In just a little over one month, I’ll be sending off the manuscript for the cookbook and breathing a huge sigh of relief. Now, at this very moment, I’m rifling through a desk full of notes, revisions, to-do lists, ingredient conversions, and word-count spreadsheets. It is the opposite of breathing a sigh of relief and yet, Sunday afternoon rolled around and I wanted to be in the kitchen like I used to be. Without notes or computers or spreadsheets, but instead with a recipe I was excited about, a little music, and my own thoughts. No pressure to get anything perfect, no brainstorming about flavor profiles — just a bowl of flour and sugar, citrus to zest, and butter to cream.
I recently filled out a brief survey about myself for a teaching engagement this winter. When asked what I felt I was good at, the first thing that came to mind was work. Then I thought, I can’t possibly say I’m good at work: I need something more interesting. What’s my second choice? And I stalled. And stalled. And then felt really troubled that I was stalling so much. So I caved and wrote down “my work” and briefly explained that I was very much a first child in the sense that if I set my mind to something, I get it done.
When I was in talks with publishers about the cookbook and the question of timelines came up, my agent asked me if I could do the book in a little over six months as that was what the publisher wanted. I’d never done a book before; I had absolutely no clue if I could, but I knew that I would. And I knew I’d say yes to her, and to them. For the first time in my life, I said a resounding yes and signed a resounding contract to something I had absolutely no idea if I could do. I just kept telling myself and others that it’d get done somehow. So while I suppose I wish I had something a bit more exotic to put in the blank of that questionnaire (tango or rock climbing or flying small planes), right now my mind is firmly planted in the work that I do, and guess what? It’s getting done!
Everyone says you learn something about your process once you get towards the end of your first book. I always kind of shrugged that off, thinking that I’d been cooking and baking for years and writing about food for some time — what more was there really to learn? Well I’ll tell you: I’ve gotten to the point of the manuscript where I’m doing much less creating in the kitchen and much more revising of work and recipes I’d written many months ago. Going through those recipes, it’s clear I’ve learned a lot. The revision process is looking to be long. I’m spending lots of time tightening up, clarifying, re-testing, and adding in useful information for home cooks on planning ahead and adapting.
As many of you know, I used to be a teacher. So when I think about learning, I think about actively being taught a skill or teaching someone something new. Writing this book hasn’t looked like that. No one has taught me how to write the book, no one taught me how to create or write a recipe — at times, I certainly wished there were Cliffs Notes. But there just aren’t. So the only explanation I have when I sit down and compare the work I’m doing now and the work I was doing at the very beginning: I just got better from actually doing it. I suppose that’s what happens when you work and work and practice and practice. Sam can attest to the fact that I even dream about the recipes and tell him in half-sleep about the trouble I’m having with a particular oatmeal or ingredient (sometimes the ingredients are even on suitcases. Or planes). Ohhh, boy.
So while, apparently, I’m thinking about the book even in my sleep, things have finally started to feel a bit less frantic. My entire work flow has become tighter, I learned how to squeeze recipe work into the chunks of time after dinner or before heading out to bake for Marge. I can see the book’s shape now. I’m in a fortunate spot of having a month to step back, take stock, pare down, and fill in. I’m also in the fortunate spot of feeling like this will be a book that I’d like to own myself — that’s what I always wanted. To write something that I’d like. I knew if I did that, I’d done all that I could do and hopefully, others would find it useful and inspiring as well.
These cookies were the result of my “time off” in the kitchen. And I chose well. They’re from Jerusalem, the new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I talked about the book briefly when I made beet dip a few months ago. It’s a collaboration between Ottolenghi and Tamimi, two men who grew up with many of the same experiences and only lived a few miles from one another, but in very different worlds. Tamimi is Palestinian; Ottolenghi is from the Jewish part of Israel in the West and Tamimi from the Arab quarter. The collaboration is beautiful, which wasn’t shocking after delving into Plenty with gusto and glee. I have what feels like dozens of recipes bookmarked –everything from a butternut squash tahini dip to leek meatballs. Not surprisingly, the salads looks stunning and simple, and there is a semolina marmalade cake that will happen very soon in our house.
But first, these cookies. They are substantial and almost biscuity with a wonderful combination of warm spices, cocoa, citrus and raisins. The notes mention that they’re very loosely inspired by Pfeffernusse (my mom’s favorite dark and spicy Christmas cookie) but are more like an Italian spice cookie. I ended up making a few tweaks to the recipe largely because we were out of a couple of ingredients. I used part whole-wheat flour and natural cane sugar instead of white sugar as that’s what we have around these days. I also used a combination of golden and regular raisins although the recipe calls for currants. Choose which you’d like best — the raisins were wonderful and got quite plump in the brandy; I’d likely use them again.
With the exception of the changing leaves at Greenlake towards the very top of this post, these photos were taken on a recent trip to Lummi Island with Sam, my mom who was visiting from California, and my sister Rachael. We stayed at the Willows Inn, ate amazing olive bread from Bread Farm on the drive up (thank you, Ashley!), and enjoyed two completely computer-free days. Then, came home to make cookies. Enjoy.
This recipe is quite straight-forward and simple: a wet and dry ingredient affair. It does call for 1/2 an egg which I often find fussy, but I followed faithfully here. To do so, beat your egg and use a scale (or a keen eye) to divide it in half. Also, the recipe calls for superfine sugar, but I took my turbinado sugar and ground it down into more of a fine powder in the food processor instead. If this seems like a hassle to you, by all means use superfine sugar or white granulated sugar instead.
Slightly adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
For the cookies:
For the Glaze:
Soak the raisins in the brandy for 10 minutes. Mix together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, spices, salt, and dark chocolate. Mix well.
Put the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon and orange zest in a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment and beat to combine but not aerate much, about 1 minute. With the mixer running, slowly add the egg and mix until incorporated. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the raisins and brandy. Mix until everything is combined. Then gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it comes together and is uniform.
Divide the dough into balls the size of 3 tablespoons and shape each into a round ball. Place the balls on 1 or 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing each out about 3/4-inch. Press down gently to flatten cookies slightly. I found that they don’t spread much at all, so the shape they are going into the oven will be similar to the shape they are coming out — I did press them down quite a bit to guarantee a flat cookie. Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes (mine took 15), or until the top firms up the center is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 minutes and transfer to a wire rack. While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin, smooth icing forms. Pour 1 tablespoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie. Finish each with a pinch of candied peel placed at the center of each cookie. Store in an airtight container for a day or two.
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.