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.
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.