This past week I’ve been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We’ve been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies — and while I’ve loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we’d pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn’t realized that it was also my grandma Marge’s thing).
Zeke, my mom’s former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80’s. Sam’s mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we’ve started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn’t — it seems that part isn’t as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There’s such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
Oliver was just a little over a month old when last Christmas rolled around so I gave myself a big ol’ pass on pretty much everything, but this year I’m feeling a bit anxious about the fact that we don’t really have our thing. The weekend after Thanksgiving, Sam and I had a talk and he reminded me that traditions often come about by accident — they’re so often not the things you plan for, but the things that end up happening for one reason or another … and you end up keeping them around. Like how we always go to Ivar’s after we pick out our tree each year for fish and chips. Not because they’re particularly famous or something either of our families ever did – but more that one year we were particularly cold and hungry after getting the tree tied to the car and Ivar’s was right next door, beckoning us with the promise of hot chowder, halibut and those blessed, very hot “chips.”
Sam stood and rocked our two-week old Oliver for the duration of last year’s ritual Ivar’s visit, both of us holding our breath, ready to take our food to-go and bolt at any moment should he freak (he didn’t, and we felt on top of the world that we survived our first restaurant meal with him). This year, Oliver sat proudly in a high chair in the sweater I bought him for his first birthday, eating French fries and tartar sauce like it was his job.
So while I still don’t know how to cook a turkey, don’t necessarily have a cookie I’m particularly famous for, or any idea what to make for Christmas Eve dinner, I’m trying to encourage myself just to settle into it all. To let it happen to us, and trust that a few cookies, treats, and traditions will rise to the surface in their own time. Like the fish and chips. Or maybe even these reimagined thumbprint cookies we’ve been pretty fond of.
In many ways I’m a bit of a thumbprint purist, often overriding my preference for baking with whole grain flours (except when it comes to these buckwheat beauties) for the Ina recipe, super buttery cookies rolled in sweet coconut and finished with a generous dollop of sweet jam. And while I love Ina’s cookies, I’ve been tinkering with a thumbprint made with chocolate and rye flour, filled with a dark chocolate ganache. Oh, and a sprinkle of flaky salt at the very end.
The earthy flavor of Bob’s Red Mill dark rye flour pairs so well with chocolate (I also love it with apple and pear desserts), making for one soft, slightly crumbly cookie with that addictive chocolate/salt thing going on that I can’t seem to quit. Really, that’s the only nudge I need to bake another batch. And eventually another. I guess that’s how these traditions take hold, yes?
A few brief notes: if you don’t have rye flour, these are really forgiving cookies so you can make them with whole wheat flour, spelt flour, kamut or buckwheat flour. I haven’t tried them with many gluten-free flours and that’s not necessarily my area of expertise, but I’d love to hear about any experiments or blends you end up making.
These holiday cookies are less sweet that a traditional thumbprint cookie, relying on a dark chocolate ganache filling instead of the more traditional sweet jellies or jam. They’re soft and slightly crumbly in texture, which I love in a good snacking or tea cookie. Turbinado sugar is chunkier than granulated sugar and won’t melt down in the same way — so it helps make the edges of these cookies look slightly sparkly – most appropriate for the season. If you have sanding sugar at home, that would work great to roll the cookies in as well (just don’t use it in the actual dough).
For the Cookies:
For the Chocolate Ganache:
In a small heavy-bottomed pot over low heat (or in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave), melt the dark chocolate, stirring often to avoid burning. Whisk until smooth and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together both flours, cocoa powder and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat a few times to combine. Scrape in the melted chocolate and beat until just incorporated. Slowly beat in the flour mixture until just combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Get a little bowl ready with extra turbinado sugar to roll the cookies in. Form balls using 1 tablespoon of dough for each, and roll in sugar. Place balls 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheet.
Use your thumb to press gently into the center of each cookie to create an indentation – be careful not to press all the way through the cookie and be sure the indentation is wide enough to hold the filling. The cookies may crack a little on the sides and that’s ok – that gives them character. If they crack significantly, I do a little quick push / pat back together.
Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven and use your finger or the tip of a wooden spoon to reinforce the indentation if it’s started to puff back up in the baking process. Then place back in oven and bake until cookies are just set, about 8-9 minutes (they will still feel soft; they’ll firm up as they cool). Allow cookies to cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the chocolate ganache: In a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate with the cream, stirring until smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool until the mixture is thick and spoonable, like pudding, about 15 minutes. Gently spoon chocolate filling into the center of each cookie. Let stand until set, about 55 minutes. Sprinkle a pinch of flaky salt across the tops of each cookie. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
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.