Award Winning Vanilla Bean Salted Caramel Thumbprint Cookies Recipe

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Thursday, December 12, 2013 - 5:27pm

ChicagonistaLive is a monthly live web show shot on location at Chicago businesses and hosted by TLT friends M. J. Tam, Duong Sheahan, Nancy Loo, and Beth Rosen. I was lucky enough to be invited to their holiday show earlier this week. Hosted by Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, part of the show was a baking contest that featured, of course, vanilla. Five of us volunteered to bring something baked with the ubiquitous spice in the hopes of winning a $200 gift basket filled with goodies.

Practically everything is baked with vanilla, so the first challenge was to decide what to bake. I wanted to use a vanilla bean, which I've never done before, and somehow I came up with the idea to combine thumbprint cookies with salted caramels. It was either that or a layered cake with caramel sauce and vanilla frosting. I went to The Spice House on Wells Street to get my vanilla beans, and before I could even finish describing the cookies the helpful gentleman said "Oooh!". Cookies it would be.

I learned the difference between Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian vanilla beans and decided on Madagascar. I then checked out the fancy salts. Another gentleman informed my friend and I that Portuguese salt, which is basically Fleur du Sel, is just as good if not better than its French counterpart and is much cheaper. Called salt cream, the Portuguese version is skimmed off the top of salt water pools, basically skimming the cream off the top, hence the name. I picked up some of that and some Himalayan salt and I was ready to bake.

A few things to note: first, your butter and eggs really must be at room temperature. Second, caramel sauce isn't that hard, but you do have to watch it. I'd never made caramels before and everywhere I looked people were saying "they're so hard," "you must have a candy thermometer." Ppphfftt. I did burn my first batch, but that's just because I didn't know how brown the sugar water was supposed to be.

Third, use quality ingredients. They make a gigantic difference. Kosher salt or table salt just won't do. It has to be good stuff. Same thing with vanilla. My first batch was made with generic vanilla extract. Good beans, but generic extract. They were great, and I do believe a lot of that had to do with using beans for half of the vanilla flavor. That being said, my next batch, made with Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract, are Out Of This World. I want to eat them for breakfast lunch dinner brunch and dessert.

As you've probably guessed by now, my cookies won! I now have more vanilla and almond and peppermint and lemon and orange extracts and beans and paste and sugar than I know what to do with. But I'll think of something...

Gift box from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

Vanilla Bean Salted Caramel Thumbprint Cookies

Vanilla Bean Cookies

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs at room temperature (only yolks will be used)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • dash salt
  1. Mix the butter and sugar until somewhat fluffy, about three minutes. They'll never get really fluffy, but they won't be a paste, either.
  2. Separate the eggs and add just the yolks. Add the vanilla bean seeds and the vanilla extract. Mix until just blended.
  3. Add flour and salt until just combined. It will look like you need liquid but you don't!
  4. Put the dough in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes
  5. When you take the dough out preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  6. Use a melon baller if you have one to scoop out balls of dough. It not a teaspoon will work. Roll them in your hands into a ball. This will warm the butter some and keep them from splitting as much.
  7. Put the balls on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Gently push your thumb or finger into the dough to create a well. I used my middle finger because I'd just broken my nail so I didn't have any divots.
  8. Bake for ~12 minutes. Take them out when they look solid but not done. There should be a slight brown on the edges at the bottom, but you want these babies to be really soft. It may feel wrong, but trust me.
  9. Take them and let cool. At this point I sprinkled Himalayan pink salt, just a little bit, on the cookies.

As the cookies are baking you can start on the caramel sauce.

Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  1. Put your water and sugar in a heavy pan and cook at a medium high heat. Don't stir. It will go against everything you hold dear, but trust me, do not touch spoon to sugar.
  2. Keep an eye on your sugar water. It will start to bubble. At this point you can swirl, gently, the pan. Very gently. You don't want to get any sugar splashing up on the sides of the pan.
  3. The sugar will begin to brown. As it does you'll want to swirl more frequently. Turn it off when it turns to a, coincidentally enough, caramel color. Do not let it turn brown. If it does, your sugar's burnt.
  4. While the sugar is boiling heat your cream in the microwave for about 30 seconds.
  5. Add your room temperature butter and whisk vigorously. I put the whisk attachment on my stand mixer and held the pan up to the whisk. If you do this, be sure you're using stainless steel pans, wearing long sleeves, and the pan is deep enough that you won't splash hot butter and sugar on your tender arms.
  6. Whisk in your heavy whipping cream. You'll know when it's done. Your caramel sauce will look like caramel sauce.
  7. What about the salt, you ask?

Now take a teaspoon and put that caramel sauce in those thumbprint (or fingerprint) cookies. Once they're all filled add a teensy pit of Portuguese Salt Cream (or fleur de sel, if you prefer) on top of the caramel. Use a light hand, as that salt is very strong and you don't want it to overpower the buttery caramelly goodness of the cookies.

You'll have lots of caramel sauce left over. Just put it in a container, sprinkle some salt on it, and save it for a decadent indulgence on ice cream or just to eat with a spoon. Me, I'm going to double my cookie batch next time!

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Theresa Carter

Theresa Carter is the founder and publisher of The Local Tourist. 

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