Christmas has so many soundtracks, most of which I dodge like strep throat.
The stop-and-go of traffic on a December Saturday. The groan of lines and lists, much too long. The cranky of kids who want no more part of shopping carts. I'm with them, on that one. And defer whenever possible, on the others. Ever a homebody, I'm doubly so, come December.
See, there's this other soundtrack I prefer, one as particular to this twelfth month as it is different, year to year. The Bing and Pink Martini, blaring. The daily counting down of days. Holiday conversations, overheard.
"...bearing gifts, we travel safari..."
"If you want free doughnuts, set something on fire?!" (Crazy Herdmans.)
"Don't run off with the baby Jesus! Remember what happened last time?" (Our one-inch yarn baby went missing for a year. Rolled paper with a handrawn smiley face was his understudy. Turned up in the toybox, the following September. Still living it down, three years later.)
The steady chorus of requests to bring up the Christmas box, already. The crinkle of tissue, as we unwrap bits and bobs. Regular interruptions, to read long-sequestered books. The stories that spill out, not from pages but things, each like some keyhole into history.
This is the Christmas mouse Mamo made. Isn't he something? I loved his nightcap, also. But find him two branches, evenly spaced. Otherwise, he faceplants like nobody's business.
Yup, Mamo made the Pie Rabbit, also. The cornhusk dolls, too. And yes, those felt lovelies. Right-o, also Mr. and Mrs. Claus. And the nutcracker dancers. Isn't she something?
Those shepherds and sheep are special to me because they belonged to my Nana. Yes, the Nana of our art cupboard. And our dictionary table. And our crèche. And too many good things to name.
The oohs! and oh!s and exclamations, as the unpacking of ornaments becomes the examining of years. Did I really once write my name like that? (Yes.) Whose chubby cheeks are those? (Yours!) Did he really make ornaments with glitter and pinecones? (Yes, even twelve-year-olds were preschoolers, once upon a time, and not long ago.) Did you really make this? (Yes, yes I did.)
What is 1-9-7-6? (It's a date, dear child. Years didn't always begin with 2.)
The palpable intake of breath, mine, as I realize it may take a week to trim the tree.
And that that's alright. Maybe more than alright. Maybe better.
The squelch and slurp of Elmer's, fastening buttons on paper gingerbread. The conspiratorial squeals of small people, full-to-bursting with secrets. The occasional tears from an excess of merry-making. The quiet adjustments made to move dinner up a half hour. The constant scratching of pen on paper, me making lists, some practical, some less so. From last week's grocery list, between milk and spinach: "buy reindeer noses". (Check.) Wedged in this week's To Do's, between Dentist and Laundry: "Elf about". (Not done yet.)
The collective groan, as we realize what it means that every piece in our Snowmen at Night Puzzle Book has come out. And been combined. With no pictures as guides. It holds five puzzles. All in shades of mid-blue.
The buzz as we plot and plan what we want to do when Mamo comes to town, in two weeks. (Max: Games. Molly: Hems. Zoë: Dolls. Henry: Everything!) The steady trill of a newly-minted whistler. The sudden quiet of a boy, sucked down the reading rabbit hole.
(Absolute silence. For the better part of two hours. As my girl concentrates on coloring between the lines. Apparently, she's overdue some small markers.)
The thrum of the mixer. The chop-chop of nuts. The *thwunk* of serrated knife through chocolate. The peculiar squish-crinkle of waxed butter wrappers. The crunching of box after cardboard butter box, some twenty and counting consigned to the recycle. The quieting burble of boiling sugar and cream, as it finally leaves the brisk 260°s, and zips through to 293°, 294°, 295°, hardball.
The popping of corn. For dinner. Friday night. The dining room table was covered in cookies. It won't happen again. Too often. Honest.
The phwoof of flour, as it leaves the bag. The creak of the table, as dough is rolled. The crack of my back, two inches too tall. The tap-tap of cutters, tickling the tabletop. The sskkkkiiiittttttttttttteeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr of dragees, falling to the floor. An entire jarful. The small ones.
Sweeping up two thousand of anything is tricky. Two thousand tiny balls? Have mercy. (We considered crying. Laughter won out.)
The constant shrill B-L-E-E-E-E-P! of the timer, the only downside, in my mind, to all this baking. (Seriously? Oven manufacturers? Quit with the induction stovetops, and just issue a standard model that plays Für Elise when the roast is done. Danke.)
The clatter of tins, piling up. The twist of lids, turning, for dessert. The sighs of my children, as they wonder when it will be the week when The Good Cookies begin. Next week, my loves. Unless you're me. I, for one, love a quiet cookie.
Quiet cookies lack curb appeal. They've no sprinkles, no thick swirls of frosting, no bright colors, no cute festive shapes. Worse, they lack chocolate. Doghouse territory. Unredeemable, in many books. They're wallflowers, the widows and orphans of the cookie tray community, ignored and neglected every time. The Last Cookies Standing on a platter littered with the crumbs of the dazzling and fancy.
Understand: by quiet, I don't mean dull, or in any way boring, and most definitely not plain. What I mean is unassuming. Unprepossessing. Maybe disingenuous. Possibly stealthy. Because behind that quiet exterior sits an unabashedly excellent bite. In this case, a shortbread, inflected with cornmeal, humming with orange, in a mystery key.
This shortbread began as Claudia Fleming's, whose pitch-perfect palate I've championed before. Over the years, I've adapted and tweaked it, to draw on not one Fleming winner, but two. After making my umpteenth batch of her biscotti with lashings orange and rosemary both, I realized the fragrant needles would be right at home, here, as well. That year, I swiped a sprig of rosemary from our bush, showered green confetti into that December's dough, fretted I'd spoiled everything, and never looked back.
The basic biscuit here is a shortbread, expertly salted, cut with confectionar's sugar, for tenderness. Buttery, barely sweet, with a masterfully-calibrated crisp crumb, these are first-rate, without any additions. But. Add a full tablespoon of fresh orange zest, and you cut the rich with winter sunshine. The fresh rosemary, minced fine, is not herbal at all, only deeply pleasant. It is not bold or awkward or Very Interesting. It speaks in hushed tones, pads around in soft stockings, more variegations in tweed than loud Christmas sweater. Ditto the cornmeal, whose golden crunch amplifies shortbread's own soundtrack and texture.
I slice these into bars, simple rectangles, really, because I like to underscore their quiet. By which, I suppose, I really mean, up the wow when someone finally takes a bite. (See contrarian, above.) With dough pliable enough to roll and cut, and tensile strength enough to sustain basic shapes, there is no reason these couldn't be hearts, stars or flowers. Or pressed into tart pans, for frilly-edged wedges. Feel free to try either variation. More people will reach for them, if you do.
But then, there will be fewer for you.
Orange Rosemary Cornmeal Shortbread
adapted from Claudia Fleming, The Last Course
Yield: 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on size
Fleming calls for a coarsely ground cornmeal, which I love for its extra crunch and bite. I've also used a finer ground (think instant polenta) to good effect. Use whichever you have on hand.
I cut these 1" x 1 1/2", for modest 2-3 bite biscuits, but size and shape are totally flexible. Basic cookie cutters can be used (the rosemary and cornmeal trip up intricate shapes). Additionally, they work well as slice-and-bakes, or pressed into tart tins and cut into wedges. Simply adjust baking time, accordingly. If you do opt for rolled, and are wary about sticking, see Tips for Painless Rolled Cookies at the end of this post.
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, slightly softened
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon orange zest, freshly grated
1 heaping teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 Tablespoons coarsely ground cornmeal
1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Turbinado (raw) sugar, for sprinkling, optional
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, powdered sugar, orange zest, salt and rosemary, until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape sides, add vanilla, and beat again to combine. Scrape sides, add flour and cornmeal, and mix just to combine. Scrape dough onto a length of plastic wrap, flatten to a rough rectangle, an inch high, wrap well, and chill 1-2 hours, or overnight. Dough can be refrigerated at this stage up to 5 days, or frozen, well-wrapped, for a month.
Preheat oven to 300°. Line two rimmed baking trays with parchment paper. If dough has been refrigerated overnight, let sit at room temperature 20 minutes to take the chill off. When dough is workable, flour a clean work surface, and roll dough to a rough rectangle, 1/4" thick, rotating often and re-flouring as needed. Using a clean ruler, or any other clean straight edge (i.e. lightweight cutting board), and a sharp chef's knife, trim edges to form a tidy rectangle. Make vertical cuts, 1" apart, then vertical cuts, 1 1/2" apart.
Using an offset spatula, place bars on a baking sheet, 1/2" apart (these spread only a very little). With a small fork, prick 3 sets of holes down length of each bar (this helps them cook evenly), and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Continue, re-rolling any scraps, until all cookies are cut.
Bake 18-24 minutes, rotating trays halfway through, front to back and top to bottom, until cookies are no longer glossy on top, and are gold at the edges and underneath. Let cool 10-15 minutes on the trays, then remove to racks to cool completely. Stored airtight, in tins, these cookies keep beautifully, a month or more.