Not good as in good grades good. That happened, too, not infrequently, though it was never the easy-A but the up-all-night variety. What I mean is the well-behaved, please-and-thank-you, "Molly's such a pleasure to have in class!" monotony. I suppose I looked like a model student, to some. And like an insufferable goody two-shoes, to others. But really, all I wanted was to please. And if I've since learned this is one of life's least best goals (and if I still sometimes do it; pesky old habits), it meant I skated through school with few ripples.
Except in early January. Then all bets were off.
In early January, we were assigned New Year's Resolutions. I didn't like New Year's Resolutions. No, that's not quite true: I loathed New Year's Resolutions. So much so, I routinely refused to do them. This was a little like Mother Theresa announcing she'd had a change of heart and decided to join Eloise at the Plaza. Out of character. But I chafed at what I saw as resolutions' inherent limitations, the way they narrowly and unnecessarily circumscribed possibility. Worse, they struck me as hopelessly presumptive, that a person could pretend to know what a year might bring. (No, I didn't have quite this vocabulary at age six. But I absolutely had all this righteous indignation, and then some.)
Somehow, I muddled through those treacherous early weeks on the coattails of my ordinarily excellent behavior. And then I graduated high school, and then university, and left those dratted resolutions behind, once and for all.
And then I got married. To an ace resolver. And spent the next sixteen years, slowly coming 'round.
My better half, who's more like my better eleven-tenths in these matters, puts my every last elementary teacher to shame. He not only sits down every New Year's Eve to compile a tidy list of exemplary goals. He then conscientiously minds it, the next twelve months, and—get this—follows through.
And a wake-up call, at least to this deeply reluctant resolver.
It took me a little while—say a decade, and change—to see what good could possibly come of this practice. But over time I began to entertain the idea that this list-making business might be less oppression than opportunity.
That in a world wild with distraction, there's a certain solace in minding a few things, not Everything. That possibility is a wonderful thing. But endless possibility's a little overwhelming. That resolutions need not be marching orders, but gentle reminders, to heed at will.
What once looked like overreaching horribly binding handcuffs (ahem), started to seem more mooring in a storm. That in the midst of all life throws in your path, the unexpecteds, the unknowns, the uncontrollable curve balls, there's room for a handful of intent.
In 2011, I intended to bake cookies.
(I said I've been coming around to resolutions.
I never said I was taking them too seriously.)
(I also resolved to go walking, more often, and the images, up and down, hail from a recent river walk. I love to walk, it's my favorite form of moving, but it takes time, precious time, which I'm always loathe to spend. Because, being a mother, time's like gold, isn't it? I'm working on re-classifying walks as investment, not expense.)
(Oh, and those bright papers. "Make more origami" also made the list. Because folding paper into stuff is a ridiculously useful skill. I've pretty much mastered cups, and fortune-tellers, and last summer, with instructions and lots of deep breaths, even managed a crane. Hoot!)
(You may deduce, from this list, that what works for me in the resolutions department is to assemble a light-weight list of minor consequence. Not that cookies are in any way inconsequential. End paren, resume story.)
I resolved to bake cookies, way back in late December, in part because I still had Erin's words ringing in my ears. Earlier that month, she'd said something radical: "This year, I like December. And that's a new thing." Now, I like December also, love it, actually. But sometimes, I love it a little too hard, squeeze in too much twinkling, baking and merry-making.
So I decided the next year (this one) would go down differently. I'd actively work toward this "all is calm" angle, which for me might look like staring at the Christmas lights for ten minutes. Period. Period. It's an admirable goal, and a stretch (I am not a skilled single-tasker). I realized I'd need twelve months to prepare.
To pull this off, I figured I'd best amortize the cookie-baking a little more evenly over the year. Because while plenty of cookies get baked in this house, the distribution is wildly slightly December-heavy. I reasoned that if I trotted out some of our holiday staples in, say, spring, I wouldn't necessarily feel the need to bake them again, come Christmas. (Check back with me in January. My resolve may yet waver.)
Also, there was this: when we do bake cookies during months 1-11, they tend to be prefaced with "chocolate chip". Nothing wrong there, just redundant, by month eight. I wanted to expand our horizons a bit, to include those simple standbys we in our home call "biscuits". By biscuits, what I mean is not-chocolate-chip, not-frosted-and-sprinkled, and not-ooey-gooey. Though in print, this looks more like a rebuttal than a definition.
Let's try that again.
Here, in the States, it seems to me we've a tendency toward the over-the-top, pile-it-on, kitchen-sink cookie. Now, when I do pile it on, I seriously pile it on (life lesson #1 to my children: always double the number of chocolate chips). But I particularly treasure the plain-simple-good, what in England operates under the banner of "biscuit". Maybe we lost these in the Revolution's commotion, tossed them into Boston Harbor with all that looseleaf. But I, for one, am still inordinately fond of those swell, unleavened Creams and Digestives. A few lovely bites of crisp sweet crunch, just the thing with a cuppa at elevenses. Quiet, unassuming cookies that don't destroy dinner, that can share table space with apples and milk. That don't immediately bring me to my sugar-shocked knees, but restore my faith in the power of cookies, to revive stalled playdates, or help along pesky math problems, or smooth the rough edges of a Wednesday afternoon.
Some people have their everyday cakes. Me, I wanted everday cookies. I got several.
We found some duds, and we found some so-so's, and we found some stellar keepers to which we'll return. In that last class, I'll simply re-direct you to Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook, pages 688 and 703. There, you'll find Sand Tarts and Dorie Greenspan's sablés, respectively, which have both earned permanent status in our home. (The latter, re-dubbed "sparkle cookies", after we followed Amanda's admirable suggestion to roll the logs in "dazzle" sugar.) Also, for the three of you who've just emerged from a dark rock, Molly published the alpha and omega of peanut butter cookies. And if you've made them already, HOO boy, you know. And if you haven't made them yet, you're 40 days behind.
(And if you think the chocolate chips violate my coda, my kiddos will will have you know that all that peanut butter makes them Healthy. So biscuits they be, in our home, anyway.)
And then there was the butterscotch shortbread, a biscuit I've been baking some fifteen-plus years. It's always been a Christmas cookie in these parts, double-batched and stamped out in jolly reindeer. The recipe originally came to me via my mom, who in turn got it from the Jane Austen Society of Puget Sound's newsletter, which in turn got it from one Lee Schiring, who apparently created quite a ruckus with her shortbread. I've never met Lee Schiring. But I'm quite keen on her shortbread. It's exactly what I want in a biscuit, first roll to final crumb.
Lee's shortbread begins with the friendliest of doughs, a pre-req for me to pass anything on to you. (Those NYT Sand Tarts taste divine, but the dough melts maddeningly before your eyes.) It doesn't need chilling to make it workable, which is ever-so-useful for the instant gratification set. Straight from the mixer, it is easy and forgiving, resilient enough for a child to handle, tender enough to roll through the last scraps. Once cut, it holds its shape beautifully, a great candidate for cutters of all stripes. Once baked, it keeps ad infinitum, as good shortbread is wont to do. Three weeks, guaranteed, likely longer; I've yet to hold any to test beyond that.
I could go on about the simple genius of this recipe, about how the brown sugar caramelizes into butterscotch, about the progressive quantities of salt, about the low, slow oven's unusually crisp results. I could admit shortbread's no true biscuit, what with all it's butter and melting richness. I could mention how revolutionary it felt to cut squirrels in fall, when we've only ever (ever!) cut reindeer at Christmas. But you've been so kind, reading right through to the end, I think you deserve a nice biscuit and tea.
Lee's Butterscotch Shortbread
adapted from Lee Schiring and an ancient Jane Austen Society of Puget Sound Newsletter
yields: 2-4 dozen, depending on size
keeps: 3 weeks or longer, in an airtight tin
The only slightly tricky bit to these is judging doneness, as the dough is already brown from the sugar. There's quite a time range given, below, as I'm terribly uneven in rolling my dough. A few tips, then, to aid: note the sight and scent cues below to determine doneness. Also, note that the oven temp is unusually low, giving you more wiggle room than most cookies—if in doubt, give them a few more minutes. Finally, these biscuits are best slightly overdone than underdone: the end result should be crisp, not yielding. And if, after cooling, they're still tender in the center, a return to the oven (5-10 minutes) will correct that, spit-spot.
1 cup salted butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
Heat oven to 300°. Cream butter, both sugars and salt, then add vanilla to combine. Scrape sides, then add flour, mixing just to combine.
Dust a clean surface lightly with flour, and roll dough 1/4" thick. Cut with desired cutters, and place on parchment-lined baking sheets, 1/2" apart (these cookies spread very little).
Bake 20-30 minutes, until cookies are fragrant, edges and bottoms are slightly darkened, and tops have lost their glossy look and taken on a matte finish. Cool cookies on sheet 15-20 minutes, then remove to rack to finish cooling. Cookies will firm up while cooking, and not be fully crisp until an hour or so after baking.
Store in an airtight tin or jar, once completely cool, 3 weeks or more.