Growing up, my dad added capers (and anchovies) as a salty element to many of the delicious things he cooked: pizza, scrambled eggs, spaghetti sauce. While I’d never reach for anchovies in a sweet context, I found myself daydreaming of a dessert featuring briny, tangy capers not long ago. I admit it was partly nostalgia — I miss my dad a lot — but when I instinctively paired the capers with tart dried cranberries and barely-sweet chocolate, I found that the trio was meant to be together.
If you’re wincing at the idea of a caper on a cookie, I don’t blame you — they’re potent little suckers. But they’re usually pickled in nothing more than vinegar, water and salt: common and welcome ingredients in many desserts. Plus, their delivery here is in a tiny format — only two or three capers within a heap of tender cranberries and crunchy cacao nibs, all piled atop a bite-sized chocolate morsel. I like finishing them off with sprinkle of coarse sanding sugar for added beauty and crunch.
With Dutch process cocoa and a spoonful of espresso powder, the cookie dough serves as a deeply chocolatey base. The pinch of nutty cacao nibs, supple tart cranberries, and little bursts of salty caper are not only a lively combination of texture and taste — they’re delightfully complementary upon the tender cookie square. Akin to a platter of fancy hors d’oeuvres with olives, jams, cheeses and fruits, these cookies bring together salty and sweet so pleasantly — and they’re equally nice with a glass of wine (or black coffee or tea).
Cranberry Caper Cookies
Makes 4 dozen small cookies
For the cookie dough:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons Dutch process cocoa powder
1.5 teaspoons instant espresso powder
For the topping:
2 teaspoons water
remaining egg, from dough recipe
½ cup sweetened dried cranberries
3 tablespoons capers, drained from brine*
3 tablespoons crushed cacao nibs
1-2 tablespoons coarse sanding sugar (optional)
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the sugar and butter until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Into a separate small bowl, crack the egg and scramble it. Measure out two tablespoons scrambled egg; add it to the butter mixture, stirring until completely incorporated. Reserve the remaining scrambled egg for the topping.
Sift over the butter mixture: flour, salt, Dutch cocoa powder, and instant espresso powder. Beat until dough is unified. Using hands, press dough into a ball, kneading gently if needed. Shape dough into a brick: seven inches long, three inches wide, and about ¾ to 1 inch tall. (Please don’t make them thinner in height; the noted size helps cookies retain their moisture and flavor, and prevents a dry, crumbly cookie.) If you’d like, use a rolling pin or board to help flatten dough. Place the dough brick in freezer to firm up. (If not continuing with recipe the same day, wrap the brick well before chilling. Wrapped dough will keep in freezer for a week, or two to three days in the fridge.)
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 F. Line cookie sheet(s) with parchment paper; set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining scrambled egg with the water. Toss in the cranberries, drained capers and cacao nibs, stirring to completely coat.
Remove dough brick from freezer and slice lengthwise into three equal columns, each one inch wide. Slice rows across the columns at about one centimeter or 1/3 inch. You should have about 16 slices per column, a total of about 48 little cookies.
Place them flat onto lined cookie sheet, 1/2 inch apart from one another. Give the cranberry mixture a good stir, then use a small spoon to top each cookie with a little pile of topping, roughly centered. Try to include no more than two (maybe three) capers per cookie, but plenty of cranberries and cacao nibs — all nicely coated with egg but not overflowing (you want to avoid pooling around the cookies). Stir topping regularly as you distribute it. If using, sprinkle the topped cookies with coarse sanding sugar.
If using more than one cookie sheet, bake one at a time or alongside each other (not layered on different oven racks). Bake cookies for about 10 minutes, until topping does not appear wet and the cookies are fragrant with tiny cracks. Let cool on cookie sheets for at least 10 minutes. Serve completely cooled. Cookies can be stored in a covered container at cool room temperature for up to 24 hours, or refrigerated up to 48 hours (topping will darken as cookies sit).
Maybe next time… Occasionally while eating these, I daydream of an over-the-top addition of dark chocolate drizzled on each little cookie. If capers are too tangy for you, try chopped black olives instead. Finely minced dried apricots could be lovely alongside or in place of the cranberries. Whatever you do, it’s best to not substitute the Dutch process cocoa with the more common natural variety, and don’t omit the instant espresso powder. Also, be sure to use jarred capers in brine that contain neither garlic nor onion – just salt, water, and vinegar. I use non-pareil variety, but I don’t think it would make much difference to use the slightly larger and less potent version.