I’m feeling ready for winter.
For one thing, I finally got my boots fixed. They needed new insoles, so I took them to the local cobbler so he could fix them. I love that I live in a town that has an actual cobbler, a guy who works in his shop all day, giving new life to old shoes. The shop smells like leather and chemicals, and the cobbler himself barely speaks English, but oh my, he does some mighty fine work. He made my chunky black boots wearable again, which is wonderful because I love wearing boots. They give me height and swagger. I feel like I can do anything when I wear boots, like face a Chicago snowstorm head on, putting one boot in front of the other. I got my boots back from the cobbler just in time for the beginning of Chicago’s snow season. I think it’s going to be a long, long winter.
Another sign of the season is that I’ve finally accepted that the Evanston farmer’s market is gone for the year. It’s been gone for over a month now, and while it was hard to say good-bye, I feel I got my fill of local pumpkins, potatoes, onions, and basket after basket of gorgeous fruit. Knowing that the farmer’s market itself has a season makes the shopping that much sweeter because I know I need to savor it while it’s here. I’m so proud of myself, and Daphna, my food shopping buddy, for buying so much of our produce from local growers. It’s a commitment that I was too shy and lazy to make until this year, but like any worthwhile commitment, the rewards are immeasurable.
Winter is a season of contrasts, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the kitchen. It’s the season of baking, but it’s also the season of citrus. Sweet and sour sit side by side in the kitchen, sometimes folding themselves into the same cookie. I love citrus desserts, and I don’t eat them nearly enough. (Damn you, addictive chocolate!) I’m planning a small birthday party for myself in January (two months late, but I’ll take any excuse to cook!), and I’ve got my eye on this amazing recipe for Orange Pudding Cake from Gourmet. I’ve never made a pudding cake before, but I’m feeling ready for the challenge.
I always worry that I’ll put on weight in the winter, what with all the cookies and egg nog and merrymaking, but it turns out that despite the cold, I secretly like being outside in the winter. Everything sparkles and crunches, and the crisp air wakes me up and tingles my senses with its sharp edges. The beauty of winter is stark: bare branches against bright blue sky, a steamy cloud of breath in front of your face, a piercing winter sun making brief appearances to remind you of what natural light looks like. Even though it takes some effort and some extra layers to spend time outside in the winter, I find it rejuvenating, if not exactly comfortable. In winter, I bundle up and take long walks. I stroll down to the lakefront and look out over freezing Lake Michigan. I listen to the waves crashing against the beach, enjoying the solitude that winter brings. I even run outside in the winter, taking care to avoid the days when the sidewalks are especially slippery. Winter running is not for the weak, but I’m always so pleased with myself when I get out there and do it. One of the first things I’ll be doing after ringing in the new year is buying a new pair of running shoes. I can hardly think of a better resolution than taking good care of one’s feet.
The best part of going outside in the winter, though, is the part where you go back inside and drink hot tea and eat homemade cookies. One can never have too many cookie recipes in the ol’ recipe collection. I’ve been baking cookies nearly every weekend for the past few weeks, nothing fancy, just sweet little somethings to nibble after dinner. If winter is the season of baking, then December is Month of the Cookie. Think about how many dozens of cookies are crisscrossing the country right now, baked with love and packed into boxes by cookie-loving merrymakers. I think it’s safe to say that no matter how many diet trends Americans try, nothing gets between us and our Christmas cookies. It’s tradition!
One of my newest favorite cookies is the lovely, glossy thumbprint cookie. Those little wells of jam, surrounded by sweet pale cookie, remind me of bootprints in the snow—that is, if those bootprints were then filled with jam by little dessert fairies following behind us. Thumbprints are so humble and lowkey—no rolling out dough or piping on frosting. But today’s recipe is not the least bit humble, at least when it comes to flavor. I gave Daphna and Ian a handful of these cookies because I like to share, and when Ian first tried one, his “Mmmm-MMMMM-mmmm!” was so exaggerated that I mocked him for being completely over the top. The thing is, now I don’t think he was exaggerating. He really loves these cookies, and so does Daphna. I love ‘em too. And the good news is that even if your holiday baking is all done, these little thumbprints will be tasty all year long, even if you have to drink them with iced tea six months from now. I would not, however, wait that long to give them a go.
Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
Adapted from Vegetarian Times, September 2008
I call these Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies because he loves them so much. They’re simple enough to make that I can see him tackling the recipe with his future little ones. Everyone would wear aprons, and they’d take turns rolling out balls of dough and squishing a well in the center with their thumbs. When Ian’s back was turned, the kids would steal nibbles of dough, sweet and buttery on the tongue. I can’t wait to meet his little ones.
In the meantime, I’ll tell you more about these cookies. Besides the obvious butter and sugar, they get a lot of their flavor from two different extracts, almond and vanilla. The almond extract is really an inspired touch here: it’s subtle but it adds a depth of flavor that lends sophistication. The vanilla is very important, as its flavor is front and center. This recipe is a nice opportunity to use an exotic vanilla (as if “regular” vanilla weren’t exotic enough, considering that it’s grown in tropical places). My current favorite vanilla is a Papua New Guinea specimen from Frontier Natural Products Co-op. They describe it as “fruity and floral” on the bottle; all I know is that it makes my cookies taste amazing.
Finally, I have a tiny confession for you. I don’t actually use my thumbs to make the wells in thumbprint cookies. I use my pinkie finger. It just works better for me, but I’ve kept the name thumbprint because pinkieprint doesn’t have quite the same effect. I hope you’ll forgive me.
2 cups white whole wheat flour, such as that from King Arthur Flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup milk or soymilk
1 1/2 tsp. best-quality vanilla extract (see headnote above)
1/4 tsp. almond extract
About 2-4 tbsp. or more seedless strawberry jam (you might not use all the jam, depending on how big the cookie wells are)
1) Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
2) In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugar and softened butter using an electric mixer. In a small bowl or 1-cup-volume measuring cup, stir together the milk and extracts. Gradually beat the milk and extacts into the butter mixture. I find that not all of the liquid combines into the butter here, but that’s okay. Finally, add the flour mixture. Using a spoon, fold the flour into the butter mixture until a soft dough forms with no big floury patches. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or put it in a tightly sealed container and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or longer.
3) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a cookie sheet or two with cooking spray. Using a tablespoon, scoop out hunks of dough and shape them into balls with your hands. Place the balls on the cookie sheet, and when the cookie sheet is full, use your thumb (or pinkie finger) to poke deep wells in the cookies. Be careful not to poke all the way through the cookie; you just want to make a nice well for the jam. Fill the wells with jam. I find that my wells have about a quarter-teaspoon capacity, so I use my quarter teaspoon to measure and fill the wells with jam.
4) Bake cookies for 12-15 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through the baking time. My cookies don’t seem to brown very much on top, so don’t be alarmed if yours don’t either. When the cookies are done baking, let the rest on their sheet on a wire cooling rack for 5-10 minutes and then remove the cookies from the sheet and let them cool directly on wire racks. If you refuse to let your cookies cool before trying one, I am not responsible for any burned tongues.