Pssst. You guys. Come here. Like, closer; I don’t want to jinx anything. Because I think we’ve done it–I think we’ve finally gotten over the hump. Which is to say that winter might just be gone for good, and we’re really, actually reveling in spring. At least, I hope we are, if not for my own sanity then for the life of the poor magnolia tree that bloomed in my neighbor’s yard during the last week of March and then shivered to death during a two-day snowfall four days later. I was braced for a harsh winter this year, but I had forgotten all about the super charming Sybil quality of midwestern spring. But like I said–fingers crossed, here–I think we’re in the clear. And now, if we get another blizzard the first week of May, you know who to blame.
Ten days ago, I began wearing a FitBit. The Fitbit actually came to me as a birthday gift from my husband, who, after 13 years of marriage, has proven that he’s finally cracked the code when it comes to giving me gifts. The morning of my birthday, he surprised me with the world’s finest cheese Danish, and then gave me the FitBit. It was a winning, albeit ironic combination. Then again, I’ve always been a been ironic when it comes to food and fitness–I like to fit into my pants, but I bake (and taste) as part of my job. Dichotomy!
For a long time the balance came naturally; living in California helps one stay active and crave produce, as it gleams with color in the front of every market, all year round. But I’ve found that living in the Midwest kind of deletes those gimmes in terms of keeping fit, and that combating the Midwestern 15 is a very real thing. (For me, the Midwestern 15 is a lot like the Freshman 15, except now it threatens me with various combinations of wine, cheese, bread, and desserts, instead of Bud Ice Light, McDonald’s at 2:00 a.m., and an unlimited selection of cold cereals in the cafeteria. So guess I’ve evolved?)
Oh, hello! It’s me! Back from the depths of a nonstop cycle of winter colds and flus and ear infections, and could someone please remind me why we moved to a different region of the country with a whole new host of germs? At any rate, things are looking up now. I’ve broken free from the homestead and am writing to you from an airplane en route to New York City, where I’m seated next to a perfectly lovely psychologist who is married to a mathematician, and besides the fact that it makes me feel like my fifth grade teacher was totally right, that I really wasn’t applying myself to the best of my ability, I am quite happy here in this metal tube in the sky, which I”m sure is full of all kinds of unspeakable germs, but that is neither here nor there.
I don’t know if it’s just me or Big Brother monitoring my whereabouts and Googling habits or what, but it seems to me that pączki is having a moment. From completely irresistible stories of adorable church ladies organizing long-standing fundraisers (hello, an annual Pączki Dance?!), to local news coverage, to trend-obsessed food websites shouting out where to get a fix, I can’t seem to get away from having my cravings encouraged. For the unfamiliar, pączki (pronounced “POONCH-key”, among other variations, but that’s more or less the idea) is a sort of glorified doughnut, a fried golden orb stuffed with any manner of delicious sweet fillings, from jam to thick whipped cream to custards and fresh fruit (rose hip jam or stewed prunes are the real tradition, but I think I’llll…maybe pick something else).
Right now, in the days approaching Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Eat All the Things Before Lent Day, pączki are all over the Midwest, thanks to a wonderfully rich Polish immigrant influence throughout much of the area, and a general love of eating completely ridiculous things that have absolutely nothing to do with kale in order to get through the winter doldrums. I’ve been revisiting and researching the baking history of the Midwest since settling back here, and one thing is clear: whatever it is, if it’s yeasted, and especially yeasted and then fried, you won’t find a better version of it outside this region.
WELL. Here we are. A handful of days into January and in the thick of winter. The cold, long, sometimes snowy but mostly just icy and blow-y part. Bah. Having left California for the Midwest a couple months back, we knew these days would come. All in all, it’s not too bad. Wait, strike that. What I mean is that when the days are freezing and I’m warm in the house and I can sit in my favorite chair by the front window with a book and watch the snow fall, with a hot cup of coffee and both kids in school, it’s not too bad. Or when the only logical thing to do is make a pot roast and drink a little too much red wine for a weeknight (it’s about survival, after all), it’s certainly not so bad. Cozy and lovely, even.
But when it’s a HIGH of ONE and you have to push your California-grown dog by the rump in order to get him to relieve himself on the frigid lawn instead of in your basement when you’re not looking, or bandage two cranky, bored children in down just to run to the store for milk, prior to cloaking yourself Arctic-style, winter can shove it. I suppose I’ll get into a rhythm with these wintry tasks eventually and it will all seem like just a normal thing one does when you live in a place that actually has seasons, but for now, I’m not quite there.
It’s that time, friends! The glorious last few days before Christmas and the end of 2015, when we can all legitimately start to unplug and eat way too many carbs and bake our faces off. Today I had my best friend in the whole wide world over for lunch with her two kids and we spent a very stressful two hours refereeing and making sure nobody lost an eye or fell down the stairs or whatever, but there was coffee and good food and a lot of laughs and she left me with a tin of the most beautifully decorated cookies. Plus no one actually broke a limb or anything, so that’s a plus. I think we might make a tradition of it–a lunch and playdate in the days before Christmas while the kids are on school breaks–now that we’re finally both living in the same city together. Although maybe next time we’ll spike our La Croix; kids during Christmas week are brutal, you guys. WAY TOO AMPED.
But luckily I had some Heirloom Sugar Cookies on hand to give us at least five lovely, uninterrupted minutes lunching and gossiping. Those cookies, of course, have made it onto this site, into this book, and all up on my Instagram for years in a row–they are simply the best I’ve ever had and will ever make. But! In the effort of branching out and being attracted to the simplest, quickest baking recipes around, especially those with a charming story from breathtakingly gorgeous cookbooks, I’ve also managed to make two batches of Finnish Sugar Cookies from Trine Hahnemann’s completely perfect book, Scandinavian Baking.
As awesome as it is to bake loads of holiday cookies, boil up sticky sugar syrups for Christmas candies, and otherwise revel in the creation of seasonal desserts and edible gifts for the entire month of December, I have a particular soft spot for Christmas morning baking. Just the thought of frosted windows, a glowing tree atop a mound of glossy wrapped presents, Bing Crosby on the stereo, the pitter-patter of cozy jammied feet scurrying down the stairs, and the smell of spicy-sweet breakfast treats wafting from the kitchen make all the holiday rush worth it. Oh, the joy of Christmas morning!
Granted, that moment lasts all of about six minutes until someone pulls someone else’s hair, or trips over said cozy jammied feet landing square on the poor dog, or knocks a mug of coffee onto the carpet while tearing at wrapping paper like a clown on fire. But that’s why God gave us coffee in the first place, and the allowance to eat all the pastries we want for breakfast on Christmas day. The promise of homemade baked goods, preferably something yeast-risen, will buoy us all through the madness.
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