A Dose of Sweetness
How’s Everyone Doing?
I want to thank all ya’ll who have been writing and checking in with me. Scott’s been fielding your kind and supportive messages from Facebook. I’ve been on a social media respite, taking a breather to better manage this unusual and oftentimes unnerving current reality, which explains today’s post on baking PandemiCookies. These vegan, chocolate chunk Italian-style cookies are joy-filled and yummy bites of comfort that instantaneously bring an easy dose of sweetness to our lives in lockdown. Not to minimize the sweetness of connecting to all of you, of course, but it’s just…well, sometimes I need to step away and eat a cookie.
Like many others, I found myself hyper-engaged while trying—unsuccessfully—to modulate my own stress. Are you also spending more time engaged? The connection at this time is so beautiful and vital while we’re all in crisis together, but as I grow increasingly introverted (I know, shocking isn’t it?) I also need some alone time to process. Between phone calls, zooms, skypes, WhatsApp, emails, texts and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes Instagram), I was racking up about 8 hours a day of engagement. I wore myself down feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and practicing poor self-care. I’ve been riding the emotional Sooper Dooper Looper (I’m giving away my Pennsylvania roots) while living the experience here in Italy and watching it unfold in the US. We can’t take walks or ride our bikes, so for anyone who releases pent up stress through outdoor activity, the locked-down life is ruff. Today marks 1 full month of Italy’s lockdown. The expectation now is that it may go to May 4 or beyond given that Italy is still getting thousands of new cases and over 500 deaths each day. ?
Back to social media. I rarely do Instagram because I don’t use our cellphone (there’s limited capacity on the computer) and Twitter annoys me, so that leaves Facebook. I was only planning a 1- or 2-day Facebook retreat but found myself with so much more space and clarity that I extended my Facation (just made that up ?) for almost 2 weeks. I’m returning soon and with clearer boundaries. In the meantime, your reaching out has meant a lot. I’m eternally grateful for you and am sorry to have created undue worry. I’m thinking about every one of you and hoping with my all good juju hope energy that you are well and safe.
I originally had a completely different plan for this post but decided that baking cookies was a higher priority, so I’m lightening up the (my) mood and sharing the recipe for my new PandemiCookies, an Italian twist on a chocolate chunk cookie, naturally vegan.
An interesting phenomenon has developed in the Pepper Pandemic Household. Because I’m so fixated on avoiding public contact, we are only going out in public once every couple of weeks and only to the market and only on Tuesday mornings when the fresh produce has been delivered by the farmers. The other places we’re allowed to go (but don’t) here in Italy are the pharmacy, a doctor, or the tabacchi (there one can pay bills, recharge the cell phone, and make copies among other things).
My neurosis of minimizing our exposure has resulted in two pleasant surprises:
#1) Reduced Spending
By being mandated to stay home and by stretching our food supplies, March 2020 was our lowest spending month since we’ve been together for nearly 16 years. But the biggest surprise is…
#2) Weight loss
I’m very inappropriately calling this the COVIDiet because we’ve both lost some poundage –the weight we put on after moving to Italy (think bread, pasta, and artisanal Italian chocolate). Sure, some of the lossage is probably atrophied muscles given our sedentary life now, but we’ve also consciously reduced our consumption (and have lived to talk about it) because we minimize our trips to the market. In typical Italian fashion, we were (pre-COVID) going to the store every other day for food. But because everywhere is a potential vector of infectious danger, we’re limiting our store visits to 1 every 2 weeks. Food conservation. This is not something I’ve had to really worry about since I was in college. Then, it was a necessity for a microscopic budget that miraculously allowed for beer money, but today it’s a choice. I recognize how fortunate we are to have this choice given that many now are going hungry.
We also don’t have any junk food in the house. The cookies don’t count. Comfort food and junk food are two separate and distinguishable categories.
Olive Oil to the Rescue
Yes, Italians. What else?
You guessed it. Olio d’oliva.
No Italian kitchen is without olive oil. We buy our olive oil from a local farmer or at the organic store in town. It’s all the best olive oil I’ve ever had in my life. Who needs butter when olive oil is an excellent replacement? This new realization crystallized in my brain: Where there’s olive oil, there’s no need for butter. I think the Italians agree.
True story: Walk into any typical Italian market and see shelves and shelves of olive oil and somewhere in the corner a small selection of other oils –some kind of vegetable oil in a yellow plastic container, a random peanut oil, and maybe something gourmet like Olio al Tartufo. The Italians have long understood what much of the rest of the world is acknowledging: Olive oil is a magical elixir that has countless health benefits and can be used for anything from face moisturizer to makeup remover to hair conditioner to any kind of cooking or baking. It has anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants and is one of the “good” fats that could benefit your heart giving you a longer healthier life. Olive oil is where it’s at.
Since we’re not going to the store and since the container of vegan butter in the fridge is almost empty, today I courageously used olive oil in my cookies. I say courageously, not for the risk of trying something different because failing at new recipes is practically a hobby for me. No, I say courageously for the risk of not having any edible cookies, because this batch used up the zucchero di canna (brown sugar) and we’re t.h.i.s. close to running out of chocolate. It’s another 10 days before we go back to the market.
So, what’s the verdict? Four thumbs up! They are delish. Earlier this year, pre-pandemic (seems like another lifetime ago), I made a delish chocolate cake with olive oil, because I could not find canola oil here in our little town. It was my first time. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I’ll ever again use any other kind of oil. It was so yummy and added a subtle savory earthiness to the mix that blended beautifully with the dolce.
So, ya wanna make olive oil biscotti? Alrighty. Let’s go.
Culinary Tools Needed
2 bowls (small’ish and big’ish)
1-cup measuring cup
3/4 cup measuring cup
1/4 cup measuring cup
Mixing device (I just use a big spoon)
Cooling rack (or a plate)
Bucket of humor
2¼ cup + 2 TBSP all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
¾ cup olive oil
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup brown sugar (pack it as you like it)
2 tsp vanilla (I like vanilla a lot but this may be too much for some)
7 tablespoons (¼ cup + 3 TBSP) aquafaba*
1 – 2 cups (depending on your preference) chocolate chunks or chips **
*Aquafaba, an egg replacer, is the juice that comes from garbanzo beans. Take one can of organic garbanzo beans and drain. You’ll get more juice than you need. You can save it in the fridge for about week. Eat the garbanzo beans! I enjoy garbanzo beans (with wait for it…olive oil, nutrimental yeast, pepper, salt, garlic) for lunch. We throw a handful in Stella’s food for a fun treat. She loves them.
** Finding chocolate chips in Italy is no easy task. Our local organic market has them but they’re about 6 Euros for about ½ cup. Ridiculously expensive and unnecessary because…Chocolate. Italy. Easy! I like the 52-70% Novi Fondente chocolate bars. They’re 100 grams and 2 bars are just about the perfect amount of chocolate after I taste a few squares to make sure it hasn’t gone bad. Two bars equal roughly 1 1/3 cup. Yes, it’s a pain to cut it all up into chunks. Life is slower here and this is one of the many reminders that slowing down is okay. Right now I am being extra extra careful when using a big knife, because the very last place I want to be is in the hospital or as my friend Holly calls it, the germ farm. You be careful too, please.
Note: I don’t add nuts to my cookies. I love nuts and I eat them throughout the day, but I don’t like mixing them with my sweets. When I eat something sweet, I want to taste the thing, not the nuts. But, hey, if you want to add nuts, have a blast. Whatever floats your nutboat.
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit or 190 degrees Celsius
2. Lightly oil the baking sheet (use canola oil – JK! We don’t have canola oil in our house. Use olive oil, of course)
3. Combine flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in the small bowl and set aside but not too far out of reach because you’ll need it in a hot minute.
4. In the big bowl blend together oil and sugars until it’s the consistency of sand that’s been pummeled by greasy hail.
5. While blending, slowly add the aquafaba or you can add it quickly whatever your preference. It just felt right to add the word “slowly” there. Your mixture will resemble slurry.
6. Take a big whiff of the vanilla and breathe in the intoxicating scent. Then add it to the slurry mix.
7. Add in the dry ingredients and blend together. No need to over mix but you can if you feel like it. Stick your pinky in there and take a quick taste. Wash your pinky for 20 seconds. Now it should look and taste like cookie dough.
8. Add chocolate chunks and nuts (Just making sure you’re paying attention. I’m the only nut in this recipe).
9. Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds but don’t dry them, and fold in the chocolate by hand. Your wet fingers help keep the dough from sticking all over your hands. Who am I kidding? You’re gonna make a mess! ?
At this point you have a major decision to make:
* Do I stick this in a container, freeze it, and eat it later while watching something on Netflix?
* Do I sit down and eat it right now?
* Do I turn this into incredible delicious cookies? I’ve done all three, so obviously I’m not the best source of guidance. In the words of my sister-in-law, Chris, #YouDoYou
If you decide to follow through with the cookie-making, while your hands are still covered with cookie dough, grab little blobs (about 2/3 the size of an ice cream scoop) and plop them onto the lightly (olive) oiled cookie sheet. You know you’ve spaced them perfectly if you get precisely 12 blobs on the sheet. In the future, post-COVID, take one of those blobs and put it in your mouth. Oh hell. Do it now while you still can.
10. Bake for 8-11 minutes, until the cookies look like they’ve been kissed by golden goodness. I tend to pull them out just before 8 minutes because I like when they’re a little squishy in the center. I let them cool on the sheet for about 1-2 minutes before placing them on a cooling rack. If you don’t give them a minute on the baking sheet, when you scoop them up with the spatula, they smoosh together. Totally okay if you want cookies that resemble a ball of play-doh after it’s been in a little fist.
11. While still warm, take one cookie and break it in half. Give the smaller half to your husband to taste. I mean bigger. Bigger half. Cool the remaining cookies on a rack (or a plate) long enough for the chocolate to solidify.
For me, this recipe makes 39 cookies (the last batch I squeeze 15 cookies on one sheet): One for taste testing and the remaining 38 to last 19 days at 1 cookie each per night. Every night Scott lobbies for two cookies and sometimes I’ll cave and we’ll each get 1.5. But usually, no, it’s just one, hence his new title for me, Biscotti Nazi.
Hope for a Brighter Future
This Sunday is Easter and here in Italy, like in many other places, Easter Sunday would normally be a day for religious celebrations and big family gatherings. But in this age of Coronavirus, as most of the world is sheltering at home and many families are grappling with grief over the death of loved ones, holding worry for those in the hospital or who are feeling unwell at home, or feeling stress about how the bills will be paid, we are confronted again as we have been several times during our 1-month quarantine, with a new and sometimes uncomfortable normal.
Italy’s new case numbers are finally slowly declining and while there are still too many deaths, those numbers are also declining. So instead of the big gatherings at church and at home, we will sit quietly with those in our space and find meaning in this tragedy and hold gratitude in our hearts for any and all goodness that has emerged from this crisis – a greater appreciation for science and technology, a deepened affection for those who live afar, and a celebration of all who face this battle on the front lines: medical workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, truck drivers, postal employees, public transportation operators, grocery store clerks, farmers and food deliverers, firefighters, policepeople, the guy who keeps your utilities running and the other one who keeps clean water coming through your pipes –all first responders and those who keep our lives functioning.
From every part of the world, despite our isolation, we are united in a shared responsibility and commitment that extends beyond our personal needs and those of our families to our greater communities. For many, isolating at home is a sacrifice that’s made not just for ourselves but for the good health and safety of people we’ll never meet. May we humans use our infinite wisdom and innovative resources to swiftly win the battle against a single enemy, a smart and fast-spreading lethal virus. Then, when the battle is won (and it will be), may the solidarity and this uprising of humanity and compassion for those less fortunate remain long after our collective wounds have healed.
Stay well and safe dear readers.
Buona Pasqua e speranza per un futuro più luminoso.