I love the night sky in all its twinkling, glittering beauty, all those heavenly pinpricks of starry light against the silky darkness. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I love December, despite the madcap holiday season that it hosts ever year. Christmas and I have declared a truce—I no longer think much about its Christian roots, and I celebrate it with my family because they are my family, and a girl needs to have some family traditions to embrace every year. Christmas is the one time of year that I always spend with my family, and I intend to keep it that way. But honestly, I feel more holy thinking about this time of year as the season of light rather than Christmas. Consider this: we are approaching the darkest day of the year. The Winter Solstice this year is December 21. On that day in Michigan, my winter holiday destination, we can expect to see about 9 hours of daylight and 15 hours of darkness(!). We can expect that it will be quite chilly and possibly snowing. My Seasonal Affective Disorder and I aren’t thrilled about those weather conditions. But the Winter Solstice is a day that marks the turning point of all this darkness, the day after which the nights begin to get shorter and the days longer. It is a day of seeking the light, whatever little there may be for us.
My high school German teacher was the first to point out to me to this universal theme of light during the darkest days of the year. Mr. Parrish was a funny, brilliant man, charming and lovely, with impeccable grammar and a thousand stories. I loved learning German from him, and even to this day I miss his classes. Mr. Parrish directed several of our high school’s plays, and one year he directed The Diary of Anne Frank. It was performed in December, and in the play’s program, he wrote about the beauty of this season of light, the dark nights glowing with Christmas lights and the flames of candle-lit menorahs. Against the sadness of Anne Frank’s story, I thought about how much we have in common, we Christians and Jews and pagans and light-seekers. I thought about how there is room for all of us, believers and nonbelievers, and how much more time we could spend seeking the divine if we spent less time fighting those who do not believe as we do. I cannot embrace the idea of a vengeful God, one who endorses violence, hatred, or misogyny. No matter how agnostic I am, I just refuse to believe that destruction brings people closer to the divine.
So in December, in addition to plane tickets and Christmas presents, I think about love and hope. Even though it’s been a long time since I believed in Santa, I still feel a sense of magic during this holiday season. I wish I could give the gift of tolerance to whoever I felt needed a batch of it. I wish tolerance were as easy to make as Christmas cookies: a cup of compassion, a cup of understanding, a cup of respect, a half-cup of listening, a quarter-cup of humility, and two teaspoons of love. Mix together until a dough forms, drop by heartfuls onto a greased baking sheet, and bake until firm and easily digested.
In lieu of baking batches of tolerance, I make Pistachio Crescents, dainty moon-shaped tea cookies dusted with a snowfall of powdered sugar. They feel delightfully seasonal to me: edible moons in a nutty Christmas green, blanketed with the sweetest, softest snow. They feel a little exotic, too, which I love, especially when sparked with a dash of cardamom for a spice bazaar kind of taste. These cookies may be too delicate to travel in all those Christmas cookie tins that are headed across the country, but they’re just right for eating at home on a lazy Sunday afternoon or at the end of the day, when the real moon is high in the sky and the stars have come out to dazzle us with their quiet, ever-present beauty.
Happy holidays, dear reader, no matter which holidays you call your own.
Adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Makes about a dozen cookies (give or take a few, depending on the size of your crescents)
These crescent-shaped cookies have a wonderfully sandy texture that practically melts in your mouth into a nubbly pool of butter, sugar, and pistachios. Without their coat of powdered sugar, they are barely, barely sweet; it’s really that post-baking sugar snowfall that makes these treats taste like a dessert. I love shaping these moons between my hands, and eating them afterward is even better.
I have listed the cardamom as optional. They’re delicious without it, as written in Nigella’s original recipe, but I like the extra note of spicy flavor. In addition, I tried adding some orange-flower water to my most recent batch, 1/4 teaspoon to be exact, but I couldn’t taste it at all. If I get my orange-flower amount right and it works, then I’ll mention it in the comments on this post. (Or, dear reader, if you go the orange-flower route, let me know how it turns out!)
3/4 cup shelled pistachios (3 ounces, says Nigella. I converted her weight to an American volume measurement.)
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup or half a stick) butter, at room temperature and very soft
2 tbsp. powdered sugar plus more for snowfalling over the baked cookies
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom, optional
A pinch of salt
1) Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toast the pistachios on a cookie sheet until fragrant. Six minutes of toasting was sufficient for me. After toasting, turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees F.
2) In a food processor, blitz the pistachios until they are powdery and finely ground. A few larger pieces are okay; they’ll just make your cookies a little more nubbly. These are rustic, homemade-looking cookies, so don’t worry.
3) Beat the butter in a medium-sized mixing bowl until very soft. Cream the powdered sugar into the butter. Sprinkle the flour, cardamom, and salt over the butter mixture and stir together. This step may take a little elbow grease, but just keep stirring and mixing until things come together.
4) Add the pistachios and mix until a gritty dough forms. Line a cookie sheet with a Silpat or other silicone baking pad. Using a tablespoon, scoop out spoonfuls of dough and use your hands to shape them into a small log. Place the log on the cookie sheet and then curve it into a crescent or moon shape. Repeat until all the dough is shaped into cookies.
5) Bake for 15-25 minutes, watching them closely after the 15-minute mark. The cookies will be firm and lightly browned when they are baked. Remove them from the oven, allow them to cool on their sheet for about 3 minutes, then carefully use a flipper to remove them from the sheet to cool on a cookie rack.
6) When it’s time to serve them, place them on a plate and generously dust powdered sugar over the tops. Serve with mint or orange-flavored tea.