Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Danish Salted Butter Cookies

There’s something about the dead of winter that brings me back here. It’s been a year since my last post, and this time I have little excuse for my extended absence; this time I can’t direct you to the modest chronicles of my adventures, both momentous and mundane, in a new city.

Nope, haven’t gone anywhere. I just haven’t done much baking, and when I did bake, I didn’t feel much like reflecting on it. (Sometimes you just want to make a thing and be done with it, you know?)

I have done a few things, though. In no particular order:

  1. I moved for the fifth time in two years. Woah. This is the first time I’ve bothered to do that math. But don’t worry: my current roommate and I went halfsies on an area rug, so you know I’ll be sticking around for a while.
  2. I started improv again! I loved it. It was terrifying and perfect.
  3. I quit improv again. Eh, I’ll be back. We’re not through, improv and me.
  4. I spent six months at an internship for which I have little to show, save for a few writing clips in the seatback pocket publication on all Delta flights and an unhappy habituation to the AP Style comma.
  5. I baked professionally. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. five days a week; I kneaded pounds and pounds of dough, scooped hundreds of cookies, got sweaty by the gigantic oven, and cleaned a whole lot of industrial baking equipment (discovering the amount of cleaning endemic to the daily running of a bakery was, I remember, truly jarring to me). I lasted two weeks. I’ll spare you the details, but I’m comfortable using the term “meltdown” without feeling hyperbolic. Thankfully, I was able to continue working at the bakery under less extreme hours. As for the matter of baking by trade vs. baking by hobby, I certainly have my answer.
  6. And a bunch of other stuff. I did standup for the first time. I phoned Norway to interview one of its bestselling crime novelists. I ate sweet potato tacos every night for roughly three months. I invited professionals in my field to networking “coffee dates” and then ordered hot chocolate. I slept with a cat. (Here’s how that one went down: I come home a little tipsy and my roommate’s cat follows me into my bedroom ‘cause she’s got a pitiful case of FOMO. I’m feeling benevolent. Come one, come all, I say, and give her unprecedented permission to curl up with me in my bed. I wake up around 4 a.m., fully sober and no longer interested in sharing my bed with any animal that isn’t made of nylon and stuffed with cotton. In fact, I’m a little repulsed. Fresh out of good will, I pull the cat from her self-satisfied nap and set her down on the floor outside my room. I mutter something along the lines of “Take a hike, sister,” and shut my door. My short stumble back into bed is probably the closest I’ll ever come to a walk of shame.*)

    *A “walk of shame,” for those who aren’t familiar, is the forlorn trip home after having spent the night with someone who, among other dubious qualities, lets you walk out their door the next morning without so much as a plate of sugar-dusted French toast.

Yep, I’d call it a successfully formative year. And as it came to a close, there were two takeaways—the impetus of which I cannot pinpoint exactly—that stood at the forefront of my mind:

  1. If you want something to happen—if you REALLY want something to happen—you better find a way to start doing it on your own. I know, this sounds a little obvious and a lot bleak, but I’ve met enough rejection and seeming dead ends this year to understand it on a level that’s both sobering and galvanizing, depending on my state of mind. I cannot wait for a personal champion. That person is me. Hi. I’m her.
  2. Bake more cookies. Really. Bake more cookies, even to the exclusion of other baked goods. Somewhere between the shock of working at a high-volume bakery and the tedium of piping frosting onto 150 cupcakes for my friend’s wedding on New Year’s Eve (right, that happened, too), my already robust appreciation for cookies was renewed tenfold. During its most intense period, my cookie infatuation was comprehensive, spanning the chewy, gooey, crunchy, oat-y; cakey, crumbly, fudgy, blobby; jammy, chew—okay, I’ll stop.     (I could go on, though. Just know I could go on.) I think what struck me was the cookie’s versatility within what I consider a very soothing, familiar process. The creamy base of butter and sugar, the imperfect mounds of chunky dough dropped lazily on the pan…it all makes my heart content. Warm from the oven and dipped in milk, these self-contained, bite-size treats are quite possibly the single greatest antidote to a really awful, no-good day

Highlights of my cookie bender include chocolate gingers, peanut butter blossoms, oatmeal chocolate chips, cranberry white chocolates, and double chocolate mints.

*Deep, cleansing breath.*

They were good.

And after I ate them all, I took a break. Nothing drastic, just a small breather. It’s like when you just started dating someone really great, and you get so caught up in it that pretty soon you can’t remember the last time you went a whole morning without sugar-dusted French toast.

Once my blood sugar had returned to normal levels (maybe, I wouldn't know for sure), it was time to bake my first cookies of 2016. I chose these Danish salted butter cookies. They're a good fit for January in Minnesota, as they're rather austere, both in look and taste. But this is why I love them, you see. They're nearly identical to the four-ingredient punitions I made more than a year ago, only these are flecked with vanilla bean seeds and sprinkled with sanding sugar. Really, it's the perfect cookie for a month that almost invariably finds me listless, ambivalent, and in need of easy comfort.

I've never been able to roll out dough into a uniform thickness. In consequence, the thicker cookies bake to perfection as the thinner ones burn. I could've removed all the discolored ones from the shot so it'd look like I only make perfect cookies...but that would've been kind of a sad thing to do. On multiple fronts.
As much as I liked the conjoined heart/weird bat shape cookies, I simply didn't have the patience for more. And this--this!--is the beauty of the cookie. We'll take 'em fancy, and we'll take 'em blobby.

I recognize that you and I are different. Just as I cannot assume we share similar fears and ambitions, I also cannot assume that you, like me, use comestibles to fill emotional voids. But that's not going to stop me from urging you, my friend, to get your hands on a cookie. When the temps are subzero or professional efforts have proven fruitless or the thought of advocating for your tired, weary self day in and day out sounds too damn exhausting to reckon with—get your hands on a cookie. Bake it yourself, grab it from the nearest bakery, or, Christ, rip open a sack of Chips Ahoy.

Now sit down.

Pick up the cookie, dip it in milk, and eat it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Vanilla Bean Scones

After 15 months away, I’m finally back in Minneapolis. In fact, I’ve settled not even two blocks from where I used to live. It’s familiar territory, to be sure. But there’s a lot going on in my life that wasn’t there before—enough, in fact, that I almost feel I’m starting fresh in a new city. I’m living with three women my age who all lead interesting lives and cook really good food. I’m getting on the bus every morning with a thermos of hot chocolate (I’m like a French child, I know) and a book in hand. I’m taking ballet when I can, writing when I can.

I like this life.

I wouldn’t be me, though, if I weren’t grappling with some degree of inner conflict. It’s nothing new, really. Part of me wants stability, comfort, a reliable paycheck and income that will allow me to live alone, or buy myself a grownup-size mattress, or, I don't know, go for some boozey brunch every now and then. I'd like to be able to say, “Hey, should we open another bottle of wine?” to an empty room on a Tuesday night. I'd like that to be an option.

And I think I could’ve had all that by now, and the reason I don’t is because of that opposing force in me that’s always wondering what’s going on over there, what would that be like. A meandering life driven by daydreams and whims doesn’t much allow for Sunday brunch and bottles of red wine that came from somewhere other than my mom’s house, but what it lacks in passing luxuries it makes up for with the feeling that I’m really squeezing the juice out of life, pulp and all.

That dissonance won’t be going away anytime soon. But right now I’m thankful that I have some freedom to explore options. I’m thankful that the first thing I see when I wake up is the winter sunrise over uptown rooftops. And I’m thankful that I can drive north for a weekend at home, split open a few vanilla beans, and mix up these incredibly light and flaky vanilla bean scones.

The recipe makes enough for a crowd, but I freeze the leftovers and take them to the office over the next several weeks. I grab a coffee on the way, settle in at my desk, and eventually unwrap the first scone as a reward for putting in a solid 15 minutes of work.

Treats like this are, for me, a way to assert ownership of my life. Those small moments when I turn away from the screen to sip the coffee, munch the scone–they belong to me completely. If you think this sounds a little too abstract and sentimental, I suggest you try it. Take a few scone moments. Take enough of them, and the day starts to feel like your own, no matter where you are.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lemon Pistachio Biscotti

For the last month, I've been working at a bakery a few days a week as a temporary helper during the holiday season. The existence of this very blog would attest: this is the realization of a small but very persistent dream of mine. And even with the heavy pans and sore feet and pounds and pounds of bread dough to cut and knead, bake and bag, I have yet to become disenchanted.

When there's five of us standing around the long kneading table, pushing dough and watching snow fall out the front windows, I don't think of what I'm doing as work. The world beyond the arched wood rafters of the bakery fades, and I lose sense of passing time. But I do wonder: would I feel the same if I did this every day?

Last week my mom and sister and I had our annual Christmas bake. I took charge of the biscotti, those dry, crunchy Italian cookies that are made for dipping in coffee. The process for these is rather drawn out compared to other cookies, as one batch hits the oven three separate times before it's done. I may have considered this a rather tiresome to-do had I not helped bake, slice, and package hundreds of biscotti just a few days prior. Woah, perspective.

At the bakery, each of these biscotti slabs is about the size of an eight-month-old. We cut into them with long bread knives on extra large cutting boards before laying the oblong cookies on their sides and sliding them back into the rotating rack oven. Halfway through the second bake, we stand at its hot open mouth and burn our fingers flipping each cookie.

And I'm hardly complaining. I think I could be happy in a bakery, making my living -- day after day, year after year -- among chocolate chips and the smell of warm bread. But if I had to choose between baking by trade or baking by hobby, I feel quite certain of which I'd pick.

I want to bake in small batches. I want to cut my small biscotti on a small cutting board with a small serrated knife, and I want to pull them from the oven as Johnny Mathis sings to us through the record player. I want to look out the window and see pine trees. And I want to finish the cookies by lamplight because the sky is swimming with gray clouds -- or in this case, fog.

If I had to choose, that's what I'd choose.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Punitions (French Shortbread Cookies)

When I first told people I was moving back to Minnesota, I was surprised at how many of them responded with, “Just in time for winter!” It confused me a little bit every time someone said it, because I moved back to Minnesota at the tail end of September.

“Just in time for fall, actually,” I would say.

It's sad to think the impending winter is so daunting to some folks that they gloss over what comes before it. I don't really dread the winter. I’m okay with being cold, and the snow has never driven me to seriously question why I live where I live. Mostly, though, I’m too busy loving the fall to think about what's next.

Right now we are entering the unique subseason that is late fall. The clouds hang low, the evenings are long, and the trees sit bare, except for the few odd leaves that cling to the very tips of their spindly branches. My mom says that this time, late fall, is like a sigh of relief. All through the peak of the season we’re almost frantic from the overwhelming pressure to take in all the gorgeous colors while we can. But now, things start to quiet down. We settle into lamplight by 5:30, and we watch the tall pines out our window turn to silhouettes, then disappear completely. And if we have a minute, we throw butter, sugar, egg, and flour into the mixer for punitions, the thin French shortbread cookies that taste like crunchy butter. 

Punitions, or "punishments," are shortbread cookies specific to the Parisian bakery Poilâne. The closest I've come to baking cookies like these is with Betty Crocker's deluxe sugar cookie recipe. We love our sugar cut-outs, but next to the four-ingredient punitions, they seem overwrought. There's powdered sugar and vanilla and almond extract and baking soda and, my goodness, cream of tartar. And yeah, they're really, really good. We make them once or twice a year on special occasions and roll them out super thin so they are delicate and savored. 

But for a chilly afternoon in late fall when it's just me, and I'm just baking to bake, there's deep comfort in needing only a couple measuring cups and the most basic baker's ingredients. The dough rolls out thick and ragged, and the cookies bake up pale and crunchy. We eat them by the dozen with coffee, and the evening stretches on for miles.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Apple Tarte Tatin

You might note a minor lapse between this post and the last. To see what I've been up to in the intervening year, check out my Chicago blog, Alive in the Second City.

About a month and a half ago, I flew home to Minnesota for Labor Day weekend. I’d been living in Chicago for just short of a year at that point, and I had the economy protocol of Spirit Airlines down pat: Check in for your flight online or at an airport kiosk so as not to incur a $10 fee for bothering the ticket agent; resign yourself to a random seat assignment, because choosing that magical spot in which, should the plane go down, you’ll have the best chance at survival is a special treat that comes at a price; and most importantly, pack only as much as will fit in a backpack. That backpack is called a personal item, and on Spirit Airlines, that’s very different from a carry-on item. A hundred dollars different, to be exact.

This is okay. I can live out of a backpack for a weekend. If allowed a carry-on-size bag, I’d fill it with clothes that I ultimately don’t need. The one free personal item stricture keeps me from indulging my inner George Costanza and packing enough to dress based on mood. I don’t mind the limitation. In fact, I’m all about paring down. And on this particular Labor Day trip, I got so caught up in minimizing that I refrained from packing a book.

“No book?!” my mom would later exclaim, as though everything she thought she knew about me had fallen into question.

But I didn’t think much of it at the time. I figured I’d read something off my iPhone while I waited at the gate, and then just sleep during the flight. Only I didn’t account for two things: 1) Spirit flights are reliably delayed, and 2) reading off a screen for extended periods kind of bums me out.

Right now I bet you’re thinking, So where does this alleged tarte tatin come in?

To that I say, Oh god, that’s right! Sorry.

So anyway, I survive the inbound flight, random seat assignment an’ all, and now I’m at my sister’s house in Minneapolis, bookless. It occurs to me that I also like to read outside the context of air travel, which makes my deliberate neglect to pack a book all the more baffling.

I look toward the wall of bookshelves beside the staircase, and I find my answer. Looking back on it, the whole thing seems almost serendipitous.
On Rue Tatin has been left lying atop a row of vertical spines, a stand-out among the sardine-packed paperbacks. I pick it up. The cover has all the trappings of a memoir about an American expat living the good life in France, a niche theme that I once favored but have forgone in the last year while I focused on comedy writing.

It’s hard to know the extent to which that book influenced my decision to move back to Minnesota. All I know is when I got back to Chicago it became an escape, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was looking forward to reentering and vicariously living the life that the author had made for herself in a small French town, filling the days with family, writing, bucolic countryside, and plenty of good food. Suddenly Chicago seemed a little too big, a little too noisy, a little too far from all those things that made this author’s life seem so appealing.

I may decide to live outside Minnesota again someday. But right now I’m happy around family and lakes and so many birch trees. So I cook apples in caramel and drape them with pastry in honor of fall, friends, and the book that helped remind me where the good life’s at.

100% unedited MN sunset