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.
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.