As you’re reading this, I’m probably in my little Volkswagon driving five hours North to visit Jean. Remember Jean? She’s my dear friend who, exactly one year ago, was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street in Brooklyn. I remember what I was wearing and doing and feeling the second I heard the news. I’ll never forget that sleepless night–looking back, I know I was completely in shock and the realization would only slowly sink in. Still today, every single time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge I think of Jean. I’m not really sure why except maybe because of how much she loved the city and how she wanted to move here someday, have a family and settle down.
I debated for a long time about driving up and seeing Jean’s grave on the anniversary of her death. I’ve never gone to visit a grave and done the whole ‘bring flowers and hang out’ thing. I don’t really know what that looks like. I guess I’ll find out. I’m already stressed about what color flowers to bring and worried I may truly unravel. But Jean’s mom is there and her brother’s driving up, and I want to spend time there. Just being. Just sitting on her couch and chatting. I hear a rumor that we’re actually going to plant an illegal rhododendron bush by her headstone (apparently, digging in cemeteries is kind of looked down upon).
Last week, I was thinking about Jean–knowing September 28th was getting closer and closer. I hopped over to her blog, a place where she was exploring the person she was becoming after moving to New York: a writer, an explorer, a lover, a friend. The last entry on her blog was dated September 22: the same date I was sitting there underneath my covers starring at my computer screen…one year later. This was Jean’s last blog post–the last words she had on public record for all to read. And you know what they said?
“I live in special city, I have parents who love me despite my flaws, I have friends who know all of my misgivings and we can laugh about it openly. I know I’m not perfect, I’m flawed and selfish and downright goofy at times. But underneath all that, the person I see, is someone who is doing their best, who is honest, who is nice and also very caring. I am out there, loving and learning and at the end of the day, I can respect myself for that.”
Every time I read that I get chills. If only we can all be so lucky to have such understanding and gratitude towards the end of our lives. I wish that for everyone, and I thank Jean everyday for showing me what a life well lived really looks like. That girl knew how to take a risk and have a good time. She may have been messier than anyone I’ve ever met, she may have spilled bacon grease all over the stove and left uncountable trails of sunflower seeds wherever she went, but she lived the hell out of life.
So now…I’m on the road, cookies in tow. Because while I don’t really know what people do when they visit a gravestone, I do know that when you stay at someone’s house you should always bring a little something. Preferably, something sweet.
These are the perfect chocolate sandwich cookie: nice rich flavor from the cocoa powder, perfectly crisp cookies, and fluffy filling. I use Valrhona cocoa powder and don’t get caught up with whether one or another is dutch-process or not: just use the darkest, highest quality cocoa powder you can find/afford. For the cookies themselves, I adapted the recipe from Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and experimented with a filling that I was happy with: not too firm and not too sweet. Just right.
For the cookies:
For the filling:
Pour the sugar into a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Then add the flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa and quickly pulse to combine. Add the butter and process very quickly just until coarse crumbs form. Blend in the egg yolks and vanilla and scrape the melted chocolate into the batter. Mix to combine.
Preheat the oven to 400 F and grease 2 baking sheets. Make sure the oven rack is in the center of the oven. Gather the dough together on top of a piece of parchment paper or wax paper and divide it in half. Shape each piece into a flattened rectangle. Set one disk aside and roll out the first one by covering it with a sheet of parchment or wax paper and rolling it into about a 13 by 15 inch rectangle. The dough will be 1/4 inch thick.
Cut out as many cookies as you can using a 2-3 inch round cookie cutter (or the bottom of a glass). Gather any remaining scraps and cut out more cookies. Bake for 7-9 minutes, or until the edges are very slightly darkened. The cookies may rise a little during baking, but flatten out again once cool. Since these cookies are naturally dark, it’s easy to over bake them, so be careful. Cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Repeat with the second half of the dough. If it gets too soft, put it in the fridge for five minutes. Cool all the cookies on a rack for at least 30 minutes before frosting.
To make the frosting, place the butter and lard/shortening in a mixing bowl and gradually beat at a low speed, pouring in the sugar and vanilla as you go. Turn the mixer on high and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
To assemble the cookies, fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip with the frosting. Pipe teaspoon-size circles of filling onto the center of one cookie, and gently place another on top. Work all the filling evenly inbetween both cookies by pressing them lightly together. Can store at room temperature, in an air-tight container, up to 1 week.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.