There comes this moment, every Thanksgiving, where I look up and around and think, Oh. Gosh. Wow. Really? You're still here?
I should back up, add that this moment usually falls around 11:37 a.m., before anyone arrives, and not 6:37 p.m., when people are winding down. Also, that I'm talking to potatoes, not people. That I'm talking to potatoes is probably as good a window as any into my state of mind, in that moment.
It's just that I thought they'd be peeled, by now. And the brussels, trimmed. And the candles, lit. And the rolls, the rolls, I plum forgot the rolls. Seems they're still in the garage, rising... And where did I put the stuffing, even? And if I don't get around to the dip, will folks complain? (No.) Mind? (Hardly.) Notice (Dip? What dip?)
And there's five days' grime in the downstairs bath. And I think I thought I might make a green salad. And the kids, gone temporarily, will return any minute. Plates. Plates would be a nice touch. And anyway, where is that stuffing?
Also, the candles are unlit.
Mind, the guests in question are the sort that are as stressful as bubble baths. The sort where we could serve buttered saltines and jam jars full of red and call it a day. And also, a feast. In our pajamas. I seriously consider this.
Still, mashed potatoes would be nice.
The irony here is that I am, hand-on-heart, a deeply, profoundly, adamantly laidback host. I roll out of bed on Thanksgiving morning whenever my eyes feel like opening. I linger over coffee and newsprint and pilgrim jokes, relishing the lack of schoolbells. I don't dust. My sink will be full. Flip of the coin as to whether I'll sweep. Around ten, it occurs to me that a) my sock monkey PJ's are pretty threadbare, and b) it's time to Google "how long does it take to roast a turkey?"
Turns out the answer is 4 1/2 hours for one 19-pound bird. I'd intended it to be done by one. It takes quite a bit of fuzzy logic to make the math on that one pencil out. (It is possible my profound laidbackittude is a real part of the problem.)
This is when the poor brussels wind up on the receiving end of my gale-force fury. (Which—given my staunchly reserved and eminently polite Scandinavian-English heritage, and given my upbringing in the deeply reticent Northwest—means I walk up and scowl at them. Hard.)
Those brussels, man, they push my buttons. They are, hands-down, the most high maintenance thing on my firmly low-maintenance table. So needy. First, peel. Then, trim. Halve or quarter, or don't, depending. Repeat, 179 times. The nerve. I haven't even lit the candles, and here, these Sisyphean sprouts are, I swear, multiplying before my eyes. I'll skip you, you dastardly brussels! You little green beasties! You, you, you... (It is very, very hard to lob fierce recriminations and multiple exclamation points and maintain one's reserve. These outbursts, therefore, always end in ellipses.)
Whereupon I remember I'd had the foresight, the night prior, to haul them to the family room and peel them over Star Trek. And also, that earlier that same day, we'd pounded graham crackers and pressed them into crust and stirred chocolate pudding and licked away all evidence. And that after that, but before the brussels, I'd introduced my kiddos to underwater pomegranate de-seedery, and we plucked three clean, and so there'd be something green.
And that, anyway, no one wants cold salad on Thanksgiving. Though they do like candles.
And I remember being at the shops, Tuesday, and being asked by the bag boy what Thanksgiving food I was most looking forward to. I answered, instantly and unthinkingly, brussels sprouts. To which he said, That's SO not an acceptable answer. To which I said, But they're brussels sprouts braised in a half-pound of bacon. And also, two cups of cream. To which he said, Now THAT'S a different story. Indeed.
So I roll up my sleeves and do what needs doing. Abandon the kitchen. Go outside.
I force the still. Goose step silence. Squash the hurry like a skeeter in summer. I tromp through fresh white. Inhale the snow air. Spy a bird's nest, unseen until now, invisible until all the world's been laid bare. Until 15 dozen brussels sprouts sit silently screaming from the kitchen table.
I light the candles on the way back in.
It is good to start somewhere, anywhere.
And the sprouts take all of twelve minutes to trim. And the rolls are cut, and the stuffing located, and the salad jettisoned, and amen to that. And people arrive and peel potatoes. And plates appear, as if by magic. (Maybe I asked. Maybe I did it?) And if the turkey's a little bit late, so are we, and so be it. Food. Butter. Friends. Gravy. Crumbs on the floor. So very much to be thankful for.
(Not, um, listed in order of importance.)
Anyway, I keep thinking back on that brief brussels stand-off as we pivot toward this next season. Now, as then, I'll look up and find myself talking to the proverbial potatoes. Only this time around, they'll look rather like cookies.
When your baking list is as silly as mine (my jumping off point: Cookies + Candies, here), there's bound to be a brussels sprouts moment. And now, as then, I eenie-meenie-miney my way to an entry point, any point, and begin.
Some years, it's brittle, which always feels wildly productive for very little effort. Some years, orange peel, for its excellent scent. Often, very often, shortbread's the thing that starts the ball rolling. It's a start hard to beat.
A good shortbread's a beautiful thing, crisp, brittle, butter-soused, nearly caramelized, with a highly addictive shattery snap. It is one of this world's finer vehicles for flavor, uplifting whatever you add. It ships well. It adapts better. And it's an absolute brick of a keeper. (Really hard to beat.)
This particular shortbread hails from Shortbread 17 Different Ways, an ancient Martha Stewart article that is now apparently (sadly) lost to history. Google yields nothing. My tear sheet is dateless. Though the layers of butter stains and flour scabs suggest last millenium. Anyway, by my count, for at least fourteen Christmases, we have made these cookies without fail. Through new babes and power outages and major moves and broken legs, these almond stars always make the list. They look pretty plain. Their track record suggests otherwise.
At heart, they're a basic almond-enriched shortbread, thoughtfully detailed at every turn. The almonds are toasted first, for depth, then ground to a coarse meal, for maximum infiltration. A teaspoon of pure extract adds to the flavor, rounding it out without overwhelming. Folded into a well-creamed, butter-rich dough, the almonds infuse every corner and crumb, just big enough to interest the tooth, small enough to ease rolling and cutting.
Because this is shortbread as cut-out cookie, rolled thick and cut to fancy. I use two stars, one an inch, one smaller, because the white twinkle makes me grin. Though I know I could use bells-mittens-angels-astronauts, and in the end, I'd grin, anyway. It's that kind of dough, gentle, forgiving. These are traits every December needs.
But—and here's where things get a little interesting—this is also shortbread as polvorones. Or Russian tea cake. Or Noel nut ball. Or whatever name you call your sugar-dusted-nut-sphere goes. A rose may be by any name a rose, but a Mexican wedding cookie, if you ask me, done up as a star is something else, something special.
Every year, I marvel that these little stars will stand up to their toss in the sugar. This year, we didn't lose a one. Typical. Remarkable. Especially so, since in this house we toss all such cookies twice. Do you know this practice? If not, a small gift: Whenever you make a powdered-sugar-coated-cookie, toss it still hot, a few minutes from the oven. The sugar will melt on contact with the cookie, forming a thin, slightly tacky glaze. Set aside to cool completely, then toss again, a second time. A finish coat, if you will, light, lovely, generous.
The end result is a powdery topcoat that gives way to this crisp, warm almond-y glow. The dough, barely sweet, plays off its sugar-coat, each bite a little exercise in contrast. On the tongue, if not on the eyes. There's far more flash and dazzle to be found out there in modern cookie-land. This is a small, modest somewhere, anywhere. But in brussels sprout stand-offs, and in earliest December, and probably in most things that occupy my days, I think that may be the best sort of start.
Almond Shortbread Stars
adapted from Martha Stewart Living, "Shortbread 17 Different Ways"
Yield: 3 dozen 1" stars
Like all good shortbread, this dough doubles easily, rolls beautifully, and re-rolls to the last scrap. For tips on rolling cut-out cookies, see my favorite tips at the end of this post. Please note: dough needs 2 hours to chill
8 ounces (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp table salt)
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
heaping 1/2 cup almonds
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3-4 cups confectioner's sugar, for tossing
Toast almonds in a preheated 350° oven for 12-14 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darker in color. Set aside to cool completely, at least 2 hours. (To expedite cooling, spread almonds in a single layer on a plate, and refrigerate, 30-60 minutes.) Toasting can be done 2 weeks in advance.
When almonds are completely cool, grind them in a food processor fitted with the steel blade to a coarse meal. I grind for 20-30 seconds in "on" position, then give them another 15-20 pulses of a few seconds each, monitoring as I go. You want a consistency that averages cornmeal, mostly fine, interspersed with some coffee ground-size bits. You don't want almond butter. See photo, above, for reference. Measure your almonds again, after processing. You want 1/2 cup ground.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, powdered sugar and salt until fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Scrape sides, add almonds and almond extract, and beat again, 1-2 minutes. Scrape sides, add flour, and beat briefly, until just combined, 15-30 seconds. Remove bowl, and use spatula to complete mixing by hand, capturing any flour from the bottom. Scrape dough onto plastic wrap, pat into a rough rectangle 1" thick, seal well, and chill until firm, 2 hours, or overnight, or up to five days.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325°. Remove dough and allow 15 minutes to soften slightly. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Roll dough on a clean lightly floured work surface to a thickness of 1/4". Cut out shapes, and transfer to the lined baking sheets. This quantity of dough should fill two sheets perfectly. Bake until firm, and smelling fantastic, and until undersides are golden, and any tips on top are starting to color, 17-22 minutes, depending on cookie size and shape. Check often. If baking two trays at once (I always do), rotate trays front to back and top to bottom, halfway through. Good shortbread is crisp shortbread.
While cookies are baking, fill a deep tray or shallow bowl with the 3 cups' confectioner's sugar. Allow cookies to cool five minutes on sheets, then remove, still warm, a dozen at a time, to the sugar-filled bowl. Toss gently until cookies are coated in a thin veneer of sugar. Note that the cookies will still be hot, and will cause the sugar to melt slightly. Mind your fingers (or use two forks), and have the children wait for the second toss. Remove to a cooling rack, and repeat with remaining cookies.
Allow cookies to cool completely, 1-2 hours, then give them their second toss. As before, gently toss a dozen or so cookies at once in the tray of confectioner's sugar. The light, lofty sugar will adhere to the glossy first coat, and leave a thick white dusting.
Almond shortbread keeps, airtight, exquisitely well up to one month.