Paola Velez loves cookies. The acclaimed pastry chef even goes so far as to say that “cookies in American culture are underrated.”
“We don’t think of them as this perfect vessel to build in—we think of them as like a throwaway item,” says Velez. So when she created her burnt tahini cookie for Washington, D.C., restaurant Maydan, she started by thinking about classic chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies. Then, she made her recipe even better.
“I think it’s probably one of my best cookies that I’ve made—and I don’t brag on my desserts,” says Velez, a 2020 James Beard Rising Star Pastry Chef nominee. “I try to love all my children equally.”
She spent five months perfecting her cookie, which uses toasted tahini (sesame paste) rather than peanut butter to make them “stand apart” and fit seamlessly with the restaurant’s Middle Eastern menu. Ever since, she finds herself craving these cookies, which “nail exactly the right consistency” between crispy and gooey.
Velez began at Maydan as the executive pastry chef a few months after being furloughed from her post as pastry chef at D.C.’s renowned Kith/Kin, which shut down when the pandemic hit in March, 2020. In the past year, she also took on the same position at Compass Rose and created the connected Eat La Bodega Bakery, which is a homage to her Dominican heritage and her Bronx roots.
In addition, last June, she co-founded Bakers Against Racism, an international initiative that encourages people to bake, sell their goods and donate the proceeds to social justice causes—dubbed “unofficially, the world’s largest bake sale.” So far, its legions of home bakers have raised more than $2 million.
Velez set out to make her burnt tahini cookies packed with intense umami flavor. The resulting baked good combines tahini and espresso with brown butter and chocolate chunks. Then right before baking, it’s covered in sesame seeds.
“With this cookie you’re thinking about all these different layers—you’re thinking about the milk chocolate, you’re thinking about that bright tahini, you’re thinking about the toasted sesame seeds that it’s rolled in for the added crunch,” she says. “You’re thinking about all these little aspects of how it’s crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and if you taste one of those little pieces of milk chocolate that are on the bottom edge of the cookie, it’s like these caramel notes. It’s so interesting. Every bite, you’re focused on another aspect of the cookie.”
Read on for her recipe and a few tips for making her signature burnt tahini cookies.
The key to the peanut butter-like taste of this cookie is a modest two tablespoons of tahini. While that may not seem like much, Velez figured out how to maximize its flavor by “burning” it on the stove before adding it to the batter.
To achieve this effect, Velez starts off by adding the tahini to a pan and then turning the heat to high. It’s important that you keep a close eye on it, so it doesn’t actually burn—you want to brown the tahini to impart a toasted, not charred, flavor. “It’ll look like it’s separating because the oil is separating, but what’s happening is that the tahini pulp is falling to the bottom,” she says. You’ll start to see some sort of bubbling action, then you’ll see it kind of tighten up and turn this golden tan color.”
At this point your brown butter should already be ready to go, and you’ll immediately combine the two, so that the butter can provide viscosity to the toasted tahini paste. Then, you can proceed with creaming the butter and tahini with white and brown sugar, eggs and vanilla bean paste (a viscous version of vanilla extract).
While tahini is a great option for those with nut allergies, Velez says that the recipe will also work well with nut butters of almost any variety—almond, cashew, sunflower and more. Try it first without toasting the butter, though, to get a feel for how it will act in the recipe. “It’ll give it a very different feel and experience,” says Velez.
After creaming the tahini butter, sugar and eggs together, you’ll mix in the dry ingredients. This includes the standard flour, salt and baking powder, but Velez also adds three tablespoons of powdered instant espresso for some background interest—and because it’s a natural pairing with the heaps of chopped chocolate chunks that are mixed in next. Velez recommends going for a good quality milk chocolate that adds cacao richness and sweetness to the cookie. She’ll typically use Valrhona Jivara (40-percent cacao) or Bahibé (46-percent cacao) as they offer balance to the nutty tahini, fatty butter and bitter espresso.
“If you just go to the grocery store and buy milk chocolate chips, that sweetness from the milk chocolate chips might not be the right level of sweetness—but the average home baker wouldn’t typically know that,” says Velez. “In Spanish, there’s this word that is called empalagar, which means to overwhelm your palate with sweetness—and this cookie doesn’t do that. It has elements that reset your palate, so that it tastes like the first bite every single time.”
While she typically goes for sweeter milk chocolate, she says that dark chocolate is, of course, a perfectly acceptable substitute. “I think a lot of people are very scared of baking because they think it’s, like, rules, right?” she says. “But I think there’s a lot of forgiveness in baking. A lot of the greatest recipes that I’ve been able to make happen because I ran out of certain ingredients.”
Though this cookie recipe is fairly straightforward, Velez says there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First off, use a scale to measure your ingredients if you have one. “I think that a lot of Americans should have more scales in their house to bake,” she says. “My scoop of flour could be vastly different than your scoop of flour. I might be really strong and might be like, ah, here’s like this 140 gram scoop of flour, and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my scoop is 120 grams.’ It makes a big difference.”
You’ll also want to avoid chilling or freezing this cookie dough. “Scoop it, roll it and bake it straight,” says Velez. “It bakes very differently if you were to refrigerate it or freeze it. Usually I bake everything from frozen, but this cookie hates the freezer.”
The texture of these cookies is one of their greatest features. However, if you do decide to sub in some sort of nut butter for the tahini paste, pair the outer crunchy layer with whatever nut butter you do use, like almond butter with chopped almonds.
“It’s all about seeing how far you can push the boundaries of a recipe,” says Velez. “You never know how my recipe might turn into your family recipe.”
Created by Paola Velez
- 2.75 cups (350 grams) All-purpose flour
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp Instant espresso coffee
- .5 tsp Baking powder
- 2 Tbsp Burnt tahini paste (*instructions below)
- 2 Eggs
- 2 tsp Vanilla bean paste
- 1 cup (227 grams) Unsalted butter, for browning
- .5 cup (100 grams) Granulated sugar
- 1 cup (200 grams) Light brown sugar
- 2.25 cups (283 grams) Chopped milk chocolate
- Sesame seeds
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- To brown the butter, place it in a small saucepan over medium heat. Allow it to melt thoroughly, whisking frequently. The butter will begin to foam and you’ll notice brown specks forming at the bottom of the pan. Once it starts to give off nutty aromas, remove it from the heat and pour it into a bowl to prevent it from burning.
- To make the burnt tahini, heat it up on a nonstick pan over high heat until your mixture turns a golden-brown color. Add it to your brown butter, and stir together.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, instant coffee and baking powder.
- Use a mixer with a paddle attachment to mix your burnt tahini butter, granulated sugar and light brown sugar at medium speed until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, then mix on high speed, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the eggs one at a time, mixing completely between additions, and scraping down the bowl as needed. Add your vanilla bean paste and mix until incorporated.
- Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just incorporated, with no visible flour in the bowl. Do not over mix. Then add your chocolate and mix until incorporated.
- Shape the dough into balls using a small cookie scoop. Roll in sesame seeds.
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
- Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 9 to 10 minutes.