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.
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?)