Today, I started to understand why people can freak out about Christmas presents.
I’ve been meaning to make these cookies since September. Actually, longer than that. After I read the advance copy of Diana Abu Jaber’s incredible novel, Birds of Paradise, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. As in, I really couldn’t stop thinking about it. I walked through my days hoping that Avis would leave her perfect world of spun sugar and open her emotions to her husband, who was grieving alone in the other room. I wondered, agonized, what it would be like to have a teenage daughter somewhere in the world, maybe close, sleeping on the streets, and knowing there was no way to help her. My heart throbbed in my chest, thinking about it.
This novel does what few do for me anymore: it slithered under my skin and became part of my cells. I read so many novels that leave me cold now. It’s funny — I was a fiction girl the first thirty years of my life. I coveted Penguin paperbacks of the British classics like I did Beatles records. Jane Eyre was never merely words on a page. Holden Caulfield still feels real to me. Virginia Woolf always seemed to find the words I never could.
But modern fiction? It feels so thin. There are wonderful exceptions, of course. (I loved Geoffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex so much that I actually threw it against the wall when I finished. “F– you for being done!” I shouted, then I burst into tears.) But generally, the voice is so thin, so transparently “writerly.” Rarely anymore does a new novel move into my life and make me look through new eyes.
But this book, this Birds of Paradise, it just cut right through me. Maybe it’s because I have a daughter, a darling three-year-old who spent part of this evening asking me to blow bubbles, then giggling as she ran through them, back and forth, again and again. But she’s also learning how to roll her eyes at me when she doesn’t like what I’m saying. None of us is immune. We could end up with the teenager on the street, silent, no longer giggling, no longer really ours. So I read this book with a dreading heart, uplifted by the beauty.
I wanted to do this reading experience justice. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. How did the shy bookworm girl with a huge love of books become a woman who can influence some people to buy more books? I know that some of you like to hear what we like. This book? This book I love. I want you to buy it.
So I planned to make these cookies. The recipe isn’t in the book, but Diana was kind enough to send it to me. We talk back and forth on Twitter, which still amazes me. These cookies are the only homey ones that the character Avis makes. They’re crisp and taste of butter and sugar. They’re sweet without being cloying. They’re filled with flavors and relatively simple. These cookies are the ones Avis makes for her daughter, bringing her a tin full whenever they are supposed to meet. Often, she returns home with that tin still full.
September. I’ve had the recipe since September. Why haven’t I made them before today? Why didn’t I plan ahead and make a beautiful photograph of them, in full light, lined up perfectly so you would be tempted to make them?
Life got in the way.
As the day proceeded, after I made the dough this morning and let it sit in the refrigerator, I started to grow worried. Buying groceries at the store took much longer than normal. There were so many people trying to buy food that the employees regulated a line snaking around the frozen section. I watched a woman with a cane dangling from her cart, leaning heavily against it, in line in front of me. No one turned to her and said, “Why don’t you go before me?” Everyone is in such a hurry right now.
Everything I did, every errand I ran, was good. Even full of joy. I baked and cooked and dipped grapefruit peels in chocolate. The dishes piled up. There was still much more to do.aDanny and I are happy to be making a Christmas possible for a family that can’t afford one this year. Buying shoes for the kids made me so happy. (I don’t give a damn about anything I get anymore.) The car was filled with sunlight when I delivered bags of treats to my closest friends on the island. I’m so damned grateful that these women are in my life.
And through it, I thought, “I have to get home to make those cookies look good.”
I missed the light. I took this photo at dusk, just after 4, outside, straining for any last rays. It’s not a very good photograph. At first, I was sort of disappointed in myself. I blew it. I blew it for Diana.
But then, I started driving, to pick up Lu. The darkness was gathering fast as I moved toward town. The bright lights threaded through bushes and trees outside our neighbors’ homes danced against that black sky. There was a good song on the radio. I could my feel my shoulders relax.
And it hit me — this is why people go into such frenzies of shopping, losing the point of any part of this season. It’s easy for some of us to rail against the commercialism, the ridiculousness of the pile of presents when there are so many other people suffering with little to nothing. But it’s all a cliche, at this point — the madness of midnight sales as well as the good-hearted complaining about the people who buy stuff. Yes, I think we all get sucked into this season, thinking we have to be perfect, organized, more than we are. But at the heart of it is deep caring.
I loved this novel. I deeply admire Diana Abu Jaber. I want you to buy her book. And these cookies? As Danny just said to me, “Those cookies are damned good.”
If the photograph isn’t perfect, will that keep you from thinking about it?
It’s easy to lose ourselves in the notion that the perfect present, or perfect number of them, will make these holidays more meaningful. But it’s to forget that it’s generally out of love.
When I picked up Lu from her school, the warm lights of the schoolroom were a balm against the darkness. We bid goodbye to her teachers, eager to go on their vacation. She and I held hands on the way to the car, talking all the way. In the dark of the car, I asked her how her day was. “It was good, Mama. Thank you for asking!”
I laughed out loud. That, right there, was the biggest gift.
Tomorrow, Danny, Lu, and I will see dear friends here for breakfast. Then we’ll drop off presents and masses of food to this family with whom we have connected. In the afternoon, we’ll head to my parents’ home for a day and a half of games, food, fires, waiting for Santa, opening presents, and laughing.
It really will be the being together that will be the best part. But this year, I’m welcoming it all. Imperfect photographs, too many presents, staying up late to wrap, opening gifts too late to eat a decent breakfast so everyone growing a little cranky, having to leave too early because Danny has to go to work early on Monday morning.
We’re damned lucky to be here. That is enough.
We’ll be taking a little break from blogging to be with our families and just live for a week or two. Danny, Lucy, and I wish you all wonderful holidays, whatever you celebrate. Have a great new year. See you in 2012.
GLUTEN-FREE CHOCOLATE-GINGER SHORTBREAD COOKIES
This one is pretty darned easy. If you want, you could make the dough Christmas Eve morning and bake them by the evening. You’ll see that I’ve given you the AP flour (use whatever blend works for you), as well as white rice flour and cornstarch. Rice flour is traditional to Scottish shortbread. Cornstarch makes these cookies a little more crisp than they would be without it.
Enjoy. These really are wonderful cookies.
170 grams (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup fine sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split down the middle and scraped out
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water
140 grams AP flour (we used sorghum, sweet rice, and potato starch)
70 grams white rice flour
70 grams cornstarch
1 teaspoon psyllium husk
Put the butter cubes into the bowl of a stand mixer. Run the mixer until the butter is creamy. Add the sugar and salt. Cream them together until they are light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing until each one is incorporated. Add the vanilla extract, the vanilla scrapings, and the orange flower water. Mix. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Whisk together the gluten-free flours and the psyllium. Slowly, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until the flour is fully incorporated. Give it a minute or two — the dough will look too dry at first. As you let the mixer run, however, the dough will come together.
Remove the dough from the bowl. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts. From each part into a log about 10 inches long. Wrap the logs of dough in wax or plastic paper. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight, ideally.
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup minced candied ginger
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate shaved or chopped into tiny bits
Preheat the oven to 325°F. On a large plate, combine the sugar, cocoa, gingers,
and chocolate and mix. Set aside.
Cut a dough log into about twenty disks. Firmly press each disk into the cocoa
mixture. If it’s hard to make the sugars, sprinkle or press them on top of each disk.
Place disks cocoa side up on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake the cookies until they are starting to be firm to the touch and golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the cookies to a cooling rack and allow them to cool.
Makes about 40 cookies.