Excerpt from "Miriam's Kitchen"

“The work, the work was never done.  In my grandmother’s house, the housework churned like laundry viewed through a front-loading washing machine.

“My grandmother had a washing machine with a round porthole in front.  The capacity was not large.  She was annoyed to see things return to the laundry soon after seeing them there before…

“When the washer completed its cycle, she squeezed the wet things through a handwringer.  For laundry, she didn’t bother with the dumb-waiter, a rope-drawn lift that brought heavy loads from basement to upstairs hall.  In her blue-and-gray felt slippers, she ported the basket of wet wash, up the hard cellar steps.

“She leaned out her bedroom window to hang the wash, pulling a length of clothesline through the pulley, snapping on the clothespins, pushing the cord and garment away into breeze and sunshine, where it would dry.

“My mother did housework when we came to [my grandmother’s house in] New York.  My father made repairs and ran errands, we children happily in tow.  My mother cleaned the bathroom, changed beds, scrubbed floors.  She washed dishes in hot, soapy water, and when she was done, she scoured the kitchen sink.

“She worked beside her mother-in-law, hoping to please and also because there was so much to do.  There was furniture to wax, and silver to polish, and candlewax to carefully scrape from candlesticks.  There were rugs to vacuum, and shmates, rags, to shake outside and then soak in bleach in a bucket downstairs.  The corners of closets, smelling of mothballs, could not be neglected.  Glass jars were useful; they had to be washed and dried.  One never threw out a mayonnaise jar.

“We had environmentalism.  They had thrift.

“My grandmother rose at dawn.  When I got up, she already was stirring the oatmeal, already lifting out skillets and saucepans from the cupboards, and bringing butter and eggs from the icebox in the hall…

“The preparations for dinner commenced after breakfast.  The kitchen table, fully extended and layered protectively with newspapers, received a succession of peelings, pits, trimmings, offal, eggshells.  There was chopping, dicing, rolling, slicing, mixing.  Bowls and pots and implements came out, were used, got washed and dried, and were stacked securely once again.  Burners were lit, ovens heated.  Soups must be stirred and puddings timed…In mitn d’rinen – in the middle of everything – the women stopped to make everyone lunch.

“Toward dinner hour, the work became frantic.  Coordination of courses and children and table, keeping the sink always empty to receive the next lot of soiled pots, dishes, ladles and spoons.  My grandmother had, with two daughters’ help, done all this for years for a sizable household:  a husband, three children, her mother-in-law, and my dad’s youngest uncle, who slept on the living room divan when the family was young.  My mother, as a child, had helped her own mother in much the same way.

“There was serving and clearing and wrapping up food after the evening meal.  They washed, dried, inventoried, put away.  The table was wiped, the floors must be swept, the garbage put out.  The clock was ticking.  The time was late.  The women were exhausted.

“They didn’t know I was at the door when my grandmother, reminiscing, spoke:  ‘And then, you get into bed, and you’re still not finished.'”

—“Sex”, from Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich, Penguin Books 1997.

Christmas Cookies: Orange-Hazelnut Shortbread

There are two methods to getting the skins off hazelnuts, and this link will give you both. One is to roast them and rub the skins off in a dishtowel; the other is to blanch them first, rub the skins off in the sink, and then roast them. I found the latter technique much, much easier.

Orange-Hazelnut Shortbread

  • 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts (about 6 ounces), toasted, skins removed (or vice-versa)
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 2 tablespoons sanding sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Process nuts in a food processor until finely chopped, about 20 seconds (do not overprocess). Transfer nuts to a large bowl; add flour, granulated sugar, butter, zest, and salt. Mix with hands until dough just comes together and forms a ball.

Halve dough; shape each into a disk. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. With lightly floured hands, shape 1 disk into a 7-inch round, and score to mark 12 equal wedges (do not cut through). Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sanding sugar. Repeat with remaining disk and sanding sugar.

Bake, rotating halfway through, until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. While shortbread is warm, cut wedges to separate completely. Let wedges cool slightly on sheets, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Christmas Cookies: Pepparkakor (Spice Stars)

These are my absolute favorite holiday cookie. I think of them as Pepparkakor although this recipe isn't comparable to any traditional recipe that might be out there. It's my adaptation of a spice cookie I've been making for years and in my evangelical non-Scandinavian opinion, it is superior. If you want to take it outside with your recipe so we can settle this like men, have your lieutenant send a missive to mine.

For a bunch of years, it was pretty much a guarantee that nobody in the house liked these but me. It's a very spicy, not-too-sweet dough that contains both white and black pepper. A bite starts out beautifully warm, then gives you a kick. I loved them and they were all mine. Until one year when I caught Redman dipping a finger into the dough when my back was turned. 

"That's spicy," I warned, "You probably won't like it."

He tasted warily, then beamed at me. "It's great!!"

Little shit...

So according to tradition, you are supposed to put one pepparkakor cookie in the palm of your hand, make a wish and press on it. If it breaks into three pieces, your wish will come true. If it doesn't, you still have cookies.

Broken cookies are still sweet.

I'm still glad we're here.

I still love us.

Pepparkakor (Spice Stars)

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (Breathe, butter is good)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup corn syrup (Breathe. It's okay, it's Christmas. You can use dark or lite syrup. Or you could do 3/4 cup lite syrup and 1/4 cup molasses)
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 5 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom (Mmmm, yes, Debbie, yes)
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 3/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Zest of 2 oranges
  • White nonpareils, or sanding sugar

Melt butter with sugar, corn syrup and vinegar in a medium saucepan over low heat. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.

Sift flour, baking soda, spices and salt into the bowl of your mixer. On low speed, gradually add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients. Once incorporated, stir in eggs and orange zest until batter is very smooth.

Divide the dough into two portions, wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a disk and refrigerate at least 3 hours. OR freeze, this freezes very well. If frozen, let thaw in refrigerator overnight

Preheat oven to 350. Divide each disk in half, roll out on lightly flour surface. Cut shapes and transfer to baking sheet. Sprinkle with nonpareils. To keep the nonpareils from rolling and sliding all over, I give the cookies a blast of Pam before sprinkling.

Bake cookies until edges are golden brown, 7-8 minutes. Let cool on wire racks.

Divine with a cup of coffee. Celestial with a glass of red wine. Unbeatable at three in the morning when you're just passing through the kitchen to get some water.

Christmas Cookies: Ugly Earls

So mean to call them that but come on. They're delicious but they're ugly. The ground tea leaves makes the dough this really unattractive gray and the flecks of orange zest don't help.

Ugly. But yummy.

Ugly Earls

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons finely ground Earl Grey tea leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

Whisk flour, tea, and salt in a small bowl; set aside.

Put butter, sugar, and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture until just combined.

Divide dough in half. Transfer each half to a piece of parchment paper; shape into logs. Roll in parchment to 1 1/4 inches in diameter, pressing a ruler along edge of parchment at each turn to narrow the log and force out air. Transfer in parchment to paper towel tubes; freeze until firm, 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Space 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment.

Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges are golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.

Christmas Cookies: Lemon Poppyseed

These are Jeeps' favorite. They are light, lemony and just darling: the kind of small little cookie that you feel justified eating six at a time. You can make them any size, actually. They go equally well with tea, coffee or a glass of wine.

Lemon Poppyseed Crisps

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, plus 3 1/2 tsp grated lemon zest (about 3 large lemons)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp poppyseeds plus more for sprinkling

Note: lemon zest both refrigerates and freezes well. I make a lot of cookies that use citrus zest and it's a task I loathe. So along with pre-measuring dry ingredients, I take a night to zest oranges and lemons (say the bells of St. Clements) and store it until I'm ready.

Take 1 1/2 tsp of the grated lemon zest and mix it with 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl or tupperware. Set aside or put in the fridge until you are going to make the cookies.

Bring lemon juice to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until reduced by half. Add 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter and stir until melted. Set aside.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Cream together the remaining 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter and 1 cup sugar. Add egg and reserved lemon butter, mix until pale, about 3 minutes. Mix in vanilla and remaining lemon zest. Reduce speed to low. Mix in flour mixture and poppyseeds.

Empty dough onto saran wrap, flatten into a disk and chill for an hour, or freeze until ready to use (thaw frozen dough in fridge first).

Roll dough into 1" - 2" balls, depending on how darling you want your cookies to be. Roll balls in lemon zest-sugar mixture and place on baking sheets. Press each with the bottom of a glass dipped in the sugar mixture to 1/4" thickness. Sprinkle with poppyseeds.

Bake 12-13 minutes at 350 until just browned around the edges.

Christmas Cookies: Chocolate Gingerbread

This is one of the few recipes I can claim as truly my own. I used to make a chocolate-gingerbread cookie from a Martha Stewart recipe but they were never quite what I envisioned. Both my mom and I noticed the cookies never came out the same way twice, something was always slightly off.

So I went through other cookie recipes, tinkered around, and last year I hit on the perfect recipe for chewy chocolate cookies with the heat of ginger which are the pure essence of Christmas. I love them. I hope you do too.

Suanne's Chewy Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (please use Hershey's Special Dark because it is superior)
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground ginger (heaping if you like it spicy)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 4 oz melted bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger (either fresh ginger peeled and grated, or bottled pressed ginger which is what I do because grating ginger is a pain in the ass.)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips (optional)

Sift together flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cocoa, or, as I explained earlier, go fetch your ziplock bag labeled "Chocolate Gingerbread" with the pre-measured dry ingredients. Oh my God, you are SO ORGANIZED! I hate you.

In the electric mixer, cream the butter and pressed ginger until whitened, about 4 minutes, and by the way I personally make that a generous tablespoon of ginger. Add the white and brown sugar and beat until combined, then add eggs, followed by flour mixture and chocolate chips (if using).

Turn dough out onto plastic wrap, flatten into a disk, seal and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. (Or freeze.  Thaw frozen dough in fridge overnight)

Heat oven to 325. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in granulated sugar. Place on cookie sheet and bake until the surfaces start to crack, about 13-15 minutes. Transfer to wire racks.

These are at their absolute best right out of the oven while the chocolate is still gooey, with a big glass of milk. Once cooled and stored, they are ever so slightly less divine, but still pretty f'ing good. I always wonder if you could revive one in the microwave to just-out-of-oven goodness, but have never tried it. If you do, let me know.