The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn’t feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices – Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar’s on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
While we celebrated Christmas together last year, this year feels different. Bigger, somehow, mainly because we live in the same city — in the same house. Last year I still lived in California and Sam came to visit me there. I had my own apartment, my own Christmas tree, baked my own cookies and had my own holiday parties to attend. This year, we’re still feeling each other out, testing the waters to see what color lights we want to string, what cookies we want to bake, how stout we liked our tree. So over the past few weeks, we’ve been nailing in tiny stakes, claiming little moves that we want to be ours for the years to come. Chowder after trees, cozy hotel lobbies for Christmas cards, snowflake-making in the living room.
In the midst of all of the Christmas shuffling, I’ve been spending more time than usual at home. I found turning in the manuscript to be such a high and then the week that followed was a strange energy bomb: what to do with all of that drive and low-grade stress I’d been hosting for six months? Sure, holiday orders for Marge have kept me more than busy, but that’s always been a much more manual kind of work. When that’s over, I don’t have much creative/”head” work as I did before and it left me feeling pretty drained, to be honest. I found myself reading a lot on the couch, catching up on Six Feet Under, and managed to bake these simple holiday cookies mid-week.
These are simple, buttery shortbread cookies with boozy dried fruits folded in at the very end. I chose to cut them into long bars, but you could certainly use a cookie cutter and create any shapes you like, or roll the dough into a log, chill until firm and slice into circles. I originally discovered the idea for fruitcake shortbread in the most recent issue of Martha Stewart and made a few tweaks, using whole-wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour, which lends a crumbliness that is perfectly suited for a shortbread cookie. I amped up the citrus zest and added a handful of dried cherries, too. If you want, you could leave out the fruits altogether and mix in cacao nibs or shredded coconut, chopped herbs, or white chocolate bits.
This coming week, we’re driving down the coast road to the Bay Area with a few friends. I’ll take some photos to share with you, and have a Christmas morning-worthy recipe for you soon, too. Until then, here are a few things that have kept me occupied this week. I hope you like them, too.
The Art of Being Still
The Culture in Kitchens
Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner? (What do you think? Are dinner parties dead?)
9 Signs That You Might be an Introvert
Untitled by The Yellow House (if you read one food blog entry this week…)
New Saveur (love the mention of Little House on the Prairie)
Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields (a good read for all of you creative, work-for-yourselfers)
Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert (good stuff on the history of marriage)
Please note that the prep and cook times above don’t take into account the hours in which you need to soak the dried fruits in whiskey, so please take note of that.
Adapated from: Martha Stewart
Combine the dried fruits and whiskey in a small bowl and allow to sit for 2-8 hours. Drain.
Preheat the oven to 300 F. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or by hand), beat butter on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add sugar gradually, beating until mixture is fully incorporated and pale in color, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add the flour and sprinkle in the salt. Beat until just incorporated.
Mix in the lemon zest and drained fruit mixture. Press dough evenly into a 9×13 baking sheet with the bars about 1/4-inch thick (my dough didn’t reach the whole length of the baking sheet so I left a little corner empty). Refrigerate until firm about 30 minutes and then slice into 2×4 inch bars (or any shape you’d like, really).
Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet until golden around the edges, about 35 minutes. Let cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
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.