It's amazing, the difference a week can make. It may be only raining as I write, but by golly, bits of Christmas are playing peek-a-boo all around.
Two gifted pointsettias are sitting pretty in the living room, making me feel all official and almost grown up. The made-in-Jericho crèche handed down from my Nana has been brought up and spiffed up and arranged for the duration. I've got two bowls of persimmons going to jelly on my table, my own most best sign of Christmas coming soon.
There are needles in my socks nearly every morning now, thanks to the evergreen we landed last week. It is twinkling with lights and not yet tipped over (don't ask) and over half-way to ornamented. We've been working at hanging baubles since Wednesday, but we seem especially slow this year. On a hunch, I just looked it up and confirmed: ornament's first synonym is accessory.
Ahhhh, yes. Bird by bird. We are easily distracted.
There was snow falling all the first half of this week, little fluffy flakes that looked ridiculously festive, then vanished somehow, soon as they touched down. I don't know where it goes, this steady stealth snowfall. Some special landfill? Martha's snow globes? It's not like it's melting on the warm ground.
We're officially into winter, now, weather-wise. As the local KUOW guy (it's not KUOW, I know that, but since I still don't know what it is, 'local KUOW' it remains) said during drive-time, we've had a week of "highs in the low twenties". I cracked up. He did not. Oxymorons may not be Ohio's thing.
We've had holiday school projects, and December birthday parties (complete with cards signed from, Spider Man), and lovely mash-up dinners with friends and dreidels and Christmas M&M's.
Frank and Bing have been cycling through the CD player downstairs. Above, the boys have a standing bedtime order for Santa Baby and Carol of the Bells. For my part, ever since tripping over Melissa's Over the Rhine mention, I've not been able to shake this exquisite set of tracks.
And the oven's been working over-time. Finally.
Nuts have been roasted and ground and incorporated. There is fruit set to soak in sherry and bourbon. I do not do fruit cake. I do do boozy little blenheim apricot- and sour-cherry-studded Christmas cakes. Entirely different, entirely better. Cork cookies have been narrowly averted.
(I needed a Tablespoon of brandy for a recipe, and could not figure out why my Corvoisier was so chunky. Until I checked the back. Turns out it was the bottle we bought a while back, to make Julia's coq au vin for a potluck. In college. In 1995. It is very well aged.)
We made (triple) batches of Molly's peppermint bark, and I highly recommend that you do the same. The only hard part was running home double-time, to snatch it out of the freezer before the flakes picked up. I adore my extra, expansive cold-storage, but it does have a few minor drawbacks.
The butterscotch reinder are running again, returning to their tins as they do each year. The english toffee and brittle and orange peel are done, as are the macaroons and coffee walnut wafers. Check, check, check and double-check.
Little balls have been pinched and shaped and printed (thumb- or pinky-, take your pick). We rolled eight dozen buckeyes just this afternoon (a select few may come with warning labels), then dunked them into bittersweet right before bed. Well, right after dunking all three sticky kids in the tub.
Butter wrappers are piled several inches high, the recycle filled with five-pound flour and sugar sacks. I've a few (dozen) more things I'd like to get made, but at least I now know the cupboards won't be bare.
We've made old standbys and tried new recipes and tweaked others still to satisfy preferences and curiosity. Some have been fine but won't likely be repeated. Others have been keepers, for weeks and future years. Have you tried Jess' Sesame Coins yet? Do. Right after you try these.
These. Oh, these. Which of these to choose? I wrestled with this question all the week long. See, we make rather quite a few Christmas cookies, around here. (Did I mention the Orange Cornmeal Rosemary Fingers? Or the Twice-Baked Wholemeal Shortbread or Peppermint Bark Chippers? You can find them in the latest Edible Columbus). Even Henry had four in his recent Cookie Cook Book. Picking a favorite was no fun at all.
Until, that is, I shut up and listened. And realized they'd been asking after the same one, all week. They call them 'jam sandwiches', I call them Drei Augen, but I think we both agree on the unfettered delicious. They are the ones I cannot keep my mitts off. Apparently, I am not alone.
These hail from Flo Braker's fantastic Sweet Miniatures, which came and went a decade back with way too little fanfare. It's an excellent book, chock-a-block with great cookies, the very best of which is that one, right down there. It is, in essence, a linzer cookie, which on principle alone is enough to send me running. Maybe I should explain that last part. Cookies, as a class, are a vulnerable bunch, often abused in the name of cute, kitsch, and/or clever. Like little girl babies, all dolled up in giant bows, cookies suffer indignities all out of proportion to their size. Linzer cookies, a riff on the jam-filled, nut-rich Austrian Linzertorte, are too often a brilliant case study in such insults.
The first cookie that ever made me cry was a linzer. The dough was so sticky it would not be rolled, gluing itself mercilessly to my counter. I tried several others, and all were a mess, too thick or too tough or too blah to bother with. And then I found Flo's. And I re-considered everything. It's topped my annual must-make list, every since.
Flo's linzer, of course, is a sight to behold — all linzers are, that's why they're so (awfully) common. If that cardamom shortbread was a pair of work khakis, solemn and sturdy and steadfastedly brown, this biscuit's wearing it's best party frock, lacey and powdered with garnet polka-dots. It appears to be a top-drawer gift contender, or a company cookie of the first order.
But here's the kicker — it actually is. Flo's linzer is everything I always wanted in a linzer, and several other things I didn't even know to ask after. The almond-flecked dough is rolled especially thin, for a most pleasing proportion of wafer to filling. There's a whiff of cinnamon, not too much, not too little, which hums at the edges without ever shouting. The texture after baking is a minor miracle of the genre, impeccably crisp-tender and scrumptious in its own right. This cookie is no mere foil for charm. It could and does stand alone, brilliantly.
But then you'd miss the jam. Do you see that jam? That is not just any jam — it is red currant jam. A little like ambrosia, only quite a bit better. The kids are impartial, happy with raspberry or apricot, but I am unwavering in my red currant devotion. Currant's the spine behind the lovely liquor Cassis, those smashing Katjes sour candies and that great Brit squash, Ribena. In jelly or jam form, red currants do a two-step on the tongue, first their signature tart-sweet, then their ripe-round fragrant magic. Spread between two crisp, almond discs, it makes for one fine humdinger of a cookie.
I would be lying if I said these don't involve any work. All rolled cookies do, and these have those eyes for extra futz. (Could you subsitute one hole, or skip the eyeballs altogether? Absolutely, and of course. They would still taste divine. Though it is only the poke-poke-poke of a straw.) But it is easy work, of the steady, rhythmic sort, and the footnotes down below hold everything I know about happy rolling. And if there was ever a cookie more worth the effort, I've yet to meet it, and we audition dozens every year.
And one more thing, the thing that floors and delights me: the cookie part keeps forever and a day. Stale cookies have no truck with me, but I've tracked these for years and they only improve with age. So I bake up these lovelies in earliest December, when a little extra care is exactly what I'm after, then tuck them away in a tin on the shelf. All month long, I'm five minutes from posh, scrumptious yum, just powder and fill and fa la la la. Maybe I love a clever cookie, after all.
adapted from Sweet Miniatures, by Flo Braker
Once filled, these are best eaten the day they're made, though they remain softly scrumptious even three days out. Unfilled, the cookies keep at least a month. I've been known to takes orphans to New Years' Eve parties.
My main adjustments to Braker's impeccable original have to do with technique, plus my usual use of salted butter. Braker guides you to roll each dough between two sheets of waxed paper at the outset, and to chill the pre-rolled discs before cutting. I did this for years, but found the wrinkles in the paper terribly problematic with the thin dough, which is rolled to a mere 1/8". It cracked, constantly. In time, I took to chilling flat-ish discs, then rolling them out with one hand in the flour bin. So much better. For tips and tricks on rolling out dough, please see notes at the bottom of this recipe.
Please note: You'll need a few straws (to poke the holes), plus a food processor (a mini is great here) or a nut-grinder for the almonds. Hand-chopping doesn't yield a fine enough crumb once you get to the cutting-out stage.
2 1/3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raw, unblanched almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 1/2 sticks (10 ounces) salted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 jar red currant jelly
Toast and grind almonds: Preheat oven to 350º. Toast almonds 10-12 minutes, until deeply fragrant. Let cool completely. Grind with 1 Tablespoon of the sugar in a food processor (mini, if you've got one) until a fine powder, stopping short of paste.
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, nuts and cinnamon, to combine. In the bowl of stand mixer, cream butter on medium speed until smooth, 1 minute. Add sugar, and beat on medium until fluffy, scraping down bowl, 2 minutes. On lowest speed, add flour-nut mixture, scraping sides, and mix briefly until just combined.
Lay out three sheets of waxed paper (or saran wrap). Knead dough briefly with clean hands inside mixing bowl, to bring dough together. Divide dough into three equal portions, and press-nudge into 1/2" thick discs, one per sheet. Place the three discs in a ziploc bag, and refrigerate, at least 2 hours, or up to 3 days.
Place rack in lower third of oven, and preheat oven to 325°. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets (jelly roll pans) with parchment paper.
Remove one dough disc at a time from the fridge, allowing 10 minutes or so at room temp, to take the chill off. Dust a clean work surface well with flour, and lay your dough out. Sprinkle surface lightly with flour. Roll out dough, rotating disc 90° with every few rolls, to loosen it from the surface and aid with even rolling. Use an off-set spatula (see note, above) to loosen dough from table, periodically. If dough begins to stick, add a bit more flour underneath and/or on top, as needed. Roll thin, to roughly 1/8". Loosen one last time, and begin cutting with a 1" fluted circle, or similar. Place cookies, as they're cut, on the parchment lined sheet, 1/2" apart. These do not spread much.
Repeat, with all three discs of dough, rolling and cutting and flouring as needed. I save scraps from all three discs, combine, chill briefly, and re-roll, until all scraps are gone.
Bake bottoms while you prepare the tops: Place one tray of cut circles (intact, no eyes) in the oven and bake 13-15 minutes, or until fragrant, pale golden at the edges and underneath, no longer shiny on the surface, and just firm enough to lift gently with a spatula. Remove from oven, and let cool on the tray, ten minutes.
Prepare the tops while the bottoms bake: Poke three eyes (augen) from the remaining half of the circles. These will be your tops. I use a straw, and poke-poke-poke, then repeat. If you hit a nut, just wiggle a hair to work around it. As the straw becomes clogged, snip off that bit with scissors, and continue with the clean portion. (I tried squeezing the dough out, but it contorts the straw and is awkward. Besides, it only takes two straws to get through a batch). This goes surprisingly quickly.
Bake tops, which will need a minute or two less, due to the holes, and remove when they meet the description above.
Cookies can now be finished, or stored in a tin for a month or more.
Lay tops out on a cookie sheet, and sieve powdered sugar over all.
In a small saucepan, boil red currang jelly 2 minutes or so, to evaporate some of its liquid. If the jelly includes whole currants, I sometimes sieve it. Your choice. Cool until just warm, 10 minutes. Spread bottoms of cookies with a smear of the jelly, then sandwich with the powdered tops.
Once finished, cookies are best eaten the same day, though their slightly softer selves are still pretty fine, three days out.
Tips + Tricks on Cut-Out Cookies:
- When the dough is freshly mixed and still malleable, give it a few kneads in the bowl to really pull it together, then press into a quite flat (1/2") disc before chilling. This makes rolling much simpler, post-fridge.
- Chill the dough well, 2 hours or overnight.
- Allow the dough to warm slightly, 10 minutes or so, before rolling. Start rolling slowly, pressing and pushing out. If it still cracks or resists, give it five more minutes.
- Flour your surface well, both under and over. I scatter flour with my fingertips from a foot or so above the table, then lay my dough down. For the top of the dough, I pinch flour and flick it out, just as you'd flick your brother with water at the swimming pool. I like a little less on the top, where extra will show, but I re-apply often.
- Rotate your dough 45° with every roll or two, and use your spatula (large offset, if you've got one; standard metal pancake turner, if you don't) regularly to release the dough as you go. Don't hesitate to add more flour modestly, over and under.
- Always give the dough one last swipe with the spatula underneath before you begin cutting. This guarantees all cut cookies will release easily.