If you think the guy below looks happy, you should have seen the grin on the photographer’s face. “The guy” is Joe Yonan, a man who put his urban life on hold to homestead for a year in Maine; “the photographer” (who almost fell out of the window trying to get this shot in her very small kitchen) would be moi; and the reason we’re both so happy is that we’d mixed up a batch of Joe’s Cardamom-Brown Sugar Snickerdoodles (from his book Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking For One).
The cookies are traditionally flavored with cinnamon, but I’m glad Joe ditched convention and went with cardamom because: 1) They taste so very, very good; and 2) just rolling the words ‘cardamom snickerdoodles’ around in your mouth and trying to picture what they could be like is almost as much fun as eating them. Accent on almost.
Snickerdoodle might be a corruption of the German word for ‘schnecken’ … or it might not be. Snickerdoodle might also be a playful cookie grounded in the (very unplayful) traditions of New England. I’m going with the latter notion because I like imagining the name falling trippingly off the tongues of the Mayflower pilgrims’ straight-laced descendants.
As for the flavoring, if you don’t know cardamom – it’s not a spice everyone comes across daily in the States – you’ll be glad for the introduction. Native to and popular in the cuisine of India, the spice is related to ginger and grains of paradise, has an aroma you can catch across a grand ballroom and a flavor that’s elusive: Just when you think it might be citrusy, it turns smoky. And when you’re ready to give into the sultry smokiness, it doubles back and becomes bright and lively. I first tasted cardamom in a sweet yeast bread from Finland, pulla, and then didn’t encounter it again until Jean-Georges Vongerichten made cardamom granité in his first American restaurant. Since then, I’ve come to love the spice with chocolate and caramel and brown butter and coffee. In fact, right beside me now is a cappuccino sweetened with the cardamom sugar leftover from snickerdoodling with Joe.
And as for Joe and his recipe …
It was fascinating to watch Joe make the recipe, in part because I’m always interested in watching someone else work in the kitchen (I always learn something), and in part because I didn’t know a thing about snickerdoodles, so everything was new – starting with the way Joe mixed the butter and brown sugar together in the mixer: he beat the ingredients on high speed! I never do this with cookies because I never want to beat air into the dough. When you beat air into cookie dough, the dough puffs in the oven and then it deflates and forms crinkles and crackles. Turns out, this is just what you want a snickerdoodle to do.
Having four hands in the kitchen made fast(er) work of shaping and baking a double-batch, or about 170 cookies, because we could form a little production line: Joe scooped the dough and I rolled it between my palms and then dropped it into a bowl of cardamom sugar. These are just the kinds of baking steps I love – anytime I can play with my food, I’m happy.
That we baked so many cookies was almost ironic given that Joe’s specialty is all about cooking for one, but we were baking for one of Joe’s book signings. If you’re serving yourself, minus 169 of your nearest and dearest, you can follow Joe’s advice: shape and freeze the cookies and then, when you want a cookie (or five), you can go from freezer to oven to delight, no thawing necessary.
If you want to snickerdoodle yourself – or with a friend – here’s Joe’s terrific recipe.
Top photograph by Deb Lindsey for the Washington Post.