Thursday, December 20, 2007

how a memory tastes

Julie and I made thumbprints today. They are her favorite Christmas cookies, although that is not the only reason we made them. This year, we will have three different kinds of Christmas cookies: thumbprints, nutballs, and sugar cookies. We really only bake cookies at Christmas time in our house, so needless to say, they are very special and very much anticipated.

We made the thumbprints pretty much the way my mother and I did when I was a girl. I have never really liked to bake, but sitting at the kitchen table and chatting with my daughter as we rolled the dough into little balls and dipped them in egg whites, then ground nuts, didn't seem like such a bad way to spend a winter afternoon.

After we baked the cookies, I stacked them in a square plastic container with wax paper between each layer. I remembered how we used to stack the different boxes of cookies on the bench in the office of our house on Denison Avenue. Because they were right by his food dish, Bobo thought the cookies were his, and would guard them fiercely from Tom and Julie, growling and even nipping if they got too close. Just because he couldn't get at them didn't mean that anyone else could.

Julie wanted to try a slight recipe variation this year, and I was game. For half of the ground walnuts, we substituted ground flaxseed. We only tasted one cookie each, but the result seemed to be a much lighter and more delicate cookie. Just when we thought they couldn't get any better. I include my recipe here, although I'm sure any good cookie cookbook would have a similar one.


1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp. good vanilla extract
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1&1/2 cups ground nuts (or 3/4 cup ground nuts & 3/4 cup ground flaxseed)
1/2 cup sugar
raspberry preserve (with seeds)

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, flour and salt until well mixed. Your hands will work best for this, so just dig in. Form dough into a large ball. If dough is very soft, you may want to chill it before rolling it into small balls. (We did not and it was fine.) Take a pinch of the dough and roll it into a ball, then place the ball on a sheet of wax paper. We like these cookies to be bite-sized, and so made ours pretty small. Our yield was 80 cookies. You can make them bigger if you want larger cookies, but remember to increase baking time. Continue until all the dough has been rolled into balls.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl combine ground nuts/flaxseed and sugar. Place the egg whites in a small bowl. Dip each ball into the egg whites, then drop it into the nut and sugar mixture. Roll it around until well coated, then place it on a cookie sheet, 20 cookies to a sheet if they are small. I used parchment paper this year, and highly recommend it. To make the "thumbprint" in the cookie, use the round bottom end of a wooden spoon to press a hole into the center of each cookie. Do not break through the dough at the bottom of the cookie. The cookie should look like a miniature birds' nest.

Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size of cookies. (12 minutes was plenty of time for the petite cookies we baked.) To check for doneness, turn a cookie over and see if the bottom has turned a golden brown. If so, they are done. Remove cookies to cool on paper towels. When they have cooled, store in an airtight container, with wax paper between the layers of cookies.

To serve cookies, put a very small dollop of raspberry preserve in the center of each cookie, right before you are ready to serve them. Do not fill ahead of time and store. Thumbprints are wonderfully attractive on a plate with other holiday cookies, and are best served with Constant Comment tea.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

a winter walk

The sky is a brilliant and cloudless blue as Rufus and I set off on our morning walk. I don't feel any wind at all, but twice the trees above us drop a shower of snowflakes as we walk beneath them. They sparkle against the bright sky as they float to the ground.

It is very cold and the snow is freshly fallen, so it is still bright white and glittering on the yards and sidewalks. Each snowflake is a tiny prism, shooting off multi-colored sparks in the bright sunlight. The long shadows of trees lay across the sidewalk, tinted a deep blue. Their delicate shadow branches tangle in the snowy lawns and are lost.

As we walk up the driveway, I see the shadow of the redbud tree we planted in the front yard sharply etched on the garage door. I stop for a moment to look at it, but Rufus tugs on the leash, eager to be inside. He's right, of course. It's cold out here. But I have tarried long enough to remember the beauty of this winter morning.

Monday, December 3, 2007

random thoughts about the holiday season

For many years, December has been the most stressful month of the year for me. Even this year, when I lead a virtually stress-free life, I found myself filled with anxiety when I thought about all the things I "had" to do before December 25th. All the shopping, all the mailing of packages and Xmas cards, all the baking, all the decorating, all the gift-wrapping, all had to be done, by me, to the most exacting standards - mine. However, since I actually have time this year to just sit and think, that is exactly what I did: sit and think about it.

First of all, a little history might help. When we were kids, my mother always got "sick" on Christmas Day. To this day, I don't know what that was all about. I have a couple of guesses, but that's all they are, guesses, and I'll not share them here. In the event, what that meant for us was that she laid down on the couch in the living room, covered by a blanket, and told us all to be quiet so that she could rest. Now, the living room was where our Christmas tree was and where all our presents were, and was the only place we could play with them on Christmas Day. To say that she ruined the day for her children would simply be a statement of fact. Fortunately, from the time we could read, we always received books among our presents, so at least we could quietly read. Definitely not a model for how I wanted my own kids to spend their holidays.

When Tom and Julie were little, I was, by choice, a stay-at-home mom. I wanted to make their Christmases special in every way, and because I was the one at home with them, a great deal of the work that went into a big production fell on my shoulders. And that was fine. But, as things do, the celebrations got bigger and more elaborate as the years passed, and I began to feel that it was all just more than I could handle. I just kept feeling that way, year after year, even as Ben and the kids quietly took over more and more of the tasks that I found so overwhelming. I haven't baked a sugar cookie in years, for example, and yet, every year we have them with the thumbprints and the nutballs and the Constant Comment tea that make up our holiday desserts.

That's just one example. I'm sure if I thought about it, I could come up with a dozen more. My family has, in fact, taken over most of the tasks that threatened to paralyze me with anxiety over the years. I just never realized it before now. All I really have to do is acknowledge their help and sit back and enjoy the season. That's actually what they want me to do. Aren't I lucky?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

November numbers

I took six days off again this month, so that means 24 days of exercising. It would have been 25, but I took an extra day off Thanksgiving week. For dinner, we ate vegetarian five times and had beef four times, so we met our goals in that area.

I set a more modest weight loss goal for November, as I knew it would be more difficult to lose weight in the month that contains Thanksgiving, the holiday that celebrates overabundance, overindulgence, and overeating. My goal was to lose six pounds - I lost seven! I am delighted. I can only hope to do that well this month. I do love Christmas cookies, though...