One thing leads to another – and most things lead to food. I have just read The Women in Black, a perfectly observed gem set in 1950’s Sydney. Young Lisa is a bright girl from a working class family. We meet her here poised between high school and the possibility of the great unknown, university. While she waits for her matriculation results, she takes a summer job in a department store. Through her work there, we glimpse the lives of the women in the department, from the drab Miss Jacobs to the moody and imperious Slovenian refugee, Magda, who decides to take Lisa under her wing.
Magda introduces Lisa to a lively Eastern European intellectual community, which she takes to like a duck to water, and the story of her coming-of-age, or at least a coming-just-a-little-bit-older, unfolds. One is left feeling grateful for the kindness of strangers who take an active interest in a young girl as she takes her first steps into womanhood. The story is gently comic and beautifully observed, from how different married couples converse to why people are attracted to each other to how the wealthy shop. A novel of quiet exchanges and small things, the parts hang together perfectly like an exquisitely-tailored dress.
Reading this poised, kind, insightful novel, I found myself remembering a poised, kind, insightful recipe book, Mrs Harvey's Sister in Law: And Other Tasty Dishes. I believe the author, Margaret Dunn, first wrote it for her daughters, but it was later published so that others could benefit from her stories, good humour and straightforward recipes. It’s the book your own grandmother never wrote. One of the recipes is for peanut cookies which, Mrs Dunn tells us, she ate while working in a department store during the war; they were brought to work by the lovely Winsome, who sat on a stool in the art department sucking a paintbrush.
Remembering these details (yes, my brain is stuffed full of the most useless facts), I got to thinking about peanut butter cookies, which I love… and so you can see how a quiet evening devouring a novel leads to a quiet morning baking with my four-year-old and a quiet afternoon devouring cookies. It’s true: reading can change your life, or at least your waistline.
I hope it’s not just me who cooks as a response to reading fiction; most novels lead me to the kitchen. Anything set in China (most recently, Brian Castro’s dream-like Birds of Passage; more often, a Judge Dee mystery) and I’m hungering for silken tofu or a perfect bowl of white rice. A lazy 1920’s romp, and I’m shaking a cocktail. Something set in Latin America and I’m making rice and beans for the next three weeks. The links aren’t always obvious: Magda introduces Lisa to salami with great success; and although I love salami, I wasn’t haring off to buy smoked sausage. Instead, because I already associated mid-century department stores with peanut cookies, I got busy with my grandmother’s mix-master.
Yet I like my cookies to have more texture than Winsome’s biscuits, so although she provided the department store – peanut cookie association, I used a favourite recipe from Canteen. Of course I made a few changes; what follows is my version, tweaked in several ways including but not limited to using quinoa flakes in place of oats, and a homemade gluten free flour mix.
To make gluten free flour, I follow gluten free girl’s formula, using 60% starch and 40% whole grains. For an excellent discussion of the merits of different flours in different uses, check out her page. It is enough here to say that I make up a batch of flour every couple of weeks, varying the grains and starches each time so that we eat a wider variety of foods than we would if we used proprietary blends. This week, our flour is 20% red sorghum, 20% amaranth, 30% corn starch and 30% tapioca starch and it’s been great. For these cookies, make up your own mix, use a proprietary gluten free flour, or even, shock horror, use regular wholemeal flour made from wheat which would, of course, render the cookies gluten free no more. Just to state the obvious.
Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookies
- 75g soft unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 165°C. Line three cookie sheets with baking paper or silicon baking sheets. Chop the peanuts.
Cream the butter and sugars. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well. Fold in everything else. The dough will be fairly stiff. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dough for half an hour – but I can never wait. I suspect this is why my cookies are always slightly flat.)
Gently form the dough into medium-sized balls, about the size of walnuts. Flatten very slightly with the back of a fork. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the edges are turning golden.
Remove from the oven. Leave to cool on the trays for another quarter hour, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Store in an air-tight container. I’m not sure how long they last; I can’t ever leave them long enough to find out! Makes about two dozen cookies.
(Sorry folks, this ain't local. At least most of the books mentioned are home-grown!)