Restraint is not exactly my strong suit. So it is no small thing that we've not yet talked cookies. It is December 3rd, after all, well past Thanksgiving, the first official day the flour's allowed to fly. (Is it just me, or is Black Friday one wild misnomer? Clearly, White Friday's far better suited.) My silence on the subject is downright upstanding, seeing as I'm already in two pounds of candied orange peel, a double batch of brittle, and at least a half dozen various and assorted biscuits.
In my mind, anyway. My empty tins are tattling.
Years have their own momentum, I find, and this one, thus far, is less mosey, more gallop. Pretty much entirely due to yours truly. Normally I wipe the calendar clean, come Thanksgiving, mentally marking up the month following with important appointments: "bake cookies", "repeat", "ditto", and "again". This year's no different. I'm just off by a week.
We strung Thanksgiving out a little longer, for one thing. We had the pleasure of two turkeys this year, one slightly overdone, one flown in from Seattle. This meant snowy white drifts of Annette's famed mashed spuds, plus gingerbread house-building and Bananagrams galore.
(By the way? If you wish to win at Bananagrams, do not play those with Scrabble Dictionary App-equipped iPhones. If, however, you want to strain a stomach muscle, and expand your apparently paltry vocabulary — Qi, Za, Aa, anyone? — disregard this nonsense and play way past your bedtime.)
Then, I got this notion to DIY our advent calendars. On November 30. Around three in the afternoon. I began to question my inspiration, folding origami envelope #69 at 10:54 p.m. But we'd gotten into the cheap choco-wax calendar rut in recent years, and I wanted something a little more, well, a little more. So each child has a branch, and each branch has two dozen tiny paper cups, and each cup has one semisweet chip plus one puzzle piece.
We're nine pieces around the edge of santa's hat, so far. And I'm loving the Hot Diggity! it adds to each morning.
And then there's this heap of curtains, calling my name. Right next to me, right now, begging for linings. Good stuff, but holy cow, how did I not know about the double bookkeeping? Somewhere along the way, I think I missed the fine print, the part that reads sewing occupies precisely the same aprés-10 p.m. hours already allocated to baking/writing/bill-paying/cleaning up/adult conversation/sleep/et cetera. Where is my executive secretary when I need her?
And then, the sick kiddos. All three. All home. For some-most-all of the week, in descending age order. It happens. It sets me straight. Me and my silly sugar-coated agenda. Sometimes stuffed heads and sickbed picnics take precedence over shortbread. At least until Thursday. Then all bets are off.
By Thursday, we'd wrapped up The Week of The Turkey, the last bits and broth turned restorative soup. By Thursday, we'd had our first dusting of snow. Wasn't much, and what there was had all melted by noon. (For serious accumulation this early on, you'd have to live somewhere truly frigid, like Seattle. Where, rumor has it, you see sleds in November.) But it lent the landscape that hello, winter feel, and put a little lift in our getting-better footsteps.
By Thursday, by golly, we still didn't have a tree, but we did have Christmas boxes of books and ornaments to plunder. Snowy Day's seen a dozen re-readings already, and Santa's got a brand new (block) sleigh for 2010. And by Thursday, with my patients still down but less out, we began inching our way toward true Christmas spirit. Fancy-talk for we unwrapped our first half-pound of butter.
We started small, just one batch of shortbread cut-outs, though the 'just' is another of those cock-a-mamie misnomers. Thing is, this is cardamom shortbread, and the adjective is absolutely everything, here. I tend to get a little fast and loose with the italics (see lack of restraint, above), but it would be criminal, in this case, to tap out cardamom any other way. People, this cookie calls for two tablespoons of the stuff. Two. Tablespoons. Of cardamom.
I'm hopeless at that old desert island book game (ship 'em all UPS tugboat, I say), but call on me to pick a single spice, and I'd single out cardamom in a New York minute. If you don't know cardamom, straight up, you may well know one of its many guises. It is one of the spices in garam masala, is brewed with beans to grand effect in Arabic coffee, defines all manner of Scandinavian baked goods, and rocks my world on a regular basis. It is heady and floral and complex and fragrant and absolutely intoxicating.
Really, the only problem with cardamom is the way recipes tend to whisper its name. Pinches are standard, smidges the norm, two teaspons enough for six cups of flour. Really? Really?
On the tongue, anyway. They don't look it, at all. They're a quiet kind of a cookie to look at. Basic brown, edged in brown, freckled everywhere with bits of, well, you get the idea. Even their sparkly topcoat of sugar can't deliver them from their essential dull-drab ho-hum.
They are often the last cookies left on the plate, passed over for the red-striped meringues and chocolate-anything. I'll admit I'm partial to that look of resignation, that sigh of "I should've gotten here sooner. Now there's only this sorry old dog biscuit left". Followed by the wide-eyed surprise and delight, when disappointment meets tender crunch and melting crumb, and half a moment later, the bif-POW!-punch of cardamom. Not at all a bad way to wind down a cookie plate. Or to wind up a cookie-baking marathon.
We'll be back next week with more Christmas cookies. And more the week after, and ditto, and again. Until then, may your days include crisp night air, twinkling white lights, and good friends and good cheer.
adapted from The Christmas Cookie Book, by Lou Seibert Pappas
Yield: 4 dozen 1 1/2" cookies
Cardamom in the grocery store spice aisle is sold at an enormous mark-up. Buy cardamom in the bulk spice section (if you've access to one; I don't) or a spice shop, and you'll pay a fraction of the cost. Penzey's and World Spice are two fine suppliers. I buy the hulled seeds (see photo, above), which I grind in a rinky-dink $7 drug store coffee grinder I bought just for spices. I love it irrationally, and use it frequently. Cost per use is now probably in the two-cent range. In lieu of such silliness, use your daily coffee grinder, wiped clean, if you have one. Or a mortar and pestle. Or, barring all that, pre-ground cardamom. Don't let the equipment keep you from these.
The mixing method is rather unorthodox here, and by all rights should deliver a tough, cardboard cookie. But it works, beautifully. I don't mix any other cookie this way, all together, but Pappas' original read this way, and impressed by her ferocious courage with cardamom, I've never seen reason to change it.
2 Tablespoon cardamom seeds (or ground cardamom)
2 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup + 2 Tablespoons chilled, salted butter, cut into slices
1/4 cup granulated sugar, for sprinkling
Place cardamom seeds in a spice grinder (see above) and grind to a fine powder, about 30 seconds. In the bowl of a stand mixer, place flour, sugar, butter and cardamom. Mix on lowest speed until the mixture goes crumbly and looks roughly combined, with bits of butter still visible, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from stand, and with clean hands, knead dough briefly in bowl to bring together. Divide dough into two 1" thick discs, wrap in plastic, and chill 30 minutes, or until firm.
Preheat oven to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Place chilled, unwrapped disc on clean surface, lightly dusted with flour. Dust top of disc, also, then roll dough to a 3/16" thickness, rotating by quarter-turns (90°) every few passes to keep dough from sticking. Cut out cookies with desired shape and transfer to cookie sheet, spacing around 1" apart. Prick each cookie a few times with a fork (to facilitate even baking of centers), and cast a generous dusting of granulated sugar over all.
Bake cookies for 13-16 minutes, or until bottoms and the very edges of cookies are golden. If baking two trays at once, rotate (top to bottom, and front to back) mid-way through, and allow a few extra minutes. Allow to cool completely before tucking into tins.
Cookies keep beautifully for 3 weeks or more.