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 had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
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.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.