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
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.