For all my devotion to detective shows, especially of the British variety, I would have made a crappy detective. The clues were all there: my uncle complaining their Christmas lunch will be a small one this year; my sister explaining why she wouldn’t be spending Christmas with my mom; my mother inadvertently telling me she would reciprocate a friend’s dinner when she got back from the States (and me thinking dementia was setting in – why on earth would she wait until next October??). Let’s call it distraction on my part, and my mind being otherwise engaged this holiday season.
In the end, both my friend Silvia and my mother couldn’t hold it in any longer and spilled the beans of what was supposed to be a surprise: they were both coming to spend Christmas in Los Angeles with me.
The original plan had been for me to go to Italy this winter – it has been about 15 years since I spent a white Christmas, partly because the thought of the intense cold, humidity and darkness deterred my Californian butt from making the trip. But, let it be age or forgetfulness of how unpleasant European winters can be, I was becoming nostalgic for the marathon Christmas lunches that would segue into dinners; for the cacophony of voices, laughter, children’s screams and for my aunt’s dessert table; I wanted to repeat the experience while the elders were still alive.
Then cancer intervened and, now that my weeks are punctuated by doctors’ appointments and interminable phone calls with my insurance company, taking a couple of weeks off wasn’t an option.
“How could I let you spend Christmas on your own?” my mother, a bit dramatically, thus justified her decision over the phone.
“I decided we would bring you Christmas” Silvia chimed in.
Suddenly, my holidays, that I was dreading, looked immensely brighter and the thought of having my Italian loved ones under my roof finally spurred me into Christmas action: the tree was purchased, uncharacteristically early for me, and decorated; gifts were ordered online and even the holiday cookies tradition was dragged out of retirement. This year, doctors and nurses and colleagues at the hospital where I both volunteer and am being treated would be the recipients of this year’s whimsy. Packaged in Chinese to go boxes. Just because.
But I decided to keep it simple – the elves were in a hurry and I am trying not to tire myself into exhaustion. Meringues, chocolate and coconut haystacks cookies, and chocolate cookies to which I added espresso powder for a more adult version, the latter a holiday recipe a New York Times reader sent into the paper years ago which works beautifully.
I love the intense chocolate-y flavor, deepened by the espresso that cuts into the sugar. Out of laziness, I also eschewed the royal icing and went with powder sugar, to remind me of the snow I will not be seeing this year.
Let the holidays begin.
1 1/2 C flour (180g)
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder (11g)
1/2 ts baking powder (2g)
1/4 ts baking soda (1.5g)
a pinch of salt
8 T butter, softened (113g)
1 C sugar (200g)
1 ts vanilla extract
1 ts instant espresso powder, dissolved in 1/2 ts of hot water (2g)
3 oz unsweetened or very dark chocolate, melted (85g)
- Sift together the dries and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the egg, vanilla and espresso mixture. Continue beating and add the melted chocolate.
- On a very low speed, add the dry ingredients in two additions and stop the mixer as soon as the dough comes together. Remove it from the bowl, divide it in two disks, wrap them in plastic and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
- Heat the oven to 350F/180C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Roll out the chilled dough between two pieces of parchment or waxed paper until fairly thin (3/16 of an inch/about 3 mm). Cut the dough into desired shapes with cookie cutters, lift them with the help of a small offset spatula and transfer them to the baking sheets, leaving some space in between each cookie (they expand a bit).
- Bake for about 10 minutes, rotating the sheets half-way through, until the cookies look set. Let cool and dust them with powder sugar (or decorate with royal icing).