Sassi Saucier, Cookie Butter, and Magic Bean Water

TL;DR: This is complicated, even for Sassi. Simplified individual recipe links (which won’t work until after the “Continue reading” jump): Cookie Butter Shortbread (Vegan) | Sticky Pumpkin-Cookie Butter Blondies, Maybe? (Vegan) | Hazelnut Meringue Cookies (Vegan!!!)

The Saga of the Pumpkin Noisette Fancies

When it comes to holiday baking, I have a mission: Bake something delicious for the two vegans on my team. Bake sales and dessert buffets are sad for vegans unless someone is looking out for them. I’m a militant omnivore, but I like to take care of my people, and I like the challenge of baking without eggs or dairy products.

I don’t bake desserts very often. I like to, and I have good technique, and the creative combinations I think up usually work pretty well. But having lots of flour and sugar in the house isn’t the best idea for my blood lipids. Things I like to bake tend to involve a lot of active time, oven-watching, and making an overflowing sinkful of dirty dishes (and then having to wash them). I don’t often have the wherewithal. But I certainly do enjoy the excuse of a holiday party to bake something impressive. Previous forays have included no-bake hazelnut drop cookies, chocolate-peppermint cupcakes, and chocolate-coconut cupcakes. (I might get around to writing up that last one, eventually. They were good. “A triumph,” according to one taster. But this year was all-new.)

Inspiration, Part 1: Pumpkin and Cookie Butter

Have you tried cookie butter? It is pulverized spice cookies (“speculoos“) mixed with palm and canola oils, with a bit more sugar and some emulsifiers. I am hesitant to write more about it. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend that you try it if you haven’t already. Cookie butter is not a good nutritional decision, no matter what kind of orthodoxy you subscribe to. (It’s shockingly easy to be vegan and still eat food that will stop your heart.) I wouldn’t go as far as the anonymous author “D.C.” on the useful blog Eating At Joe’s, who says “Would I buy it again: I would fight you for the last jar if I had to. I would gouge your damn eyes out.” But I get where D.C. is coming from. Cookie butter is horrifying and beautiful.

A jar of Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter
Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter (image is linked from Trader Joe’s website)

{Digression: Trader Joe’s also sells cookie butter sandwich cookies, which are butter cookies with cookie butter in between. Not enough cookie butter in between, though, so I made an improvement: Two butter cookie/cookie butter sandwich cookies, with more cookie butter in the middle. I did this once. I am not proud. [Well, I am proud of being able to write the (entirely grammatical!) expression “butter cookie cookie butter sandwich cookie cookie butter sandwich cookies.”] End digression.}

Also this year, I started adding pumpkin [footnote 1] puree to Greek yogurt as a snack. I get bored of plain yogurt, and most flavored yogurts have too much sugar or artificial sweetener or (gag) modified food starch and gelling agents. (I like jellied things that a lot of people don’t, such as aspic, but I don’t want my yogurt to even hint at gelatinousness.) Pumpkin puree is smooth and slightly sweet and full of vitamins and fiber. So, it has taken on a new versatility in my head, and I’ve been looking for places to use it. I should acknowledge that Trader Joe’s also has something called “pumpkin pie spice cookie butter,” but I did not see it until this concept was well underway. (Plus I couldn’t have used it, because it isn’t vegan.)

Inspiration, Part 2: Magic Bean Water

Some time ago, I read about aquafaba—a newly-coined term [footnote 2] for the soupy-slippery brine from canned or cooked beans (particularly garbanzos/chickpeas). It seemed bizarre and nigh-miraculous. With my vegan team members plus a nephew and at least two friends with allergies to egg whites, I am always on the lookout for egg alternatives. But I never thought I would be able to replace egg whites in something as fundamental as meringue.

I’m delighted to be wrong.

I had seen pictures. I had read the FAQ. It still didn’t seem real. I tested this out at Jeanne’s house (while Adam and Colin were also visiting, and using Jeanne’s sister-in-law Kate’s KitchenAid mixer) on the weekend of December 10-11, 2016. I drained the liquid out of two cans of chickpeas, poured it into the steel bowl of Kate’s KitchenAid, attached the whisk, put in 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar, and turned the machine on. Adam and I, heads together, watched the meringue build up in volume, and turn opaque. I added sugar, slowly; the mixture turned glossy, and held a soft peak. Adam looked at me in slightly accusatory wonder and whispered, “Shut. Up.”

Smooth, glossy meringue in a steel mixer, forming perfect peaks on the whisk.
Smooth, glossy meringue made of chickpea brine (!) in a steel mixer, forming perfect peaks on the whisk.

This is some Rumpelstiltskin-level alchemy, right here. Spinning straw into gold seems frankly more plausible, since I’m pretty sure “spinning straw into gold” is a metaphor for making linen from flax.

Aquafaba meringue does seem to take slightly longer to whip to peak stage than egg whites, but not agonizingly so.

I took a third of that meringue and folded it into a combination of pumpkin puree and cookie butter, which produced a somewhat-too-wet but completely edible pudding-ish layer (“Shut the *hell* up!”)

Pumpkin-cookie butter batter
Pumpkin-cookie butter batter, unpreposessing but serviceable.

I mixed another third of the meringue with hazelnut meal and cinnamon; this produced a collapsed, thin, but beautifully crisp and tasty dacquoise. (I might be using that word incorrectly. A traditional dacquoise is a cake, of which the meringues are one element. Too bad. I like saying it.)

Collapsed but delicious dacquoise
Collapsed but delicious crispy hazelnut meringue

The last third of the meringue went into a Pyrex container which I held in the fridge overnight to see if it would shrink (slightly) or weep (not at all), and then baked it plain the next day. It held up beautifully, and kept its height.

All three aquafaba tests were revelations, in their own way. I tweaked the recipes mentally and started working for real on Dec. 11 for an office holiday party on the 16th. (Hilariously, neither of my vegan team members ended up coming to the party. I saved them some.)

Inspiration, Part 3: Entremets

Sometime in the summer of 2016, I clickholed my way to a post in which Scott Bryan, entertainment editor for Buzzfeed UK, described trying to execute all the technical bakes from The Great British Bake-Off [footnote 3]. The post made me sick with laughter, and in August and September I binge-watched three seasons of the show. One episode featured a patisserie item called an “entremet” (ehn-tra-MAY)—which literally means “a thing that is placed between other things,” and functionally appears to mean “a highly creative, tiny, fiddly, fancy cake with many layers of different textures.” An entremet is not what I ended up with, being as I bake so seldom that I had to borrow a jellyroll pan from my sister to execute this week’s extravaganza. But they were definitely the inspiration for my small three-layered treats.

What I did end up with was these:

Pumpkin Noisette Fancies
Pumpkin Noisette Fancies

They are cookie butter shortbread bites with a layer of pumpkin-cookie butter filling, topped with hazelnut meringue. (I am so fancy. I wave my fancy flag.) If you can stick with me, and you have three evenings free in a row, or a weekend with nothing else going on, they might be worthwhile. I’m really not sure. They are delicious, but totally impractical. Keep in mind I’m perfectly happy to make a relatively simple stew over four days, and I *still* think this is a ridiculous process. To replicate it, you would have to make a batch of too-thin shortbread, and then use the crumbs from that to make the middle layer, which goes on top of a second (thicker) batch of shortbread. I am not telling you to do that.

However: The shortbread on its own is dead easy and fantastically delicious. And the meringues are lovely, and worth trying just for the mind-blowing way the aquafaba actually turns into meringue despite being not at all made of eggs. The pumpkin filling is quite nice as well, but would be fairly pointless on its own, I think. [Unless you made it into little individual puddings with a crunchy-crispy topping, like a gingerbread crumble. Or added some more flour or cookie crumbs, some liquid (almond milk? apple juice?), and some baking powder to make a sturdier, less sticky blondie-type object.]

Here’s What I Did (or “How to Do”? Narrative Verb Tenses are Tricky.)

Sorry about the verb tenses. Some of this was written while it was happening, and other parts were retrospective. (We still haven’t gotten to the follow-able recipes. You can skip this rambly part if you want.)

Day 1:
(1) Pumpkin: Open a 16-oz box (the shelf-stable carton kind) or a 15-oz can of pumpkin puree. Set in a strainer in a bowl, and leave in the fridge to drain overnight. I got 1/3 cup of liquid out of the pumpkin this way.
(2) Buy whatever ingredients you don’t have. For me this was cookie butter, flour, sugar, and margarine (Is “vegan margarine” redundant? I used Earth Balance Original and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of off-flavors and strange aromas that I’m used to in ersatz foods. The chocolate-peppermint cupcakes had a cream cheese frosting that, no matter how much peppermint oil I put in, still tasted like “vegan cream cheese.” I was not a fan.)
Day 2:
(1) In a small skillet or saucepan, cook down the pumpkin liquid to 1 T (it’ll darken and get syrupy) and add that back into the puree.
(2) Aquafaba: This gets a little complicated, and is the primary reason I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to replicate this treat precisely. My first/test batch was from 2 cans of chickpeas. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the brand or precisely measure the liquid (methodology fail!!). It was clear, not cloudy, and two cans yielded about a cup. Second/”real” batch: I had 3 cans of organic chickpeas from Trader Joe’s, which together—all three cans—yielded less than 2/3 cup of liquid. The liquid was full of hulls and particulates, and there was a lot of gel left clinging to the chickpeas. Aquafaba is heat-stable, so I rinsed the chickpeas well and poured the rinsing-water through a sieve into a small nonstick skillet with the drained brine to cook down. Three cans’ worth of chickpea goop plus about 1 cup of rinse-water (hot from the tap), all reduced down to 3/4 cup, then strained through 8 layers of cheesecloth. When this was chilled it was an almost-solid gel. I added warm water to bring it back to 1 cup and whisked it with a fork until it was more or less the consistency of egg whites. It was still cloudier than the first batch, but I had strained it really well, so was feeling fairly confident.
Day 3:
(1) Hazelnuts: Toast some hazelnuts (I only need 4 oz, but I toasted 8oz)–spread a single layer in a roasting pan and toast at 300 degrees for about 40 minutes, stirring every 10, until they are deep golden and the skins start cracking off when you stir (or until your smoke alarms start bleeping, which luckily I know how to deal with since the Lamb and Pumpkin Stew Incident). Most recipes for dacquoise call for blanched hazelnuts, but I can never find them (maybe it’s a U.S. vs U.K./France issue? Or maybe I haven’t looked very hard.) Rub off their skins once they are cool. Some people say to do this in a tea towel but that’s much messier than just using your hands.
(2) Make cookie butter shortbread: all-purpose flour, Earth Balance Original “buttery spread,” cookie butter, sugar, Ceylon cinnamon, cardamom, and salt—I used fine grey Celtic sea salt because (a) I am so fancy and (b) it’s a bit coarser than table salt, and I wanted little sparks of perceptible saltiness in the shortbread. {Digression about salt: I don’t use Kosher salt much since I heard it described as “the fluorescent white light of salts.” My go-to salts are fine grey Celtic and Maldon. I briefly considered using applewood-smoked salt, but decided to limit the variables a bit. End digression.} I like Ceylon cinnamon (aka “true cinnamon”) better than cassia-type cinnamon, but use what you have. Rub it all together until it resembles coarse damp sand. With the above proportions, the shortbread wasn’t quite holding: a squeezed handful fell apart at a poke. I added a little more Earth Balance and cookie butter–you want a squeezed handful to hold together confidently, but to crumble when you pinch it. I spread out the…mixture? It’s not really a dough or a batter…anyway, spread it out evenly and then press it down firmly into a parchment-lined 13×17 jellyroll pan. I intended to cut this into 1-inch squares while warm. (Tip of the hat to Loving It Vegan, who adapted a recipe from Epicurious.) Baked at 300 degrees for 30 minutes (it’s a very thin layer…)
Catastrophe!!! Well, not total: The flavor is DELICIOUS but (a) it needs to be twice as thick, and (b) I need to dock it before baking so it will slice neatly into squares. (Docking creates perforations that act like expansion joints in a bridge, making the shortbread less crumbly and better-behaved.)
Undaunted! Decide to buy more cookie butter and margarine and try again tomorrow—and use some of the catastrophic cookie crumbs as a mix-in with the pumpkin layer, maybe? (That will make this recipe impractical to replicate, but whatever. In for a penny, in for a pound.)
Day 4:
Stop at Trader Joe’s on the way home for more cookie butter and Earth Balance—except they are out of Earth Balance!!! No margarine at all. In the whole store. And I don’t have time to go to another store. Try not to panic. Look for an alternative. Find highly-refined coconut oil which claimed “almost no flavor or aroma!”, which usually would not be a selling point, but seems a good fit for this use (I only need a bit).
Make shortbread, Take 2: Doubled the recipe (ended up needing to use only about 3T of the coconut oil) and carefully docked it into squares before baking. I made 1.5″ squares, because 1″ seemed stingy. Hindsight: 1″ would have been fine. Success! Took 55 minutes. It’s done when it’s golden, slightly darkening at the edges, and feels solid when you press it.
Make pumpkin layer: Drained pumpkin, 1/2 cup cookie butter, 1 c shortbread crumbs from yesterday (this is the least practical bit: I seriously do not expect anyone to make a batch of shortbread just to make this layer. BUT if you make a double-batch of shortbread, and make it before you make the pumpkin layer, then you could sacrifice 1/4 of the shortbread for the pumpkin layer. OR, ooh, get some store-bought vegan gingersnaps, crush them up, and use 1 cup of crumbs. That could be great.) 1/2 c aquafaba, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 tsp vanilla extract (the real thing). Baked at 375 for 35 minutes in a 9×13 parchment-lined Pyrex until pulling away at the sides and cracked on top. Let cool on the stove for 20 minutes; flip out of pan (easy, like a champ), peel off the parchment (also easy), and cut the result into 48 little squares. (I had 48 shortbread squares, a couple of which were crumbly failures and one of which was sacrificed to quality assurance testing.) The pumpkin squares are smaller than the shortbread ones, but I’m OK with that. They’ll be jaunty.
Day 5:

Originally I had been contemplating a single layer of dacquoise, but then realized that cutting it would be problematic. Meringue is shattery. I decided to make individual kisses instead. My guess as to why the test-dacquoise yielded such a flat result is that if you use too fine a grind, the oil from the hazelnuts collapses the structure of the meringue. Plus adding cinnamon seemed like it could be microscopically bubble-popping. I hand-chopped 4oz hazelnuts and mixed them with 1T cornstarch before adding to the meringue.

Hand-chopped hazelnuts
Hand-chopped hazelnuts
Then I scooped the mixture into a piping bag, and piped one perfect kiss before the tip clogged. Oops. I guess I need a bigger plain-end tip for my piping bag (I really don’t want to chop the nuts any more finely despite it being an excuse to use the kick-ass mezzaluna that Denise gave me). Made little drop-cookies instead, using a half-teaspoon measure as a scoop and a normal teaspoon as a spatula. Those have been baking at 250 degrees for almost an hour; they aren’t quite firm to the touch yet and I’m waiting for them to golden-up a bit.
Day 6
Take things to the office, all layers wrapped separately, and stack them before party-time. As I was stacking, the treats seemed huge–too much of a commitment for a person trying to sample several desserts from the buffet. (I’ve had this problem before with full-size cupcakes.) The shortbread squares broke fairly neatly in half; the pumpkin layer needed a paring knife. The meringue broke more messily–some snapped easily into neat halves; others crumbled a bit more. Not winning awards for presentation, I’ll admit.

Quality Assurance Testing

All those caveats about how impractical this is, and how I don’t think anyone should make it? I take it all back.
Pumpkin Noisette Fancies
Pumpkin Noisette Fancy, Mark 1
This is definitely not the entremet-object in my original vision, but it is what I wanted it to be. It’s an unusual little bite, with harmonious flavors and interesting textures. Not too sweet. Complex without being challenging on the palate. Also, a crowd-pleaser.
Yes, it’s ridiculous. Six days. But really, I think it could be executed in two days (as long as you didn’t have much else to do), especially if you had more than one borrowed jellyroll pan. I’m going to call it worthwhile, if (a) you find fiddly baking fun on its own merits, and (b) you think “shortbread, cookie butter, pumpkin, and hazelnut meringue” sounds like a pretty good combination.

Reviews!

Vegan Sean says “Your desserts! So good! What are you calling these again? Did you make the recipe up yourself? That shortbread…I am going to resist eating them all so I can bring some home for my girlfriend.”
Vegan Shannon says “I dub these ‘Pumpkin Noisette Fancies!'” (So it is now written, and so shall it be done.)

Epilogue

I just caught myself thinking “So, the meringues get soggy fast when they are in contact with the moist layer–but would they get soggy if I dipped them in chocolate, or put them under a layer of ganache or buttercream?” Apparently, the aquafaba-entremet vision is as-yet unfulfilled.

The Follow-Able Recipes

 These still require some tweaking and/or improvisation, but:

Cookie Butter Shortbread

This makes a lot—48 1.5-inch squares in a 13″ x 17″ jellyroll pan (the kind of cookie sheet with a raised rim all the way around). Smaller batches work fine. I leave the math and adjusted baking times to you.

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon (preferably Ceylon, but use what you have)
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • (Optional: You could try other spices if you like, like maybe a hint of cloves or nutmeg or ginger.)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup cookie butter (plus maybe another tablespoon or two)
  • 1 cup Earth Balance Original Buttery Spread or other spreadable (not whipped) margarine (plus maybe another tablespoon or two)
  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Line a jellyroll pan with baking parchment.
  3. Measure dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and whisk with a wire whisk or fork to combine evenly.
  4. Add cookie butter and margarine.
  5. Toss dry ingredients over the shortenings, and rub/toss between your fingertips until mixture is the consistency of slightly coarse sand.
  6. A handful of it, when squeezed, should hold together firmly, but fall apart when you pinch it. (If it falls apart with just a gentle poke, add a tablespoon or two more of each shortening and work through.)
  7. Spread the sandy mixture evenly in the pan and press down firmly, particularly in the corners.
  8. Dock into whatever size squares you want—i.e., poke a grid of holes with a fork.
  9. Bake for 50-55 minutes, until edges begin to darken and the center is firm to the touch.
  10. Allow to cool in pan for 10 minutes, then slide a broad spatula under the parchment and slip the whole sheet of shortbread onto a clean cutting board. Cut into pieces along the docked lines.
  11. Try not to eat them all at once.
Sticky Pumpkin-Cookie Butter Blondies, Maybe? (Vegan)
Start these the day before you want to bake them!
  • Pumpkin puree: A 15-oz can or 16-oz box
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup cookie butter
  • 1/2 cup aquafaba (the liquid out of a can or two of chickpeas)
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup cookie crumbs (either from shortbread recipe above, or try gingersnaps or graham crackers or something)
  1. Put pumpkin puree in a sieve; set sieve in a bowl; and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Open your cans of chickpeas to check whether the liquid needs straining or concentrating (if it’s cloudy or has hulls in it, it needs straining).
  3. On the day: Line a 9×13 baking pan with baking parchment.
  4. Preheat oven to 375.
  5. In a small skillet, cook down the water that came out of the pumpkin to one tablespoon–bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let it cook down, watching carefully after the first 10-15 minutes (it will darken and get sticky)
  6. In a medium mixing bowl, mix pumpkin syrup, pumpkin puree, vanilla, and cookie butter until well-combined. (You can microwave the mixture on low power for a couple of minutes to make mixing easier.)
  7. Fold cookie crumbs into pumpkin mixture.
  8. In a large bowl, whip the aquafaba with the cream of tartar (either in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer) until foamy. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, and continue whipping until firm peaks form.
  9. Fold one-third of the meringue into the pumpkin mixture and mix until evenly combined; then fold in the rest of the meringue more gently.
  10. Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (the mixture will be pulling away from the sides, and the top will be cracked; this is fine.)
  11. Flip out of pan onto clean cutting board and cut into however many squares you want. (A pizza cutter works very well.)

Hazelnut Meringue Cookies (Also Vegan!!)

Start these the day before you want them.

  • 1/2 cup aquafaba
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 oz hazelnuts
  • 1 T cornstarch
  1. Day before: Check your aquafaba in case it needs straining/reducing.
  2. Toast hazelnuts for 30-40 minutes in a 300-degree oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until the skins start to crack off and the nutmeats are deep gold.
  3. Cool. Rub the hazelnuts between your hands to remove most of the skins.
  4. Day of: Chop the hazelnuts medium-fine (most pieces the size of aquarium gravel or the candy called Nerds).
  5. Put the chopped nuts in a small bowl, sprinkle the cornstarch over them, and stir to combine. (You’re trying to coat the nut granules with starch.)
  6. In a large bowl, whip the aquafaba with the cream of tartar (either in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer) until foamy. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, and continue whipping until firm peaks form.
  7. Gently fold chopped nut mixture into meringue.
  8. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
  9. Line a baking sheet* with baking parchment and either pipe or drop by rounded 1/2 teaspoonfuls. (*You could probably get two baking sheets’ worth out of this amount, but I had an Incident with the clogged piping bag so I’m not sure.)
  10. Bake at 250 for about an hour, until slightly golden, fragrant, and firm to the touch.
  11. Cool on pan for 5 minutes, then slide parchment onto a wire cooling rack (cookies will continue to crisp as they cool, and make charming crackling noises as they do so).
  12. When completely cool, peel them off the parchment and store in an air-tight container (they hold well for at least a week this way).

Footnotes

I commend the 3% of people who will read these. Bravo.
[1] You may have heard that store-bought pumpkin puree is “actually squash.” This isn’t strictly true. Most of it is apparently a cultivar  called “Dickinson field pumpkin,” which shares the species Curcurbita moschata with several other cultivars whose fruits are called “pumpkins” or “squashes” (or, fantastically, “Korean Zucchini.”) [Go back to reference point.]
[2] As far as I can tell, this word was coined by Goose Wohlte in March 2015. His cooking blog, with meticulous methodological notes, is at Goose’s Vegan Cookery. I find his  molecular gastronomy approach to vegan sunny-side-up “eggs” both abominable and admirable. [Go back to reference point.]
[3] This is called “The Great British Baking Show” in the U.S., because apparently Pillsbury has trademarked the term “Bake-Off.” [Go back to reference point.]