Before I visited my parents in February, I got a desperate call from my mother. She hadn’t been able to find a favorite ingredient at her local supermarket on the southern shore of the Dominican Republic. Her plea: “Buy me six boxes of Panko bread crumbs and pack them in your suitcase!” Before I had a chance to clean out my local IGA, mom called again to tell me to hold off. A new shipment had just arrived at Jumbo in La Romana. She and my dad would be able to enjoy panko-crusted chicken breasts that night.
Panko is one of those formerly obscure items that has become, seemingly overnight, a staple in many American kitchens as well as in the kitchens of retired Americans in the Caribbean and beyond. Compared to other familiar Japanese products like soy sauce (first made 3,000 years ago), panko is a relatively new invention. During World War II, Japanese bakers began to bake bread without ovens, using electric current and producing large crustless loaves. Sliver-shaped crumbs were made by passing the loaves through special screens. This style of bread crumb was perfect for some of the Western-style dishes growing in popularity at the time, including tonkatsu (a deep-fried pork cutlet similar to weiner schnitzel) and korokke (deep-fried potato croquettes introduced to Japan by the French).
Panko has been produced on an industrial scale in the U.S. for 30 years, and distributed to Japanese restaurants around the world. In the last 10 years it has crossed over from restaurants and specialty stores to supermarkets. It is now being used in recipes as varied as eggplant Parmesan and potato latkes. American cooks value panko for the light, crunchy coating it gives to fried foods. In contrast to Italian-style supermarket breadcrumbs, which are hard and pebbly in texture, panko crumbs are flaky. They absorb less oil than conventional bread crumbs, so they stay crisp during and after frying.
I love crispy fried chicken breasts as much as my mother does, but as baker I wondered if this focus on frying was limiting my use of panko. I was familiar with plenty of recipes for cakes made with bread crumbs rather than flour, fruit crisps with bread crumb toppings, and classic strudels held together with bread crumbs. Why not use panko? Its light, crispy texture and resistance to soaking up fat might make them an improvement over other store bought breadcrumbs. Looking closely at them, I thought they might even be better than homemade crumbs, which are difficult to grind fine without completely pulverizing, and are difficult to crisp up without browning.
Not quite committed enough to invite some friends over for a strudel pulling party, I decided to test panko in an simpler recipe. I thought of some chocolate chip cookies I had made years ago with a couple of cups of crushed rice cereal added to the dough for crunch. Instead of cereal, I’d use panko. With the substitution, the recipe became even simpler, since I didn’t have to crush the crumbs. The most difficult step was the math I had to do to figure out how much panko to use in place of the cereal (if you want to use puffed rice cereal, measure out two cups and then crush to get a cup of crumbs). The result was a light, tender cookie with a little bit of crunch. The slightly wheaty flavor of the cookies, compared to the more neutral flavor of the rice cereal cookies, was a bonus. My kids loved them. If only they sold Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips at Jumbo, I’d be able to bake Panko Chocolate Chip Cookies for my parents, too. Here is the recipe:
Panko Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes about 24 cookies
1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl.
Cream the cooled melted butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and panko.
Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie.
Bake until golden around edges but still soft on top, 10 to 11 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely.