Peanut-butter cookies

This weekend I made peanut-butter cookies for the first time in years, probably decades. These were big peanut-butter cookies, over two inches in diameter, definitely one per serving, from Joanne Chang’s Flour (Chronicle Books, 2010; p. 114), so they’re not really like the peanut-butter cookies I grew up with. Which then set me to wondering where the cookies I remember my mother making actually did come from. They were thin, about an inch and a half in diameter, and dry and crumbly (in a good way that nicely compliments a tall glass of milk). I distinctly remember the dough being rolled into balls about an inch in diameter, which were then rolled in granulated sugar before being squashed with a fork to make the traditional cross-hatch pattern.

Tradition is an odd thing, of course. I’m always somewhat amused at “traditional” European and Asian foods that star New World ingredients — it makes me wonder just what food that product replaced in their diet — but of course many of our “traditional” American foods are much younger than even polenta or Caprese salad. Peanuts, as a distinctive American culinary item (let’s not get into satay), are pretty much an early-twentieth-century invention, thanks in large part to George Washington Carver, and peanut butter as a packaged convenience food can be easily dated to the 1920s. (Peter Pan, the first national brand, debuted in 1928.) The editors of The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion (Countryman Press, 2004) date the first actual peanut-butter cookie recipe (as opposed to a butter-cookie with crushed peanuts, as published by Carver) to 1930, and a recipe was included in the very first Joy of Cooking in 1932.

Going back to my childhood memories, there was only one cookbook specifically dedicated to cookies or even bakery generally in our house, that I can recall anyway: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies — and there’s no peanut-butter-cookie recipe in it (I have that copy now, and I checked to be sure). My mother almost certainly made the version of the Joy recipe; she owned (and still uses) the 1974 edition, and if I look at my own copy of Joy-74, the recipe on page 709 bears most of the hallmarks of my childhood memory: small cookies, made by flattening balls of dough with a fork. The stated yield seems a bit off: Rombauer and Becker claim 60 cookies from a recipe that uses only a cup of peanut butter and half a cup (8 tbl) of “butter or shortening” (betting my mother used margarine, rather than either one, at least in the early ’80s when that was the done thing). But the overall proportions are not that different from the recipe I made. The King Arthur people, surprisingly, specify very different proportions: they use only shortening, a whole cup of it, and double the sugar, eggs, soda, and flour, while holding the peanut butter constant at a cup.

This made me curious enough to look at my copy of the widely-reviled Ethan Becker 1997 edition of Joy. Joy-97’s recipe for “Classic Peanut Butter Cookies” (p. 831) is completely different yet again, but for the shaping instructions (which are much more detailed than previous editions). This one adds baking powder, in substantial quantity, vegetable oil, and lots of vanilla, and substitutes confectioner’s sugar for the usual granulated sugar, while reducing the butter and peanut-butter quantities and adding an egg yolk, with a stated yield of 36 somewhat larger 2½-inch cookies. The old recipe returned, without comment, in the 75th anniversary edition, and Ethan Becker’s “Classic” formula disappeared without a trace. (The version of the old recipe in Joy-07 slightly reduces the quantity of butter and does not suggest shortening, but is otherwise identical in formula and presentation to the Joy-74.)

So here are the four formulas side-by-side:

Ingredient Rombauer (Joy-76) Becker (Joy-97) King Arthur Chang (Flour)
Flour 1 to 1½ cups (120–180 g) 2½ cups (300 g) 3 cups (360 g) 375 g
Salt ½ tsp ¼ tsp ½ tsp 1 tsp (kosher)
Baking soda ½ tsp ½ tsp 2 tsp 1 tsp
Baking powder 1¼ tsp
Butter ½ cup (110 g) 12 tbl (170 g) 1 cup (225 g)
Shortening 6½ oz (180 g)
Peanut butter 1 cup (260 g) 2/3 cup (175 g) 1 cup (260 g) 1¾ cups (450 g)
Vegetable oil ¼ cup (60 ml)
Granulated sugar ½ cup (100 g) 1 cup (200 g) 1 cup (200 g)
Confectioner’s sugar 1/3 cup (mass unknown)
Brown sugar ½ cup (110 g) 1 cup (220 g) 1 cup (220 g) (dark) 1 cup (220 g)
Egg 1 whole 1 whole plus 1 yolk 2 whole 2 whole
Vanilla extract ½ tsp 2½ tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp
Yield “About sixty 1½-inch cookies” “About 3 dozen 2½-inch cookies” “4½ dozen cookies” “About 24 cookies”

Getting back to Chang’s recipe, which started me down this trail, it follows her usual procedure for creaming-method cookies: mix the dough, refrigerate overnight, portion with a disher, squash, and bake at 350°F (175°C) until golden brown around the edges. Chang deviates from expectations in only one step: she waits to add the peanut butter until after the butter-sugar-egg mixture is fully emulsified.

I didn’t take pictures this time — after a while it gets a bit tiresome when most stages in the process don’t look any different from one recipe to the next — but I can tell you that this recipe makes substantially larger dough balls than the other recipes of Chang’s I’ve done this summer. Based on the stated yield, I determined a portion size of 65 grams, or about 18% larger than the other recipes (which came in at 55 g); I found that a #20 disher was almost exactly the right size but still ended up adjusting most portions after scaling (because I’m fussy like that). For the peanut butter, I used Teddie, a locally-packed “natural” brand (no stabilizers, just peanuts and salt).


The nutrition numbers for such large cookies, with so much fat in them, are a little bit of a fright. But if you’ve ever eaten one of those giant convenience-store peanut-butter cookies (which are all too often terrible), this gives you some idea how many calories they have.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 cookie (65 g uncooked)
Servings per recipe: 24
Amount per serving
Calories 537 Calories from fat 317
% Daily Value
Total Fat 36​g 56%
 Saturated Fat 9​g 46%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 35​mg 12%
Sodium 338​mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 42​g 14%
 Dietary fiber 4​g 16%
 Sugars 21​g
Proteins 13​g 27%
Vitamin A 6%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 4%
Iron 9%
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