The rains, oh, the rains. They have come.
Yesterday, while those of you on the East Coast were reveling in fresh snow on the windowsill, we woke to rain thumping on the roof. Despite what you might have heard about Seattle, this isn’t our usual kind of weather. Our rain is more of a fine mist, a la di da sort of rain – definitely not a thump-thump. We went out for croissants and grapefruit juice anyway, in spite of the downpour, but as we huddled uncomfortably under a single umbrella – we seem to have lost our second one; it’s going to be a long, wet season – Brandon turned to me and said, woefully, “Remind me – winter in Seattle isn’t really this bad, is it?”
For the record, no, oh no, it’s not. Winter here is really not bad at all. In fact, it’s quite good. It’s pretty mild, and everything stays green, and you rarely need more than a jacket. And no matter what the weather is up to, misting or thumping or nothing much, it’s always perfect – perfect! – for baking cookies.
Oooh-weee! I do love winter. Or the cookie-baking part of winter, anyway. That’s what it’s all about. If you’re looking for me anytime soon, just follow the sound of the whirring mixer.
Those who were reading last winter might remember that, come late November, a great cloud of sugar settled over this site. I baked, and I baked, and then I made some chocolates, and then I baked some more. (I also made some Brussels sprouts, which don’t technically involve sugar, but they were so sweet and creamy that, in my book, they’re akin to candy.) In the past few years, I’ve come to expect it, this funny urge to produce. I’ve never been one for making a mess – you should have seen me tiptoe around the papier-mâché in grade-school art class – but come December, I itch to get my hands into softened butter and sticky doughs. I can’t imagine, as the nights get shorter and darker and colder, not retreating into the kitchen. It’s warm in there, and steamy, and it smells like cinnamon sticks and chocolate. I just like it so much.
But of course, like it or not, a girl can only eat so many cookies. Of necessity, most of my output will wind up neatly stacked, wrapped in cellophane, packed in tins, and shipped out to places near and far. Cookies make the very best gifts, I think, and really, you wouldn’t believe how satisfying it is to march into the post office with an armload of your own production. (Try it! Nothing else compares, I swear.)
In light of all this, it makes good sense, I think, that for the second year in a row, I’ve decided to give only handmade gifts for the holidays. I even took a pledge. It’s a little scary to commit to such a thing – and even more to say it aloud here, with all of you out there cracking the whip, ready to hold me accountable – but in practice, it’s really pretty easy. After all, when I say that I plan to give only handmade, I don’t mean only handmade by me. (That would require a lot of cookies, people, more than I’ve got time or sanity for. I sweat just thinking about it.) I’ll be giving about a dozen tins of homemade cookies, but beyond that, there are plenty of places to buy handmade gifts, pretty things with history and character and accumulated love. They’re not cookies, but they’re close.
Oh, and speaking of cookies – I know, I know; you’ve been very patient – I’ve got a real whopper for you today. Brandon has officially declared them one of his favorite cookies EVER(!!!), and though you and I both know that he’s a teensy, weensy bit of an exaggerator, in this case, you’d do well to take heed. They’re really tremendous. They might not be the prettiest girls in town, a little speckly and plain, but they make up in flavor – ten-fold, in fact – what they lack in looks.
The cookies in question are from Alice Medrich’s newest book Pure Dessert, which, if I may be so pushy, I would strongly recommend adding to your Christmas wish list. It’s a gorgeous book, for one thing, brimming with inventive takes on cookies, cakes, and other sweets, and I swear, every recipe that woman touches turns to gold. She’s a gem. (Remember those cocoa cookies I wrote about in October? They were hers. See what I mean?) The recipe that follows is ample proof. Medrich calls them Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies, but since I have a constitutional aversion to the word nibby, I call them buckwheat butter cookies with cocoa nibs. Either way, whatever you call them, get ready, because if you’re not careful, they’ll claim a permanent hold on your kitchen.
Which, actually, on second thought, wouldn’t be so bad. They’re crisp, delicate, and intensely buttery, and like any cookie worth its salt, they melt instantly on the tongue. I ordinarily associate buckwheat flour with breakfast and pancakes and blini, but folded into cookie form, it becomes effortlessly sweet, nutty and toasty, as though it were meant to be there all along. The nibs, for their part, bring a nuttiness of their own – something I’d never really noticed before – not to mention a lovely whiff of bitter chocolate, like Toll House® Morsels for the adult set. They’re ingenious cookies all around: smart and surprising and utterly, utterly seconds-worthy. And, heavens to Betsy, would you believe it, they get even better with age. That means, you know, that in the time it takes you to bake a few other types of cookies too and pack them all up in a pretty tin and send them to wherever, they’re actually getting tastier. Good lord, I love that. Hello, happy holidays.
Buckwheat Butter Cookies with Cocoa Nibs
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert
If it’s at all possible, I would urge you to make these cookies at least one day before you want to eat them. Their flavor takes time to develop. On the day they’re made, they’re okay, if a little too buckwheaty – but by the second day, they’re amazing. Just amazing.
1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup buckwheat flour
½ lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1/3 cup cocoa nibs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the sugar and salt until smooth and creamy but not fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the nibs and vanilla, and beat to incorporate, scraping down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the flours all at once, and beat on low speed until just incorporated. The mixture will seem very dry and pebbly at first, but keep beating, and it will slowly moisten and darken (as the buckwheat flour is absorbed) and come together. You’ll know it’s ready when it pulls away from the side of the bowl. The dough will be very thick.
Form the dough into a long (12” or 13”) log about 2 inches in diameter. Because the dough is so thick, I find it easiest to do this by pinching off hunks of dough from the bowl and lining them up on a large sheet of plastic wrap to form a log, then massaging and pressing them together to seal. Wrap well and refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight.
If you have refrigerated the dough overnight, remove it from the refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before you want to bake the cookies. (It’s a dense, rich dough, and once it’s very cold, it takes a little while to soften enough to slice without shattering.) Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
When the dough feels slightly softened – it should have just a hint of give when you press it with a fingertip – unwrap it and place it on a cutting board. Using a thin, sharp knife, carefully cut the dough into ¼-inch-thick slices. Place slices on the prepared baking sheets, spacing each cookie about 1 ½ inches apart. (I put about 15 cookies on each sheet; you won’t be able to bake all the dough at once.)
Bake until cookies just begin to color around the edges, about 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the sheet pans from top to bottom and front to back midway through. Transfer to wire racks, and cool the cookies on the baking sheets (or slide the parchment onto the rack to free up the pans). Cool completely before eating or storing. Repeat with remaining dough.
Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to 1 month. (I thought that seemed a bit long, though, so I stashed mine the freezer. I don’t know – Medrich says they’re fine at room temperature, but I didn’t want to risk it. They’re gifts, so I want to be sure they’re good.)
Yield: about 50-55 small cookies