As much as I am nostalgic and sentimental, I am as untraditional as the day is long. You can blame this partly on our multi-cultural household, our happy clash of religions, nationalities, backgrounds, cultures and that need to find our own special meeting point in between, or you can pin it partly on my near-total lack of organizational skills, but my home rarely sees a traditional celebration of any holiday. No Thanksgiving feasts, no hot New Year’s Eve festivities, no grandiose parties, no glorious swathes of gaily-colored lights or beribboned greens, no tables groaning under a cornucopia of exquisite holiday dishes. And mention one of those “other” holidays to my man – Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day – and he’ll sneer and spew venom about all the commercially-driven, anglo-American faux-holidays that the French have happily imported to their own country. Yes, he loves a good Carnival, and we do celebrate Hanukkah, but along with birthdays and anniversaries, our celebrations are low-key family affairs.
And I’m no a Betty Crocker, either. No June Cleaver-type mom who is waiting in the kitchen, apron tied around her waist and perfectly coiffed, with a plate of warm cookies and glasses of milk at the ready for the kids as they burst in from a day at school. Though we try and keep the house clean and straightened, we don’t mind the “lived in” look and feel of our home and the coziness and familiarity that it engenders. This may very well be ingrained in my DNA or, again, it is all kith and kin with the whole disorganization syndrome, the fact that half the time my head isn’t really screwed on straight or, well, maybe I just go my own way, play by my own rules and go with the old gut instinct.
Which means that there is no rhyme or reason to my cooking and baking. No “oh its that time of year again!” or “I must dig out those old family recipes for this special day!” or even “Gosh it’s almost six, I need to have dinner on the table and feed those hungry men!” No. I’d say kitchen anarchy rules supreme. One week I’ll go on a cooking frenzy. Could be the weather that inspires or a craving for this food or that vegetable, but my fingers will itch to be slicing and dicing, cutting and chopping and I’ll cook a hot meal, stew or curry or grilled this, baked that every single night of the week. And we’ll have a hearty meal every night and the refrigerator will fill up with leftovers. Other weeks I’ll need to bake. Yes, you heard me, NEED to bake. Cakes and panna cotta, bread and biscuits, macarons and pies and tarts. And the menfolk will start to complain about my trying to kill them with dessert or shove baked goods down their throats and that there is never any real food in the house to eat, a dearth of dinner, and as things get brought to work or turn fuzzy and wend their way into the trash, you would think that by now I would have learned my lesson. Right?
Well, you got another think comin’, as they used to say way back when. No, I still follow my urges, get turned on by the weather, the incessant rain or the unrelenting heat, go just a little bit crazy with a change of season and the “changing of the guard” at my favorite fruit and vegetable market stall, snapping up all the new season’s stars: sweet potatoes by the bushel or peaches by the bagful, plums or pumpkin, apples or grapes that are simply begging to be taken home and baked, or some scent lingers just long enough to stir up memories of some childhood snack or that autumn in Italy or some such trigger. And this week it was cookies. Now, I’ve said it before, and at the risk of repeating myself too often I’ll say it again, cookie baking, in my book, is highly over-rated. It is hard, time-consuming work demanding an entire afternoon with nose stuck to the oven window. Those, like myself, who are easily distracted or wildly undisciplined multi-taskers are hopeless cookie burners. We lose patience and our attention span is overridden by more immediate, interesting matters: e-mails or twitter or that perfect sentence for the story we are in the middle of writing that all of a sudden pops into the brain and must be scratched down immediately or it will turn to dust before the task at hand is completed. And so I bake cakes. Measure, stir, bake, timer is set and I can move onto something else. But this week I just had to bake cookies. No rhyme or reason. Could have been the early soft days of autumn or the deluge that followed swiftly on her heels, could be some sentimental reminder of a childhood long lost in the pages of time, but cookies, this week, it was.
A bag or two of mixed dried berries found their way into in my suitcase and back from Florida this summer and although they were crying out for scones, one bag went into Chocolate Chip Dried Berry Cinnamon Cookies based on my much loved, tried and true chocolate chip cookie recipe. Soft, tender to chewy with the warmth of cinnamon, and the dense, chewy, tangy dried cherries and blueberries were a perfect match with the mini chocolate chips. Then came an old favorite, Molasses Chews. I haven’t made these cookies for years and was afraid that the family wouldn’t be too keen on the sharp bite of the traditional molasses-clove flavor combination, so I replaced the teaspoon of ground cloves with a dash of nutmeg and, along with the cinnamon and ginger it was perfect! This blend of spices added just the right touch and balanced out the rather strange taste of molasses and mellowed it, smoothing out the flavors and creating something gently spicy, chewy and oh so satisfying.
As many of you know, my son Simon is spending this year volunteering with lowernine.org in New Orleans. This is a small volunteer organization helping rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. They are hardworking, passionate young people living right in the same neighborhood as the homes they are rebuilding and the residents of the Ward are so appreciative and thankful for what they are doing. But they need our help. Lowernine.org is up for a Pepsi 250K grant but the winner is chosen by votes! They really need your help to win this grant, which would fund their work for the next nine months. Please go to this link and scroll down to the bottom and click on "Vote for this idea". A window will pop open and you can either register using your Facebook page or with an e-mail address. Once registered simply click on "Vote for this idea" again. And you can vote once a day until the end of the month. Please take just a few minutes and vote for lowernine.org. I thank you as a proud mom and as someone who knows how important this is! THANK YOU!
12 Tbs (175 g) unsalted butter
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (65 ml) molasses or treacle
1 large egg
1 ¾ cup (229 g) flour
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
Melt the butter, sugar and molasses in a small saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit.
Stir the flour, spices, salt and baking soda together. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the egg then, continuing to beat with a wooden spoon, gradually add the warm butter/sugar/molasses mixture, stirring until smooth. Add the flour/spice mixture to the liquid mixture and stir together until blended and smooth. The batter will be wet.
Allow the batter to sit for about half an hour or so to thicken a bit. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Drop tablespoons of the batter onto a baking sheet leaving 2 – 3 inches between them to allow for spreading. Bake each batch for about 10 minutes (depending on the size of the cookies) until puffed and beginning to darken. Remove from the oven and allow to rest on the cookie sheets for about 30 seconds or so to firm up slightly before carefully sliding a spatula under each cookie and lifting off. Allow to cool completely on cooling racks.
CHOCOLATE CHIP DRIED BERRY CINNAMON COOKIES
2 sticks (1 cup, 225 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) granulated white sugar
¾ cup (165 g) brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsps vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsps salt
2 ¼ (280 g) cups flour
1 cup mini chocolate chips
1 cup dried berries (cherries, blueberries, cranberries or a mixture)
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with the 2 sugars until blended, light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating just until blended, and then the vanilla.
Add the chocolate chips and dried berries and give it a whirl with the
Blend together the flour with the cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Gradually beat into the butter mixture, stirring by hand at the end if it gets to stiff to finish with electric beaters. Chill if desired.
Drop by spoonfuls, as large or as small as you like, onto cookie sheets, leaving space in between for spreading. Bake for 9 – 11 minutes (depending on the size of the cookies) until golden brown around the edges and just set in the center. Remove from the oven and carefully transfer to cooling racks with a spatula. If they are too soft to move, allow to cool slightly on the hot cookie sheets (they will continue to cook for a bit).
Serve platters of cookies with mugs of café au lait, soothing tea or big cold glasses of milk.