We always think there’ll be more time

Well, I do. I don’t really know about you. But I assume, incorrectly most often, that I will see a friend again, have a chance to express my love more adequately, catch up on what’s going on in her life. And I let time slip by, and I don’t.

I lost a dear one yesterday. Suddenly and unexpectedly and … but these things happen, and I should have known better.

My house is full of little reminders of her. There’s a photo of her on a NYC bus with her youngest son on my desk. I’m sitting, right now, next to a box half-full of alpaca yarn she sent me after a recent trip to Ecuador. In our living room, the other half of that yarn is on needles for two sleeves and the body of a cardigan. There are reminders of her in my kitchen, in the room where Kate plays the piano, in the little box of earrings I keep on a dresser, and even in the basement where I’ve stored a bunch of the boxes and packing materials she gave me and used to help me pack up our breakables in our Queens apartment when I really really really could not face leaving NYC and her behind. She is not the only person to have so permeated our lives, but she is one of the very best.

I am so grateful that she sent me the yarn. There had been a long lull in our conversations and correspondence. You see? I thought we had more time. That gift out of the blue caused me to write her a letter of gratitude. I hope she saw it before she left us.

She made me a better person. More brave, more confident, more generous, more realistic and yet more hopeful. Do you feel the vacuum she’s left in the world? It’s all I can feel at the moment and, I suspect, for a very long time to come.

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And then there were none.

I deliberately saved the “stained glass” Christmas cookie recipe for last, primarily because it was clear by late summer that I would probably be winding up this bit of insanity by the end of 2013, and I thought it might be fun to have cookies that are clearly Christmas cookies in December rather than in August or May. Another reason? Hard candy. We are not big fans of hard candy here. We enjoy having all of our teeth in relatively healthy condition, and frankly, just the thought of making cookies using dark brown sugar and light corn syrup, and then adding crystalline panes of color via broken bits of hard candy made my teeth hurt. I really didn’t think we would like them at all. Also, I thought these cookies would be hard. Hard as in difficult, complicated, and time-consuming to make. So I kept putting this recipe off, and it wound up being last.

This past Sunday afternoon, Bruce and I unwrapped a pound of hard candy, sorting the four colors (red, orange, yellow and green) into four different plastic bags. I carried the bags to the basement, putting them on a towel on the workbench and smacked each sphere with a hammer, breaking them into chunks whilst trying not to crush them into a powder that would melt to an opaque pane with too little color. I won’t lie. I found that activity a bit cathartic.

Then I mixed the cookie batter, lined cookie sheets with aluminum foil, rolled out the dough and played with my cookie cutters. The dough has to be about 1/4 of an inch thick, so rolling it out wasn’t too difficult. The bridges between the panes of “glass” had to be at least 1/4 of an inch wide, so the unbaked cookie shapes were easy to transfer to the cookie sheets without them breaking apart. Turns out this task was more play than work. Add to that filling the spaces with colorful broken candy bits and then painting on the egg white, and well. It was fun!

Brushed with egg white for an overall shine, these glistening confections are essentially sugar cookies. They are buttery, rich with vanilla and delicious. The gimmick of the candy panes is not overpowering, unless of course you dislike smiling. Because they will make you smile. They are fun and sweet in a sentimental way more than a knock-your-socks-off sugary way. If you cannot stomach the thought of eating them, you can bore a hole in each and thread them with ribbon for hanging on a tree or in your window. Cookies that can double as suncatchers and ornaments! I thought I would be throwing away the leftover crushed candy bits but no. I think I will have to make these again. Although maybe not this year. How long does hard candy keep?

And that’s that. The end of Sharon Tyler Herbst’s The Joy of Cookies. I have not put the book away, however. I left it open on the kitchen counter-top book-stand at the double fudge brownie page. There are mocha and double chocolate chunk variations I think we will have to try. In 2014. At our leisure.

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Biscotti d’anici

Sharon Tyler Herbst claims this version of biscotti originates in Venice and is beloved by both northern and southern Italians. There are many variations on the recipe. The version Ms. Herbst provides, laden with sliced, toasted almonds and lightly flavored with anise seed and fresh lemon and orange zest, can be dipped in melted semisweet chocolate. Or not. But why ever not?

Twice baked and intensely crunchy, these are best dunked in coffee or hot chocolate to soften them up a bit. Ms. Herbst also suggests dunking them in dessert wine, but that might be going a bit far. As for biscotti d’anici? It’s Italian for cookies of anise. How’s that for straightforward?

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Basler Brunsli

Named for Basel, Switzerland, these chocolate meringue cookies are unusually spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. After whipping up the meringue base, I folded it into a mix of ground almonds, cocoa powder, finely grated semi-sweet chocolate and a bit of Kirsch. The resulting dough is to be rolled out and cut into shapes. Ignoring Sharon Tyler Herbst’s instructions to use a floured, sugared surface and rolling pin and to grease the baking sheets, I used the skills I gained baking Zimtsterne, and rolled the batter out between two layers of parchment paper sprinkled with powdered sugar. After cutting out the cookie shapes, I placed them on two cookie sheets lined with parchment paper that I had sprinkled with granulated sugar. The cookies need to sit out at room temperature for several hours before baking. The result? A crusty outside with a soft and chewy inside. A lovely sensation for a delicious cookie!

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Rosquillas

These cookies taste and look just like little donuts, and with a name like rosquillas, that’s a good thing because it is Spanish for, you guessed it! Donuts. But these are not your ordinary donuts. No nutmeg or cinnamon here. These are fragrant with rum-soaked anise seeds. What’s that you say? Ew? Actually, no. Yum. These were surprisingly very good, and to prove it, we did not share them. Not with anyone.

Sharon Tyler Herbst cautions that the 375F temperature requirement for deep-fat frying is crucial to keep the cookies from becoming grease-soaked rings of soggy dough. Or alternatively, extra-crisp dark brown inedibles. And years and years of experience making donuts with my dad told me she was correct. Thankfully I still have a handy old-fashioned candy/deep frying thermometer and it worked like a charm.

Smaller than donuts, these anise-rum rings are formed by rolling tablespoon-sized mounds of dough into five-inch-long ropes and joining the ends. After the fried rings cooled, I dipped half of each in powdered sugar. Again I say: Yum. No wonder they are long gone.

Oh stop. It’s not like I made them yesterday! I made these cookies just before Thanksgiving. I’m slow with the writing, if not so much with the eating. And to be completely fair, the recipe does not yield more than a few dozen. Also, I don’t live alone.

There are three recipes left, people. Plus a few variations on some that I’ve done and have yet to try, but I don’t think we need to count those, right? Please? Particularly as a few of those variations are on recipes I would really rather not revisit. Rosewater? Shudder.

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Hálfmánar

Sharon Tyler Herbst calls these tender fruit-filled cookies one of the prettiest in her chapter on holiday treats. They are small, almost bite-sized, and filled with lekvár, which here in the United States is typically prune butter but in Central and Eastern Europe can be any fruit preserve. They could also be filled with rhubarb.

The dough is lightly-sweet and pastry-like, made with cold butter cut into a mixture of flour, powdered sugar, baking powder, salt and cardamom. An egg yolk beaten with vanilla extract holds the crumbly mix together for rolling out. Once the shapes were cut, filled and folded, I brushed each with egg white and sprinkled them with coarse sugar before baking.

These delicate, delicious cookies are Icelandic in origin. Hálfmánar means crescents or half-moons.

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Carrying each other

Buckle up! With apologies. This is long and a little meandering.

I began writing this post shortly after Christmas of 2012. There was a lot going on at the time. Grief felt like an unwelcome house-guest who had not had the good sense to move along to her next stay in a timely manner; it was tangible and immovable. I meant to talk about how we take care of one another in life, not just fellow family members, but friends, and even strangers though not as often, going out of our way to lift each other through, around and over life’s frequent hurdles. But the grief thing was large post-Newtown and post-West Webster, and I did not want to be flippant or inadvertently trivialize others’ pain, and so I stopped writing and saved this as a draft to maybe come back to another day.

Another day. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my own little hurdle that put a crimp in my holiday style and at least three months of the new year in 2013. I fell out of a house when leaving a party (Remember the avulsion fracture?) and although I know I landed on a sidewalk coated with pitch from nearby pines, I also landed on something else. Something less expected. Which is silly, because really it was there all along.

I did not lie on the sidewalk coated with pitch for long. I was lifted by friends, helped back into the house, counseled through my shock and surprise, properly iced, conveyed to an emergency room, and kept company while I waited for Bruce to arrive. At midnight. And for hours after.

I learned (again!) that I am not comfortable being the center of attention, and that I do not like receiving care so much as giving it. But I learned too that it can be a gift to another to receive that person’s care, and I tried very hard to settle into that. Because I very much needed that person’s care. Of course, I still needed to make the other comfortable — go ahead, ask Amy Jo whether we laughed more than anyone else in the emergency room — but I’m learning.

I am done recovering from that fall. My right foot’s proprioception is back in full and my ankle is almost fully flexible. I have been told that its flexibility will never be 100% and that the damaged tendon will no doubt one day fail me again, but I am doing my best to keep it strong. As for the proprioception — that unconscious, internal thing all the bones and connective tissues do to keep us upright no matter the terrain — it is something we take for granted (duh), so much so that I did not know the word until my right foot had to relearn the skill. Now I do not even think about how to balance on my right foot whilst putting on my left foot’s sock, nor how to navigate an uneven lawn or sidewalk or a beachful of sand. But as recently as late April I was still deliberately mindful when performing the former, and even in early August cautious about the latter when someone’s arm was not nearby or my ankle was not properly laced up in a brace. Until I lost proprioceptors, I did not realize how wonderfully made the foot is.

Here’s the thing. I think there’s such a thing as community proprioception: an unconscious, internal thing that all of the participants in a group or town or society do to keep their collective self healthy, prosperous, and chugging nicely along. And when that breaks down, when there is a tear, a gash in the fabric of humanity, we instinctively reach arms across the divide and carry one another through, back into the house, counseling through the shock and surprise, icing the wounds, conveying wherever necessary, keeping company, standing with, etc. We begin right away relearning, rebuilding our communal proprioception, our trust in each other. Which can take an awful long time for some, and is natural as breathing for others. As I think on the anniversary of my insignificant little personal tragedy, and as we are about to observe the anniversaries of tragedies of inconceivable proportions, I am reminded of two things, one is an article by Nestor Ramos from our local paper from late December of 2012. I hope the link works for you. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful piece about caring for one another in the midst of communal grief and shock.

Nestor Ramos: We need to keep carrying each other.

The other is this poem by John Wain which has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in the late 1970s.

This Above All is Precious and Remarkable

This above all is precious and remarkable.
How we put ourselves in one another’s care,
How in spite of everything we trust each other.

Fishermen at whatever point they are dipping and lifting
On the dark green swell they partly think of as home
Hear the gale warnings that fly to them like gulls.

The scientists study the weather for love of studying it,
And not specially for love of the fishermen,
And the wireless engineers do the transmission for love of wireless,

But how it adds up is that when the terrible white malice
Of the waves high as cliffs is let loose to seek a victim,
The fishermen are somewhere else and so not drowned.

And why should this chain of miracles be easier to believe
Than that my darling should come to me as naturally
As she trusts a restaurant not to poison her?

They are simply examples of well-known types of miracle,
The two of them,
That can happen at any time of the day or night.

Ok. I feel better now. Thank you for your patience. I promise to go back to cookie posts very soon.

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