In our family, Christmas cookies come about in one of two ways: we either make them or folks drop them by the house. I’m sure something similar happens with you, too. And there are the tins of cookies that you’re thrilled to receive and look forward to for weeks and others that you stow away until the day comes when you don’t feel all that guilty throwing them out. Growing up, a woman my dad used to work with would send her eponymous Denise’s Pieces each year. They’re a pretty standard chocolate-covered toffee but they’re soft and buttery and hide-from-your-sisters good. Two years ago, Denise offered to drive over from Sacramento to give us a tutorial and teach us how to make the toffee on our own. Yes! Best day ever! At the end of the day, Rachael, Zoe and I learned we were pretty awful at making toffee. We also learned Denise’s caveat: once she shows you how to make the toffee, “you’re set free.” Free, we asked? That’s right: you no longer get a tin of toffee in the mail. No! Worst day ever!
On the far other side of the enjoyable-Christmas-cookie-spectrum are Zeke’s holiday tins. My mom hired Zeke the handyman a few years after she and my dad got divorced. There were leaky faucets and running toilets; little did she know she’d hired the most unhandy of all handy men. Zeke wasn’t young and sprightly. He was creaky, old and slow. But he always had a bad joke waiting in the wings, and would pull up to the house in his red “Jazz” hat with his trusty canine sidekick, Scooter. Zeke passed away this year. My mom was heartbroken. Not because she lost her handyman, but because she lost what had become a very special friendship. So this year we won’t get to joke about Zeke’s Christmas cookies. They would come in festive tins and he’d hand deliver them on the way to the dump. You could tell he put great time and effort into each one, but truth be told: they were awful. They always seemed quite stale and never tasted like much at all. My sisters and I would joke about them, my mom all the while insisting the brownies really weren’t that bad (they were).
Just like Denise and Zeke, we give tins of cookies away each year, too. Every December 23rd, my sisters and I usually gather at my dad’s house for Cookie Night. We’d all choose one recipe we wanted to make, supply my dad with an ingredient list, and he’d do a grocery run and plan something easy for dinner. The first few years this was a great way to spend an evening. Then one year it started to feel like more of an obligation for some reason so we did cupcakes instead. The following year we narrowed it down to just two cookie recipes. This year, we’ve decided to let Cookie Night go. I think there was an unspoken agreement that it started to feel more like a burden than a joyful way to spend time together. I don’t really know why, but it did.
So this week, I’m all about being proactive with Christmas cookies. Make cookies that you love. Bake them with those you love. Share some with neighbors and friends. Keep others for yourself. Hide them from your sisters if need be. So that’s what we have today. A recipe that is incredibly easy (I actually just mixed these with a wooden spoon) and has quickly become a cookie I’ll make in the spring or summer, too. Not just for Christmas. They are crumbly, only slightly sweet, and have a wonderful toastiness from the hazelnuts and almost savory cacoa nibs.
On my many trips to Seattle this year, I’ve been to Theo Chocolate a handful of times. It’s there that I first learned about cacoa nibs, the roasted and dried seed of cocoa beans. They’re bitter and crunchy and I’ve come to love using them in salads, cookies, and cakes. If you don’t have cacao nibs at home you could certainly omit them from this recipe, but they add a warmth and crunch that I know you’re going to like. These are what I fondly call “log and slice” cookies. They’re buttery and sandy in that classic shortbread kind of way–a cookie you’d feel good about giving. And a cookie worthy of hoarding, too.
Happy baking. To you and yours.
I hope you have the warmest holiday weekend surrounded by people you love. I truly, truly do. See you back here soon.
What I like about this recipes is its versatility. You could easily make these buttery cookies with pistachios and apricots or chopped dried cherries and pecans. Keep the proportions the same and go to town. Another bonus: if kept air-tight, they will stay good for two weeks — long after all of those house guests have gone.
Adapted from: Alice Medrich’s Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the hazelnuts on a cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes until they smell toasty and are golden brown in the middle when you cut one in half. Once cool to the touch, rub the nuts together to remove as much of their skins as possible. To do this I put them all in the center of a dishtowel and use it to help. Chop the nuts into small chunks — remember the larger the chunk, the more difficult it will be to slice the cookies later so do take some time here.
Combine the flours in a medium bowl and mix with a fork. With a mixer or a strong wooden spoon, beat the butter with the sugar, salt and vanilla until smooth but not fluffy. Mix in the nibs and nuts. Add the flours and mix until just incorporated. Finally, mix in the currants. Scrape the dough into a mass and knead it with your hands a few times to make sure the flour’s incorporated evenly. Form the dough into a 12 x 2-inch log. Wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Use a sharp knife to cut the cold dough log into slices 1/4-inch thick. Place cookies at least 1 1/2 inches apart on lined or greased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until the cookies are light golden brown at the edges. Rotate cookie sheets halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.
Allow cookies to cool on the pan for 5 minutes before moving them onto a wire cooling wrack where they should cool complete
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.