Soft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies (vegan)

January 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm 89 comments


My dad picked me up at the Seattle airport when I flew home for winter break. Throughout the semester I’d grown used to the unfamiliar – a different hostel every weekend, foreign customs, menus I couldn’t read. Seeing my dad’s face and falling into a bear hug made everything else disappear, like I’d never left home at all.

I breathed in the chilly air and looked out at the silhouettes of pine trees. Dad unlocked the car and I threw in my bags, a little white carry-on and the replacement backpack I bought in Rome. He raised his eyebrows as I slammed the trunk shut.

“Only two bags?”

“Dad, I’m only home for a month,” I said, rolling my eyes.

I didn’t understand the strange look that passed over his face. He’d later tell me that was the moment he knew I’d come back different, even though I didn’t see it then. How much can a person change in three months, anyway?

Baking sheet

But now that I’m back on campus in Boston, little things are different. Last year I didn’t just love living in the freshman dorm with a roommate – I needed that sense of community so I wouldn’t feel lonely, so I’d feel a connection with people. But I think I left Europe with something else entirely. These days I’m living in a single, and I’ve finally learned that living alone isn’t the same thing as being alone.

My parents are living alone. I worried about my mom when I saw her over winter break – she was eating really simple meals and bundling up instead of turning on the heat. For the first time in my life, I wanted to take care of my family, instead of just relying on them to take care of me. And I found that the littlest things in the world made her happy.

Like grocery shopping. My mom and I opened our eating horizons this winter. No more instant noodles and steamed spinach. And while I can’t wait for summer produce – delicate asparagus and heavy, thirst-quenching peaches – the winter has a lot to offer. We discovered cara oranges, faint pink and tangy. Pomegranates cracked into a thousand faceted rubies and acorn squash caramelized in the oven, its skin curling like parchment.

Chilled dough

By January, my mom was back in the kitchen. She baked bread for the first time in months. The juicer returned to our kitchen counter (my favorite is apple-carrot, heavy on the carrot.) One afternoon she bought a strange fungus from a Chinese grocery store, learned how to cook it, and introduced it to our table for the first time.

Then she said, “I want a signature dessert so I can bake when you’re not here.” This coming from the woman who once told me my buttercream frosting tasted like cavities.

Then I remembered these amazing peanut butter cookies. They’re naturally vegan – no eggs, butter, or milk – and use whole wheat flour. Plus, the recipe swaps canola oil for olive oil and refined white sugar for maple syrup. The dough comes together in one bowl, and the cookies are as simple as preheating the oven and owning a teaspoon.

The first time I made them, I brought an oven-fresh cookie to my mom. She examined it from top to bottom, took a hearty sniff, and finally tried the tiniest bite. Fifteen minutes later, we’d consumed nearly half of the cooling cookies, and agreed that they were far too dangerous for their own good.

Soft Whole Wheat PB Cookies

We made these cookies together. I showed her my favorite way to scoop flour (fluffed with a spoon, leveled with a knife) and the best way to avoid over-mixing. She rolled teaspoons of dough into balls, flattened them with a fork, and sprinkled salt and sugar over each batch. All I did was taste test.

My mom makes these cookies for holidays, for dinner parties, for friends. She even baked six dozen of these gems for a cookie swap at work. When people asked if I’d made them, she got to smile and say, “These ones are actually mine.”

When winter break ended and I flew back to Boston, there were still four jars of peanut butter and three pitchers of maple syrup chilling in the fridge. And by the time I’m home again, asparagus and peaches and all my favorite summer produce will be in season, but there won’t be anything I look forward to more than a peanut butter cookie.

[Also – if you’re reading this before 1/22/12, I’m going to be a guest tonight on Olivia Wilder Talk Radio! Click here for more info and the number to talk to me on air.]

Ready to bake

Even though this is a ridiculously simple one bowl cookie, a few tips make a big difference. Sometimes whole wheat desserts can taste a little dry or heavy. To discourage that, I like to “fluff” the flour before measuring – just stir it around so it isn’t packed – then lightly spoon it into the cup. Level off the top with a knife. Another way to prevent a too-dense cookie is to avoid over-mixing, which creates gluten. Stir until the dough just comes together, then stop.

Our favorite peanut butter is the Trader Joe’s brand, but any natural peanut butter will work. When I open a new jar and there’s lots of liquidy oil at the top, I leave out the olive oil. When the peanut butter is a little drier, I throw it in.

As for the maple syrup, I like the strong flavor of Grade B, but it doesn’t make a huge difference.

Soft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies (vegan)
Makes just over 2 dozen cookies
Adapted from 101 cookbooks via Oh She Glows

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or white whole wheat, or spelt, or all purpose)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup natural creamy peanut butter
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup almond milk (or soy, or regular)
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Raw sugar & sea salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350F degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a non-stick mat.

Stir the peanut butter, maple syrup, optional olive oil, and vanilla until combined in a large mixing bowl. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt over the top and stir until just combined. If the dough is hard to work with, chill in the fridge or freezer for 15-30 minutes or until easy to shape.

Shape into balls (I like to use a teaspoon) and gently flatten with a fork. If the dough sticks, sometimes moistening your fingers or the fork helps. Sprinkle the tops with salt and raw sugar. Bake for 11 minutes until set.

Printer-Friendly VersionSoft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies

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89 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brooke guevara  |  January 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    these sound delicious; I can’t wait to try them! I’m thinking of even mixing in some chocolate chips for a peanut butter chocolate chip cookies…mmm.

  • 2. Tina @ bitemeshowme  |  January 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I love reading about your stories Elissa. It truly amazes me. I love your cookies and photography. You’re fantastic!

  • 3. Warm Vanilla Sugar  |  January 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    These cookies sound delicious. I’ve never made a peanut butter cookie with ingredients like this before, but am excited to try!

  • 4. plaidoak  |  January 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    These look so good– I’ll have to give them a try.

  • 5. Nicole  |  January 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I always love reading your posts, your photography is beautiful, but yours is one of the few blogs I actually stop by to read.

  • 6. thevintagestylequeen  |  January 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I can’t wait to try these out for myself they look delicious.

  • 7. thevintagestylequeen  |  January 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Bettys Cupcake Factory.

  • 8. beti  |  January 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    your stories are great and so as your pictures, the cookies look fantastic

  • 9. Becca@learnasyougocook  |  January 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Ooohh I have to try these! Just recently found your blog and I love it!!! I have to agree your stories are captivating and your pics are gorgeous:)

  • 10. theincurablelibertine  |  January 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    oh wow these cookings sound amazing, i love anything peanut butter related and the fact that these are vegan is a bonus!

  • 11. Ruthiey  |  January 22, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Oh my gosh. I just love how you write about food and LIFE so beautifully.

  • 12. Becca @ Cook, Rejoice, Repeat  |  January 22, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    These look like perfect cookies for college students to make! They’re going on my to-make list right away. Thanks for another great recipe!

  • 13. Heather  |  January 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    I totally understand the need for some alone time after returning home from studying abroad–life is just so different here. My junior year, I came back in early January and launched into j-term (it’s a mini semester in january that my college does). I started a class but then ended up dropping it a few days in, because I just needed those couple weeks to process and have some time apart before starting up spring semester. Enjoy the rest of your sophomore year!

  • 14. cookingaconscience  |  January 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Beautiful post – can’t wait try these cookies!
    New follower :)

  • 15. alissa  |  January 22, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    You write such poignant stories about food. I love it. Even when the recipe isn’t up my alley (not a huge fan of peanut butter cookies), you amke everything sound so wonderfully appetitzing. Thanks for the great reads!
    I hope this semester goes well.

  • 16. ekwee  |  January 22, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    These look delicious!! Also: I love your blog and I’m listening to you on the radio show right now! It’s super awesome–you’re answering all the questions I had about you and how you got started with your blog! Your introspection about yourself, your life, and your family is inspiring. Not to mention your writing/photog skills!

  • 17. sweetsimplestuff  |  January 23, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I will be making these soon … I am married to a peanut butter cookii loving nut … and I’m always trying to sneak whole wheat flour into cookies. Thank you

  • 18. Sarah H  |  January 23, 2012 at 4:10 am

    So bummed I didn’t see this until after the show! These cookies look amazing; and with whole wheat flour and maple syrup they’re not too guilty pleasures.

  • 19. Stephke  |  January 23, 2012 at 5:08 am

    They look amazingly delicious! Vegan cookies, I need to try this!!!

  • 20. booksandasummergirl  |  January 23, 2012 at 8:39 am

    “This coming from the woman who once told me my buttercream frosting tasted like cavities.”

    Excellent imagery. Your blog is one of the few that I actually read to read, not just to get excellent recipes. The recipes help too, obviously.

    I’ve given this poem to people whenever in times of aloneness. I’ve been needing it myself lately as well.

  • 21. Leslie Cawley  |  January 23, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Oh my goodness, I will have to try these out! They look so delicious!

  • 22. elizabeyta  |  January 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Our household alway likes vegan. I may give these a try but I will have to modify them to be gluten free. Thanks for the blueprint to a vegan gluten free cookie.

  • 23. jannath11  |  January 23, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    this recipe just officially ruined any working out I will do this week. Thanks! Lol… I kid. Seriously though, YUM!!! they look delectable.
    and Good for you, making something that your mom wasn’t able to say anything negative about.

    Does she ever say that you gave her the recipe? I hope so. She should be proud of how talented you are.

  • 24. jo-lyn  |  January 23, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    ohgoodness do these look nom nom nom… =)

  • 25. Danae  |  January 23, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    I made these tonight, and they are delicious! I love your blog, Elissa, you are a lovely writer.

  • 26. Bold Wandering  |  January 23, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Elissa I love the way you weave a cookie recipe into something special and keep me hanging onto every word. Can’t wait to make these cookies, there is no cookie like a peanut butter cookie.

  • 27. Sue  |  January 24, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I saved the podcast and listened to it this morning while I was on the treadmill. You were awesome! Now, off to make those peanut butter cookies with all the extra calories I burned this morning. You write beautifully and your imagery is amazing. You are a great writer and I expect to hear great things about you someday soon!

  • 28. midnitechef  |  January 24, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    love this lesson: living alone isn’t the same thing as being alone. Wish I had figured that one out sooner.
    These cookies sound and look good, even if i’m not vegan. I tried a Teff flour peanut butter recipe and they were so dry they just crumbled apart, and left your mouth about as dry as the Sahara. If you and your Mom ate them up off the cooling racks, they must be a better recipe!

  • 29. Polly  |  January 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Just as you changed, I found that the semester my daughter spent abroad was the defining moment in her growth. Like you, she went her sophomore year, first semester. And when she came back, still the wonderful person that she had been, she was more. She was woman, not child, and from that point on had the confidence to seize and shape her plans to create the life she was looking for. Living alone is not being alone, and you need to be in charge of what you become. Continue to grow, and write, and change. I love you recipes, but more I love your writing and how you share your world.

  • 30. Shumaila  |  January 24, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    What a sweet post! Loved reading the storybehind the cookie and the cookie itself. Will definitely try the recipe one of these days. Thanks for sharing!

  • 31. honeywhatscooking  |  January 25, 2012 at 12:35 am

    oh my, this looks gorgeous and so healthy.. i think i’ll be baking these real soon… perfect since I’m trying to cut back on sugar. :-)

  • 32. Julie  |  January 25, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Lovely post as always! I’m glad you enjoyed your time abroad! I have yet to travel off the North American continent, but I hope to in the future. :)

    Just an interesting fact I’d like to share: January’s birthstone, garnet, is actually named after pomegranates as the stone resembles pomegranate seeds. :)

  • 33. Rick  |  January 25, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    hey, this blog is great! it reminds me of this other blog 20andbaking. Did you borrow the idea from them?

  • 34. Scott "Scooter" Scotwick  |  January 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    It’s funny Rick said that, because I believe *20 and Eating recently featured peanut butter cookies as well. They weren’t whole wheat, but I imagine that only made them tastier. I sure am jealous that they got to eat all of those cookies. When I was 20, I was starving.

  • 35. jothetartqueen  |  January 26, 2012 at 3:31 am

    this looks amazing! even though I’m not a peanut butter fan!

  • 36. Sarah  |  January 26, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Hi! I’m in the process of making these but I don’t see when one is supposed to add the almond milk. It makes sense to do it with the wet ingredients, but I wanted to check. Thanks.

    • 37. Elissa  |  January 26, 2012 at 11:01 am

      Definitely with the wet ingredients. Sorry for the confusion!

  • 38. Jules  |  January 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I made these last night and they were a big hit!

  • 39. Ana  |  January 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    So curious… uh… looks interesting!

  • 40. flavorstoheaven  |  January 27, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    wow, these cookies looks amazing, I take note because I have peanut butter and I’m bored to eat it in a sandwich…

  • 41. Menaka  |  January 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    There’s something about the way you tell stories that is so poetic and heart-warming! Love reading your posts!

  • 42. Adrienne @ TinyGirlTinyKitchen  |  January 28, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    These look amazing! I’ll definitely have to try them out!

  • 43. Stella :D  |  January 29, 2012 at 5:56 am

    Hello, these cookies look amazing! I want to make them, but i cannot find maple syrup, because i am in greece.. is there something else i can use for them? please tell me :)
    (there is no corn syrup here, either)
    Thank you :)

    • 44. jo-lyn  |  January 29, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Do you have honey Stella? That might work, it won’t be quite the same, though….

    • 45. Elissa  |  January 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Hi Stella, you could try jo-lyn’s honey suggestion, although I’m not quite sure how it would turn out. Here’s another option: Or maybe agave syrup?

    • 46. Stella :D  |  January 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      Thank you both very much :). I will probably try both recipes ;)

  • 47. kyleen  |  January 29, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I love reading your blog; it makes me feel so happy to live vicariously through your adventures. Coming home is definitely the best part of the adventure though.

    These cookies look delicious! I can’t believe they’re vegan and whole wheat and still look so soft and chewy.

  • 48. Frozen calzones  |  February 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    They look so mouthwatering! It’s amazing to see that you are so talented at only 17!

  • 49. MaggieCooks  |  February 2, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Yum! Looks delicious!

  • 50. Sofía  |  February 2, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Love those cookies! I’m 16 and also love cooking. I started my recipe blog some months ago, hope someday it looks like yours! kisses from Spain;)

  • 51. Turmeric n spice  |  February 5, 2012 at 12:06 am

    First time here and love the space amazing

  • 52. ileana  |  February 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    How sweet, baking with your mom. These cookies look great!

  • 53. Sarah  |  February 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Elissa! I’ve recently found your blog and I’m loving it! Unfortunately, maple syrup is not available to me (I live in Ireland), do you know would golden syrup or anything else work well in these instead? Also, do you know if these would be suitable for people with diabetes? I always feel bad offering my Grandad things I’ve baked which are full of sugar and I really need to figure out how to bake things that are more diabetes-friendly!
    Thanks! :)

    • 54. Sarah  |  February 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      oops just noticed the comment above about honey and the alternate recipe! never mind :)

  • 55. Alexandra  |  February 19, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I just tried your recipe and it turned out amazingly! Thanks so much. I’m Canadian, but I’m currently living in London, UK. Using the maple syrup made me feel at home.


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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