Comfort food is wrapped up in nostalgia and memories. From my Monterey Park childhood, it's dim sum on Sundays, black beans at Angela's after school, onigiri rice ball swaps at the lunch tables, tacos after basketball, ensaymada buns for breakfast, ginger-scallion fish for dinner, the perpetual scent of steamed rice hanging in my home.
As I grew up, the list of what constituted comfort food for me grew. My first-ever plate of mujadarra – rice and lentils with fried onions – was a revelation. It was when I realized that you don't have to have a personal connection to a dish for it to comfort you. There's something intangible to dishes that make the list, but every culture has them. I think it's rooted in how everyday cooking is a mix of selflessly making food to feed others while also selfishly giving you pleasure in the process. They are honest dishes with simple, satisfying flavors and textures. Because this isn't food that makes you think; it's food that makes you feel.
My favorites will provide the early inspiration for this biweekly column, but I want to hear from you too. Email me your comfort foods at email@example.com or at the address below.
And so, I will start at the beginning, with the first thing I ever made on my own: peanut butter cookies. In my initial attempt as a 7-year-old, I followed the recipe in my mom's red-checked Better Homes & Gardens binder. But I accidentally swapped the salt for the sugar. Huge mistake, but also motivation to try again.
So I did. Countless batches and decades later, I've landed on this, my ideal version. It delivers the pleasure of eating a spoonful of chunky peanut butter straight out of the jar in a two-bite cookie. (Don't make them bigger or you'll lose the magic ratio of crisp edge to chewy center.) I've streamlined the technique to one bowl and the ingredient list to maximize peanut-buttery goodness. To accentuate the peanuts, I took out flour and added extra salt. Not as much as in my initial fail, but just enough in a crunchy duo of sea salt and chopped salted nuts.
It took years of cooking professionally and growing up to understand that the best dishes aren't ones that show off my skills in the kitchen. They're the ones that make the people I'm feeding happy. And leave me with the fewest dishes to wash. These cookies hit both marks.
SALTED CHUNKY PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES
35 minutes, plus cooling. Makes about 4 1/2 dozen cookies.
These cookies have a deeper richness when baked with peanut butter that's made with only peanuts (ideally roasted) and salt. Be sure to get the salted variety; unsalted can be bland at best and beany at worst. Sometimes it's labeled natural or old-fashioned, but there's no industry standard, so checking the ingredient list is the only way to tell. Peanut butter loaded with extra sweeteners, fats and stabilizers may give you more consistent results but lack the earthy nuttiness of the pure stuff. Laura Scudder's all-natural old-fashioned nutty tastes extra toasty; Trader Joe's crunchy salted makes dough balls that hold their shape well; and Whole Foods' 365 crunchy has a nice proportion of chopped nuts. Try those or whichever you like enough to eat straight out of the jar.
1 tablespoon salted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup natural chunky peanut butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature
Coarse sea salt, such as kosher, Maldon or
fleur de sel, for sprinkling
1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Smash and mix the butter into the brown sugar with a spoon in a bowl until the butter is no longer visible and the sugar resembles wet sand. Add the peanut butter, vanilla and egg and mix until well combined. Lift the spoon out of the dough. If the dough drips off in globs, refrigerate or freeze it until stiff. Cold dough will bake into taller cookies too.
3. Drop rounded teaspoons of dough onto the prepared sheets, spacing 1 1/2 inches apart. Sprinkle the tops with salt and then with peanuts.
4. Bake 1 sheet at a time until darker brown around the edges and dry on top, 9 to 11 minutes. Cool completely on the sheets on a rack.
Make Ahead: The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. The baked cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week and in the freezer for up to 1 month.
PB&J sandwich cookies
Spread a thin layer of thick jam on half the cookies and sandwich with the others.
Vegan peanut butter cookies
Mix 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds with 1 tablespoon cold water. Let stand until thickened, about 5 minutes. Substitute coconut oil for the butter and the flax mixture for the egg. Proceed as above.
Peanut butter and salted caramel ice cream sandwiches
Sandwich small scoops of salted caramel ice cream between cookies and freeze until firm.