The sun set at 4:18 this afternoon. That means that the street lamps outside my office window shuddered ominously to life at ten minutes after three, people. Six o’clock this evening was indistinguishable from midnight. I don’t know how it is where you are, but around here it’s very, very dark.
When Brandon moved to Seattle last June, he was more than a little apprehensive of all this, and with good reason. No sane person moves to “The Rainy City” – or, more fittingly, “The Rainy and Really, Really Dark City” – without some reservations. I tried to soothe him with the usual consolations – it doesn’t really rain so much as sort of mist, and I mean, hey, have you seen our summers? – but he wasn’t convinced. I really tried, fellow Seattleites, but it’s not easy to find nice things to say about our wet, stumpy days and long, loooong nights. I guess we all have to live them for ourselves, and make our own peace with clouds and damp ankles.
As for me, there is just one thing that keeps my head above water – no pun intended, I swear – through these soggy, sloppy months: the kitchen. (That, and the sheer force of will to survive to see next summer.) I mean, hell, when nighttime starts in the late afternoon, how else is a girl supposed to while away the bleak, inky hours? With a pot of soup, that’s how – or a slow braise, or some butter cookies scented with the cheering zest of this season’s “it” citrus, the Meyer lemon. In the end, you know – and at the holidays – it always comes back to cookies.
If you haven’t bought a Meyer lemon yet this year, consider these your marching orders. As my dad used to say, hop to it! And while you’re at it, make sure that your stock of butter, flour, and sugar is in good shape. You have Christmas presents to bake, by god. And – lucky you! – this particular present makes a batch big enough for giving to friends far and wide, and for eating straight from the sheet pan too. It also makes a long, pitch-black night pass pretty painlessly.
What we have here is basically a French-style shortbread, called a sablé, or “sandy” cookie, for its fine, crumbly texture. This particular specimen, however, gets a gussied up for the holidays, with a sugar collar and a spritz of zest from a Meyer lemon. The hybrid cross of a regular lemon and a mandarin, Meyer lemons are sweeter and less tart than a typical supermarket lemon, with a complex, floral aroma that feels mysterious and familiar at the same time. Mixed into a batter and baked, their zest blooms into a delicate, spicy scent that fills the room, and a flavor that makes these cookies damn near impossible to stop eating. With an edgy tinge of salt and a bit of textural intrigue from Turbinado sugar, these will have a space in my Christmas cookie tin for years to come – assuming, of course, that I can get them packed safely away and into the freezer before I eat them all.
And as for those dark nights and clammy days, well, it’s no coincidence, I think, that on the very day I baked these cookies, Brandon turned to me and said, quite out of the blue, “You know, winter here really isn’t bad at all.”
Meyer Lemon Sablés
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte
I am not ordinarily drawn to such a plain, humble-looking cookie, but after baking these fragrant, buttery lovelies, I am officially reconsidering my ways. They’re good. With their subtle citrus flavor and crisp, shortbread-like texture, they would sit beautifully, I imagine, next to a cup of tea. And as we found last night, they happily team with a glass of sauternes to make a soft, gentle finish to a hearty winter meal.
About the Meyer lemons: if you can’t find them in your local market, you could certainly use a regular lemon here – no sweat. And Brandon also thinks that the zest of another winter citrus would work nicely in these too – maybe a tangerine, Satsuma mandarin, or good ole navel orange?
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs finely grated Meyer lemon zest (from about 2 good-size fruits)
¾ tsp coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
4 large egg yolks
¼ cup coarse Turbinado sugar, for rolling logs of dough
In a small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder, and whisk to mix thoroughly. Set aside.
Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl). Beat (with the paddle attachment, if you’re using a stand mixer) on medium-low speed until the butter is creamy; then add the confectioner’s sugar and beat for a minute. Add the granulated sugar, and beat for a minute more. Sprinkle the lemon zest and salt into the bowl, and mix briefly to just combine. Add the egg yolks one at a time, mixing briefly to incorporate after each addition. With the mixer on low, add the flour in three doses, mixing just until the flour is absorbed. Use a rubber spatula to do any last scraping and stirring; do not overmix. The dough will be quite thick and dense and sticky.
Divide the dough between two large sheets of wax paper. Using the paper as an aid, smoosh and roll and shape one blob of dough into a rough log about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Roll up the log in the paper, and twist the ends to seal it closed. Repeat with the remaining blob of dough. Chill the two logs until the dough is cold and firm, at least two hours and up to a couple of days.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Put a large sheet of parchment paper on the counter, and pour the Turbinado sugar onto it, making a ridge of sugar approximately the length of the dough logs. Remove a log from the fridge, unwrap it, and roll it lightly in the sugar to press the crystals into its sides. Coat the log as thoroughly as you can; then slice it into ¼-inch-thick slices. [I found that a thin paring knife works well.] Lay the slices on the baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each cookie. Refrigerate the remaining dough.
Bake the cookies for about 10-12 minutes or until just golden around the edges, rotating the sheet 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. [Keep in mind that the cookies will continue to brown a bit after you have removed them from the oven, so it’s best to err on the pale side.] Cool them on the silicone mat or parchment paper on a wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough.
Store the cookies in an airtight tin at room temperature for up to three days, or freeze them in a Tupperware, with a sheet of wax paper between each layer.
Yield: about 80 silver-dollar-size cookies