Malaria pills, check; ebooks, check; paperback in case ebooks fail, check; new knitting, check; baby nestled in with grandparents, check. I'm off on an adventure and will see you in 2011. Happy new year!
I do not have a Christmas cookie tradition. (Maybe something as overwhelming and reckless as my cookie love can't be expected to conform to tradition's mold?) Yes, I made palmiers a few years ago, and two years before that I hosted a cookie party, but I’ve never done large-scale decorating and delivering. It seemed to me that Christmas cookies meant spritz (which I don’t own) or cutters (which I was too lazy to use). And what did crunchy little butter cookies, built to keep, have on my favorite soft and chewy monsters, like these terrific chocolate chip cookies everyone’s been buzzing about, the perfect soft sugar cookies from food52, or the quinoa raisin cookies I may or may not share someday?
This year I finally just womanned up and decided to roll out some dough, inspired by this and that. In November, Luisa mentioned the dough curing on her balcony, and Amy Karol mentioned that she was not going crazy making dough in advance this year. Something clicked, and I knew I had to make several kinds of Christmas cookies. Martha Stewart had cookie packaging at Michael’s, so it was an excuse to buy something. And then there was the tiny jar of sparkle sugar that dove into my basket during the pre-Thanksgiving Target run, and thegifts my mother brought at Thanksgiving, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that the mysterious Bee recently figured out how to clamber over the safety gate and then moved her waking hour from a consistent 7 a.m. to somewhere between 5 and 6, a cold, dark hour at which you might as well put on the Nutcracker and dust a work surface with flour. (I made dough in the late afternoons and chilled it overnight.) Cookies! You and I were meant to be. This was the lineup.
I decided to make simple sugar cookies meant for icing and decorating. I wanted to have fun with the icing, but only if the underlying cookie was outstanding all on its own. Since I never got around to making an icing (errant box of powdered sugar), I was well positioned to judge. These cookies were dense and hard but not what I would call crunchy or crispy; they exhibited a certain tenderness. They were best when baked a little too long, and I wish I had made them with top-notch butter instead of any-old from Trader Joe’s. With better butter, these may have been winners. They did not last long enough for me to judge how they age, which I guess says something in their favor.
I am really enjoying this book, which is fortunate since we’ll soon have to wean ourselves from Tartine and rely on the talents of Joanne Chang at Flour in Boston (a couple of recon trips in the summer of 2009 suggest that we will survive, perhaps even happily). These cookies were airier and crunchier than Karen DeMasco’s, less like shortbread and more of a straight-up sugar cookie. It wasn’t love at first bite with either sugar cookie, but these are the ones I will definitely make again to try with icing. To be fair, both cookies grew on me and are not going uneaten. After a few days at room temperature (in a box, not a tin), these cookies had softened pleasingly, just a smidge, and were still very tasty. A final note about both sugar cookie recipes—I know it is sick and juvenile, but I could eat sugar cookie dough all day. Love it.
Since this recipe claimed to produce a cookie that improves with age, I feared that it would be dull or even cardboardy right out of the oven. The opposite, or something like it, proved true: my gingerbread stars were irresistibly chewy and spicy the first day or two, but after a few days in a box (still not a tin) they were a bit tough and slightly less pungent. I still love the recipe, since my other current ginger cookie recipes are for thin and crispy or big and soft. I added 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and I ran out of molasses while filling the cup and so had to top it off with a few tablespoons of honey. This was the hardest dough to handle, the only one that really gave me any trouble, so instead of rerolling the scraps I rolled them into a log, chilled, and made slice-and-bake instead.
Even though I, lacking a man-shaped cutter, made stars, Bee called these “gingerbread mans,” which was a treat for me in itself. (By the way, we have had in heavy rotation a Richard Scarry book in which a porcine baker hawks gingerbread pigs. My thought the first time I saw it was, “What kind of sick creature would make a cookie in its own shape?” So that’s the level of brainpower we’re dealing with these days.)
This recipe gave me an opportunity to bust out the green food coloring and to use up some of the lingering Thanksgiving rosemary, hooray! I realized before I began that this recipe was almost identical to Sally Schneider’s salty butter cookies, so I made the dough according to Schneider’s instructions (cold butter, food processor) instead of Chang’s (softened butter, mixer). Both recipes incorporate cornstarch, which, in my opinion, gives shortbread the nicest texture. The rosemary flavor here was perhaps a bit weaker than I would have liked, but maybe that’s the point; this is still a sweet, buttery, toddler-friendly cookie, not a resinous flavor bomb for grappa-sipping adults only.
Molly sold these cookies well, and they did not disappoint. The flavor is amazing—strong but not at all overwhelming—and the texture may be my favorite in this bunch of cookies. I’ve made shortbread with powdered sugar before and have been disappointed in the way they turned soft and powdery in the mouth. I’ve had success only with recipes that incorporate the cornstarch separately (which I know is odd, since powdered sugar is just sugar that already has the cornstarch mixed in for you, right?). Anyway, these were shattering and almost flaky, and I loved that. A few days later, they were still crisp and delightful. Molly also shared some helpful hints for rolling out cookie dough, which I wish I had found at the beginning instead of the end of my cookie odyssey.
I had considered making these before Luisa posted about them, but I worried that the tiny amount of butter (just 1.5 tablespoons) was a misprint! Then, after her rave, I worried that my wafers would stick to the parchment, or that even if they came up, they would disappoint. I worry often and usually, as in this case, needlessly. These were Andrew’s favorite cookie this year; since he is allergic to tree nuts and doesn’t usually get to enjoy good, nutty desserts, I was especially pleased to be able to offer these to him. I rolled most of mine into little tubes. These would be perfect with tea or ice cream at any time of year.
Only a few people got a box of cookies from me this year, but maybe in 2011 I’ll expand the operation. (After each batch had cooled, I froze it until it was time to pack everything up and mail. This seemed to work well enough.) Even though a hideous wheezing cough is, for the second December in a row, shaking my faith in my iron constitution, I think what I’ll remember most about this month is being up hours before the sun and liking it. I would resign myself to the fact that Bee was up, which was a little easier once the gate she had been silently hurdling was rigged up with a jingle bell alarm, pull on my hideous slipper socks, and tromp down the hall to her and the kitchen. After turning on the Christmas lights and quiet music, we drank tea and/or milk, made cookies, and talked about Santa. If there was no dough to roll, I stitched away at the quilt I started for my nephew in September while Bee decorated and undecorated and redecorated her tree like a festive little Penelope. My evenings got shorter, as, puzzlingly, did her naps, but we survived the pitch-black mornings, merrily even.
The pictures in my iPhoto go almost straight from Bee in a witch costume to Bee with her miniature Christmas tree. Granted, this is in large part because my parents came for Thanksgiving and took charge of the photographic duties, thank goodness; nevertheless, I’m more than a little alarmed by the passage of time. As you know! For instance, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share for ages. A few months ago, probably in the summer (“summer”), I had a revelation while making pizza, a revelation that was reinforced the next month by something I saw in a restaurant.
What happened this summer was that I put together a batch of Mark Bittman’s basic pizza dough, which I have made a million times, and found that it was far too wet to work with. Very exasperated and wondering what we would eat for dinner, I was preparing to scrape the yeasty goop into the compost bucket when I realized that maybe I could do that thing people used to do a long time ago, that thing I’ve read about, where you just add flour until the dough feels right.
“You sound crazy,” is what Andrew would say if he were reading over my shoulder, which he is not. I know that for most people tinkering until something is right is second nature, but I am a follower of rules and recipes. I am still a little amazed every time I make dinner without opening a book—now that I have been cooking on a daily basis for about six years. Tampering with a recipe for dough—dough!—well, I would have thought it beyond me.
But I’ll tell you what. I kneaded flour into that wet mess bit by bit until it turned into a nice, springy ball. And then, instead of being heavy and floury, it was some of the finest crust I’d turned out in a while. So lesson number one was don’t be afraid to add flour until the dough feels right.
What happened in September was that Andrew and I went to dinner at Nopa. This was a big deal, at least for me—the second time in fifteen months that we got to go out to dinner alone. It happened on the spur of the moment, however, so we didn’t have reservations and were lucky to be seated at a little bar area right next to the kitchen. The restaurant buzzed at our back while we had no choice but to gaze at the master of the pizza oven.
He is a calm, slender man with a long black ponytail. Although he didn’t stop moving the entire time we were there, he never seemed rushed or frazzled. There is only one pizza on the menu, an appetizer, but he was also in charge of some wood oven sardines and other tiny dishes. When an order for pizza came in, he would take a ball of dough from a large plastic container full of floury dough balls, which I believe came out of a refrigerator. Calmly, always calmly, he rolled the ball in a little more flour and then stretched and spun it into a large, thin disk. He brushed it heavily with what appeared to be a puree of roasted garlic (it was in a container labeled “garlic schmear;” I have yet to try this and really want to) and then sprinkled it with sausage, onions, and a little cheese. (I think. This was all three months ago.) He had obviously done it innumerable times, but he didn’t look bored, or even aware that anything existed outside of the pizza station. He just looked zen.
Me, I’m not so zen, but I resolved to try using more flour when I stretched my pizza crusts at home. I also decided to stretch them over the backs of my hands instead of patting and pushing them out, as I had for some reason taken to doing. The result is that now I feel like I really have a handle on pizza dough. Now that I’ve made it a million and five times and tried a few things out and kept my eyes open while other people were making or talking dough.
(This reminds me that I should tell you that I did not finish my NaNoWriMo novel, not at all, even though I was using the “cheat” of updating a classic, but I did relish the experience. It teaches you how much time there is in your day if you really look for it, and it reminds you what pleasures are incompatible with squeezing out those extra quarter hours—in my case, the internet, television, and wine. [And I am talking not about a half bottle with dinner but about a single glass of wine, which may relax you just enough to pack it in for the day just when you should be picking it up.] As a cynic and a longtime holder of the position I Can’t Do This, I was really delighted to discover that I can dredge things up out of my own head when compelled. For me the key lesson of NaNoWriMo, however, was that if you want to do something, you have to do it. Again, I know this sounds obvious to all of you who add more flour without even thinking or start businesses instead of mentally tallying all the ways those businesses could possibly fail, but for some of us, just getting started feels impossible. But you have to get started, and then you have to do a little every day. And some days, a lot. This is the only way your storytelling skills will improve instead of stalling where mine are, which is, I think, about neck in neck with two-year-old Bee’s drawing skills. I got good, not great yet, but good, at making dinner by doing it every night for six years. Nothing just happens.)
Ahem. The marvelous thing about practicing making pizza is that everyone is happy to eat your test pizzas. They may even like them more than things you put much more effort into or have higher hopes for, like certain tofu-millet pilaf-maple roasted squash dinners I could mention. At this point I even have a method that bends all the pizza rising and kneading to my schedule, but I’m not sure it’s replicable. I’ll do my best to put it into words, and then you’ll just have to try it for yourself.
So here’s how I make the dough, with Mark Bittman’s quantities and my no-knead-inspired method. The night before I want to eat pizza, right before bed I put 3 cups (14 ounces) flour in a big bowl. I use bread flour, all-purpose, 00, or some combination of these, depending on what I have on hand; my tastebuds are not sensitive enough to register a preference. I add 2 teaspoons kosher salt and a slightly rounded quarter teaspoon instant (bread machine) yeast. I once tried to cut the salt back to 1.5 teaspoons, and while the result was certainly edible, my tastebuds were hip to that alteration and demanded a return to the original recipe. I whisk to combine the dry and then use a wooden spoon to stir in a cup of water and 2 tablespoons olive oil. If a bit of rough stirring fails to suck up most of the flour in the bowl, I add more water a tablespoon at a time until the flour has all been incorporated. It isn’t really stirring any more, but I do use the spoon to bully the dough for a minute before covering the bowl with plastic wrap and a dishtowel and moving it to a quiet corner of the counter.
The next day, at nap time—around noon, say, 14 hours after the dough was mixed—I turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 5 minutes, adding more flour as necessary to make it easy to work with. Is this kneading necessary? I have no idea. I just do it, hoping to reach a stage where the indentation left by a finger poking into the soft, smooth dough springs back immediately. Then I roll the dough in flour, put it back in the bowl, and cover the bowl again. Sometimes I leave it on the counter, but I have also refrigerated it, just to see. If you choose to refrigerate it, experts say you should remove it an hour before baking, but I have forgotten to do that until just before stretching and baking and found that it didn’t make a huge difference at all.
Half an hour before dinner, preheat the oven to 500 and divide the dough into two to four balls, depending on how many pizzas you want. Knead them for a minute, just enough to leave them smooth and round, and then sprinkle their tops with flour and cover them for 15-20 minutes. After this little rest, stretch them into rounds. I like to work on a piece of parchment paper, which I later slip right onto my pizza stone (slightly more confident I may be, but do I look like I’m pizza peel confident to you?). Plop a ball of dough in the middle of the parchment and then dust your hands with flour right over the dough, so that the excess showers down on it. Many advocate spinning and stretching the dough without picking it up, but I like to pick it up and pull it wider and wider in the air. I drape it over the backs of my hands, gently pull them apart, rotate the dough, and pull again. If your dough refuses to stretch and keeps springing back into its original shape, let it rest for 10 minutes and then try again. If your dough tears, all I can say is that I have had luck pinching tears together or, in extreme situations, kneading and starting over with the stretching. After many months of patting out rounds of even thickness, I discovered that I have to leave the rim a little thicker for crusts that I won't just leave on my plate but instead will eagerly take from the baby.
When a round is ready, brush it all over with olive oil, top, and bake for about 10 minutes, depending on your toppings. I find that 8 ounces of mozzarella is enough for one batch of this dough, and I make a very simple tomato sauce by cooking a few cloves of crushed garlic in a few glugs of olive oil and then adding a box of tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of oregano, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to simmer until thick. This is too much sauce for one batch of this dough, but you’ll use the leftover one way or another. If nothing else, you can thin it out with water, use it to simmer red lentils, and call it soup, maybe adding some carrots in the beginning or a spoonful of yogurt at the end.
I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of pizza. I’m always so dying to eat it that I can’t bring myself to slow things down by getting out the camera. I must say that if one of the hardest things for me about becoming an adult, a real one, has been letting go of fantasies of instant success, one of the nicest things is making a really good pizza and sharing it with an enthusiastic two year old, especially if Andrew is home and Christmas lights are up in the dining room. It doesn’t get better than that.