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.

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