Cookie Month: Caramel, Walnut and Chocolate Thumbprints

I woke early.  The morning was unusually quiet.  Fog enshrouded our hill and the valleys beyond it dampening any sound.  I put the kettle on the stove, made a fire and then sat on the couch for a while just staring at the landscape, the fog, the apple trees.  Suddenly I was overcome by a desire to walk amongst it all.  To be there in it.  I headed back to the bedroom to change, wrote a note to Tom and headed down the road.  I eventually ended up in a big apple orchard near my house.  It was beautiful.  The leaves were yellow and occasionally the lightest breeze would shake one loose and it would twirl silently through the fog to rest on the ground.

I am amazed by the bounty of life in this place.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in the desert where life is harsh and brutal.  Out there you are more likely to come across a pile of bones than a live animal.  Northern CA is very different.  I found late blackberries still growing on vines near my road.  Mushrooms everywhere.  Those red ones were gigantic and were growing right next to our mailbox.  I found tracks for a small herd of deer, but not the deer themselves.  Starlings have flocked to the vineyards by the hundreds gobbling up everything the pickers have left behind.  With them came extra hawks and turkey vultures looking for the slowest birds of the flock.  Plus we have been on the lookout for raccoons, opossums, and foxes breaking into our bird house.

Its been fascinating to watch the transformation of the vineyards.  The brilliant colors were completely unexpected.  I thought grape leaves just turned brown and fell because that’s what the grapevines back home did, but here is different.  Its been a pleasure to drive past them each morning and watch as the leaves transform from green to yellow to russet and then suddenly vanish overnight in the crazy windstorm we had.  Now the vines are beautiful in their stark barrenness.  Perfect rows of empty brown vines reaching for the sky.  Bright green grass blanketing the paths between and eventually disappearing into the low fog that hugs the foothills beyond.

All this beautiful winter weather really put me into the Christmas spirit.  I started by joining in on the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.  You can check out all 500+ cookie recipes through that link.  The cookies I received were awesome and I cant wait to participate next year.

When I was 6 my new step-father moved into our house bringing with him a passion for Christmas cookies that he could trace all the way back to his Ohio born great grandmother.  I have many happy memories of deciphering her 100 year old recipes,  mixing the dough, freezing dough, sneaking bites of dough, and making more cookies than anyone would ever want to make in a weekend.  We would send these cookies out to every person my stepfather had ever met and then sink down with exhaustion and swear not to make another cookie until next Christmas.  Of course, that never lasts.

I asked my stepdad if I could share some of his family’s recipes and got a resounding NO!  Instead I am testing out new recipes for my old favorites starting with caramel, shortbread and nuts.  Any combo of these ingredients and I am in love.  This year I came across an awful recipe for Caramel Walnut Thumbprint Cookies.  I wont say which recipe it was, just know it involved a lot of premade ingredients!  What does matter is that I completely reworked the recipe and came out with something I really liked.  The chocolate cookie base is Alice Waters Pate Sucree recipe I have used before with a little chocolate powder thrown in.  The caramel sauce recipe belongs to David Lebovitz.  His helpful instructions on making caramel were vital to my success.  Hope you enjoy them!

Caramel, Walnut & Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies

For the cookies

  • 8 tbsp butter (1 stick), softened at room temp for 15 minutes
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk, room temp
  • 1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp chocolate powder
  • 1 cup of crushed walnuts

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  In a small bowl stir together the flour and chocolate powder and set aside.

2.  In a medium sized bowl beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until smooth & creamy.

3.  Add the salt, vanilla and egg yolk and mix until completely combined.

3.  Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until until there are no dry patches.  Form into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap.  Chill for 4 hours in the fridge.

4.  When firm let the dough soften on the counter for 15 minutes then break off pieces of dough and roll into 1 inch balls.  Roll the balls in the crushed walnuts.  You may need to press the nuts into the ball slightly.  Place on a parchment lined baking sheet about 1 inch apart.  Press your thumb into the center of each ball making a crater like depression.

5.  Bake in a preheated oven for 12 minutes.  Remove from the oven and fill the depressions with warmed caramel sauce.  Bake cookies for another 3-5 minutes or until the caramel smooths out.  Let them cool completely before serving.

For the Caramel Sauce

This is David Lebovitz’s recipe found via The Purple Foodie.

He sure to read David’s Caramel Help Page before attempting to make caramel.

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp sea salt

1.  Spread the sugar evenly over the bottom of a light-colored heavy pot.  I like using my white enameled cast iron pot.  Heat the sugar over medium heat without stirring very much until the sugar is completely melted and has turned a rich amber brown.  Gently swirl the pot or push the sugar toward the middle of the pot if it looks like it is darkening too quickly.

2.  When the color resembles the top photo on David’s help page, a rich amber brown, very carefully take the pot off the heat and carefully add the butter & cream.  Expect foaming and bubbling so stand back and let it go for a few seconds.  When the steam has cleared stir everything until smooth.  Stir in the salt.  Let cool.

Store in a bell jar in the fridge.  It will last for weeks.  Eat from the jar with spoons or put on ice cream, or cookies, or on top of my Chocolate Tart.

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Vineyard Trip 2011

I fought back tears as we drove away.  It was so much fun.  Tom is exhausted at night, but thanks his lucky stars every morning when he wakes up to this.

Vineyard 2011 Valley and water.jpg
Vineyard 2011 Paradise.jpgVineyard 2011 Panorama with lakes and mnt.jpg

I think I could live in his working trailer for a long time if I got to live somewhere as beautiful as this.  My days were spent cleaning his work/living place, medicating a sick hawk, cooking for several hungry workers, and blaring my car horn at invading starlings while scaring the crap out of the occasional car full of half drunk wine tasters (not intentionally of course!).  We flew falcons, saved and released a wild Shrike from a sparrow trap, munched on table grapes fresh from the vine, chatted with another falconer about growing up in Ireland, learned to strum on an Irish Banjo, flew kites… need I go on.  One more month and Tom will be home.  All these pictures were taken with my iphone 4.  I didn’t even take my dslr out of the bag.

So beautiful hereWe're grape!View from my trailer on the vineyard

Vineyard 2011 Field Workers.jpgVineyard 2011 local fields harvesting CA.jpg

Vineyard 2011 HarvesterVineyard 2011 Peregrine flying.jpgVineyard 2011 Tom Flying Falcon.jpg

Vineyard 2011 weeds.jpgVineyard 2011 Field of Flowers 2.jpg

Vineyard 2011 Chaser in car.jpgVineyard 2011 Tom and Chaser scaring birds.jpg

vineyard 2011 row of vines.jpgVineyard 2011 Rows of Grapes.jpgFlying kites.jpgVineyard 2011 Grapes Pinor Noir.jpg

Heartland of CAWill eventually be $300 a bottle Pinot NoirI love abandoned buildingsGrapes for as far as the eye can seeSunset SilhouetteGrowing flowersTom and ThurgoodCanning Section at Vons SM.jpg

This Vons has the largest canning section I have ever seen!  My local store only has two types of jars and they are nearly impossible to find.

Vineyard 2011 Paradise 2.jpg

Bubblegum Alley whole.jpgBubble Gum Alley.jpg

This was our favorite stop on the way home.  Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo, California.  Brae insisted, apparently Judy Moody has been here.  Yes that is all chewed up gum, 2-4 inches thick down the entire length of both walls.  Yes, it is nasty, but smells a lot better then you think.

*Due to naughty job poachers (yes, seriously) I cannot tell you exactly what vineyard that we are on or where, only that we are somewhere off the 101 freeway from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles.  In August it’s Paradise here.

Protecting California’s Grapes with Raptors

Hanging grapes

We got up early Saturday morning to get Tom on the road before the morning fog burned off.  He’s leaving for 2 months to work on a vineyard with his falcons.  Yea, read that again.  Vineyard, falcons…  Pretty amazing right?

Harris Hawk on Farm

A few months ago our plans were just an idea.  A risk.  A leap we could take which may push us further along our list of goals, or throw us down a well of debt and unemployment.  We have normal average goals like buy a house, take a trip to Europe, build a savings, live life the way we want.  In our current situation those were never going to happen, so we decided to take a very planned and scheduled leap into fate.

Tom flying Hermes

What was the plan?  For Tom to transfer from one contract to another.  This means that we will have to move wherever the company puts us this winter.  Right now, I don’t know where that will be yet.  For now, he is living on vineyard somewhere in California scaring away all the little birds that feast on the grapes.  He absolutely loves to do vineyard work.  In Tom’s opinion its a falconer’s dream 8 week vacation and you get paid well too.

Grapevine in the sunRow of Grapes in the sun

So what is he doing exactly?

The company Tom works for is Airstrike Bird Control.  They offer bird abatement services to orchards, vineyards, farms, landfills, airports, schools and office buildings.  Pretty much anywhere you have too many pest birds like seagulls, pigeons or starlings.

GrapesTom Flying Gloria on vineyard

The sugar content in grapes begins to skyrocket during the last 6-8 weeks before the September harvest attracting all kinds of birds.  I have heard that more than half a vineyard can be eaten in a weekend.  Usually vineyard owners hire 5 guys on quads to shoot pyrotechnics all day, to the dismay of his non-vineyard owning neighbors.  Some companies even shoot them out of the air with shotguns full of bird shot!

The problem with these tactics is that pyrotechnics can cause fires and its late summer in California, the wildfire state.  Many agricultural towns in CA have outlawed the use of pyro to avoid burning the town and its thriving agriculture to the ground.  Not to mention the strict rules the ATF instituted this year.  Now you must have a special license through the ATF to buy and use pyro.  This pretty much eliminates pyro as an option for most companies as the license is expensive and time-consuming to obtain.  As for shooting the birds out of the air, that is barely legal and in my opinion irresponsible and immoral.

Tom flying Shirly on vineyard

To protect the grapes, and other crops/landfills/airports sustainably we use trained falcons and hawks, which hunt the birds and chase them away.  A flock of starlings, or any bird, will not understand what happened when a gunshot or noisemaker goes off.  They fly away because of the scary noise, but they don’t associate the noise with the location or understand what happened and why.  This means the same birds will keep coming back everyday to feed.

Harris on Hunting Perch

If you fly hawks and falcons on a vineyard or anywhere else, suddenly the little birds understand that bigger hungrier predators have moved into the territory and they had best move out before they become dinner.  Being chased off a vineyard by a hawk sticks in their minds.  It’s an ancient fear, to be eaten by a hawk, its natural for a prey species to avoid areas that are hunted by their predators.  In effect, they avoid the vineyards with hawks and gorge on those vineyards that don’t.

Vineyard row

As much as I will miss Tom I am excited for him.  He has worked so hard over the last 2 years that he totally deserves this.

If you would like more information about falconry-based bird abatement or Airstrike Bird Control you can visit their website at http://airstriketech.com

And be sure to tell them Tom and Melissa sent you!