The Great Cookie Puzzle

Cowboy Cookies

Victoria, of Victoria’s Fancy Foods, in Severna Park, MD told me she wanted to start up a cookie case for the holiday season; was I interested? I was. The question was when? I have about five spare minutes a day, and that’s being generous. But, if I saved them up over the course of a week, that’s enough for a batch of cookies, right? Peter, whom I’ve been robbing to pay Paul, will not be happy with my new time management arrangement. He’ll find it even less accommodating than my previous schedule. In fact, if he ever meets up with Paul for a drink they’re going to be super steamed when they realize I’m robbing them both blind. Hmpf. Best not to think about that. I turned my mind to cookies.

The criteria was tight. They had to be simple because they’re being made on-site in the store, which is not a bakery. It’s Health Board certified, of course, but not kitted out like a Cake Boss kitchen with deck ovens. Next, they have to either be drop cookies, or relatively fast to shape because with small-batch production my time is my biggest expense. They have to be chewy, because that’s the kind I like.

And, I wanted them to have something wholesome about them. Maybe even…no dairy no eggs? A.k.a., “vegan”? Vegan whaaaaaat??? What a challenge!

Well, why not? Vegan cookies are not that hard to make, it’s just a question of how easy or cost effective it is to find a quality vegan chocolate. Remember folks, I’m in Maryland, and while we have Whole Foods and Wegman’s here, I wouldn’t say buying vegan chocolate chips at specialty retail prices is the best way for a cottager such as myself to turn a profit. Most high percentage chocolate is practically vegan by nature, except that it may be processed on the same equipment with other lower percentage chocolates, like milk chocolate which keeps it, in the strictest sense, outside the definition. Ah, technicalities.

So, I thought about it. Lots. And lots. I like a puzzle. Well, I don’t like actual puzzles — how maddening! So many tiny pieces! Who has time for that? Those kinds of puzzles stress me out. But this kind of puzzle I like.

Here’s how I worked it out:
1.) Flax is my friend.
2.) Pastry flour is oddly expensive & hard to find. Whole wheat pastry flour even more so.
3.) Applesauce cookies sound warm like Grandma but can go really wrong when you swap out three ingredients at a time (rookie move), so ditch ’em if you’re smart. But, I’m stubborn, so I will keep working on them until I get one I like. Which I did.

Apple Spice Cookies

This whole process reminded me of waaaaay back when when I (briefly) went to University of California, Santa Barbara and was knocking around that town for a bit. I found this cookie that I really dug — this was way back in’89 now, so keep that in mind — that I think might be influencing me to this day. I think it was called the “No” cookie, so I looked it up. And it is called the “No” cookie  (even then I wondered at that marketing strategy)– as in, no dairy, no eggs, no wheat, no refined sugar, and so on and so forth — and it’s made right in my hometown of Oakland, CA. How funny that I traveled 325 miles south on Hwy. 101 before I met them.

These “No” cookies, along with another cookie brick made of oats and stuff that kicked off a big oat cake phase for me, were expensive ($3 was expensive for a cookie for a college freshman in 1989) so I only had them a couple of times, but the idea fit so well with what I thought a baked good could be via my bean pie experience that it lodged in my brain and has been percolating ever since.

Now whole grains have come a long way since then and people’s tastes have evolved (devolved, since unrefined baked goods came way before refined baked goods?) to the point that goodies made with what I consider to be very interesting ingredients like whole wheat, oats, flax, etc. are practically passe. Which is good, because I want more people to like this kind of thing, for less refined baked goods to be as common and enjoyed as all other kinds of baked goods, and not for their health benefits, which are undeniable, and not for their smaller global footprint or any other sociopolitical attachment, but because they’re good. They taste good. They’re appealing. They have texture and interest on their own. They don’t need to try to imitate their more worldly, refined cousins. I like them for who they are; I’m not worried about what they are not.

I think these cookies that I’m making for Victoria’s are good. In fact, one of them is my all-time cookie favorite, my go-to cookie, the one I look for if I’m playing dilettante at a cafe. The label will let you know the ones without dairy, without eggs, but only because some people might want or need to know, not because the cookies are trying to make a statement.

In the end, for my Double Chocolate Cherry cookies, I decided to stick with Ghirardelli chocolate chips because I wanted to use a bittersweet chocolate — 60% cacao instead of the lower percentages usually used for semisweet. Bittersweet chocolate has less sugar and more overall health benefits than semisweet. Plus, I like it better. Yay! And I did finally get an applesauce cookie the way I wanted it, so that’s in place. And my favorite? The Cowboy Cookie. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.

We’re going to roll them out fresh in the store on certain days and they can always be special-ordered.

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Summer Interlude:Take I

This gallery contains 23 photos.

Bean Pie’s trip to Cali (see previous post  “Bean Pie Goes Traveling: Repository of Good Eats”) was inspiring, instructive, reinvigorating and reaffirming, but it’s behind me now. Well, almost. I wanted to catch y’all up on some photos. In three short weeks I managed to front load a boatload of yum. The San Francisco Bay … Continue reading

Happy Owl is Extra Happy Today!

Today marks the official debut of Happy Owl’s Sweet Bean Pie, and it went swimmingly! Hosted by Victoria’s Fancy Foods in Severna Park, Happy Owl set up a sampling table amongst the salsas and rubs. Like at the Faux Trade Show, customer response was overwhelmingly positive. I do believe I made a few converts today. We had mini pies (pie-ettes? pie-inis?) for sale to stick our toes in the water, but 9″ pies are already on the books.

Here they are going into the convection oven. Aren’t they cute?

Sweet Bean Mini PiesAnd here is our sampling space; bean pies hobnobbing with spices and jams:

Serendipitously, I received a mystery package in the mail today. Waiting for me when I got home was something fabulous: this handmade home-crafted Happy Owl homage wall-hanging, courtesy of a friend and fan. Perfect timing!

Victoria’s will have a limited supply of bean pies on hand. Or, they may be special-ordered through Victoria’s Fancy Foods, or by contacting me directly here at Bean Pie and Baking.

Happy Owl Baking’s Sweet Bean Pie makes its official debut!

I am happy to announce that Happy Owl Baking will make its official debut on Saturday, May 12, 2012 as part of Victoria’s Fancy Foods Saturday Tastings Series.

Victoria’s Fancy Foods is a cool little shop that sells meats, cheeses, and lots of gourmet products that you’ve probably been wondering where on earth you could find without driving to…well, honestly, who knows where else you could find this kind of stuff around here. We’re in the ‘burbs, baby, so it’s a good thing Victoria’s has done all the legwork for you. She, Victoria herself, has also hand-picked a very accessible selection of domestic and international wines.  She’s a Certified Wine Specialist, so trust her. And if you’re a suspicious son of a gun and don’t want to trust her, then come to the free wine tastings. She has them, and a whole bunch of other stuff, on her calendar —  including my bean pie on Saturday, May 12, so check out her website for more info. www.victoriasfancyfoods.com.

What I dig about this shop is her emphasis on  “clean food” — food that has been “produced, grown or raised completely naturally.” Click here to see her discussion of clean food on her blog www.localcleanfood.com.  She does a lot of local sourcing and she also happens to be the pick-up point for several CSA’s — makes it all super easy.

So come out and say hi on Saturday, May 12 from 1:00-4:00. Victoria’s is tucked into a shopping center on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, MD, so if you haven’t been there before, keep your eyes peeled! It’s in the same shopping strip that has Poor Boy’s Steakhouse.

The deets: Victoria’s Fancy Foods, 350 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park, MD (410) 384-9463

By Jove, I think she’s got it!

Bean Pie

I’ve decided that bean pie would be one of the things that I would demo at the faux trade show we are doing next week for my sales and marketing class, so I needed to get on the recipe, pronto. I had tried a few recipes in the past, but hadn’t settled on anything I especially liked yet. So, I played around with the recipe again last week, but it still wasn’t right. Also, I wanted to develop a savory bean pie recipe, so I made one up on the fly and tried that out on unsuspecting friends. The results were mediocre, at best.  I consulted my baking chef. We brainstormed. It was decided I would bring a bean pie in next class and have my classmates sample it. I tinkered with the recipe again last night, baked it up, and waited to see what would happen.

They liked it!

This is exciting to me.

I like it when people like bean pie.

So, it looks like I’ve got the  regular recipe nailed down. The sweetness is right, the texture is right, and, even more pleasing to me, the crust is right. I haven’t liked any of the crusts I have tried and I have secretly suspected that the answer is a vegetable oil crust, but no one talks about vegetable oil crusts so I just kept pushing the idea aside and continued working with butter and shortening combinations. But, last week I went back to the vegetable oil crust idea, tinkered with it, screwed up a good handful of batches, and then hit on one that I think I like. It even has some whole wheat flour in it, which doubles my pleasure.

All in all, a good night. Now, back to the drawing board for the savory bean pie.

Why bean pie?

Your Black Muslim Bakery Photo, Oakland, CA

Whenever I try to explain the kind of baking I want to do, it always comes back to bean pie. So, bean pie is where I will start.

Bean pie seems to have Southern roots, but I know of  it because I grew up not too far from a Your Black Muslim Bakery. I lived in Emeryville, California and at that time Emeryville was the raggedy jumble where the edges of Berkeley petered out but Oakland hadn’t quite picked up yet. We were the fringe, a slim section of San Pablo Ave. that was ratty but not necessarily dangerous.  All the cars were junky and the houses had panache, which is what houses have when nothing matches and half your stuff comes from thrifting.  Some of us were white, some Mexican, some black, but all of us were pretty broke and we all ambled along together, everyone pretty much minding their own business. That’s how it works on the fringe.

The Black Muslim Bakery was not much further down San Pablo Avenue from where I lived on 64th Street and it was a funky, run-down, exotic place to a kid fresh from the humid, lightning-bug summers of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t much but a tiny storefront with a counter where you ordered. They only had about 10 different things, and none of them made much sense: prune cake, honey carrot muffins, tofu burgers, fish sandwiches. And bean pie. All of the baked goods were cool, but it was the bean pie which fascinated me.  My mom would bring back a bag of stuff from their “day-old” section and there they would be, in clear plastic bags with twisty ties and ordinary white mailing labels where the branding should be.  It looked like the kind of stuff you would buy at a bake sale if the bake sale were run by plain-looking, somber women dressed in  faded single-color caftans and elaborately twisted cotton turbans to hide their hair. Later they jazzed up their packaging a bit (see photo below), but I remember them from back in the day.

Your Black Muslim Bakery products

"Your Black Muslim Bakery" baked goods in later years.

Those baked goods were the good stuff to me. I loved their strange, stark packaging, and the way the whole ingredient list could fit in the space where someone’s address should go: “flour, oil, eggs, honey, baking soda, cinnamon.” That’s all it took. That’s all they needed to make it work. So simple, so elemental, and so good. The simplicity in the design became the footprint of baking for me.

Even from the day-old section we didn’t see those goodies too often and things got pretty crazy at that house in Emeryville sooner rather than later. It wasn’t too long before I was spending most of my time over in Albany, a 30 minute bus ride down San Pablo Avenue in the opposite direction.  Albany — pretty, tidy, happy little Albany with the good schools and the nice librarians —  was my ticket out of Emeryville, away from Oakland and Black Muslim bakeries, and bean pie.

As I grew older I would make my way over to the Black Muslim Bakery every now and again, but it was always a strange sort of experience. It wasn’t my neighborhood anymore, and it wasn’t my mom bringing the stuff home in a paper bag.  Even so, bean pie was always in the back of my mind. I always thought that they were the coolest kind of baked goods even though they were more of a memory than anything else. The Black Muslim Bakeries had some bad years, then some very bad years, and then in 2008 they went under completely and were under investigation for corruption, torture, assault, murder, and more. Part of this long, sad, scandalous, tangled web was in the papers within the last year, but that’s a story for another day.

Welcome

Welcome to Bean Pie And Baking.

This is a story about bean pie, and being twelve, and growing up on the fringes of Berkeley in the mid- 1980’s.

I was twelve when I came to California. My mom, Sandy, had moved out there a few years before with my brother, Frank. She had met a younger man, married, and bought a house in Emeryville, CA. The summer after 5th grade I joined my largely unfamiliar family. I looked out the window as the plane flew into Oakland and thought I had never seen such ugly, brown hills. Nothing but brown, bare hills to the right as far as I could see from my window seat. And to the left? Cold, dark water filled with metal cranes and stack after stack of enormous ocean shipping containers, all of it covered in a thin, hazy, dirty looking fog: the Port of Oakland.  Anyone who knows summer in California’s Bay Area knows it runs counter to everything you think you know about summer: it’s not green, it’s not hot and it was certainly not like anything I had ever seen in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Mark Twain once said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

There were still free-boxes in Berkeley then — beat up cardboard boxes dropped off on sidewalk corners filled with used clothes and random discarded household items. There was a huge free-box at the Ashby BART station and it still soldiered on long after the other free-boxes died out. That was the spirit of Berkeley then — passionate, freewheeling, community-driven, and disarmingly odd. Berkeley-ites were a strident people of visceral politics and liberal social policies. Some had money; many had not but they all seemed to rub along together under the shared conviction of quality food: cheese, bread, coffee, lemons.  People who couldn’t afford cable t.v. made space in their wallets for freshly ground peanut butter and hot cups of Peet’s coffee. Sandy was one of those people; we ate bologna sandwiches on home baked bread, but she ground her Peet’s coffee beans fresh everyday.

But we didn’t live in Berkeley. We lived in Emeryville, a place a ripple or two outside of the concentric circles of local demographics. Emeryville was full of warehouses,  some deserted, some still  limping along. The railroad tracks ran through Emeryville. In fact, most things ran through Emeryville, but only to get to other places. Despite its proximity to the Bay Bridge — literally five minutes from the toll plaza — Emeryville was an odd, scraggly, semi-depressed place. Perfect for people like Sandy.