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
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.