I have hated peanut butter my whole life. This is a controversial statement, particularly back home in the US, where peanut butter seemed an almost inescapable part of growing up. The smell, the stickiness turned my stomach; everything about it revolted me. I used to pretend I had an allergy, because it was the only way to get pals, teachers and parents to stop forcing me to eat it.
Mostly, I didn’t regret my preference – there was no love lost for those sad, soggy PB&Js, mashed up at the bottom of some kid’s backpack. But come Christmas time, I always longed for peanut butter blossoms. Also known as peanut butter thumbprint cookies, they were perfectly tanned and attractively cracked, and crowned with the brown plume of a Hershey’s chocolate kiss. They were a staple of Christmas cookie exchanges (alongside these ginger molasses cookies from last year’s column), and they always looked so inviting that I had to remind myself that I wouldn’t like them.
You can imagine how pleased I was, then, to recently come across Yossy Arefi’s recipe for tahini thumbprint cookies in NYT Cooking. Not only were these a more sophisticated take on the cookie, with their dulce de leche centres, but tahini was an ingenious swap for peanut butter – and meant I could finally try the cookies I always wished for.
That said, I have made a few additions of my own. To up the toasty, nutty flavours even more, I decided to use brown butter, taking a page from J Kenji López-Alt about adapting the recipe for that change. I also added cinnamon and cardamom to the cookie dough – it doesn’t really feel like Christmas without baking spices. The results are aromatic cookies with a halva-like consistency, salty and sweet, with a little reservoir of dulce de leche right in their centres.
I’ve also opted to pair these cookies with Left Hand’s Peanut Butter Milk Stout. I may not like peanut butter, but peanut butter-flavoured beers are another matter. Inspired by Cicerone and beer cartoonist Em Sauter's recent post about pairing beer and holiday cookies, I thought a sweet, peanut butter stout would be the ideal choice to go with these thumbprint cookies, as well as a nod to their origins. And it’s true that the two are just right together, matched in sweetness, in flavour and in festive feeling.
Tahini Brown Butter Thumbprint Cookies with Dulce de Leche
Makes 18 cookies
Adapted from Yossy Arefi/ NYT Cooking
For the dulce de leche:
1 400g tin sweetened condensed milk
For the cookies:
85g unsalted butter
1 ice cube (approx. 15g)
180g all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
130g light brown sugar
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla paste or vanilla extract
200g well-stirred tahini (preferably Al Yaman)
1. First, make the dulce de leche. Remove the label from your tin of sweetened condensed milk and rinse off any glue residue. Transfer the tin to a Dutch oven or other large, lidded pan and fill nearly to the top with water. Gently place over high heat until the water starts to simmer, then cover and turn the heat to low. Simmer for approximately 3-3.5 hours, after which the condensed milk will be a deep, toffee hue. (VERY IMPORTANT: Check the water level every 30 minutes or so; the water should be consistently 2 inches above the tin. Do not let it evaporate so the tin is exposed, as that may cause it to burst.)
2. Using tongs, gently remove the tin from the water and place on a cooling rack. Leave to cool for at least three hours, or until room temperature. DO NOT open earlier than that, as the hot caramel may burst out and cause injury.
3. As the dulce de leche cools, make the cookies. Arrange two racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven and preheat to 180° Celsius. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Begin by browning the butter: In a small saucepan, add the butter and place over medium heat. Cook for approximately 5 minutes, stirring frequently and watching attentively; the butter will melt, foam up and then begin to brown rapidly. Once it is a rich brown and smells toasty and nutty, remove from the heat and immediately transfer to a medium bowl. Add the ice cube and whisk until melted. Transfer to the fridge and allow to cool for 20 minutes, or until the butter is just beginning to solidify around the edges.
5. In a medium bowl, add the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, sea salt, cinnamon and cardamom. Whisk to combine and set aside.
6. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment affixed (or in a large bowl if you’re using a hand mixer), add the brown sugar, the egg and egg yolk, and the vanilla paste or extract. Beat on medium-high speed for 4-5 minutes, or until lighter in colour and slightly airy looking. Turn the speed to medium and drizzle in the cooled brown butter, beating until incorporated. Next, drizzle in the tahini, beating for 1-2 minutes or until emulsified; the batter will look much thicker and more solid at this point.
7. Add the flour mixture in one addition and beat on low until the flour is just incorporated and the dough has cohered. Using a spatula, gently fold from the bottom once or twice, ensuring all the flour is incorporated.
8. Using a tablespoon measure, scoop even amounts of dough and roll into spheres. Place roughly two inches apart on your baking trays.
9. Place both trays in the oven and bake for 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and, using the handle of a wooden spoon, gently make a “thumbprint” impression in the centre of each cookie. Return the cookies to the oven, rotating from the top to bottom shelves and flipping from front to back so they bake evenly. Bake for 4-5 minutes more, or until the cookies are just set and lightly browned around the edges. Transfer to a cooling rack.
10. Once the cookies are cool, add a generous dollop of dulce to leche to the centre of each, using a spoon or a piping bag. They will keep in a sealed container for 3-4 days.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer hound and all-around lover of tasty things. You can follow her at @clairembullen. For more recipes like this, sign up to our HB&B All Killer No Filler beer subscription - you'll receive Claire's recipe and food pairings, plus beer reviews and expert tasting notes with up to 12 world-class beers - like this one - every month.