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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.