I’m not sure I succeeded, but I tried very hard to avoid playing the dramatic Bridezilla role over the year-or-so when Mr. and I were planning our wedding. We are perfectionists about certain things (the amount of dust on our bookshelves isn’t one of them), and I am sure we annoyed a vendor or five with very specific requests or frowns at the available flatware. Throughout the process, I tried to remind myself that almost nothing could be guaranteed or set in stone, especially because some details, although arranged in advance, could only be executed in the final days before the wedding. While I admit I formed a few attachments along the way – the “disappearance” of some of the farm tables we rented for dinner was at the time, traumatizing – the one thing I clung to from the moment we began to plan the wedding was my hope to carry a bouquet of pale peonies. I knew from day one that I was asking a lot, because the wedding date was set for July, a few fortnights past the season. On the other hand, it seemed to me that brides in magazines and blogs and albums managed to carry lush bouquets of out-of-season flora. I wanted to carry peonies because my grandfather, who’d died when I was a teenager, planted tall, vibrant bushes of them along the side of his house in Long Island while I was growing up. I have always thought they are the most beautiful flowers. They look as though they are just about to fall asleep.
As the saying goes, the only way to make
god the universe, a wedding planner, a florist, or anyone with good sense laugh is to make (wedding) plans. The peonies were available up to and on the Saturday before my wedding, which was when we found out they would not be available for the following Saturday. Not from Holland, or any other place with fields of flowers cultivated at inappropriate times thanks to the miracles of modern technology, nor for all the tea in China the exorbitant price I had already decided each stem was worth. Instead, I carried pale pink garden roses. They were beautiful in their own way, and smelled luscious. I do not even like roses very much, but these were perfect roses.
This missing peonies, however, left me without a tribute to my grandfather on my wedding day. Pat was a very cool guy, with all sorts of talents, including being an excellent grandpa. He was the kind of person who chatted endlessly with children about children-things, the type of man who was patient with kids, even when he didn’t seem so patient with grown up people. He taught me how to play poker and we gambled Equal packets at a kitchen table covered with one of those plasticky tablecloths adorned with great big black and white polka dots. At Christmas, he assembled one of those villages with ceramic houses and shops arranged on cottony faux snow. The village was an intricate creation, with little roads and lamp posts and trees and cars. There were lights in some the miniature houses. I’m not sure how he could stand it when we grandkids touched it, moving the little people around, driving the cars along imaginary roads. My favorite pieces were the little blue metal mailboxes. One year, he bought an airplane that could “fly” above the village on an invisible wire. It carried a handmade banner pronouncing his love for my grandmother (Pat loves Marie).
At Christmas we also had – like everyone else – cookies. And like everyone else, I think our cookies, the cookies made by Pat, were special. My stepmom’s family had owned a bakery in Williamsburg long before the burg was synonymous with cool, and our family cookie recipes are all Italian-American classics: sweet, lightly frosted “S-cookies,” butter cookies with candied cherries pressed into them, among dozens of others. These rainbow cookies were always my favorites. They’re not really cookies, but tiny pieces of dense, rich, almond-flavored cake, with a thin layer of preserves between each color of sponge, and bittersweet coating of chocolate. I meet people all the time who have never had them, but I know very few people who have tried them and disliked them. Even better, they’re extremely festive, yet easier to make than you might imagine.
It really bummed me out that Pat couldn’t see me walk down that aisle, or meet my really cool husband. I cried a little when I found out I couldn’t carry the flowers he loved down the aisle on that special day. But it was nice to know that on this very first Christmas season of our marriage, there was a little something to remind us of him at the table.
Family members, you’ll noticed I’ve changed the directions a little, but it’s more a matter of style than substance. These are Pat’s cookies.
Depends how you cut them, I get around 30 cookies per batch (5 rows of 6 cookies)
Stand or electric hand mixer
3 square cake pans
Waxed paper or parchment paper
Three cooling racks and a scale are nice to have, but far from necessary
4 large eggs
2 sticks of butter, melted and slightly cooled, plus additional for greasing pans
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional for flouring pans
1 jar good-quality preserves (we like cherry, but raspberry is traditional, and apricot is good too)
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use these)
1 tablespoon oil
Red, green, and yellow food coloring
1. Preheat the over to 375 degrees.
2. Grease and flour three square cake pans, making sure to tap out any excess flour.
3. In a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer), beat eggs until fluffy. Add sugar. Beat. Add flour, melted and cooled butter, and almond extract. Mix until just combined.
4. Separate the batter into three bowls. This is where, if you are obsessive about getting the layers perfectly even, you might consider using three identical bowls and a scale. To the first bowl, add eight drops of red food coloring, to the next, eight drops of yellow, to the final one, eight drops of green. My father-in-law has suggested, for those interested in an all natural approach, making homemade natural dyes using chlorophyl, saffron, and beet powder. If I try that next year, I will let you know how it goes. For now, I don’t mind a teensy bit of food coloring for the sake of tradition. Mix the food coloring into each third of the batter thoroughly.
5. Pour batter into prepared baking pans. Tap pans vigorously against counter to release air bubbles. Bake for 10-12 minutes.
6. While the cakes cool, spoon the preserves into a saucepan and warm over low-to-medium heat until loose enough to spread. If your preserves have chunks, use the back of a wooden spoon to break them into rather small pieces, so as not to make the layers of the cookies uneven. If your preserves are very thick, you can thin them with a bit of corn syrup; I did not find this step necessary this year, and I think it makes the preserves too sweet.
7. Turn the first layer out onto a sheet of waxed or parchment paper (which color goes first does not matter, except I save yellow for the middle, and if I am remembering correctly, so does Lidia Bastianich). Pour or spoon some melty preserve on top, and spread using a butter knife or a small offset spatula. Place the yellow layer on top and repeat. Top with the final layer, and press down gently. You should now have a little three-layer almond and jam cake. If the edges are slightly burned, or if you’d like to have a treat to put out in a dish on your kitchen table while everyone waits for dinner, trim the edges. Here is what mine looked like with trimmed edges:
8. In a heat-proof bowl set over a shallow pan of simmering water (you can use a double boiler, but I hate them), melt the chocolate, stirring regularly. Add a scant tablespoon of oil. I left the oil out this year, which helped me realize the (really obvious) reason the recipe calls for it. Without the oil, the chocolate sets up quite hard, and the cookies do not cut as neatly. If you are a chocolate purist, go ahead, but know you’ll get prettier cookies if you put even a small amount into the chocolate.
9. Pour or spoon a little more than half of the chocolate onto the miniature layer cake. Spread across the top and along the sides, using a butter knife or small offset spatula, as though frosting a cake. When you are satisfied with your work, place the whole the in the fridge, or on a very cold windowsill, until the chocolate sets. When set, flip the cake onto a second sheet of waxed or parchment paper, and repeat on the opposite side, so that the entire cake is enrobed in chocolate. Allow this layer to set as well. If you cannot eat chocolate, I’ve seen successful variations with the white chocolate confection that’s actually not chocolate (read carefully), but honestly, I like these almost as much without the coating.
10. Use a sharp knife to cut the cake into five bars, and then to cut each bar into six cookies. Or, cut them however the hell you like them. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. Mr. and I like these best quite cold. They keep for some time, but they never last that long.
All wedding pictures in this post were taken by the wonderful Amber Wilkie.
What are your holiday cookies of choice? How do you honor or remember loved ones who are no longer living?