“Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map.
It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together.
Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”
Then their father Israel said unto them,
“If it must be so, do this: take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present—some balm and some honey, gum, laudanum, pistachio nuts, and almonds…”
“Here we are again!
Bless me, I believe I said that before—but after all you don’t want Christmas to be different each year, do you?”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters from Father Christmas
Christmas for my family was different this year.
One (1) of my three (3) brothers couldn’t come to the East coast for Xmas.
We’re celebrating in the city, rather than upstate, which means an apartment and a baby tree rather than a big house with a fireplace.
And we have the cutest, most adorable mini addition to our family with my baby niece, Emilia.
I honestly can’t believe how perfectly cute she is.
Cannot get enough of her chub!
So although we didn’t have some of our traditions this year, we still had a lovely time together.
Gifts were opened, brunch was had (I made Belgian waffles, my mom made a delicious polenta dish, we all drank mimosas and coffee), and much cooing over the baby was done.
Now that I’m not a kid anymore, I am reminded each year that what I love most about Christmas is being with my family.
This year, I am especially reminded that home is where your family is.
So, about this cute little pastel Christmas cake.
Technically, everything except the reindeer’s ribbon scarf is edible. (No toothpicks used here, just uncooked spaghetti lol.)
The decorations are made of (non-gelatin) fondant that I added tylose powder to to make it more like gumpaste (firm and quick setting/drying).
Sculpting the reindeer took days, as I did each piece in turn.
I painted it with gold food coloring and used pink luster dust to add the blush.
The gingerbread house is made of a new recipe of gingerbread that I created, which has no eggs or water so that it doesn’t bubble and maintains its shape. It’s much more building-friendly, and although it doesn’t taste quite as good, it is still far more delicious than “construction” gingerbread.
Let me know if you want the recipe!
I stuck the gingerbread house together with melted white chocolate, and I will never use anything else! It is far more dependable than royal icing, because it sets quickly and, importantly, is just a little bit pliable when it sets—you can avoid things cracking and falling all apart because of a little push or drop here and there. It even survived a subway ride where it was rattling around in a tupperware a little.
A simple royal icing made the piped decorations, the snow on the trees, and the icicles.
My inspiration was the endlessly creative and cute Juniper Cakery, a bakery in the UK.
I hadn’t worked with fondant in so SO long, and while it’s not the tastiest thing in the world, it’s not entirely inedible, either. It also makes sculpting work so enjoyable and smooth.
For making something like a gingerbread house or a figurine that is unlikely to be eaten and isn’t integral to the cake, I really recommend it. You might be surprised as I was!
The cake itself is a soft-crumbed, lightly fragranced orange spice cake, redolent with cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and cloves, with orange and lemon zest.
It’s made using a reverse creaming method, meaning that you beat very soft butter into the dry ingredients, including the flour, before adding the wet. Bittersweet orange marmalade is spread between the layers to add an extra hit of citrus.
Finally, salted chocolate buttercream, made with unsweetened chocolate and extra cocoa powder to really amp up the chocolate flavor, enrobes the cake.
Orange, chocolate, and spice is a warming, cozy combination that evokes winter and Christmastime to me. If you’d rather leave out the citrus, a chocolate spice cake would also be delicious.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And to those who don’t celebrate this holiday, a peaceful and happy day.
Orange Spice and Chocolate Cake
makes 1 2×6-inch layer cake
for the orange spice cake:
1 egg yolk
150 grams (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) yogurt, sour cream, or buttermilk
180 grams (1 1/2 cups) flour
200 grams (1 cup) sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground anise
113 grams (1 stick, 8 tablespoons) butter, extremely soft
for the chocolate frosting:
175 grams (1 1/2 sticks, 12 tablespoons) butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
50 grams unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
340 grams (12 ounces, 2 1/2 cups) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1-2 tablespoons cream or milk, only if needed
orange marmalade, if desired
Make the cake: grease and flour 2 6-inch pans.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Whisk eggs, egg yolk, and buttermilk together.
Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, zest spices, and salt together.
Beat butter into the dry ingredients until it’s fully incorporated; mixture should be clumpy but there should be no large pieces of butter at all—aim for more of a paste, without overmixing.
Slowly stream in the wet ingredients while whisking.
Once fully incorporated, scrape the bowl and whisk another few times.
Portion evenly into the two prepared pans.
Bake for 18 minutes, or until a tester comes out with only a few moist crumbs.
Allow to cool completely.
Make the buttercream: whip butter on high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, gently melt the chocolate over low heat with a bain-marie or in a microwave, going in small bursts.
Add the salt, half the powdered sugar, and cocoa powder to the butter; whip until incorporated.
With the mixer running, slowly stream in the melted chocolate.
Once fully incorporated, add the other half of the powdered sugar a spoonful at a time.
If the frosting is too thick, add a tablespoon or two of milk (I didn’t have to do this) and whip to incorporate.
Level the cakes if they have domed and spread 2 tablespoons of orange marmalade over the bottom cake.
Crumb coat the cakes with the frosting, and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes, and up to 2 hours.
Frost the rest of the cake thickly; I had about 2 tablespoons of frosting leftover, so if you want to add decorative piping, frost the cake a little more sparingly.
Decorate with fondant if desired!
“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.
We became too self-aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.
We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.
Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction—one last midnight—brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
—Rust Cole, True Detective
I suppose spring isn’t the right time to be referencing Rust Cole’s doom and gloom, but forgive for today my moody melodrama.
It comes alongside an excellent cookie recipe, so I daresay it’s worth it.
And besides, it doesn’t really feel like the season has changed yet. Winds are still whipping, snow is still falling upstate and in Chicago, blooms are still only mere suggestions of buds, and the sun’s warmth is not yet fully baked.
I, um, think we might need a reiteration of our stage directions here.
Exeunt March, in the manner of a lamb.
On the first day of spring, a nor’easter hit NYC. It was m i s erable.
The day after, a finger of spring light, so faint that it might have been mistaken for an indoor flood lamp slipped out in the early morning and later opened up into a jubilant and blinding day.
I had to go to the NYU hospital for volunteer orientation; it’s a fair hike from my office and requires a long-ish subway ride.
As I have mentioned here before, I do my best people watching when on the subway, particularly when I’m a bit moody and would like to be out walking in the sun rather than hurtling away in damp underground tunnels.
My favorite scene of the day was of two elderly deaf ladies, seated across from one another on the uptown 6, silently gabbing at the speed of light. They paused only when Spring St. shoppers shuffled through their path, craning their necks around skinny teenage-d legs and crisply creased shopping bags to recommence their discussion as quickly as possible.
I also took note of and rolled my eyes at the baseless optimism of the two men who stepped, one in a sweatshirt and other in a proper-looking ivy cap, lockstep onto the subway as they loudly answered phone calls. Both expressed only the mildest annoyance when their signals inevitably dropped. Resigned, they pocketed their iPhones, and the rest of the car sighed in relief.
Today’s day started with a dripping, grey smear of a morning, with a forecast that threatened rain. I was up and out of my apartment earlier than usual—sneakers hitting the pavement at 6:05AM.
It was cold and the sun hadn’t yet bothered to rise, so I hustled towards the gym with my fingers jammed into jacket pockets and shoulders hunched over to ward off the chill.
There are only two people in all of New York City who are fully aware of my comings and goings, of the early trudges to the gym and the exhausted late night slogs home from the office (and, in all honestly, the occasional stumble home on boozy nights).
I have never spoken a word to either.
They are the men who run the coffee/pastry and halal carts on my corner, daily bookends so constant that I’m sure many of my neighbors think they can’t possibly move shop every day.
But I have seen the coffee cart open and the halal cart close.
This morning, through admittedly bleary eyes, I saw someone on the pavement laying out cardboard underneath the bright lights of the coffee cart. I thought, at first, that it was one of the two (friendly) homeless men who frequent the corner, but as I neared, I realized it was the man who runs the cart.
He took careful pains to straighten out the cardboard just-so, and smoothed the corners with the flat of his hand a final time before standing, then bowing and kneeling. He was praying.
I was struck by this intimate moment of humanity; prayers directed towards Mecca on a raft of cardboard in the middle of the dirty, slick sidewalk of 14th St. on a drizzling, cold April morning.
In a jaded way, I have been asking myself lately how much of my observation of others is not exposition, but self-centered projection.
How many of these brief moments of presumed humanness are really nothing worth a second glance—just my nosiness taking over?
I wonder if I only take note and mark them as special in order to feel a rush of omniscience, a weak inflation of my ego. How aware and poignant and poetic am I.
Are we not all just people leading our daily lives? And isn’t my daily life bland and beige from the inside?
By attempting to extract meaning from my examination of perfect strangers, I am selfishly wondering who around me is doing the same to the figment of myself that exists within their view.
Mostly, I think, because it is so hard to accept the routine boringness of everyday life; this has become increasingly true in the age of social media, where highlight reels are curated over days and months, so you can post a perfect throwback of a cake while sitting in your desk chair drinking your fifth black cherry seltzer.
It’s not dishonesty, exactly. It’s something else entirely, and the purpose is not only to impress our followers, but to fool ourselves.
And so I make up backstories in my head and curate my instagram. Hmm.
This cookie recipe is a bit of a throwback, itself.
I developed it for the Feed Feed/Bob’s Red Mill winter cookie giveaway way back in December, which was an altogether excellent time.
(Some cookies that were memorable: Patti’s always intricate decorated sugar cookies, which came in the shape of twee penguins with neck-scarves, ice-skates, and earmuffs; Rachel’s milk masala shortbread cookies; Erin’s vanilla sandwich cookies with vanilla bean marshmallow; Sarah’s pan-banging chocolate chip cookies (!!!), and others. Also, someone made soft gingerbread cookies with a cracklingly tart lemon glaze, and the memory of the cookies apparently has outlasted my good manners/memory of their creator. Oops.)
These little gems have a base of fragrant nutmeg shortbread, which is buttery and rich but not so short that it crumbles before you can get it to your mouth; it provides a sturdy enough base for transport or gifting. Lashed to the butter cookie with a drop of good dark chocolate are ultra light, melt-in-your-mouth maple meringues. These are so crunchy and crisp and delicate; they really reminded me why meringue is one of my top three favorite desserts.
A dusting of powdered sugar gives them an (un)seasonally appropriate finish (ha, ha, ha, yes this everlasting winter is very funny) and provides nice color contrast to the shades of beige underneath.
These are really a special little cookie, elegant and understated, but with a flavor profile that will pleasantly surprise you, even in its subtlety. Oh, and the French word for nutmeg was too poetic not to provide you a translation of the full title:
Des sablés à la noix de muscade avec des meringues au sirop d’érable. Le sigh.
Nutmeg Shortbread with Maple Meringues
makes 50-60 1.5″ cookies
for the cookies:
225 grams (2 sticks, 16 tablespoons, 8 ounces) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
200 grams (1 cup) sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
360 grams (3 cups) flour
for the meringues:
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
60 grams (3 tablespoons) maple syrup
15 grams (1 tablespoon) water
200 grams (1 cup) sugar (can sub up to 50 grams (1/4 cup) maple sugar)
30 grams (1 ounce) dark chocolate, melted
Powdered sugar, as needed for dusting
Make the shortbread: beat butter on high speed for 3 full minutes, until fluffy and softened.
Add the salt, sugar, and nutmeg and beat on high speed for another 3 minutes; mixture should be lightened in color and not grainy.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the egg and vanilla; beat for 3 full minutes.
Scrape the bowl again and add the flour; fold a few times and then stir on low speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the flour is completely incorporated and the dough comes together in a ball.
Turn out the dough and knead into a ball; refrigerate for 15 minutes (and up to 2 days).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface.
Cut out 1.5 inch rounds and place on prepared pans.
Re-roll dough until all has been used up (I filled 3 baking sheets and baked them 1 sheet at a time).
Place in freezer for 10 minutes.
Bake straight from the freezer for 8-10 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned.
Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
Make the meringues: Prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
Place egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Place maple syrup, water, and sugar in a small pot and place over medium heat.
Begin to whisk the egg whites, carefully watching the syrup.
The syrup needs to reach 240 degrees F (115 degrees C) when the egg whites are at soft peaks; adjust speed of your stand mixer or heat under the pot accordingly.
Carefully pour the hot syrup into the egg whites with the mixer running, avoiding the whisk so that hot syrup does not splash.
Whip on high speed for 3-5 minutes, or until the meringue is fluffy, glossy, and holds stiff peaks.
Fill a piping bag fitted with a jumbo French tip and pipe small dollops on the prepared pans.
If you’re struggling with the parchment paper flying up and sticking to the meringue, just place small smears of meringue on the baking sheet at the corners as “glue” and stick the parchment down.
Once you have piped out your meringues, place them in the oven.
Bake at 275 for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200 degrees and dry for 2 hours, or until the meringues are dry and lift up off the parchment cleanly.
This can take much longer than 2 hours—it depends on the humidity in your home.
If need be, you can leave the meringues in the oven overnight (I left mine for a full 18 hours…!) at 200 degrees.
To assemble, use a small smear of dark chocolate to affix the meringue onto the shortbread and dust with a little powdered sugar for a snowy finish.
I hope you have all had a wonderful holiday season; I’ve spent a few extremely restful days with my family (except one of my older brothers, who had to stay back home), and I’m feeling very grateful for each and every one of them.
Christmastime holds many of my most cherished and vivid memories from childhood, and as I grow older and more sentimental, I realize increasingly why: not because of the material goods or the delicious food, but because it’s a time of gratitude and giving back and cozy, hygge nights with your loved ones watching Elf or playing fibbage.
This Christmas tree cake continues my tradition of making a big Christmas cake for my family that we all end up way too full to even make a dent in. Having started the day with morning buns, banana bread, and having challah and scalloped potatoes for dinner last night… and going to see Star Wars and eating popcorn and candy this afternoon… we are all very satiated, to say the least.
Still, it’s always a fun creation and I enjoy making something whimsical that isn’t cookies (so. many. cookies.) that I can share.
And this year, I made a different kind of tree! An actual Christmas tree!
It’s made of dense, moist butter cake with eggnog cream filling (the secret ingredient is hard boiled egg yolks! Weird, right?) with brown sugar and chocolate Italian meringue buttercream and marzipan ornaments and presents.
It’s over the top and takes a bit of effort, but it is certainly a showstopper and centerpiece, and I am going to enjoy a thin sliver tonight.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
P.S. For those of you wondering, promenade en traîneau means sleigh ride.
Christmas Tree Cake
makes 1 large, 4 tiered cake
for the yellow cake:
225 grams (2 sticks) unsalted butter
400 grams (2 cups) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
300 grams (1 1/4 cups) buttermilk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
360 grams (3 cups) flour
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
for the eggnog filling:
2 hard boiled egg yolks
113 grams (1 stick) butter, softened
380 grams (3 cups) powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
60 grams (1/4 cup) heavy cream or half and half, as needed
for the brown sugar and chocolate frosting:
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
100 grams (1/2 cup) brown sugar
225 grams (2 sticks) butter
75 grams (2 2/3 ounces) dark chocolate, chopped
75 grams (1/3 cup) heavy cream
(225 grams) 8 ounces marzipan
Make the cake: grease and flour 2 6-inch round baking pans, 2 cupcake wells, and 2 mini cupcake wells, and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat butter on high speed for 3 minutes, until completely fluffy and no lumps remain.
Add the salt and sugar and beat for 5 full minutes; the mixture should be very light and fluffy.
Add the eggs and the egg yolks and beat for another 3 minutes.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and add in the buttermilk and vanilla extract; gently stir with a spoon until about half is incorporated.
Add in the flour and baking powder and stir until incorporated; beat for 30 seconds on high to ensure homogeneity.
Spread the batter into the prepared pans.
Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a tester comes out with a few moist crumbs.
Allow to cool completely.
Make the filling:
Cream butter until soft and fluffy.
Press the egg yolks through a fine sieve into the butter and cream on high until fully incorporated.
Add the powdered sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and salt and whip until fluffy and thick.
Add cream 1 tablespoon at a time until the eggnog buttercream is spreadable.
Meanwhile, make the brown sugar and chocolate buttercream: place egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Place sugar, salt, and water in a small pot.
Begin to heat the sugar mixture on high as you whip the whites on medium speed.
When the syrup reaches 245 degrees F, your egg whites should be at firm soft peaks (almost hard peaks, but not dry).
Drizzle the syrup into the meringue with the mixer running; whip on high until cooled to body temperature.
Beat in butter one or two tablespoons at a time.
Beat buttercream on high speed until thick, glossy, and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Heat heavy cream to just barely boiling, then pour over the chopped chocolate and let sit for 5 minutes, or until mostly melted.
Whisk together until glossy and smooth and allow to cool slightly.
Whip the buttercream on high and stream in the ganache.
Add green food coloring as needed to get a dark green color.
Layer the tiers largest to smallest (you will have an extra cupcake and mini cupcake for snacks) and fill with eggnog buttercream; use a serrated knife to sculpt it into a cone shape.
Place the cake in the fridge and allow to harden.
Frost the outside with a thin layer of green, then use large and small french star tips to pipe needles.
Tint the marzipan with food coloring and dust with luster dust, if desired.
Shape marzipan into small ornaments and presents and a large star for the top of the tree.
Place them around the tree and use a lollipop stick or skewer to attach the star.
“When I’m worried
and cannot sleep
I count my blessings
instead of sheep.”
We had our first snow here in New York City this past Saturday.
I was out traipsing around with my girlfriends, dressed as a reindeer, painted-on nose and all.
Yes, I tried valiantly to rally for Santacon, a (somewhat perverse) day before Christmas when millennials around Manhattan put on Santa costumes and drink during the few December daylight hours. It’s only a little embarrassing when everyone else is doing it, but it is hugely disruptive and not quite family-friendly.
Let’s just say it didn’t exactly suit my vibe. But at least I tried! I ended the day tucked into bed in my pajamas with pumpkin sushi, tipsily facetiming my best friend. I guess I can chalk that up to a win.
(By the way: pumpkin tempura sushi is SO much better than sweet potato tempura sushi. Don’t @ me.)
P.S. If you have a few moments, please consider voting for my cookies in the Bob’s Red Mill x FeedFeed contest going on here!
Today, I’m sharing the first of multiple Christmas/holiday posts.
These chocolate orange linzer cookies are the perfect addition to your cookie boxes!
To make these, fluted rounds of dark chocolate almond dough, fragrant and buttery, are dusted with powdered sugar and sandwiched together with tart, slightly bitter orange marmalade. It’s one of my absolute favorite flavor combinations, with a perfect balance of complex flavors (and none too sweet).
If you’re at all a fan of orangettes, which are candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate, you will love these cookies! They are a fun take on traditional Linzer cookies.
This recipe makes 16 cookies; I tend to scale recipes to fit the number of cookie boxes I intend on preparing; I would likely double this recipe and save any leftovers for my family.
Top tip for gifting sweets: make like Sesame Street and count!
Count while choosing your recipes; count while buying your boxes; count while cutting/portioning your dough; count when they come out of the oven and count when they are decorated.
It really helps, especially when you’re making many types of cookies.
for the chocolate cookies:
170 grams (3/4 cup, 1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¼ teaspoon (or to taste) kosher salt
100 grams (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
80 grams (3/4 cup) almond flour or almond meal
90 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
30 grams (1/4 cup) cocoa powder
Make the cookies: beat butter on high speed with the kosher salt and granulated sugar for a full 5 minutes.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and add in the egg; beat for another full 4 minutes.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and add in the almond flour, flour, and cocoa powder.
Gently stir the dough together until homogeneous.
Gather into a ball and wrap with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes and up to one night.
If the dough is fully chilled, allow it to warm up until pliable.
Roll out to ¼ inch thickness on a well-floured surface.
Cut out 32 circles; cut smaller circles in the center of 16 of the cookies.
You can gather the scraps and re-roll as necessary.
Place onto parchment lined baking sheets and freeze until solid, at least 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Bake cookies (straight from the freezer) for 10 minutes, or until fragrant and the edges are crisping up.
Allow to cool completely.
Place the cookies with holes aside and dust them with powdered sugar.
Place a half-teaspoon of marmalade onto the bottom halves and then sandwich together.