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.
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.