This past week I’ve been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We’ve been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies — and while I’ve loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we’d pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn’t realized that it was also my grandma Marge’s thing).
Zeke, my mom’s former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80’s. Sam’s mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we’ve started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn’t — it seems that part isn’t as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There’s such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
Oliver was just a little over a month old when last Christmas rolled around so I gave myself a big ol’ pass on pretty much everything, but this year I’m feeling a bit anxious about the fact that we don’t really have our thing. The weekend after Thanksgiving, Sam and I had a talk and he reminded me that traditions often come about by accident — they’re so often not the things you plan for, but the things that end up happening for one reason or another … and you end up keeping them around. Like how we always go to Ivar’s after we pick out our tree each year for fish and chips. Not because they’re particularly famous or something either of our families ever did – but more that one year we were particularly cold and hungry after getting the tree tied to the car and Ivar’s was right next door, beckoning us with the promise of hot chowder, halibut and those blessed, very hot “chips.”
Sam stood and rocked our two-week old Oliver for the duration of last year’s ritual Ivar’s visit, both of us holding our breath, ready to take our food to-go and bolt at any moment should he freak (he didn’t, and we felt on top of the world that we survived our first restaurant meal with him). This year, Oliver sat proudly in a high chair in the sweater I bought him for his first birthday, eating French fries and tartar sauce like it was his job.
So while I still don’t know how to cook a turkey, don’t necessarily have a cookie I’m particularly famous for, or any idea what to make for Christmas Eve dinner, I’m trying to encourage myself just to settle into it all. To let it happen to us, and trust that a few cookies, treats, and traditions will rise to the surface in their own time. Like the fish and chips. Or maybe even these reimagined thumbprint cookies we’ve been pretty fond of.
In many ways I’m a bit of a thumbprint purist, often overriding my preference for baking with whole grain flours (except when it comes to these buckwheat beauties) for the Ina recipe, super buttery cookies rolled in sweet coconut and finished with a generous dollop of sweet jam. And while I love Ina’s cookies, I’ve been tinkering with a thumbprint made with chocolate and rye flour, filled with a dark chocolate ganache. Oh, and a sprinkle of flaky salt at the very end.
The earthy flavor of Bob’s Red Mill dark rye flour pairs so well with chocolate (I also love it with apple and pear desserts), making for one soft, slightly crumbly cookie with that addictive chocolate/salt thing going on that I can’t seem to quit. Really, that’s the only nudge I need to bake another batch. And eventually another. I guess that’s how these traditions take hold, yes?
A few brief notes: if you don’t have rye flour, these are really forgiving cookies so you can make them with whole wheat flour, spelt flour, kamut or buckwheat flour. I haven’t tried them with many gluten-free flours and that’s not necessarily my area of expertise, but I’d love to hear about any experiments or blends you end up making.
These holiday cookies are less sweet that a traditional thumbprint cookie, relying on a dark chocolate ganache filling instead of the more traditional sweet jellies or jam. They’re soft and slightly crumbly in texture, which I love in a good snacking or tea cookie. Turbinado sugar is chunkier than granulated sugar and won’t melt down in the same way — so it helps make the edges of these cookies look slightly sparkly – most appropriate for the season. If you have sanding sugar at home, that would work great to roll the cookies in as well (just don’t use it in the actual dough).
For the Cookies:
For the Chocolate Ganache:
In a small heavy-bottomed pot over low heat (or in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave), melt the dark chocolate, stirring often to avoid burning. Whisk until smooth and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together both flours, cocoa powder and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat a few times to combine. Scrape in the melted chocolate and beat until just incorporated. Slowly beat in the flour mixture until just combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Get a little bowl ready with extra turbinado sugar to roll the cookies in. Form balls using 1 tablespoon of dough for each, and roll in sugar. Place balls 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheet.
Use your thumb to press gently into the center of each cookie to create an indentation – be careful not to press all the way through the cookie and be sure the indentation is wide enough to hold the filling. The cookies may crack a little on the sides and that’s ok – that gives them character. If they crack significantly, I do a little quick push / pat back together.
Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven and use your finger or the tip of a wooden spoon to reinforce the indentation if it’s started to puff back up in the baking process. Then place back in oven and bake until cookies are just set, about 8-9 minutes (they will still feel soft; they’ll firm up as they cool). Allow cookies to cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the chocolate ganache: In a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate with the cream, stirring until smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool until the mixture is thick and spoonable, like pudding, about 15 minutes. Gently spoon chocolate filling into the center of each cookie. Let stand until set, about 55 minutes. Sprinkle a pinch of flaky salt across the tops of each cookie. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.