When I was a kid, Christmas was never a thing in my house. That comes with the territory of being a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City, I suppose, where we were never alone. We were surrounded by plenty of kids who celebrated Christmas, of course, and we even had our moments of jealousy, but Hanukkah was a-okay. Eight days of presents and candles and yummy fried foods? That should be great in anyone’s book. But Christmas did sneak in while we lived on Long Island, thanks to our neighbor Rosanna.
Every December, Rosanna would make her famous Christmas cookies: strips of dough, cut into diamonds, twisted, fried and doused with powdered sugar; a holiday staple in her native Italy and possibly the most perfect cookie ever made. And she made them not only for her own family, her kids returning from college, her husband returning from the merchant marines, but for her neighbors — her friends — as well. It was always a treat to stop by her house while she was cooking them — we would get a few warm, along with a story or two, and then a bowl of them to bring back to our families. She even made them for Halloween, tucked in those little treat bags with cartoon ghosts and witches on them and handed to the local kids who would ring her doorbell for trick or treat. Those were still the days when neighbors were loved and trusted. Everyone loved Rosanna. She was the epitome of generosity, of warmth.
I love biscotti. Twice baked, it’s the adult version of our childhood nostalgia: crunchy sweetness best dipped before being devoured. Instead of a glass of milk, though, those little bars are beautiful with a latte, a cup of tea, a mug of hot chocolate. It’s breakfast, it’s dessert, it’s your sophisticated milk-and-cookies before bed.
The problem is, though, that too often, biscotti are a little too crunchy — or rather, uncrunchably hard. I once made a recipe that was so hard, I actually realigned my jaw trying to bite into one after years of it being nearly imperceptibly, but rather painfully misaligned. Though most of my friends refused to touch it, I claimed it a medical victory. But you never want friends to avoid your baking, no matter how it might accidentally give you some mandibular relief. I am no doctor — it’s not a method I would necessarily advise to anyone. Truth be told, I was lucky I didn’t break a tooth or five.
It’s December. The tree is up, the menorah is candle-ready, and it’s cookie month. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me — as long as they’re not those overly sweet, unbalanced confections that are so common at the Christmas cookie swap. If I’m going to eat my weight in cookies for a month, they’d better not give me a nauseating sugar headache. So let’s make some beautiful little treats that not only have the traditional heart of the holidays, but also have some balance. Who’s with me?
Two years ago, when we were going gluten-free out of fear that the fella may have inherited his mom’s celiac disease, we also happened to be staying here in NYC for the holidays. I tried to bring as much Christmas spirit into the apartment as I knew how — surprised him with a decked-out tree, bought some baubles, and tried my hand at gluten-free, dark chocolate peanut butter blossoms. Did you know you can make cookies without flour? Any flour at all? And that they will just melt in your mouth? It’s a thing, and they’re amazing. You could probably call these peanut butter meltaways. Two years later and with wheat flour once again a very prominent feature in our lives, I’m still making them. Continue reading →
When I sprint around the track during a speed workout, or towards the finish line of a race, I imagine that I look like Meb Keflezighi, or Deena Kastor, or Kara Goucher at their best in the long stretch of a marathon. Feet barely whipping the ground as they cycle behind me, propelling me forward in a controlled fall. In truth, even when I’m sprinting I probably look like the brave masses chugging along up the tortuously subtle hill of Fifth Avenue in the 23rd mile of the New York City Marathon, quads burning, feet shuffling. Or hopefully somewhere in between. When I set out to make cookies, too, I often imagine them to be spectacular, show-stopping. But sometimes the humble truth of the rest of the pack, the tens of thousands only gunning for personal victory in the form of a finish after 26.2 miles, is even more heart-warming, more inspiring. These apple oatmeal cookies are like that: kind of imperfect, they’re spectacular because they have heart.
When I decided to make these, I wanted them to taste like the tops of the oatmeal blueberry banana muffins: pops of sweet flavor set off by cinnamon, nuts, and salt. I’d made apple oatmeal cookies before, but only once or twice, always wanting to be impressed but never fully satisfied. There are so many oatmeal cookies out there that are just sweet. There’s nothing more to them, despite the teaspoons of cinnamon added. And here’s one thing we should discuss: removing sugar isn’t always the answer. Remember now that while sugar is usually your main sweetener, it also is an ingredient that helps set the consistency of your baked goods, just as eggs and flour and fats do. That’s not to say that absurd amounts of sugar in a cookie or cake shouldn’t be questioned. Often they should. But sometimes the answer is the other white, granulated item in the pantry: salt.
There are some desserts that are “anytime” treats – anytime of the day, anytime of the year – and most of them, obviously, involve chocolate. I know, on a 95-degree day, some of us might prefer a fruit sorbet to a heavy dark chocolate gelato, but I think we’re all in agreement that that gelato would still be mighty refreshing. Cookies, obviously, fall into this category. Especially that supreme being of all that is good and sweet in the world: the mighty chocolate chip cookie.