The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn’t feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices – Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar’s on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
While we celebrated Christmas together last year, this year feels different. Bigger, somehow, mainly because we live in the same city — in the same house. Last year I still lived in California and Sam came to visit me there. I had my own apartment, my own Christmas tree, baked my own cookies and had my own holiday parties to attend. This year, we’re still feeling each other out, testing the waters to see what color lights we want to string, what cookies we want to bake, how stout we liked our tree. So over the past few weeks, we’ve been nailing in tiny stakes, claiming little moves that we want to be ours for the years to come. Chowder after trees, cozy hotel lobbies for Christmas cards, snowflake-making in the living room.
In the midst of all of the Christmas shuffling, I’ve been spending more time than usual at home. I found turning in the manuscript to be such a high and then the week that followed was a strange energy bomb: what to do with all of that drive and low-grade stress I’d been hosting for six months? Sure, holiday orders for Marge have kept me more than busy, but that’s always been a much more manual kind of work. When that’s over, I don’t have much creative/”head” work as I did before and it left me feeling pretty drained, to be honest. I found myself reading a lot on the couch, catching up on Six Feet Under, and managed to bake these simple holiday cookies mid-week.
These are simple, buttery shortbread cookies with boozy dried fruits folded in at the very end. I chose to cut them into long bars, but you could certainly use a cookie cutter and create any shapes you like, or roll the dough into a log, chill until firm and slice into circles. I originally discovered the idea for fruitcake shortbread in the most recent issue of Martha Stewart and made a few tweaks, using whole-wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour, which lends a crumbliness that is perfectly suited for a shortbread cookie. I amped up the citrus zest and added a handful of dried cherries, too. If you want, you could leave out the fruits altogether and mix in cacao nibs or shredded coconut, chopped herbs, or white chocolate bits.
This coming week, we’re driving down the coast road to the Bay Area with a few friends. I’ll take some photos to share with you, and have a Christmas morning-worthy recipe for you soon, too. Until then, here are a few things that have kept me occupied this week. I hope you like them, too.
The Art of Being Still
The Culture in Kitchens
Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner? (What do you think? Are dinner parties dead?)
9 Signs That You Might be an Introvert
Untitled by The Yellow House (if you read one food blog entry this week…)
New Saveur (love the mention of Little House on the Prairie)
Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields (a good read for all of you creative, work-for-yourselfers)
Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert (good stuff on the history of marriage)
Please note that the prep and cook times above don’t take into account the hours in which you need to soak the dried fruits in whiskey, so please take note of that.
Adapated from: Martha Stewart
Combine the dried fruits and whiskey in a small bowl and allow to sit for 2-8 hours. Drain.
Preheat the oven to 300 F. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or by hand), beat butter on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add sugar gradually, beating until mixture is fully incorporated and pale in color, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add the flour and sprinkle in the salt. Beat until just incorporated.
Mix in the lemon zest and drained fruit mixture. Press dough evenly into a 9×13 baking sheet with the bars about 1/4-inch thick (my dough didn’t reach the whole length of the baking sheet so I left a little corner empty). Refrigerate until firm about 30 minutes and then slice into 2×4 inch bars (or any shape you’d like, really).
Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet until golden around the edges, about 35 minutes. Let cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)