural brands tout the inclusion of nothing but peanuts, while the grocery store brands are loaded with fun stuff such as corn syrup, shortening and icing sugar to keep it from separating.

In 1922, peanut butter was commercially-born when J. L. Rosefield of Rosefield Packing Company of Alameda, California perfected a process to keep the oil from separating in the peanut butter along with spoilage prevention methods. He marketed this commercial peanut butter under the name Skippy® as “churned” peanut butter, which was a smoother, creamier version of the coarse-textured original.

So, since 1922, most peanut butter available commercially has been “processed” in this manner. Which means that the original peanut butter cookie recipe was undoubtedly made with processed peanut butter, not the happy, healthy natural stuff. And without the added corn syrup, shortening and icing sugar, no version of the recipe works!

Which is, by all means, a eureka moment to figure that out, but also a disappointing one, for anyone who wants to avoid the added crap, not to mention transfats (shortening is hydrogenated), regular peanut butter is off the list. And so are peanut butter cookies.

Given that peanut butter cookies are one of those comfort foods that bring back sweet childhood memories of working in the kitchen with my Mom, I get cravings for them now and then. I usually head to a store or bakery and buy a couple, and that seems to satisfy the need for the things. But for home cooks, part of the experience of comfort food is in the making, and just eating ones that someone else has made isn’t enough. I need to roll the dough in my hands and then oh so carefully press those distinctive marks on the top with a fork. This was my job in the process as a little girl, and it brings back definite feelings of happiness and delight.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I started keeping a pantry stocked with canned goods. Just in case. Toronto had also experienced the Blackout of ’03, so having some stuff on hand just in case couldn’t hurt. For some reason, while buying stuff to stock that pantry, I grabbed a jar of regular peanut butter. Not sure why. Maybe under the theory that it would keep longer than the natural stuff. But I came across it a week or so ago, and have had peanut butter cookies on the brain ever since. I finally caved and made a batch last night, for the first time in probably 15 years or more.

I know they’re full of corn syrup and transfatty shortening and extra sugar. I don’t care. They’re that perfect combination of sweet and salty, with a crunchy bite on the outside that gives away to a soft tender interior. I know I lose all of my organic-local-sustainable food cred, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes food is emotional and emotions transcend nutrition.