I had very good intentions to write a post about exemplary Thanksgiving pie to follow up my pie crust post, but alas, Christmas is too soon (is it that there is not enough time or that everything takes too much of it?) and I am afraid the Thanksgiving pie ship has sailed, too far on the horizon now to be anything more than a distant, pleasant memory of the perfect streusel-topped apple pie that I made, delicately spiced with allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, brimming with perfectly tender slices of sweet-tart apples with a gorgeous golden crown of brown sugar and oats. Sigh. And then there was Meta Given’s pumpkin pie, which was a revelation. This obscure woman’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking is now on my “cookbooks to buy” list.
This December morning I took advantage of a rare opportunity to sneak away to the gym while Travis played with Cadel, and when I returned an hour or so later, I was met with an even rarer experience: gym bag slung over my shoulder, I hurriedly opened the front door, expecting to see Cadel coming running around the corner, elated to see me. Instead, I was met with silence and a still, empty house. No baby, no dog, no husband. Just to be sure, I called out “hello?” and waited a brief moment, head cocked to the side, to confirm that yes! my boys were still out playing. I felt giddy, and a spontaneous smile crept across my face, but I was paralyzed as to what to do. Shower? Ha. Fold that laundry that I fell asleep folding last night? No, definitely not that. Write? Maybe. Read the news? That would be nice. Vacuum? So many options, but how much time did I have? Knowing they could return any minute–any second even!–I did the only sensible thing to do: eat. I quickly whisked from the fridge the egg carton, tortillas, parsley, and butter and made my go-to quick fix snack: fried egg on charred corn tortilla. Always hits the spot. I didn’t manage to sit down while I ate it, but at least I had a quiet few bites. Not much time to savor meals these days, is there?
When you spend the majority of your time dining with a one-and-a-half-year old, you start to notice certain things about the way we eat, be we toddler or adult. I typically gobble food down whilst catching flying sippy cups and spoons and the odd chunk of toast or squash, occaionally even eating these rejected items, much to my own dismay (have I been reduced to this, the family garbage disposal?!). And from my meal time post in front of his booster seat, I spend a lot of time observing Cadel eat. And then I think in turn about the way I myself eat. And having gathered these observations, I’ve realized that the most striking difference between our eating habits is not that I use utensils and he prefers fingers (to tell you the truth, I default to fingers also most of the time now), or that he sometimes tosses food on the floor or dribbles milk down his shirt, whereas I don’t do these things (well, not typically) . No, the biggest difference between us–between any adult and baby, I dare say–is confidence. Babies eat with confidence. He likes the food or he doesn’t. If he hasn’t seen it before, he’ll give it a try, at least once. Some things he likes so much he smashes them into his face with both hands. Others he is so disgusted with it that he throws them clear across the room. He hesitates little but is never hurried, never anxious. When he isn’t hungry, he won’t take one more bite.
I don’t know when we lose this remarkable intuition, and maybe there is the rare adult out there who never has. But somewhere along the winding way, I think most of us do lose our God-given confidence toward eating. We internalize things like the “food pyramid,” (or whatever various industry-lobby propaganda they’re selling these days) and our psyche becomes crowded with comments about eating this, not that, and not too much of those and don’t you know that flour will kill you and corn syrup is just sugar and sugar is the devil and whole wheat flour isn’t actually healthier and do you know what kind of fats you should be eating and on and on until frankly it seems impossible simply to enjoy a peaceful meal. But babies sure can. My baby does 3 times every day, most days. Sometimes more, sometimes less. When he’s not hungry, he might even skip a meal. No one’s yet told him that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Or about meatless Mondays or vegan before six or Atkins or low-fat or Mediterranean or raw or Paleo. He just eats. And he also seems to have a pretty good idea of what he needs to eat and exactly how much, though no one has told him that either.
What a gift, right? We’ve all had it because we were all babies once, so there must be some way to regain what we’ve lost. I don’t yet know the answer, but I can tell you this much: eating meals with a baby is a messy but good place to start. No babies around? This article is also some good food for thought.
So here we are in cookie season, the most wonderful time of the year! And yet I know some people experience real anxiety over the gifted cookie plate, their hands hoving over it hesitantly, as though they’ve just been offered illicit drugs. Others believe their thighs enlarge just looking at cookies.
It’s all in our heads.
I have always loved cookies. This year, I’m loving them with a childish enthusiasm and ease. I learned from my son.
The following is my most favorite Christmas cookie. It comes from the now, sadly, defunct Gourmet magazine, from writer Celia Barbour, whose work I adore. I think of Gourmet every year when I make these. I remember the glossy cover of each December issue, always bedecked with cookies like jewels, its pages full of perfumed holiday inspiration.
These cookies’ simple appearance and short ingredient list belie their extraordinary flavor and texture. I have plans to make at least three different cookies this year, but if I ever find that I have time for only one, I make these. Like any solid Christmas cookie recipe, these little nuggets get even better with time–perfect to make and dole out over the next week or so to neighbors and friends. Or to tuck away in your cookie tin and eat when you darn well feel like it.
adapted slightly from Gourmet magazine, circa 2005
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt, slightly rounded
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup fruit preserves or jam (berry or cherry is best, I think)
Fill the sink or a large bowl with a couple inches of cold water. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns golden with brown flecks, about 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and place the pan in the prepared cold water. ( It is important to brown the butter as much as possible without burning it, so do not remove it too soon from the heat). Cool for about 5 minutes, then stir in vanilla and sugar.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir this into the browned butter mixture to fold a dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 1-2 hours before shaping the cookies.
Meanwhile, prepare the jam: heat it gently on the stove until runny, then pour through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids.
When the dough is ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325F. Take teaspoon-sized amounts of dough and press them into the bowl of a teaspoon. The dough will feel crumbly but will become cohesive when pressed. Slide out onto the baking sheet and continue until the sheet is full, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until pale golden (it can be difficult to tell when these are done, but be careful to not underbake or they may be too crumbly).
Cool at least 30 minutes before sandwiching them together with a thin layer of jam.
Makes about 30 sandwiched cookies.