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So much better

You guys really are terrific. I dropped the ball last week, I know, with all this book nonsense and blah blah blah, but you were so nice. Your congratulations and good will cheered me right through to the end - to Thursday morning at approximately 11 am, when I said so long to our old friend Man U. Script. He’ll be back soon enough, I fear, but he’s gone for now, and that’s good enough for me. Darn good, in fact.

And hey, I wrote a book! Goodnight. How on earth did that happen? I didn’t know I had it in me, really, until it was done. Life o’ mine, you are full of surprises - and also dirty dishes, and dirty laundry, and dust bunnies. I spent Thursday afternoon scrubbing the kitchen sink, sweeping the bathroom floor, and going through mail that had been sitting next to my desk since October. October, people. Then I watched four episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (I have an itty bitty crush on Vincent D’Onofrio; don’t tell); ate two pains au chocolat; danced around to the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa for a couple of hours; and finally, yesterday, fell asleep curled around a pile of warm laundry and missed most of the afternoon, including a holiday party at the home of friends.

Oh yeah. I also made toffee, chocolate blocks, banana bread, and brown butter cookies spread with homemade strawberry jam.

Brown. Butter. Cookies.

I feel so much better. About everything.

I clipped the recipe for these little beauties two years ago, but it took me until now - my priorities have been totally out of line - to try them. But better late than never, I say, because they’re lovely. For one thing, they’re some of the prettiest cookies I’ve ever seen. Shaped in the well of a teaspoon - a tad tedious, yes, but therapeutic in a way, and totally worth it - they turn out smooth and curvy, the approximate size and shape of a flattened egg. They’re pale gold and flecked with toasted bits of butter, and you sandwich them with a festive sash of jam across the waistline. They’re sophisticated but still approachable, eminently edible. If they were human, you’d want to pinch their cheeks and buy them a drink.

Then, of course, there’s the flavor: intensely buttery, warm and rich, and ever-so-slightly nutty, with a sandy crumb that melts instantly on the tongue. They remind me a bit of Pecan Sandies® - only minus the pecans and plus jam. (If you grew up, as I did, with Pecan Sandies®, you’ll know that’s high praise.) Their creator, Celia Barbour, calls them “the best cookies in the world,” and while I’m not quite ready to go that far - they don’t, after all, contain chocolate - I think she’s onto something. I can’t imagine a better cookie for dunking in a mug of coffee on Christmas Day. They’re coming along in my carry-on tomorrow morning, when we fly to the East Coast for the holidays. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, with an empty cookie tin in tow.

Friends, I wish you the very happiest of holidays. It’s been quite a year, and I’ve loved spending it with you.

Brown Butter Spoon Cookies with Jam
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2005

I’m not going to tell you that these are the world’s easiest cookies, because they do take a bit of time and technique. But I will tell you that they’re outlandishly delicious, and that there’s something terrifically calming about shaping and assembling them, even if it does take a while. Plus, the dough is wonderfully simple - maybe the simplest I’ve ever made. You make it right in the saucepan! Neat-o.

As for shaping the dough, well, it’s a little tricky at first, but after the first 10 or 12, you’ll find yourself settling into it: instinctively knowing how much dough to use for each cookie, how to press it just so into the bowl of a teaspoon, how to slide it out. By the second pan, it was actually going pretty quickly. Oh, and don’t worry about little imperfections: the heat of the oven will soften and smooth them.

Lastly, about the preserves: Celia Barbour recommends using a mixture of half cherry and half strawberry, but I used only strawberry. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s a jam you love. My strawberry jam was homemade, left over from a recipe project this fall, and its flavor was terrific with the brown butter cookie.

2 sticks (1 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt, slightly rounded
Heaping 1/3 cup fruit preserves

To make the dough:
Fill the kitchen sink with about 2 inches of very cold water.

In a medium heavy saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns golden and smells nutty and flecks on the bottom of the pan turn a rich caramelly brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. (Butter will initially foam a bit, then dissipate. A thicker foam will appear and cover the surface just before the butter begins to brown; stir more frequently once this occurs.) Remove the pan from the heat and place it in the sink to stop the butter from cooking further. Cool, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the sink, and stir in the sugar and vanilla.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to the butter mixture and stir until a dough forms. Shape the dough into two balls – or one, but it’s a little unwieldy – and wrap in plastic wrap. Set aside at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours to allow the flavors to develop. (Alternatively, chill dough balls until you’re ready to use them. Allow the chilled dough to soften at room temperature for at least one hour before shaping into cookies and baking.)

To shape and bake the cookies:
Set an oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 325°F.

Choose a teaspoon with a deep bowl. (I used an antique silver teaspoon; older spoons in general, I find, have nice deep bowls. Do not use a measuring spoon.) Pinch off a small bit of dough from one of the balls and press it into the bowl of the spoon, flattening the top. The dough will feel crumbly, but as you press and mold it, it will become cohesive. Pressing gently, slide the shaped dough out of the spoon and place it, flat side down, on an ungreased baking sheet. (I lined mine with a silicon liner for easy clean-up.) Continue forming cookies and arranging them on the sheet pan; you should be able to fit about 18 cookies. Bake the cookies until just pale golden, about 8 to 15 minutes. Cool them on the sheet pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes; then transfer them to the rack and cool completely. Meanwhile, continue shaping and baking more cookies until all the dough is gone. You should be able to make about 60 to 70 cookies in all.

To assemble the cookies:
While the cookies cool, heat the preserves in a small saucepan over low heat until just runny. Pour and scrape through a sieve into a small bowl to remove seeds and solids. Cool completely. (I stuck mine in the fridge for a few minutes.)

Working with one cookie at a time, spread the flat side with a thin layer of preserves. Sandwich with the flat side of a second cookie. Continue with the remaining cookies and preserves. Let the finished cookies stand until the jam is set, about 45 minutes.

Transfer cookies to an airtight container and wait 2 days - really! - before eating to allow the flavor to develop. (Or, if making them well in advance, freeze them.)

Yield: 30-35 sandwich cookies


Thursday, Thursday, Thursday.

Hi, friends.

I had the best intentions. Really, I did. I was going to tell you about another cookie today, and a really good one too. But a visitor of sorts has been staying with us lately, and he won’t let me into the kitchen. He’s big and burly, nearly 90,000 words tall. His name is Man U. Script, and he’s a real bruiser. He’s bossy and demanding, and he makes me sit at my desk for hours and hours and hours.

But the good news is that, at long last, he’s leaving on Thursday. He’s getting into a FedEx box and going to New York to hang out with my editor. I can hardly believe it. I don’t know whether to open a bottle of champagne, or cry, or curl up on the couch and sleep. Maybe all three? We’ll see on Thursday. Thursday, Thursday, Thursday.

I’ve really been feeling pretty good about things, aside from being exhausted and all. For pure satisfaction, writing a book is hard to beat. But the other night I had the scariest dream. In it, I was meeting my editor for the first time - which I’ll do next week, actually, when Brandon and I go to New York for Christmas - and much to my terror, she turned out to be Anna Wintour. You know - Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine, she of the impeccable bob and severe, I-will-not-smile-I-will-not-smile-I-will-
not-smile expression? She was holding my manuscript and sneering, and then she sighed and said, “Hmmm. Well. I suppose it’ll have to do.”

You’d better believe I woke up sweating after that one. (And for the record, my editor is not Anna Wintour. Phew.)

So, guys, I don’t have any cookies for you this week. I’m so sorry. Let’s try again next week, can we? I’m game if you are.

P.S. If you, like me, are feeling a little pinched for kitchen time these days - and who isn’t? - you might try this salad with butternut squash and chickpeas, or spaghetti with my favorite tomato sauce, or Brussels sprouts and pine nuts with pasta, or celery root soup. They’ve been our standbys lately.

P.P.S. Oof! In my befuddled state, I was unable to contribute a prize to this year’s Menu for Hope raffle, but don’t mind me: go donate and enter anyway, right here.


The cookie-baking part

The rains, oh, the rains. They have come.

Yesterday, while those of you on the East Coast were reveling in fresh snow on the windowsill, we woke to rain thumping on the roof. Despite what you might have heard about Seattle, this isn’t our usual kind of weather. Our rain is more of a fine mist, a la di da sort of rain - definitely not a thump-thump. We went out for croissants and grapefruit juice anyway, in spite of the downpour, but as we huddled uncomfortably under a single umbrella - we seem to have lost our second one; it’s going to be a long, wet season - Brandon turned to me and said, woefully, “Remind me - winter in Seattle isn’t really this bad, is it?”

For the record, no, oh no, it’s not. Winter here is really not bad at all. In fact, it’s quite good. It’s pretty mild, and everything stays green, and you rarely need more than a jacket. And no matter what the weather is up to, misting or thumping or nothing much, it’s always perfect - perfect! - for baking cookies.

Oooh-weee! I do love winter. Or the cookie-baking part of winter, anyway. That’s what it’s all about. If you’re looking for me anytime soon, just follow the sound of the whirring mixer.

Those who were reading last winter might remember that, come late November, a great cloud of sugar settled over this site. I baked, and I baked, and then I made some chocolates, and then I baked some more. (I also made some Brussels sprouts, which don’t technically involve sugar, but they were so sweet and creamy that, in my book, they’re akin to candy.) In the past few years, I’ve come to expect it, this funny urge to produce. I’ve never been one for making a mess - you should have seen me tiptoe around the papier-mâché in grade-school art class - but come December, I itch to get my hands into softened butter and sticky doughs. I can’t imagine, as the nights get shorter and darker and colder, not retreating into the kitchen. It’s warm in there, and steamy, and it smells like cinnamon sticks and chocolate. I just like it so much.

But of course, like it or not, a girl can only eat so many cookies. Of necessity, most of my output will wind up neatly stacked, wrapped in cellophane, packed in tins, and shipped out to places near and far. Cookies make the very best gifts, I think, and really, you wouldn’t believe how satisfying it is to march into the post office with an armload of your own production. (Try it! Nothing else compares, I swear.)

In light of all this, it makes good sense, I think, that for the second year in a row, I’ve decided to give only handmade gifts for the holidays. I even took a pledge. It’s a little scary to commit to such a thing - and even more to say it aloud here, with all of you out there cracking the whip, ready to hold me accountable - but in practice, it’s really pretty easy. After all, when I say that I plan to give only handmade, I don’t mean only handmade by me. (That would require a lot of cookies, people, more than I’ve got time or sanity for. I sweat just thinking about it.) I’ll be giving about a dozen tins of homemade cookies, but beyond that, there are plenty of places to buy handmade gifts, pretty things with history and character and accumulated love. They’re not cookies, but they’re close.

Oh, and speaking of cookies - I know, I know; you’ve been very patient - I’ve got a real whopper for you today. Brandon has officially declared them one of his favorite cookies EVER(!!!), and though you and I both know that he’s a teensy, weensy bit of an exaggerator, in this case, you’d do well to take heed. They’re really tremendous. They might not be the prettiest girls in town, a little speckly and plain, but they make up in flavor - ten-fold, in fact - what they lack in looks.

The cookies in question are from Alice Medrich’s newest book Pure Dessert, which, if I may be so pushy, I would strongly recommend adding to your Christmas wish list. It’s a gorgeous book, for one thing, brimming with inventive takes on cookies, cakes, and other sweets, and I swear, every recipe that woman touches turns to gold. She’s a gem. (Remember those cocoa cookies I wrote about in October? They were hers. See what I mean?) The recipe that follows is ample proof. Medrich calls them Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies, but since I have a constitutional aversion to the word nibby, I call them buckwheat butter cookies with cocoa nibs. Either way, whatever you call them, get ready, because if you’re not careful, they’ll claim a permanent hold on your kitchen.

Which, actually, on second thought, wouldn’t be so bad. They’re crisp, delicate, and intensely buttery, and like any cookie worth its salt, they melt instantly on the tongue. I ordinarily associate buckwheat flour with breakfast and pancakes and blini, but folded into cookie form, it becomes effortlessly sweet, nutty and toasty, as though it were meant to be there all along. The nibs, for their part, bring a nuttiness of their own - something I’d never really noticed before - not to mention a lovely whiff of bitter chocolate, like Toll House® Morsels for the adult set. They’re ingenious cookies all around: smart and surprising and utterly, utterly seconds-worthy. And, heavens to Betsy, would you believe it, they get even better with age. That means, you know, that in the time it takes you to bake a few other types of cookies too and pack them all up in a pretty tin and send them to wherever, they’re actually getting tastier. Good lord, I love that. Hello, happy holidays.

Buckwheat Butter Cookies with Cocoa Nibs

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

If it’s at all possible, I would urge you to make these cookies at least one day before you want to eat them. Their flavor takes time to develop. On the day they’re made, they’re okay, if a little too buckwheaty - but by the second day, they’re amazing. Just amazing.

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup buckwheat flour
½ lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1/3 cup cocoa nibs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the sugar and salt until smooth and creamy but not fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the nibs and vanilla, and beat to incorporate, scraping down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the flours all at once, and beat on low speed until just incorporated. The mixture will seem very dry and pebbly at first, but keep beating, and it will slowly moisten and darken (as the buckwheat flour is absorbed) and come together. You’ll know it’s ready when it pulls away from the side of the bowl. The dough will be very thick.

Form the dough into a long (12” or 13”) log about 2 inches in diameter. Because the dough is so thick, I find it easiest to do this by pinching off hunks of dough from the bowl and lining them up on a large sheet of plastic wrap to form a log, then massaging and pressing them together to seal. Wrap well and refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight.

If you have refrigerated the dough overnight, remove it from the refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before you want to bake the cookies. (It’s a dense, rich dough, and once it’s very cold, it takes a little while to soften enough to slice without shattering.) Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

When the dough feels slightly softened - it should have just a hint of give when you press it with a fingertip - unwrap it and place it on a cutting board. Using a thin, sharp knife, carefully cut the dough into ¼-inch-thick slices. Place slices on the prepared baking sheets, spacing each cookie about 1 ½ inches apart. (I put about 15 cookies on each sheet; you won’t be able to bake all the dough at once.)

Bake until cookies just begin to color around the edges, about 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the sheet pans from top to bottom and front to back midway through. Transfer to wire racks, and cool the cookies on the baking sheets (or slide the parchment onto the rack to free up the pans). Cool completely before eating or storing. Repeat with remaining dough.

Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to 1 month. (I thought that seemed a bit long, though, so I stashed mine the freezer. I don’t know - Medrich says they’re fine at room temperature, but I didn’t want to risk it. They’re gifts, so I want to be sure they’re good.)

Yield: about 50-55 small cookies