There are a lot of nice things about being home, and particularly being home in the wintry days of Christmas. My sisters and I were all at the farm (where we grew up and my parents still live); these days, Christmas looks a little different than it did when we were growing up. Most notably, there are two babies now and a two-year-old. They’re the focus of everyone who walks in the room, and they make the holidays feel more full and joyful than ever. There are also men now, whereas growing up the house was just women women women and my dad. (He is very, very used to the company of lots of ladies, but I do think he secretly thrills every time he walks down to the basement now and finds his sons-in-law drinking beer and watching football.)
But as different as the house looks at Christmas now, in some ways it feels exactly the same. Still us, still the same traditions. The same cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven. My dad standing at the stove, making the same cheesy omelets he always makes for Christmas breakfast—and only ever on Christmas. (Side note: I’ll have to wrestle his secrets out of him, but I’ve never eaten a fluffier omelet than his. He claims the trick is “low and slow” but there must be a little more magic happening. I’ll observe and report back.)
The same schedule on Christmas morning: wake up, take a long walk around the farm before coming inside to get warm, and sit on the window seats that wrap around the edge of our big windowed octagonal living room. We can all watch each other open presents: first the stocking gifts, then the big ones, toted in one by one from their piles under the Christmas tree. There’s Christmas music playing in the background. The same careful attention paid to each person: laughter and happiness and the exquisitely unique and specific pleasure of having someone unwrap a present you’re particularly excited about giving.
Other nice things about being home ebb and flow throughout the day:
A fire blazing merrily in the living room; a rocking chair waiting for someone to sit and pick up a book.
The taste of tea with honey and milk.
The familiar V shape of geese flying low over the ponds.
An ever-present collection of eggs on the kitchen counter from our chickens each day: some brown, some a delicate shade of blue-green from the Araucana hens.
The crunch of frozen cornstalks under my feet when I take a walk in the morning, the ground still frosty and untouched by the sun.
The curious collection of things to observe as I pass the ponds and mount the hill up to the stream: milkweed seed pods split open, spilling their silky white insides into the wind. The tink-tink-tink sound when I break off a piece of ice from the frozen pond and toss it out onto the surface, shattering into tiny bits. The pattern the sharp, bright winter sunlight makes on the forest floor as it filters through the trees. The flash of crimson as a cardinal alights on a branch ahead of me. Our pig snuffling and snorting as he roots against the muddy ground in his pasture.
Finding a bag of biscotti in the freezer—my mother’s are the best, hands down, no contest. Sorry to bakers everywhere. She makes two types: chocolate (made with cocoa powder) and almond (flavored with a bit of Cognac). Hers use the classic Italian method: no butter and no oil, which makes them insanely crunchy and crisp and light. They shatter with each bite, sending crumbs across the table, and are ideal for dunking in a glass of cold milk. The secret is using slightly warmed eggs and beating them for a very long time in a stand mixer (at least 5 minutes and ideally more like 10) to get lots of air and volume into the batter. As you mix in the dry ingredients, you fold everything together as gently as possible so as to not deflate the mixture.
I love paging through her recipes, some clipped from old newspapers and Gourmet magazines, some emailed from friends over the years, some written in her tidy, neat, slanted handwriting on recipe cards.
I’ve written at length about her biscotti recipe here and here, if you like, but for today, here’s a different biscotti recipe that I also adore—although it’s different from my mom’s in style. This one does use butter, so it’s denser and more cookie-like. I add both sliced almonds and almond paste along with chopped crystallized ginger. Each bite is studded with nicely chewy bits of the paste and ginger, which is the nicest textural contrast to the crunchy cookie.
If you like ginger or spice, these are for you. If you like almond paste, these are for you. If you…um…like dessert, these are probably for you, too.
Ginger Almond Biscotti
Makes about 2 dozen biscotti
1 cup (184g) finely chopped crystallized ginger
7 ounces (198g) almond paste
8 tablespoons (1 stick, 113g) very cold butter, cut into pieces
1 3/4 cups (210g) flour
1/2 cup (99g) sugar (use slightly less if you prefer less sweet cookies)
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 egg whites
1 cup (86g) sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
To the bowl of a food processor (or stand mixer), add the crystallized ginger, almond paste, butter, flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, and salt. Pulse, or process, until the butter is in very small chunks. You can also do this by hand and cut in the butter with a fork or pastry blender.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy. Add the butter/almond/flour mixture to the egg whites and mix until the dough just comes together. Add the sliced almonds and mix to combine.
Using wet hands, transfer half of the dough to the prepared baking sheet and shape it into a long rectangle, about 10x2-inch then flatten until it's 3/4 inch-thick. Repeat with the second half of the dough, leaving a few inches between the two logs.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes, then transfer the two logs to a cutting board and slice each log into diagonal slices, about 3/4 inch-thick.
Place the slices, cut side up, back onto the baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, flip each slice over, and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan—the biscotti will crisp up as they cool.