Eat, Drink and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Dine
Thanksgiving has come and gone for those of us in the USA. That puts us at the very beginning of my favorite month of the year. The period from Thanksgiving to the end of December has always been the most perfect of times for me, as for many. I love the sense of kinship that infuses our daily lives at this time of the year.
I also love the sensory delights that abound, from the sound of carols to the sight of so many decorations to the aromas and flavors of so many wonderful foods. Yes, the holidays are wonderful and it is not surprising that Dickens emphasized the abundance of the Christmas table when he described the surroundings of the Ghost of Christmas Present in his immortal A Christmas Carol:
Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.
While I am sure that most of us would love to share in such a feast, and that all of us would be grateful to do so, I do believe that Dickens forgot one of the most important parts of the Christmas table: Christmas cookies! For as long as I can remember, I have loved walking into my home on almost any day in December to be overwhelmed by the mouthwatering aromas of freshly baked Christmas cookies coming from my kitchen. Thumb print cookies, biscotti, snowballs, pine nut cookies, and oh so many others have brought me joy, and every year my loving wife spends a great deal of time and energy exploring cookie cookbooks just to find new delights with which to bring joy to our home and our neighborhood.
This year we sunk our teeth into A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson. I love this book not only because it includes a comprehensive treatment of traditional Christmas cookies but also because it reminds me of the cookbooks that my mother had in the pantry of my childhood home. Spiral bound and compact, A Baker’s Field Guide is full of beautiful photographs that demand an immediate response from the reader’s salivary glands. Indeed, my mouth is watering at just the thought of the book.
My wife and I have tried many of the recipes that Wilson provides—and by that I generally mean that my wife has baked the cookies and I have eaten them—and they are easy to understand and follow. My wife is an experienced baker, but I am much less proficient in the baker’s arena so I appreciated the basic information that so many other cookbooks omit but which Wilson emphasizes. For every cookie, she tells us the shape (thus helping me to avoid the awkward “Should they look like that?” question whenever I pull one of my rare efforts at baking out of the oven), offers a basic description of the cookie and a bit of its history. Wilson also clearly lists ingredients and writes easy-to-follow directions.
Few books fill me with a longing for days gone by the way Christmas cookbooks do and Christmas cookie books are always certain to make me feel wistful. I have already enjoyed Ginger Crackle Cookies, Cinnamon Ornaments, Pistachio Cranberry Biscotti, and many other treats from A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies, and I know that I shall enjoy both the cookies and the memories that they evoke for years to come.
Thanks to my request for Wilson’s book, the good people at Harvard Common Press also surprised me with a copy of Salty Sweets: Delectable Desserts and Tempting Treats with a Sublime Kiss of Salt by Christie Matheson. At first I wondered, “Who ever thought of a salty cookie?” I quickly learned that my palate was a bit out of touch with the times because Salty Sweets has given me several wonderful afternoons in the past month and at least one new Christmas tradition. If I am ever forced to eat myself into an early grave, I shall do so with Matheson’s Nantucket Cookies. They are a beautiful melding of white chocolate, cranberries, sugar and sea salt and they are by far the most decadently delightful cookie I have ever had. And I hate cranberries (plus I am not all that fond of white chocolate either). Nevertheless, the following combination of ingredients results in a delectable combination that would have tempted even Ebeneezer Scrooge:
Matheson’s Nantucket Cookies
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup (1 stick plus 1 2/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup dried cranberries, preferably unsweetened
1 cup white chocolate chips or chunks
Grinder sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (F). Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and fine sea salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter with the sugars until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the eggs one at a time.
Slowly add the flour mixture to the mixer bowl, mixing it in a little at a time, until the flour is well incorporated. Stir in the cranberries and white chocolate chips.
Use an ice cream scoop or two spoons to drop balls of dough (about 2 tablespoons each) onto the baking sheets. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until set and just golden.
Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately sprinkle them with a light dusting of grinder sea salt. Let cool on the baking sheets for about 1 minute, then remove them to a wire rack and let them cool completely. The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to five days. (Makes 30-40 cookies.)
Enjoy Matheson’s Nantucket Cookies just once and you will be hooked on them. If not, you are welcome to send them to me!
With fresh cookies cooling in the kitchen, and a cup of tea freshly brewed, it is a perfect time to sit down next to my Christmas tree and enjoy a good book. This past week, in addition to my culinary reading, I found myself unable to put down Alan Axelrod’s Little Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact. This book had been on my nightstand for almost two months and I really did not know what to make of it. I am a firm believer that history is always better when the reader knows a little something about the specific subject. For example, I know a good deal about the Second World War but almost nothing about the Great War that preceded it. As a result, I believe I get more out of reading about WWII than I would out of WWI.
In the case of Axelrod’s book, I was more than a little intimidated by chapters on Boudicca’s Revolt in ancient Rome and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. After all, if I did not know anything about those conflicts, how could I appreciate the author’s analysis of them? I found out very quickly. Axelrod is a gifted writer who presents tasty literary cookies—thorough surveys of the conflicts that he explores. He also ties the conflicts to their modern contexts such that his readers will never forget how a medieval conflict in Japan directly led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or how a seventeenth-century war with Native Americans in New England set the stage for the destruction of Native American cultures by American aggression two centuries later. I have no doubt that war is Hell, but reading about Little Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact was a lot of fun and entirely compelling.
Now, if you will excuse me, I think I need to go and explore what can only be Wilson’s recipe for Ginger Snaps, which my nose tells me have just been pulled from the oven.
Books mentioned in this column:
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson (Harvard Common Press, 2003)
Salty Sweets: Delectable Desserts and Tempting Treats with a Sublime Kiss of Salt by Christie Matheson (Harvard Common Press, 2009)
Little-Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact by Alan Axelrod (Fair Winds Press, 2009)
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.