But for me, one of the constituents of a good life is the ability to find pleasure in the small things. A good jam for your toast in the morning. A chutney that is made from apples you gathered last fall...These are seemingly unimportant things, and they won't change the world, but the sum of happiness in one's life is often made up of such details. -Diana Henry (Sugar Salt Smoke)
Sometimes you just need to take a step back and remove yourself from the chaos. For the past week, I've been doing exactly this, largely working from home. In part, this has been due to a strange set of circumstances that have seemingly conspired against me: the pup's surgery (to prevent me from becoming a grandmother prematurely), relentless rain and, after one of the worst meetings I've ever had with a student in my fairly short teaching career, an overwhelming desire to disengage from the madness of finals week. As much as I appreciate the "misery loves company" camaraderie that takes over the university at this time of year, I also can't help but feel that the dissertation writing experience makes you feel somewhat divorced from it. My deadlines are less firm, my feelings toward the whole enterprise too tainted by both own my doubts about this juggling act and my students' unrelenting (and exhausting) focus on grades. It can really take the enjoyment out of things...despite the fact that this is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year."
For numerous years, it's seemed that academia just hasn't gotten the holiday themed memo. Or maybe it's more that it's determined to play the Grinch to my holiday loving Cindy Lou Who. Fortunately for me, as I've discovered after years of mental toil, there's no better way of repairing one's tattered and battered self than by baking. And, at this time of year, what could be more appealing than cookies? This, after all, is their season to shine. They're right up there with the lofty holiday concepts of joy, miracles and, most appealing of all, renewal.
And so, armed with finely ground hazelnuts, cocoa powder, sea salt and the latest issue of Saveur, which highlights a German Christmas celebration, I set about leaving the world of grade disputes behind and restoring my holiday spirit. When I had first received this issue in the mail, I marveled at how enchanting a Munich bathed in snow and with thousands of twinkling lights could look. I was immediately overcome by the urge to hop on a plane and find myself in the center of a snowy Christmas market surrounded by sausage vendors and mulled wine stands. Given the price of plane tickets these days, however, I decided I could simply recreate centuries of tradition at home with the help of German Christmas cookies. Although I was initially tempted by both little shortbread stars covered in chocolate and the jammy thumbprints sprinkled with powdered sugar, my baker's heart leapt with joy at the promise of Nusstaler, i.e. Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Cookies.
As Elvis and Perry Como crooned out of my laptop, I rolled nearly four dozen crumbly cookies that, after being briefly baked, were ready to be dipped in melted chocolate. I'll also add that, despite all of my talk of tradition, I couldn't leave well enough alone with these cookies. They were supposed to be topped with whole hazelnuts, but, given both my lack of this garnish and love of salty sweet things, I opted for sprinkling sea salt on top of them instead. What you're left with is a toothsome Nutella-like cookie (yes, this is a cookie that I just keep returning to) with the subtlest hint of salt to contrast the sweet layers of chocolate that this cookie, from top to bottom, offers.
With these on your table, it's definitely possible to believe that the year has achieved a much needed state of wonder...and also that such wonders don't have to be limited to a few weeks at its end. Some simple pleasures are always a few ingredients away.
Nusstaler (Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Cookies)
Yields about 3 1/2 - 4 dozen
Adapted from Saveur (December 2012)
The original yield of this recipe was supposed to be 2 dozen, but, because I make my cookies small, I ended up with a lot more. Even with the extra cookies, however, I didn't need to melt any additional chocolate for dipping.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 ounces toasted hazelnuts, very finely ground
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup natural cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sea salt, for garnish
4 ounces 60% Bittersweet Chocolate (I prefer Ghiradelli), melted
-Preheat oven to 350 F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Cream butter, sugar and vanilla either in stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a hand mixer.
-In a small bowl, whisk together ground hazelnuts, flour, cocoa powder and salt.
-Add to butter mixture and beat until just incorporated, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The dough should look crumbly, like a coarse meal.
-Roll dough into small balls (see above note about cookie yield) and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. The cookies should be 1-2 inches apart; they won't rise or expand, so, depending on their size, you should be able to fit about 20 cookies per baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle sea salt on cookies.
-Bake until lightly cracked on top, about 8-10 minutes.
-As the cookies cool, melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or the microwave.
-Dip bottom of each cooled cookie in the chocolate and place back on parchment-lined cookie sheets.
-Chill until chocolate is set (N.B. I opted to keep my cookies in the refrigerator since the chocolate starts to soften at room temperature; make sure to remove shortly before serving).