When I sprint around the track during a speed workout, or towards the finish line of a race, I imagine that I look like Meb Keflezighi, or Deena Kastor, or Kara Goucher at their best in the long stretch of a marathon. Feet barely whipping the ground as they cycle behind me, propelling me forward in a controlled fall. In truth, even when I’m sprinting I probably look like the brave masses chugging along up the tortuously subtle hill of Fifth Avenue in the 23rd mile of the New York City Marathon, quads burning, feet shuffling. Or hopefully somewhere in between. When I set out to make cookies, too, I often imagine them to be spectacular, show-stopping. But sometimes the humble truth of the rest of the pack, the tens of thousands only gunning for personal victory in the form of a finish after 26.2 miles, is even more heart-warming, more inspiring. These apple oatmeal cookies are like that: kind of imperfect, they’re spectacular because they have heart.
When I decided to make these, I wanted them to taste like the tops of the oatmeal blueberry banana muffins: pops of sweet flavor set off by cinnamon, nuts, and salt. I’d made apple oatmeal cookies before, but only once or twice, always wanting to be impressed but never fully satisfied. There are so many oatmeal cookies out there that are just sweet. There’s nothing more to them, despite the teaspoons of cinnamon added. And here’s one thing we should discuss: removing sugar isn’t always the answer. Remember now that while sugar is usually your main sweetener, it also is an ingredient that helps set the consistency of your baked goods, just as eggs and flour and fats do. That’s not to say that absurd amounts of sugar in a cookie or cake shouldn’t be questioned. Often they should. But sometimes the answer is the other white, granulated item in the pantry: salt.
I’ve talked about this before: salt adds balance and heightens flavors. I’m not talking about adding potato chips here (though I’d bet that’d be damn good in a chocolate chip cookie…), but judicious amounts of salt can be just the thing to bring your sweet treat full circle.
Here a slightly higher amount than the typical oatmeal cookie recipe works beautifully with the diced apple, skins left on. Even tart apples leave puddles of sugar behind in their baked wake, threatening overkill, but those little puddles are fantastic with the subtle crunch of toasted pecans. They’re buttery and beautiful and texturally arresting. Like all the runners of the world who aren’t Kara, or Meb, or Deena, these little cookies aren’t completely consistent in their form. One bite might give you a pecan, another an apple, another only the earthy taste of oats, another a taste of pecan and apple together with the oats as a backdrop. And that’s okay.
Unlike the brown butter chocolate chip cookies, which somehow I can always eat in moderation, I seriously can’t stop eating these. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they’re small, or that they have the cloak of being a bit healthier because of the apples and oats, or that I just love oatmeal cookies more than I ever thought I would when I was a child. Or, it could be that I’m tapering for my own marathon in less than three weeks and just want to eat everything delicious that crosses my field of vision.
No, it’s the cookies. Those pro runners — the beautiful, perfect forms — inspire me, sure. But my friends who made it across the finish line in Central Park two, three hours after Mary Keitany and Wilson Kipsang cruised to victory? That’s the heart I want to bring to the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon. I might bring a container of these little nuggets, too.
Apple Oatmeal Cookies
I’ve spent hours trying to decide whether I like these better with or without a sprinkling of sea salt. There’s enough salt in the dough itself to be amazing, but a little extra added to the top gives it a bit more oomph. Even with the help of a couple of hungry taste-testers the jury’s still out, and I’ll probably continue to alternate depending on my mood. Without and you have a more traditional oatmeal cookie. With brings it a little closer to those muffin tops. Both excellent choices. As for apples, I used a McIntosh. Granny Smiths or Cortlands would also be great. The cooking time for the cookies is so short that most apples would work well. This recipe can easily be doubled.
yield: 3 dozen small cookies
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup, or one stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 small or medium apple, diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
Sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)
Whisk flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a medium bowl.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. A hand-mixer works well here. Add egg and mix until combined.
Add flour mixture and stir to combine, then add oats, apples, and pecans, stirring to ensure that the oats are moistened. Give one final stir to make sure no flour pockets remain and the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Chill dough for at least 15 minutes in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment. When the oven has preheated, take dough out of the refrigerator and scoop out 1 tablespoon at a time. Roll into a ball and place on baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches of space between each ball. You should be able to fit a dozen cookies on the sheet. If using sea salt, sprinkle a bit over the top of each ball of dough. Bake for 12-16 minutes. For a softer cookie, remove when the edges have set and started to turn golden brown but the middles look slightly undercooked. For a slightly crisper cookie, remove when the centers have firmed up a bit more. Let rest on baking sheet for a moment before removing to cool on a cooling rack.