Some things I didn't know until late last week:
:: Our city is home to a Children's Hospital nicer than I knew existed. Swell doctors, gentle nurses, excellent in-room parent beds, and some of the uplifting-est decor I've seen anywhere. Also, really good lobby coffee.
:: Community is not, as I'd always thought, at least on odd-numbered days, some warm fuzzy abstract Kumbaya kind of thing. Nor, as I'd imagined on the even-numbered others, an arcane equation reflecting your place in the Big Pond, say [# of friends x good karma credits] / [city pop. - annual library fines].
Nope. Neither. All wrong. Community is this extraordinary living, breathing organism that magically materializes when the chips are down, mobilizing, calling, texting, e-mailing, arriving with cards and gifts and cheer. And child care. And laundry. And giant Santa balloons. Kind of like an immune system, only on the outside.
:: When you wear a for sweater three days and nights, even when it is your most favorite sweater, the one that's giant and turtle-necked and the softest wool and blue, the one you'd designated your winter go-to? After seventy-two hours straight?
You'll hide it at the very bottom of your sweater stack. Right after you give it a good long soak.
Suffice it to say, last week went not quite according to plan, beginning last Wednesday, some eight hours after I last hit Publish. The story is not mine to tell, save the barest of abbreviated outlines: one seriously broken femur, one terrifically brave boy, one twelve-inch steel rod, and a few odd screws. I hope he spins a fine yarn of it someday. It certainly has all the makings. Meanwhile, we are home, comfortable, re-cuperating, and re-aligning definitions of success to things like sitting up, solo.
Nothing, really, in the scheme of things. Enough, though, to re-set our days and holidays.
(Henry and I just began The Hobbit, and as we worked our way through chapter 1, I kept pausing and grinning over Tolkien's turns of phrase. "[D]epredations of dragons" is my week's chorus. "Confusticate and bebother", my two new favorite verbs. But "this was the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered" took first place, for poignancy and relevance. Indeed.)
It will come as no surprise that cookies fell by the wayside.
I know you'll understand if I cut to the chase today. I know you'll also understand if a few more treats were turned out. Nothing major. Not half the list, nor half of half. Just what would help us right the ship, locate up, orient us toward ordinary. Those signpost sweets that say Christmas, around here. Those easiest of treats which allow much back-and-forthing, as time and tired and nursing duties allowed.
After all, days still need to be filled, children engaged, hours invested. And really, what better way work through the week's upheaval than by banging away at peppermint sticks? And what better way to mend broken spirits than with a round of fresh Buckeyes?
And how better to bolster a weary mom's mood than to nail a cookie, ten years in the trying?
Hello, Buttered Rum Sandwich Biscuit.
Which began life as an Eggnog Cookie. Which was not meant to be, no matter how many recipes I tried. I tried a lot of recipes. I failed as many.
I'm fairly certain you oughtn't introduce anything with a list of shortcomings and major fails. Pity. Because I can't properly introduce this cookie without lamenting acknowledging its many predecessors. There were Snickerdoodle-style eggnog cookies, with a half teaspoon of nutmeg and one-day shelf-life. (Too tepid, too transitory.) There were cakey "add 3 tablespoons' eggnog to the dough" eggnog drop cookies. (Which were clever, and little else). There were cheesecake-style eggnog bar cookies, multi-layered affairs with appropriately-spiced custard tops. (Best of the bunch, but short-lived and high-maintenance, two traits I consider December non-starters.) There were, to be clear, several versions in each category. There were many lessons learned. And no cookies worth sharing. No cookies, in fact, much worth eating.
This year, I finally came to my senses, dreamed up my ideal, and set about building it. I didn't think I was asking for much, just a basic, entry-level, eggnog-based biscuit. Which, somewhere along the way, became a buttered-rum-based biscuit. (Trifling titles...) Heady with spice, even after the baking. Edgy with rum, for the 18-and-over set. Equally excellent, for the 18-and-unders. Deeply creamy, because, well, doh, eggnog. But crisp as crisp, also, because, well, cookie. Oh, and long-lasting and flexible and easy to work into an overcrowded month, without compromising quality or shelf-life or smiles. Simple.
Here's what we worked out, my tastebuds and I. An ochre-edged shortbread wafer, the sort that pulls off unbearable lightness through cornstarch-cut powdered sugar plus immodest slings of butter. It shatters on the tooth, and in the ear, and makes a most dreadful mess, shards everywhere. (Most good cookies, I find, make a most dreadful mess.)
Most good cookies also, at least in my book, are anything but shy in the flavor department. One orange's fresh zest, one teaspoon cinnamon, and one heaping (yes, heaping) tablespoon (yes, tablespoon) of nutmeg safeguards against wallflower status. Knowing how spices fade in the baking, I dusted the tops with sanding sugar, mixed with another (yes, another) tablespoon of nutmeg.
You can stop right there, and enjoy your efforts. The biscuit alone is stand-alone tasty.
However. If you, like me, are a lily-gilder, ten minutes' more work will be very well spent. Beat two cups' powdered sugar into one cube of butter, plus more cinnamon, and another tablespoon (yes, tablespoon) of nutmeg. Plus a good slosh of dark rum. Or, for the littles, a splash of cream plus rum extract, which is entirely toothless, hopelessly artificial, and pleasantly reminiscent of those buttered rum hard candies. I, personally, am fond of rum extract. (Adios, all of you whose respect I just lost.)
And the rest of you? Oh, you're in for a treat. Butter-crisp against butter-creamy. Barely sweet biscuit against soundly sweet buttercream. Twinkling with rum, raw and smooth and terrific. (Or its cousin, if all-ages are the audience). All of it, thrumming with nutmeg.
If you've been around here for long, you'll have noticed I work nutmeg in wherever I can. And so it will come as no surprise that what I wanted, all along, was not an eggnog cookie, per se, or even a buttered rum biscuit, so much as a nutmeg delivery system. (Did I mention I don't even like eggnog? Only the dusting of spices, up top?) I've always thought nutmeg an underappreciated gem, soft, mellow, inviting, profoundly warming. Like eating cashmere. Without the hairballs. It's not brash, like cloves, nor bossy, like cinnamon, nor sharp, like ginger. I love those, also, but have always longed for a place to showcase the cozy nutmeg, to raise it up out of its ordinary half-teaspoon territory, to let it run rampant and see what happens.
It happens to be an absolute delight. The nutmeg-flecked dough hums and glows, blushing here, sparkling there, never overwhelming or overstaying its welcome. The cinnamon augments it, deepening, enriching, without ever really announcing itself. The orange does something similar behind the scenes, rounding out nutmeg's silent citrus side. And that, only the bookends. In the frosting, the nutmeg is unbaked, undiminished, not spicy, exactly, but fresh, a bit forward. And rubbing elbows with that dark rum. Rum and nutmeg get along famously. Almost as famously as both with butter.
And ready for a nap.
Oh, right. How does this work, exactly, baking frilly filled cookies while playing Florence Nightingale? It doesn't. I don't roll dough when ten steps are a feat. Rolling peanut butter balls while watching Rudolph is my present speed. I rolled the dough, and those sugar elves, and a dozen others, all last week. Before. Shortbread keeps. For weeks. Brilliantly. The buttercream, also, a good five days. Store the baked biscuits in tins, the frosting in the fridge, and assemble whenever it's convenient, around whatever life throws your way. Because really, whatever surprises lay in store? It is always nice to come home to a cookie.
Buttered Rum Sandwich Biscuits
Like most sandwich cookies, these are best when fresh, though I may love them most at the 24-hour mark, when the shortbread dials down its crisp a nudge, and the frosting firms ever so slightly. At 48 hours, they converge further, still delicious, but softly, differently. Aim to serve within 2-3 days of filling, bearing in mind the cookies can be baked weeks in advance.
Freshly ground nutmeg is a revelation, and a dedicated grater, one of the few true gadgets I keep. (I bought an ancient version of this in college, and love it. A Microplane rasp will grate nutmeg, as well.) Whole nutmegs are available in well-stocked grocery stores' bulk spice aisles, or from Penzey's. Kracken Spiced Rum makes a very fine frosting, though any good dark rum will do.
Finally, this is a soft but cooperative dough, holding up beautifully to repeated flouring and rolling. It is workable for a good hour; after that, a quick re-chill repairs any softening. I used a 1" fluted square cutter, plus a small moon, for a peek at the filling. Any roughly 1" cutter will do.
Warming Nutmeg Shortbread
1 cup (8 oz, 2 sticks) salted butter, at room temp
3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 rounded Tablespoon nutmeg, freshly grated, if possible
1 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of 1 large orange, organic if possible
2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
To Top: 1/3 cup sanding sugar mixed with 1 Tablespoon nutmeg
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, add butter, salt, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and orange zest. Cream until fluffy, 1-2 minutes, scraping sides mid-way through. Scrape sides once more, add flour, and mix again on low speed, just to incorporate. Scrape dough onto plastic wrap, and use wrap to pat it into a rectangle, roughly 1" thick. Chill 2 hours, or overnight. (At this point, dough can be refrigerated up to 5 days, or frozen, well-wrapped, up to one month.)
Preheat oven to 300°, set racks in the middle two positions, and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. If dough has spent the night in the fridge, take it out 15-20 minutes before rolling, to take the chill off.
On a lightly floured, clean surface, roll dough to a shy 1/4", rotating and re-flouring as needed, and running an offset spatula underneath one last time before cutting. Cut cookies, as close together as possible, and transfer to prepared baking sheets. If making windowed tops, cut centers from all cookies on one tray, bearing in mind tops will finish baking 1-2 minutes earlier than bottoms. Tiny centers can also be baked (excellent for nibbles or teddy bear tea parties), or rolled back into the dough. Sprinkle tops generously with nutmeg-sugar mixture. Re-roll scraps, re-flouring as needed, and continue cutting until dough is used up.
Bake two trays at a time, for 18-24 minutes, rotating trays after 12 minutes, top to bottom and front to back. Cookies are done when bottoms and edges turn gold, tops are no longer shiny, and the kitchen smells of Christmas. Keep an eye on those tops, pulling them out a hair early, and the small centers, in closer to 15. Remove cookies when finished, and let cool 20 minutes on their trays. Transfer cookies to racks and allow to cool completely, then pack in airtight tins, until ready to fill.
Buttered Rum Frosting, for Bigs and Littles
Frosting can be made up to 5 days in advance, and refrigerated. Give a good whip with a fork, if using straight from the fridge.
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, at room temp
pinch of salt
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 Tablespoon nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 Tablespoons dark rum OR 2 Tablespoons heavy cream + 2 teaspoons rum extract
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and beat until creamy and a bit fluffy, about 2 minutes. (I use a geriatric hand mixer for this, as it suits the small quantities, but feel free to use a stand mixer fitted with its paddle attachment, set to low, then medium speed.) Taste, adjust spicing to suit, and spread thickly on as many bottom biscuits as you wish to eat, remembering it is Christmas and no time to scrooge. Top with a windowed biscuit, and clink cookies.