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...
Vanilla Bean Salted Caramel Thumbprint Cookies
Vanilla Bean Cookies
As the cookies are baking you can start on the caramel sauce.
Salted Caramel Sauce
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!