I recently met two people who had the best job in the world. At least it seemed to me they did the day I met them, and I really needed to meet them that day. I’ll back up a bit. For those of you that follow along, I moved away from everything I knew, everything I thought I wanted, and everyone I loved about four months ago. The catalyst was a little bit of opportunity and a whole lot of hope for a new beginning, a new life. Things have been moving along fairly well so far, but some days it’s still pretty damn daunting, especially when bills still go up and bank accounts still go down. Add in spending the first holiday season away from my old familiar world, a cold snap that turns an adorable but not particularly well-insulated cottage into an igloo, a frozen hot water pipe, a dead car battery, and an oven shooting sparks and smoke and well… let’s just say the red and green of the season turns to blue pretty fast. But that all changed the minute I met the couple that have the best job in the world.
It was a Saturday about a week ago and I needed to get out of the house. The impetus was less that I had things to do and more that with a balmy morning temperature of 54 inside, sitting in my car with heiny-warmer set to 10 and driving anywhere had significant appeal. Plus I really needed something to put me in a festive mood. I’ve done enough duets with Elvis to know that if I didn’t want a Blue Christmas, it was up to me to get my jolly on.
I haven’t put up a Christmas tree in about 8 years. It’s not that I don’t love them; I very much do. With my lineage the “tannenbaum” gene is standard equipment. But when you live in a small apartment in a big city, getting and toting a large tree into that apartment becomes a challenge. Picture maneuvering a large pine elephant into and out of an elevator, and plopping it in the middle of a 10-foot living room. So you deck the bookcase instead. All that changes when you live in a house. Bucolic vignettes of mighty firs tied to rooftops abound and are hard to resist, even when you’ve tucked your inner elf away for a few years. So with all that staring me in the frozen grumpy face, I decided it was time to go a-treeing. Since no mere corner lot would do, on the referral of one of my fellow bakers I decided to seek out what sounded like the cutest tree farm in all of Oregon.
I admit, even after hearing the description I was skeptical as I drove along. I mean, you’ve seen pictures of this state, right? Evergreens galore. But as I turned down the road (snow-covered of course, what with that whole ‘bucolic’ thing going on), drove up a little hill and pulled into the lot, I began to believe. I dragged myself off my toasty perch as the owner approached my car, giant smile filling her face. “Well, good morning” she said, and told me her name. “Why don’t you come with me to the barn and I’ll explain how this all works.” With that an embracing arm whisked me away happily. I think I would have followed this woman anywhere. A cup of hot cocoa with candy cane stirrer was put in my hand as the rules of the farm were doled out. “Pick the tree you like, or let it pick you. Then bring back the flag and my husband will cut it and bring it to your car.” Prices were by the foot, and I could have bought the equivalent of the Rockefeller Center tree for the price of a 6 footer in the city. I looked over the rolling hills of Christmas trees behind her set against a stunning backdrop of valley and mountain. I never wanted to leave, even if it was only 20 degrees outside. The warmth that came from that farm was enough to melt this grinchy gothamista’s heart and warm her curled frozen toes. With tree atop car all snug in its ropes, I turned to thank my two new friends for making my first holiday in this foreign land so lovely. And as a “you’re welcome”, I got a hug from them both. Driving away all I could think was…”that must be the best job in the world.”
In keeping with the arborous theme, this week’s recipe takes not only the shape from the tree, but uses the sweet piney flavor of rosemary as well. I found this Lemon-Rosemary Shortbread cookie recipe in Fine Cooking years ago, and they’ve been on my holiday baking plate ever since. Adding a little lemon zest and finely chopped rosemary to shortbread gives them a bit of sophistication, and decorating them with a drizzle of royal icing means the kids can get involved too. With a cup of tea on a chilly day, there’s not much better.
Adapted from David Crofton’s recipe in Fine Cooking, 2008
Makes about 3 to 3 ½ dozen cookies For the Cookies:
- 15 oz. (3-1/3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. table salt
- 8 oz. (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbs. finely grated lemon zest
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
For the Icing:
- 1 large egg white (see note at right)
- 1 ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar; more as needed
- 1 ½ tsp fresh lemon juice
Make the cookies: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and salt. With a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in the lemon zest and rosemary. Add the egg and vanilla; continue beating until well blended and smooth, about 30 seconds more. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough is just combined; don’t over mix. Divide the dough into 2 equal portions. Roll one half of the dough between two sheets of parchment to an even 3/16-inch thickness. Slide the dough and parchment onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dough. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line four cookie sheets with parchment. Using a 3-1/2-inch (or similar) Christmas tree cookie cutter cut out the cookies and arrange them 1 inch apart on the cookie sheets. Press the scraps together, reroll, and cut (if the dough becomes too soft to handle, chill until firm). Repeat one more time and then discard the scraps. Repeat with the remaining dough. Bake two sheets at a time until the cookies’ edges are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating and swapping the sheets’ positions halfway through for even baking. Cool the cookies on racks.
Make the icing: In a medium bowl, whisk the egg white, sugar, and lemon juice until smooth. If not using immediately, transfer the icing to a small bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the icing to prevent it from drying out.
To Decorate: I like to use a small zip top baggy instead of a pastry bag, mainly because I hate cleaning pastry bags. If you have a piping tip set, use the one with the smallest round opening. And if you don’t, just cut the tiniest bit of corner off the plastic baggie once it is filled. Outlining the cookies with icing is pretty standard, but I get bored easily with that. Feel free to decorate them however you see fit. Cookie artists are the best people 😉
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