Chow Mo-wan: In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn't want to share... you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.
-Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love)
Last week I went to my class and saw 17 exhausted faces looking back at me. And although it was hardly a heartening experience, I really couldn't blame them; their faces reflected my own feeling. I decided that measures could be taken to lessen our mutual fatigue (such is the power of a teacher; I get to make all the decisions!); I decided then and there that, instead of jumping right into the next novel (the lovely, compelling San Francisco novel, The Story of a Marriage), we needed to do something relevant, yet fun. Clearly, a movie screening was in order--I was thinking In the Mood for Love, And, best of all, a movie wouldn't be a movie without snacks, so I also promised baked goods to make the viewing more festive. Both easily transportable and always a crowd-pleaser, cookies emerged as the obvious choice.
As these days I spend a not insignificant amount of time flipping through The Essential New York Times Cookbook (and mainly because you can get lost in that book; look up potatoes and you've got the potato world at your fingertips. Go to the cookie chapter and you may find yourself knee-deep in flour, sugar and butter, spooning out cookie dough for the better part of an evening), I knew the exact cookies I was going to make: Chocolate Quakes. Why Chocolate Quakes? Living in California, I couldn't help but feel that the name was appropriate (especially given the amount of little earthquakes we've had recently); you see, the powdered sugar surface of these cookies cracks as it bakes, thus looking like an earthquake-ravaged mountain of chocolate. Plus, the sound of dutch-process cocoa, pecans and chocolate chips appealed to my chocolate-loving nature. If I can eat chocolate, I will. This has always been one of my essential comfort foods. My grandfather is fond of telling the story of how, when I would cry as a child, a chocolate covered peanut-butter bar would always do the trick. Maybe times have changed, but not much else.
I had a feeling my students would like them, too. It seemed like just the thing to jolt them awake and fill their little hearts with joy; that may seem like a dramatic statement, but I kid you not, these cookies are strong. And not just in terms of flavor; holding a plate of them--even one covered with tin foil--can send you into a chocolate-induced swoon (one student took a cookie from the dish I passed around and held it in front of his nose and, before taking a bite, inhaled deeply with a tiny smile on his face). They also seem to contain more than a little caffeine; I had two after they came out of the oven on Monday night and I couldn't fall asleep until 2:30 a.m. Then, on Tuesday morning, the day I took them to campus, I didn't have time for any morning coffee, but two cookies later, I was good to go.
All in all, it was a positive experience. I was happy. My students were happy. The cinematic interlude and the cookies did us both a lot of good. The wisdom I have gleaned from this experience is simple and clear: when in doubt, bake cookies. Everything else will work itself out.
Slightly adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook (preferring a crunchy cookie to a crunchless one, I didn't grind the nuts)
Yields about 4 dozen cookies
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
6 Tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup Ghiradelli Chocolate Chips (60%)
1 cup powdered sugar
-With a mixer, beat the melted butter, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla on low speed until pale yellow and thickened.
-In a medium-sized bowl, sift the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and salt.
-Then, carefully sift these ingredients into the wet mixture.
-Mix on low speed until incorporated.
-Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts with a spatula.
-Chill the dough in the refrigerator for an hour (N.B. I should add here that, while I followed this step, it was still impossible to work with the cookie dough. To make it workable, I put it in the freezer for about 5-10 minutes. If there was a lull between baking, I'd put it back in the freezer until I needed it again. This worked really well and produced the desired consistency.)
-Heat the oven to 350 and line 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Take small chunks of the chilled/semi-frozen dough (about a tablespoon each) and roll them into balls (about 1 inch).
-Place the balls in the powdered sugar and roll until the dough is covered completely.
-Line on a cookie sheet (I could fit 12 per cookie sheet) and then bake for 12-14 minutes, or until the cookies have become puffy and the powdered sugar surfaces have cracked (this gives them their "cracked" look). Ideally, the centers should look a little gooey and underdone.
-Remove from the oven and let cool on the cookie sheet for about 5 minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.
-Repeat until the dough has been used up (I doubled the recipe, so this should yield about 4 dozen cookies).
-Inhale their chocolately aroma and enjoy their sweet crunch! Believe it or not, these are best when cooled.