Advent 2014: Pecan Brown Sugar Thumbprints


My mom has been making these since the 70's, and I think they might be the first cookies I ever baked. They are still completely magical. I'm not sure where the recipe came from--something like Good Housekeeping or Betty Crocker. We have always just called them "Thumbrints," but I notice most recipes use white sugar instead of brown, are sweeter, don't use nuts, and are most definitely sub-par. I can't believe they haven't made it only this blog yet. Your lucky day.

We ate these while decorating the tree tonight with my parents. Loretta whined because she was tired, Wyatt shot nerf hoops most the time, but I'm sitting here now next to the lit, ornament-festooned tree, feeling in my bones the sadness and nostalgia that will come when Yancey and I decorate the tree without them. I hope I'm able to let seasons come and go, to let the tide go in and out. The definition of "good" isn't that it lasts forever. But sometimes I want these days to last forever. And what a sweet longing that is.

Pecan Brown Sugar Thumbprints
I like to make these (and most cookies) quite small. They last longer, and all I really ever want is a bite with my coffee or tea. I have always used raspberry jam, but I had some quince jam thumbrpints at The London Plane that blew me away. Of course you can use whatever is in your pantry. Lemon curd would be delicious, too. And I added some flaked salt to the chopped nuts because I couldn't help myself. You can leave it out if you're not the salt freak that I am. 

1 c. (2 cubes) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. brown sugar (I used dark brown. Either light or dark will work.)
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 c. finely chopped pecans or walnuts
1/2 tsp. flake salt (optional)
jam or preserves 

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream together butter and brown sugar. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking soda, and salt. 

Shape dough into 1" balls. Beat egg whites slighltly. Dip balls into white then roll in chopped nuts/flake salt mixture. Place cookies about 1" apart on parchment-lined baking sheets and press thumb deeply into the center of each. Bake until light brown, about 10 minutes. Cool thoroughly, then fill with jam or preserves. 

*If you check on the cookies before they're done baking and notice that the thumb indents are puffing up, you can stick your finger or a spoon in there and gently press down again so you've got maximum room for jam when they are done.

Toffee Bars

Toffee bars

Back when this blog began (Four years ago. Can it be?), I felt some sort of compunction to vary my entries--cookies one week, soup the next, perhaps. Now, in my blogging dotage, I've realized what you have known all along. That this blog is really for me--my ramblings, my musings, my opining. And yes, my cookie baking. Variation be damned.

Loretta has an art room off the kitchen, and she is constantly--every spare second, some days--creating things. Books, paintings, 3D kites and houses, cards. After each one, she puts down her pens, runs to me, and says, "Look, Mom! It's for you!" When I'm being a good mother, I stop what I'm doing, hold her creation, and tell her what I like about it. And then I hang it up in my office. (Don't worry, fellow mothers. I then recycle most of it the next day. She has a short memory.)

But the excitement is in the creating, and that's what filling up the cookie jar does for me. If everything else in my week fell flat--I said the wrong thing to my client, I forgot to send Wyatt's field trip money, I fell asleep during every meditation attempt--at least I baked. It has a beginning, an end, and I can say to my children, "Look! It's for you!"

In a world of consumption, it's increasingly important that we create something. I have friends who are creating geniuses. They sew, they build chicken coops, they felt. And I'm so inspired by them. But you don't have be a DIY person to create! Or go spend a bunch of money on objects that will allow you to "live simply and beautifully." Maybe you arrange the cheese and crackers in your children's lunchbox. Or send a letter, assemble a colorful vegetable platter, or make a shrine of found objects in your office. Something that reminds you of your power to impact the world around you. All of us have that power, but screens and chatter and perfectionism drown it out sometimes.

As for me, you know where I'll be. Thumbing through Alice Medrich's cookie book, looking for something that will survive the tumult of a kid's lunchbox. These did the trick this week.

P.S. Wyatt got a lead role in his school musical, "Once Upon a Mattress." After counless rehearsals, the productions were this week. Look at this 10 year old putting himself out there. Blowing me away. 


 Toffee Bars
More from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich. These are crazy easy.

For the crust:
12 Tb. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/3 c. sugar 
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
2 1/4 c. flour
2 c. pecan halves

For the topping:
1 Tb. water
3/4 c. packed light brown sugar
8 Tb. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
2/3 to 1 c. milk or dark chocolate chips (I used 60%, but I think milk would be delicious, too)

Line a 9x13 metal pan, bottom and all 4 sides, with foil. Prehat oven to 350.

To make the crust, cut the butter into chunks and melt it in a large saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar, vanilla, and salt. Add the flour and mix just until incorporated. Scatter the pecans over the dough without pressing them into it. Lay an extra piece of foil over the nuts to allow them to toast without buring while the crust is baking.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned at the edges. While the crust is baking, make the topping.

To make the topping, combine the water and brown sugar in a small saucepan and whisk until the sugar is moistened. Heat the mixture over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally Whisk in the butter and remove from the heat.

When the crust is ready, whisk the topping until smooth. Remove the foil from the crust and scrape the hot butter mixture over the pecans on the crust. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the topping is dark and bubbling vigorously. Remove the pan from the oven and scatter the chocolate chips evenly over the top. Cool the bars in the pan. Lift the ends of the foil iner and transfer to a cutting board. Use a long sharp knife to cut into 24 bars.  

Pecan Sour Cream Coffeecake

sour cream coffee cake

Rich, Mary, and family came up last weekend. It's the first time we've been together in Bellingham since we moved. At our 800 square foot house in Seattle, all 9 of us in one place would have been physically impossible without a tent in the yard. It's hard to describe how wonderful it felt to host THEM, for once. The kids ran around willy nilly and we very loosely kept an eye on them while we drank coffee all day and caught up on months of news and musings.

Rich and Mary are one of my most appreciative cooking audiences. They swoon over everything and don't complain about the carnage I leave in my wake. I'm really, really speedy in the kitchen. As Yancey will tell you, that's partly because "Clean as you go!" is not a mantra of mine. (But I'm getting better. We've had the serious conversation where I say, "If it's important to you, it's important to me." That's marriage in a nutshell.) So Mary (cheerfully) did a lot of dishes. But with the walls we knocked down, it doesn't matter! We are still all together. Thank you, Universe, for this house and all the people it's hosted already. The fact that it's only half done hasn't stopped us at all.

I always joke that I'm not a brunch fan. Who would ever want to combine two meals into one?! Let's eat all three, at LEAST. But a weekend with friends is why brunch was invented--no one is paying attention to the clock, there's no pressure or plans, and it meant we could go out for "dinner" at 4:30 with all the kids. (Fiamma Burger, of course.)

I'll bet your mother or your aunt used to make a coffee cake like this--tons of sour cream, a layer of nut struesel in the middle. Nigella Lawson has a cake she calls, "Cut and Come Again." Cut some big wedges for brunch, leave the rest on the counter, and find a plate of crumbs at the end of the day.

Pecan Sour Cream Coffeecake
Adapted from Ina Garten. I used one cup of sour cream and one cup of nonfat Greek yogurt because that's what I had in the fridge. If you used all Greek yogurt, I'd recommend that at least half of it be the whole milk kind. And you could sub walnuts or almonds for the pecans.

For cake:
12 Tb. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. sour cream (or 1 c. sour cream and 1 c. Greek plain yogurt)
3 extra large eggs at room temperature
2 1/2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt 

For struesel:
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. pecans, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. cinnamon

For icing:
3/4 c. powdered sugar
3 Tb. real maple syrup 

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour a bundt pan.

Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Add eggs one at at a time, then add vanilla and sour cream. 

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Finish stirring with a spatula to make sure the batter is completely mixed.

For the struesel, combine nuts, sugar, salt, and cinnamon.

Spoon half the batter into the pan and spread it out with a knife. Sprinkle the struesel topping over and top with the rest of the batter. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Let cool for at least 30 minutes, then turn out on a plate. Stir powdered sugar and maple syrup together. Mixture will be quite thick. Spread it on, and a bit will start to run down the sides. Cut and come again.

Buttermilk Orange Pecan Cookies

Pecan orange cookies 

I remember reading Molly Wizenberg's post,"CILTE" (Crap I Like to Eat). She hadn't cooked in eons, especially not anything blog readers would be much interested in. In fact, she was eating peanut butter sandwiches for every meal and generally finding herself with not an ounce of energy for kitchen creativity. At times like that, she said, she lists to herself all the things she likes to make and eat, reminding herself the world of food is still out there, still real, but just hibernating for awhile.

My CILTE list has always included these cookies. When it seems like my bag of tricks is empty, I've often thought, "There's always the orange pecan cookies. I can't believe I haven't trotted those out yet." Readers, I guess it's your lucky day. I'm pulling out what may be my last trick (until I scrounge for something tomorrow).

This is my great grandmother's recipe from Louisville, Kentucky. My mom made them for us many times growing up, and sometimes they'd even be warm from the oven when we came home from school. I've always intended to keep up the warm cookie tradition now that Wyatt is school-age, but I've only delivered a couple times. The timing is tricky, and I'm always pooped by 4:00. I admire her feat even more now.

These cookies are similar in texture to these all-time favorites--more like a mini cake than a cookie. Because they are not not too sweet, the icing is essential, and they are best eaten within a day or two after making them. Somehow, when I sit down with an afternoon cup of coffee and one of these, those after-school moments around the island in our family kitchen don't seem so far away.

Buttermilk Orange Pecan Cookies

Makes 3 1/2-4 dozen cookies. If you are allergic to nuts or just don't like them in baked goods, you can leave the pecans out. (Although I can't imagine these cookies without them, of course). It's important to watch these really closely in the oven, as with all cookies. You want the bottoms lightly browned and the tops just done. And wait to frost them until they are completely cool, otherwise you'll end up with a puddle of melted butter.

For cookies:

1 1/2 c. brown sugar
1 c. unsalted butter
2 eggs
3 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 Tb. baking powder
1 c. buttermilk
1 1/2 c. toasted pecans
finely grated rind of one orange
1 tsp. vanilla

For icing:

juice of one large orange, pulp strained
3 c. powdered sugar
1/2 c. unsalted butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350. Cream brown sugar and butter together in an electric mixture until smooth, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add eggs, beating after each addition. Add vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder.

With mixer running, add buttermilk and flour mixture alternately in 3 additions each. Add one cup of the pecans, and mix until everything is just incorporated.

Drop by tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake until just done, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely before icing.

To make icing and finish cookies:

Beat orange juice, butter, and powdered sugar together until smooth. It may be a little bit grainy, but don't worry about it. If you're not ready to use it yet, put it in the fridge and stir every five minutes so it doesn't harden too much.

Generously spread each cookie with icing, and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 c. chopped pecans over the top.


Pecan Crunch Pumpkin Muffins

Pumpkin Muffins

I woke up this morning feeling content. Sometimes my anxieties come flooding in before my feet hit the floor. On good mornings, I don't let myself get out of bed until I've formed some intentions for the day--to be grateful and mindful, to be kind to the children, friends, or clients in my sphere. And today, one of my intentions was to bake.

I found this recipe on Foodgawker. Foodgakwer is a (favorite)  juried site where food bloggers can submit photos. (You can find In Praise of Leftovers gallery here.) I like searching for recipes on it because 1) All the thumbnail photos pop up and I can compare recipes 2) I'm exposed to great food blogs I didn't know about and 3) Going to the site is always a visual treat. I chose these for the crunchy topping. The kids downed two apiece and I took the rest to church. My friend Dawn was sitting across the table eating one and praised them. She said, "Wow, you just lit up! Nothing makes you happier than cooking for people." And she's right.

These are just what I want in a pumpkin muffin--heavy on the pumpkin, moist, sweet, and a crunchy streusel that elevates them above your average version.

Pecan Crunch Pumpkin Muffins
Makes 18. Adapted from Once Upon a Chef .
You can leave off the topping, but I think they'd be much less interesting. If you don't want nuts, you can sub old-fashioned oats for the nuts and still get a nice streusel.

For Topping
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup demerara sugar (raw cane sugar, also called turbinado)
½ cup chopped pecans
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

For Muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup  granulated sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 15-ounce can 100% pure pumpkin

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two standard muffin pans.

For Topping: Combine flour, butter, demerara sugar, chopped pecans and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.

For Muffins: Combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg in a medium bowl and mix well. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugars at low speed until just blended. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; continue beating at medium speed until very light and fluffy, a few minutes. Add pumpkin and beat until combined, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Turn speed down to low and mix in flour mixture until just combined. Use an ice cream scoop to transfer batter to muffin pans, filling each muffin tin about ¾ full. Sprinkle topping evenly over batter. Bake for about 30 minutes. Let cool on rack for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool completely (use a butter knife to lift them out of pan).

Zucchini Pecan Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

cake for karl

There is nothing dramatic about this cake. A simple 9 inch round, one bowl to mix it in, getting crazy with a little cinnamon in the traditional cream cheese frosting. In other words, my kind of dessert.

golden round

The sort to make for a weeknight dinner guest. Our longtime friend Karl is leaving Seattle by way of a 'round the world trip. Of course he's endured his fair share of Eat, Pray, Love jokes, but he's in a different category, I assure you. The category of working to get through grad school, getting a job helping homeless folks find housing, and now risking like crazy to leave all that. We are going to miss him, and nothing says, "Don't forget about us!" like food. He requested puttanesca for dinner and this cake was (surprise!) concocted based on my produce drawer. (By the way, if you're interested in a spot-on commentary on the whole Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon--i.e. "How was that trip funded?!"--click here. I love it when the author says that most of us need to have our epiphanies in the middle of everyday life. Or in the middle of sheer survival.)

For Karl, on his grand adventure. May he, with joy, be thrown into the highs and lows, the sights and smells, the loneliness and companionship that such a trip can bring. And for the rest of us, on our grand adventures. Maybe it's making a cake for the first time. Maybe it's saying "no" to something we've always wanted to refuse. Maybe it's settling into the very UNadventurous reality of our own lives and--miracle of miracles--being content there.


Zucchini Pecan Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
I love that this cake uses olive oil instead of vegetable oil to moisten it. Like the recipe says, don't use extra virgin. I usually have some milder stuff around for uses like this. I love the very slightest hint of depth it gives the cake. If you don't have a mild olive oil in your pantry, I'd sub vegetable oil before you throw in an expensive extra virgin variety. And I didn't have a 9" pan with 2" sides, so used a 9" springform instead. It worked beautifully.