Archives for posts with tag: Christmas Eve

Dear Kale Chronicles’ Readers and Friends,

It has been a long time since I sent you an update, much less a painting or a recipe. As Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, baking a last batch of Russian teacakes, a traditional holiday cookie for us, consisting of butter, finely chopped walnuts, powdered sugar and enough flour to hold it all together. I had bought fresh walnuts in the shell from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and shelled them earlier on Monday evening while listening to Christmas carols on public television. Unfortunately, I had not consulted the recipe for amounts and had shelled just 1/2 cup when I needed 3/4 cup: as soon as I looked at the cookbook I went back to shelling nuts and wielding my chef’s knife.

It was an all-cookie Christmas this year, supplemented only with batches of Betsy’s delicious Italian Glazed Almonds. I did not have funds available for purchasing gifts in 2012, so I made them, Cocoa Shortbread and Pfefferneusse, Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies, thin Moravian ginger cookies. For several days I busked in the Berkeley BART station in the morning and baked in the afternoon and evening, preparing a silver tray of cookies for my friend Elaine’s Chanukah party, packing a waxed cardboard box with almonds for another. When I wasn’t baking I was borrowing a guitar from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars who kindly lent me a Johnson to play while my beloved Harmony went to the guitar doctor, who treated her for a couple of serious cracks, rehearsing with Johnny for a gig at Arlington Cafe in my home town or giving my annual Christmas music party for which I prepared butternut squash soup, Mexican corn soup, Swedish rye bread and Finnish cardamom bread.

I remember standing at the bread board chopping resinous walnuts, seeing the chopped nuts in the metal measuring cup, the knife blade against the wood, thinking “This is not so bad a way to spend the evening.” True, it was late and I was behind on Christmas preparations, but I focused on the pleasure that a fresh tin of powder-sugar dusted cookies would bring my mother, Johnny (they are his favorite) and my sister-in-law who threatened to kill Johnny on Christmas Day if he had eaten them all. As the knife flashed through the nut meats, as the butter and sugar whirled in the mixer, as I rolled the cookie dough into small balls in the quiet night kitchen I thought how lucky I am:

1) My mother and brother are healthy and here to celebrate Christmas with this year.

2) I have a pleasant and safe home to live in.

3) I have found someone to love who loves me back.

4) I, too, am healthy.

5) My lone guitar has been safely repaired

6) Johnny and I played a gig together in my hometown to generally favorable responses and both ended the evening in the black financially.

7) Friends came to hear us play.

8) My song about our courtship, “Clueless,” continues to be a runaway hit and fun to play.

Honestly, I can’t remember more of those midnight thoughts now. Suffice it to say that I thought of my patient readers who have put up with my long absence from the blogosphere.

Just in case anyone has not had enough cookies over the past month or has never made Russian teacakes at home, I’ll share the recipe with you, slightly modified from that presented in our Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Russian Teacakes

Soften 1 cup (two sticks) of butter — I use one stick salted butter and one stick unsalted.

Shell and finely chop 3/4 cup fresh walnuts

Combine butter with 1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract in electric mixer until creamy.

Slowly add 2 and 1/4 cups sifted flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating flour completely before each addition.

Mix in chopped nuts.

Chill dough as necessary. If you work late at night in a cold kitchen you will not need this step (or want to wait for the dough to chill either). Before baking, preheat oven to 400.  Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes until some color shows on the bottom edges. Roll warm cookies carefully in powdered sugar — they are delicate and will develop mangy-looking spots where the butter comes through. Let cool and roll again, or sift or sprinkle more powdered sugar to cover each cookie. Store in airtight tins for up to a week or two. (Mom recommends providing other cookies for the family to eat if you want to keep Russian teacakes on hand very long).

Food notes: the fresher the walnuts, the better the cookie. ‘Nough said. If you live in the South you could try making them with local pecans. If you prefer to bake exclusively with unsalted butter you will want to add 1/4 tsp of salt to your sifted flour. I use unbleached flour in these. Mom likes all-purpose. I have never tried them with a whole-grain flour — part of their attraction is that they are snowy white and ethereal. We only eat them once a year….

Painting notes: The reign of the emperor’s new clothes is long. You’ll know I am painting again the day you see a new painting here. Also, it has been so long since I’ve taken a photo that I cannot find the charger for my camera battery. Oops.

Writing classes: I will be teaching a six-week writing practice group on Tuesday nights in the East Bay starting January 8, 2012. My teacher Natalie Goldberg developed writing practice as a way to help people get their real thoughts on paper. For more information, see my ad on craigslist.

Happy New Year to everybody! See you again in 2013. –Sharyn

Painting of Christmas cookies on green and red tablecloth.

Christmas Eve. 8″ x 8″ watercolor pencil and white gouache. Sharyn Dimmick

A few years back, Mom had a hankering to make pfefferneusse, a cookie she remembered buying in her childhood in Illinois. Pfefferneusse are small round spicy cookies frosted with royal icing flavored with anise. They are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like gingerbread or chai and you eat Good ‘N’ Plenty or black licorice, these are for you.

Mom had a basic recipe for pfefferneusse, typed on an index card. The only problem I saw with it is that it called for candied peel — can you say “yuck?” I pictured the multi-colored tubs of peels and fruit that Mom kept around for fruitcakes. And then I had an inspiration: what if we substituted candied ginger for the nasty candied fruit? It wasn’t hard to talk Mom into the recipe alteration.

The first year we made them, these cookies were okay, but Mom said there was something missing. Thinking about the name, she combed around through other cookbooks and found that pfefferneusse used to contain pepper, in addition to mace, cinnamon and allspice. The second time we made them we ground some fresh white pepper in the coffee grinder and added that to the cookie dough. Now you are talking. This year I added back just a touch of my home-candied non-yucky orange peel, picking the last orange peels from the jar of mixed lemon, orange and tangerine peels that I made last March.

I present to you our version of pfefferneusse, a non-rich, spicy cookie that is a good foil for butter cookies and shortbread on the holiday cookie buffet. Pfefferneusse are cookies that get better as they sit around: the flavors mellow and blend and the icing keeps them from getting too hard. Make them ahead of when you want to eat them: the dough benefits from chilling for at least a day before you bake the cookies. I made my first batch of the season on Wednesday morning, baked them on Thursday afternoon, frosted them Thursday night and served them to guests on Friday.

The first day:

Beat 4 eggs (I use an electric mixer for this job, but you can beat by hand if you are a hardy type)

Gradually incorporate 2 cups of white sugar.

Add

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp cloves

1/2 tsp mace

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp  ground ginger

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground white pepper

a dash of minced, candied orange peel OR a grating of fresh orange zest (optional)

Add 4 cups of flour — it will make a stiff dough.

Fold in 1/2 cup minced candied ginger.

Cover the mixing bowl with something (a tea towel, waxed paper, or plastic wrap) and set in the refrigerator to chill for a couple of hours.

After a couple of hours, remove the dough from the refrigerator and knead it for awhile, in the bowl or on a board. If you use a board, try not to incorporate further flour. Return the dough to the refrigerator overnight.

On Day 2 (or 3 or 4):

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Lightly grease a couple of baking sheets.

Form dough into balls the size of a small walnut and place them on prepared cookie sheets.

Bake each tray for twenty to twenty-five minutes. Cookies should firm up but not brown much if at all.

Remove cookies from baking sheets and let cool completely before frosting with your royal icing

If you have a favorite recipe for royal icing, go ahead and use that except substitute anise flavoring for any vanilla, lemon extract or almond flavoring you usually use — if these don’t have anisette frosting they are not really pfefferneusse.

If you don’t have a recipe for royal icing, you can do what I do:

I separate 2 eggs, put the yolks in a jar covered with water in the refrigerator for another use, and beat the whites. When the whites are opaque, but not yet stiff, I start adding powdered sugar while continuing to beat them. When the icing is somewhat thick and glossy I stop and stir in some anise flavoring: you have to taste it to do this step — too much and it will remind you of toothpaste, not enough and what’s the point? If you are timid, you can add it drop by drop and stand there tasting it forever. I would recommend with beginning with 1/2 tsp and increasing the extract according to your tastes.

Frosting things is not my forte: I usually do it the quickest way, which is to pick up each cookie, dip it in the icing, twirl it to get rid of any drips and set it on brown paper. One further note: you need a dry day to frost them or your icing may turn tacky, even if it hardens initially. Let them dry fully before storing them in an air-tight container.

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