While self care seems of paramount importance this time of year, I’ve come to loathe the term. It’s just … everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I can really get down with frequent yoga, baths, candles, and afternoon chocolate bars just because, but any time a phrase or sentiment catches on so quickly and fiercely in popular culture, I tend to withdraw. Between the daily awfulness on the news, the increased urgency around everyday errands because The Holidays Are Coming, and impending shipping deadlines, I often feel like I’m ricocheting from task to task rather than taking things in or appreciating them. And of course, this is the time of year to take things in and appreciate them, to show gratitude and thanks, to give thoughtfully and receive graciously. All of that? It’s feeling like a lot right now.
We’ve had a really full three weeks with family in town for Oliver’s second birthday — my mom flew in from Vermont, my dad and his partner from the Bay Area, and Sam’s mom from New Jersey. A few days after O’s birthday party, we hosted Thanksgiving at our place, a small gathering that steamed up all the windows on the first story of the house as the turkey and pies baked. During those few very busy weeks, I found myself giving, giving, giving and doing, doing, doing to organize parties and host a holiday and try to make houseguests comfortable, only recently sitting down to wonder why I’m not feeling as outwardly joyful as other holiday shoppers this year, or as excited to find the perfect gift for friends and family.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown talks about the giving involved in her work, in teaching and public speaking, and how it necessitates an eventual turn inside in order to keep doing the work: “Tonight we will exhale and teach. Now it’s time to inhale. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time, without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.” Especially as moms of small people or caregivers of any kind, we have to inhale and turn to ourselves every now and again if we’re to exhale and keep giving to others.
This is, of course, easier said than done, but I’m finding little gestures have been helping: Last night I broke out our just-for-guests wine glasses simply because it makes me feel special and a little fancy to drink from them. And I finally got around to baking these pistachio thumbprint cookies, not to wrap up pretty and gift, not because I think a particular family member will really love them, not for Oliver’s teachers or a neighbor: simply because I dog-eared the recipe last month and have had them on my mind. For myself.A blogger and writer I follow, Erin Loechner, wrote a post this past week called Ministry of a Bird Feeder in which she talks about joy and how lately she’s been having a tough time finding it. Her daughter recently decided to hang up a few pine cones slathered in peanut butter outside the house to attract birds, and Erin had a realization as she watched the birds fly towards the feeders:
“Sometimes, a small and momentary joy is all we can fight for. Sometimes paying attention is hard, not because we’re fidgety or bored, and not because we can’t, but because we don’t have to. We can avert our eyes to the hard, if we’d like to (and why wouldn’t we like to?). There are hundreds of distractions ready to pull us in another direction … But I’m finding that the true joys are often in plain sight, just beyond the pillow fort fights. Sometimes we run smack dab into them, full force, and other times it takes a bit of setting up, a bit of luring, a bit of peanut butter smeared on a pinecone”.
Sometimes we have to look a little for the joy we want to feel. It might be in hanging up a bird feeder, or setting your fancy wine glass right down next to your chopped pistachios in between turns of the mixer. The unexpected sparrow or finch, or the impromptu warm cookies and slow sips of a decent wine — each are, in their own way, small and momentary joys. So if the grand, glittery sentiments of the holiday season seem to be alluding you this year or you’re feeling a bit depleted, maybe take heart in that – that if we take a moment to inhale, we might find small glints of joy we hadn’t known to look for.
These cookies are fitting to share today because they are really quite extraordinary. I always feel slightly conflicted in trying new cookie recipes because we have a few favorites each holiday and there’s only so many cookies a small family can bake. I love soft, spiced gingerbread men and Mexican Wedding cookies and Sam makes his mom’s nutmeg logs, but these thumbprints will become a yearly do-again: the dough is so tender and fragrant thanks to ample vanilla bean; they’re sweetened largely with honey, and filled with a rich pistachio paste that you whip with a little soft butter to make the most luxurious spread ever spooned into the navel of a cookie. Thankfully, you’ll have a little leftover to spread on toast or eat by the spoonful should you wish. I can’t recommend it enough.
I love adding a little whole wheat flour to sable dough as it adds a really welcome and subtle nuttiness — that being said, you can certainly replace it with all-purpose flour if you’d like. As for filling the cookies, while you can buy pistachio paste at specialty grocery stores, it’s easy (and cheaper) to make your own, and I’ve included the ingredients and method below. The dough you’ll make here will yield two 9-inch logs, and you’ll only use one for these cookies, so feel free to throw the other in the freezer to bake off at a future date, or double your batch of pistachio paste and bake the whole lot (which would yield 30 cookies).
Recipe slightly adapted from Bon Appetit
For the Honey-Vanilla Sable Dough (makes two 9" logs):
Make the Honey-Vanilla Sable Dough:
Whisk both flours, cardamom, and salt in a medium bowl to combine. Place sugar in a large bowl and scrape in vanilla seeds; save pods for another use. Massage mixture with your fingers until sugar looks like wet sand.
Add butter to the sugar mixture and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add egg yolk and honey; beat to combine. Reduce speed to low; add dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing well after each addition. Knead dough a few times to incorporate any dry bits in the bottom of the bowl.
Divide dough in half and pat into two 9″-inch logs. Wrap each log in parchment paper, then wrap tightly in plastic. Roll each log across work surface to make as round and regular as possible, then chill until firm, about 2 hours. Note: dough can be made 1 month ahead and frozen; thaw in refrigerator overnight before using.
Make the Pistachio Paste:
In the bowl of a food processor, process pistachios, honey and oil until a smooth paste forms (this could take a few minutes, and paste will be quite thick). Add the butter and process just until combined and smooth. Paste will be a little loose, so place in the refrigerator while baking cookies to help it thicken just a bit.
Make the Cookies:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place chopped pistachios in a small bowl. Unwrap dough and slice crosswise into 15 even pieces and roll each between the palm of your hands into smooth balls. Press gently into pistachios to coat half of each ball, the place, pistachio side up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing about 2″ apart.
Bake cookies until barely golden, 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and press handle of a wooden spoon gently into each cookie, about 1/2 way down, to make a round indentation. Then wiggle it a little to wide the indent (or use your thumb, which I found a little easier). Return to the oven; bake until golden brown, 5-8 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet.
Once cool, fill each indent with pistachio paste.
Serving / Storage Notes: Cookies are best served the day they’re made, but are just fine covered at room temperature for up to 1 day. Cookies can be baked (but not filled) up to 3 days in advance — basically, once you fill them, you want to serve them pretty soon thereafter.
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.