I *really* wanted these to be perfect. Upon learning that our Baked Sunday Mornings baking schedule was being accelerated ahead of the release of BAKED‘s fourth book, Baked Occasions in October (pre-order it– go now), I was delighted to see that the recipe for Turtle Thumbprint Cookies from the Caramel chapter of Baked Elements was added in for this weekend! I am a fan of most things “turtle”, especially the chocolate and caramel elements; the pecans a little less so, but nevertheless, the trio is a favorite. I’ve never made a thumbprint cookie of any kind before, which I can’t really explain, as I have no particular aversion to them, but I guess they are usually filled with fruit, which tends not to be on the top of my list. However, these cookies consist of a chocolate cookie base rolled in toasted pecans… and filled with caramel. So yeahhhhhh, I’m on board with that.
I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with this recipe. I could tell that it would be time-consuming because you have to roll and dip each individual cookie, but this seemed like a reasonable trade-off for what promised to be an amazing finished product. It turned out to be a very fussy dough, which was utterly delicious, but which I was quite happy to be done working with after rolling that last cookie! In addition, the caramel was a bit of a letdown (though by no means the worst caramel disaster I’ve had).
Making the cookie dough is pretty straightforward: cream the butter with white and dark brown sugars, add an egg plus an additional egg yolk, milk, and vanilla; then mix in the dry ingredients. I could tell these cookies would be very chocolaty due to the full cup of cocoa powder! (Again, totally on board.) The dough is very soft and needs to be refrigerated at least an hour or up to overnight; I was in a bit of a hurry, so I went with 90 minutes.
The dough is then rolled into tablespoon-sized balls (use a small ice cream scoop to make your life easier), dipped in egg whites, then rolled in toasted, chopped pecans. By the way, I recommend chopping the nuts very finely– I whizzed them in a mini-prep food processor. (This way, you’ll be sure to cover the entire surface area of the cookie balls.) This is where the fussiness comes in– even after being chilled, the dough is quite soft and difficult to handle. The recipe specifically says that the dough balls should not have lumps or cracks, which I found to be virtually impossible. Fortunately, when rolling them in the pecans, it’s pretty easy to reshape them into spheres. I had to place my cookie sheets in the freezer for several minutes because by the time I had rolled, dipped, and coated a full sheet’s worth of cookies, the dough balls were super soft. The next step is making the thumb impression in the centers of the cookies. I tried to do this when the cookies had firmed up, but then they cracked as I pressed, so I let them warm up again, pressed them more easily, then had to re-chill them in the freezer before baking. As I said, it’s a little finicky…
Finally, they went into the oven in a semi-chilled state– they shouldn’t be frozen or hardened. The cookies baked up perfectly after exactly 12 minutes, taking them out at the 8-minute mark to re-press the thumbprint, which mostly disappears while baking. (I used a 1 ½ teaspoon measuring spoon this time, so as not to burn the crap out of my thumb.) They will be extremely soft at that point, but after that last 4 minutes, they will be set on the surface and edges. The book says that these will over-bake easily, and it’s hard to tell when they’re done because the dough is so dark, so I took a chance and removed them right at 12 minutes, which was just right. A few did crack, but no biggie. Oh, and you’ll press time one last time when they come out of the oven for good.
The dough batch yielded 40 cookies rather than the 24-30 estimated in the book, which took forever, so I elected to make the caramel the following evening. It seemed simple enough: combine sweetened condensed milk, butter, light brown sugar, corn syrup, heavy cream, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan; bring it to a boil and stir for about 10 minutes until the mixtures thickens and darkens. However, given my past challenges with some of BAKED’s stovetop mixtures (Chocolate Velvet Fudge— oy), I was not so naive as to assume that this caramel would go off without a hitch…
Indeed, it didn’t come out quite as planned. The mixture was hard to bring together into a homogenous state at first, with the butter wanting to hover on top for a while. (Browned bits started forming on the bottom almost immediately, so I already had a hunch that it wasn’t quite right.) Furthermore, I stirred and stirred, and it never got darker or achieved anything resembling a gooey caramel texture. I finally gave up after about 12 minutes and took the pot off the stove. I strained it into a large measuring cup and let it cool while I went to kick things for a few minutes. When I returned, I found a grainy mixture with the texture of natural peanut butter. It tasted like more or less like caramel, but it definitely didn’t act like it. In fact, it was more like a dulce de leche, and I wondered why the recipe didn’t simply call for BAKED’s amazing salted caramel.
On account of it being late in the evening, not having more sweetened condensed milk, and my general level of annoyance, I decided to use the defunct caramel anyway. Pouring it right from the measuring cup was out of the question because it was so thick, and using a spoon presented the same problem. This left the option of using a pastry bag, which I soon realized was a very dangerous proposition because the caramel was still wicked hot. Using paper towels to avoid burning the entirety of my hand while holding the bag, I managed to fill the cookies with a small amount of caramel, which took about 45 minutes to cool and set. I chose not to top them with the optional pecan garnish because I wanted to keep the focus on the chocolate and caramel flavors.
The result? The cookie portion is fabulous— deep and intense chocolaty goodness with a perfect, slightly under-baked consistency, rather similar to a brownie. The nutty flavor and crunchy contrast of the pecans make these interesting and wonderful. The caramel filling… not as impressive. I was hoping for gooey strands of sweetness with every bite, but the texture remained grainy and never developed that lovely elasticity that makes caramel so special. (I was half-hoping for some sort of magical transformation while they cooled, but… no.)
Overall, I really enjoyed these cookies, but next time I will either make them with BAKED’s ungodly delicious salted caramel, or even with a good-quality pre-made dulce de leche that would taste way better than mine! Are they worth the work involved? I would definitely err on the side of ‘yes’, but they certainly tested my patience on more than one occasion.
If you are a turtle fan, you will love these. They are a somewhat “deconstructed” version of more typical turtle clusters, which is what I love about BAKED’s recipes– they capture the flavor and essence of classic desserts, but they always put their own spin on them. The recipe for Turtle Thumbprint Cookies can be found at Baked Sunday Mornings, and you can see how the other bakers liked these. (Hopefully my pals had a better time with the caramel…)
One more thing– I mentioned the upcoming release of Baked Occasions above, which is going to be a killer collection of recipes for every possible celebration you can think of; if you love to bake and have considered joining BSM, this is a great time to jump in! I followed along with the group for a bit, but didn’t join at first because I didn’t have a blog. Before the release of Baked Elements in the Fall of 2012, I finally decided to launch Stellina Sweets, largely so that I could join this awesome group, and it has been SO MUCH FUN. I have baked so many things that I never would have on my own, I’ve learned a tremendous amount, I’ve made good friends, and I’ve pushed myself to take risks. It’s been serious good times over here– come play with us! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.