Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Chocolate Peanut Butter Coated Confession



 "We're just the same where love is concerned; we can never stop asking ourselves questions as to whether we are being honest or not, whether we are acting wisely or stupidly, whether the relationship is going anywhere and so forth. I don't know whether all this is a good or a bad thing, but I do know that it holds us back; it's not rewarding, it's just a source of irritation." -Anton Chekhov ("About Love")

 Thinking is exhausting. There's something troubling about this statement because the work of a scholar is to be engaged with the "life of the mind"---to think and think and think some more and, eventually, to write something up about these thoughts that have been preoccupying you for weeks, months and, in a lot of cases, years. Honestly, when I put it like this it's nothing short of terrifying because what I've come to believe in recent years is that, as much as I love thinking, doing is often better for one's health. We need to be occupied and engaged with a concrete task instead of here, there and everywhere in our minds. Of course, this isn't to say that we should live thoughtlessly; we do need to be thoughtful towards others and also about our own lives. But (yes, you knew there would be a but) when we're left to our own thoughts and devices for too long, this is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. Personally, I know I'm at my best when I'm reading, teaching, cooking, baking, walking and getting fresh air. Things just feel more balanced that way.

But despite my best efforts, I found myself overthinking again this weekend. It may have been because it was a long weekend and, without the Sunday evening/Monday morning rush to contend with, time opened up for me; it may also be because I had a stack of seventeen student papers whose clean white margins were simply waiting to be filled with my corrections. Regardless of the reason, the simple truth is that I overthink because I know there's something rotten in the state of Denmark. And the devious force at work in my Denmark is the realization that I no longer love my job, nor do I really see it as a viable future. I am, of course, grateful for the opportunities and friends it has given me; I am also grateful for the knowledge and skills that I have learned. I realize that I'm lucky to have had it during the last several years--a difficult time for so many--because it's at least been a way to bring home the daily bread and pay the bills. It's just not, however, the kind of lifestyle I want for myself: I want to be able to leave my job and be done for the day. And when I admitted this to myself on Monday afternoon as I stared at the papers remaining to be graded, I felt somewhat liberated. There are still steps to be taken and tasks (dissertation!) to be completed (at this stage, not finishing is not an option), but just the thought that this is my last year of academia, of Slavic studies, may be enough to see me through with my sanity intact. Well, the thought of that and of cookies--lots and lots of cookies, or really, to be honest yet again, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars that I made to make the typing up of the paper comments progress more smoothly (i.e. sugar high).

 The puppy and I seem to have reached a tacit understanding about my time in the kitchen; she comes and inspects, licking up anything that I may have sloppily dropped onto the floor and, after a few more minutes of looking at me with eyes that say "what is my weird puppy mama doing standing on a chair with that snapping device and all that good food on the table I can't reach?" (to be fair, I return the favor when she digs in the dirt like a madwoman when I take her outside), leaves to take a nap. I then proceed with my weird ways in peace.

This puppy interlude aside, let's return to the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars. All I can say is that, even before my Great Realization, I had been thinking of baking something. Looking at my blog archive from the past few months, I realized that I hadn't really put up any desserts since before leaving for Greece; how this happened, I'll never understand because it's not like there's been a shortage of sweets around here. I suppose I just became preoccupied with bread baking (another loaf is coming soon), summer fruits and vegetables and puppies. But no longer. Opening the lovely Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook that I received for my birthday, I found myself gravitating towards all of the chocolate peanut butter recipes, which, as the friend who gave it to me said, is exactly why she thought the book would be perfect for me. Let me just add that life is good when you have good friends who know you well.


Although I was itching for a way to flex my baking muscles, I also wanted something simple. And what could be simpler than cookie bars? The good thing about bars--and the reason my grandmother has always preferred them to actual cookies--is that there's no rolling or spooning individual cookies, no baking one or two pans and then still having to finish off the last. In three quick steps you're done: mix the batter, spread the batter and bake. Did I mention fewer dirty dishes?


And voila, you end up with a beauty like this. When I say these bars are ridiculously good, there is not one ounce of hyperbole in my description. The peanut butter cookie base is soft and crumbly, the chips and peanuts that you mix into the batter melt into what amounts to almost one layer of melted chocolate in the center and the top (the crown jewel of the whole concoction) adds texture, as well as a note of prettiness to the glory that awaits you beneath. Granted, I know that I've waxed poetic about peanut butter before--it is one of the things that I would want if stranded on a desert island--but this is different. The combination of chocolate and peanut butter and salt and brown sugar is, in my mind, a huge improvement on the average peanut butter cookie, which, even despite my peanut butter love, is never the cookie that I'm just dying to bake. If peanut butter and chocolate don't make your heart sing like they do mine, I understand; they're not everybody's thing. In such cases, I philosophically say that there's simply more for me.


 This definitely put a spring back in my step and also sent me to the fridge for a much needed glass of milk. Since I never drink milk, this was extraordinary, but I take it as a sign that things really are changing around here (I also ate one of the bars today to bolster my courage before deciding to drop the Modern Greek class I'm in, which just isn't providing me with the communicative skills I long for. Although interesting, I have no time to listen to lectures about the Ottoman Empire in English; I have a dissertation to write!)--and, hopefully, for the better.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Mud Bars

Heavily adapted from the Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook
Yields about 12 bars (if cut into large, 3-inch squares), but could easily yield up to 24 bars if cut into small squares

The original recipe calls for peanut butter chips in addition to the chocolate and white chocolate ones--for both the cookie base and the topping--but, since I didn't have them, I decided they could easily be cut out of the recipe. Too many chips can lead to unnecessary sweetness in my opinion.
      I also decided that, for the love of all things peanut, I would substitute peanuts for pecans; they just didn't seem to have a place in this peanut buttery world. By accident (it was a glasses day), I added 1/2 teaspoon salt instead of the suggested 1/4 teaspoon, but, given the salty-sweet flavor of the final product, I felt this mistake was actually an act of a wise and fortuitous fate. 1/4 teaspoon, given the amount of sweetened chips that go into this recipe, would have been too little; for the sake of balance, more salt was the way to go.
        Finally, because my mother and I went to Peanut Butter and Co. for flutternutter milkshakes on our first trip to New York together back in 2001 (somehow, I knew about this place at the ripe age of 17; clearly, my desire for good food was present even then), she'll often send me jars of their peanut butter--with white chocolate or honey already mixed in. I don't like to bake with natural peanut butter, so I used the White Chocolate Wonderful in this recipe. The peanut butter is sweetened (7 grams sugar), which led me to cut the sugar in the recipe back by 1/4 cup. If using regular peanut butter (3 grams sugar), I would add that 1/4 cup back in.

For the bars:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips (1/2 cup for the cookie base and 1/2 cup for after it comes out of the oven)
1/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

For the topping: 
2 tablespoons white chocolate chips
2 tablespoons chocolate chips
2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

-Preheat the oven to 325 F.
-Grease and lightly flour a 9 x 13 baking sheet.
-In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Then, set aside.
-With a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on low speed until fluffy.
-Add the peanut butter and mix to combine thoroughly.
-Mix in the egg and vanilla.
-Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until thoroughly incorporated (no flour should be visible).
-With a wooden spoon, stir in 1/2 cup chocolate chips, the white chocolate chips and the peanuts.
-Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan.
-Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cookie has puffed up and looks golden brown.
-Remove from oven and sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips immediately. Let sit for a minute or two and then spread the softened chips across the cookie base with a rubber spatula.
-Cool for about 30 minutes and then sprinkle the topping over the surface.
-If you have the patience, you could continue to let the bars cool or you could, as I did, cut yourself a bar and pour yourself a glass of milk. Either way, you won't be disappointed!


14 comments:

  1. I've often had this very same feeling, but have not yet been able to cut ties with academia. I wonder if there is something in our backgrounds that makes us long for the doing rather than the thinking. I agree that a life of doing is healthier in many ways than a life of thought and thought alone.

    I am excited to see what the future holds for you. I know it will be something fabulous. Perhaps food writing as a career for the future? I'll keep watching -Gourmet-;).

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    1. You know, Jess, I really don't know; maybe it *is* a background thing, but it's not even that I mind the work (thinking/teaching/writing; I would happily do any of them); I simply mind the fact that we're being trained for jobs that may not (and really do not) exist and that this is a lifestyle that doesn't offer much balance. Nor does it contain clear boundaries: are we teachers or are we researchers? How do you teach, while simultaneously performing research (maybe you figure it out after many years on the job, but you have that luxury only if you've achieved tenure)? I just don't want to live my life feeling like I have to perform minor miracles on a daily basis.

      And, as for what the future holds, who knows? I'd happily teach and moonlight as a food writer. Or maybe I'll be lucky and stumble into some fantastic opportunity. All I know is that I have to finish the Big D first and that seems like an impossible hurdle (especially with the teaching and grading; I was up until 1 a.m. on Tuesday and then in the classroom promptly at 8 a.m.), but at least there is an end in sight.

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  2. I think that whatever you choose to do, it will be inspiring and worth keeping an eye on - even if it won't be happening in front of my eyes at "the office" anymore.

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    1. Well said, Josefina. As for me, I'm full-time, but non-tenure-track, contingent faculty. In other words, disposable. This is the major problem in academia these days. The majority of English/Writing courses are taught by part-time faculty who get no benefits, no job security, etc. It's a win-win for the greedy institution and a lose-lose for everyone else involved, teachers and students alike. I work hard at my job, but in five years, when my contract is up, I will be looking very hard at a career change, if not before. There is not a teaching track at Duquesne, btw, which is a damn shame. As for the research, I do it only because I love it. For no other reason.

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    2. Thank you, Josefina! And we'll just have to see what I come up with; even if not in the office, it's not like I'll be leaving the area, so there will be plenty of opportunities to "follow" each other.

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    3. And, Jess, the problems in academia these days are definitely a part of my decision. I really don't see how the system can continue to be this way (both in terms of how it uses its human resources and its cost; there will have to be an end to its greed at some point).

      I agree about the research, but I personally feel that, once your focus is so narrow, you're also strangely cut off the love of research and reading that drew you to the profession in the first place. I can't help but feel that, strangely enough, if I leave academia, you will really be "dining with Dostoevsky." He'll be so much more present in my life!

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  3. Those look seriously divine! And I am excited for you and proud of you for doing what is right for you and taking care of yourself. It's a jungle out there, but we don't have to live in it, thankfully. You have always had the wisdom to see that life is more than the library, and I am sorry that things are so hectic again. Whatever you do, it will be awesome! Happy last year! It's a very weird feeling, but finishing is a great accomplishment. Who knows what the future holds, but maybe we can come see you walk! :) And as a side note, there is a book I read last winter that was really helpful for career transition. It's called "So What Are You Going To Do With That?" and it's by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Highly recommended!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Thank you! I'm sure you and E would love them.

      And you're right about the jungle; it's definitely our choice if we want to fight with the lions or go hang out at the waterfall (definitely, I want the latter).

      Hopefully this will be the last year; there are moments now that the semester has started when I wonder if I can really accomplish everything I've set out to do, but I think the answer is yes. And coffee. :) (supply from New Mexico arrived today).

      And thanks for the book recommendation; sounds great and much appreciated! x

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  4. I think knowing what makes you happy is half the battle. Congratulations on having that lightbulb moment. I do believe chocolate clarifies thought :)

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    1. Thank you, Ann! And, yes, I hope chocolate will be involved in all of my major life decisions. :)

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  5. The mug on that pup just kills me.

    You KNOW I'm making these. THEY LOOK ABSOLUTELY PERFECT!!! AHHHHHH

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    1. Thanks, Kana! Her mug kills me, too (and, interestingly enough, often prevents me from wanting to kill her; it's a double-edged sword).

      And I hope you like them as much as I did! I think having a pan of these around would make eternally cheerful (not to mention quite plump). :)

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  6. I can say from my (very fortunate) experience that these bars were delicious!

    I am always refreshed by those who pause to question the path they are on. And I agree -- I know from my own realizations that admitting I don't want to do something any longer makes the days more bearable until that change comes...

    What a great post! Thank you.

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    1. So glad you liked them, Moriah!

      And thanks for the kind words; it's good to have these realizations, but waiting for change instead of just jumping right into it can be awfully hard! But it's good to be honest with oneself and to begin developing ideas for the next step.

      :)

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