I’m sick, guys. It’s just a run-of-the-mill winter cold and cough (although the cough is wicked), but it feels so pitiful to be sick. Whenever I feel under the weather, I revert to a younger version of myself: I want to be comforted, I want my mom, I want a warm blanket and steaming hot chicken soup and someone sitting near me.
There was a brief phase—sometime in middle school—when it was extremely cool to go to the Cheesecake Factory. If you had parents who took you and your friends there for dinner, you had real currency. Everyone wanted to have sleepovers with the girls whose houses held Cheesecake Factory potential. (If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll likely guess that my household was very much not a Cheesecake Factory household. In fact, we didn’t even have fun breakfast cereal, like Cinnamon Toast Crunch—our pantry housed the wholesome trio of Shredded Wheat and Cheerios and Grape-Nuts. The injustice of it all still stings! It’s only in my wise old age that I appreciate deeply having been raised on good, nourishing, homemade food by an exceptional cook and baker. Hi mom!)
Hi, hello, here we are again at a fresh start to a new year. Like a Monday morning, bright and untouched and waiting. Like a clean, unmarked sheet of paper, ready for a crisp line of sharpened pencil. Poised to be filled with…a to-do list? Projects we want to try? Words of intention? It should come as no surprise (because I am a living, breathing human who occasionally wears ripped t-shirts and still can’t manage to properly apply winged eyeliner) that resolutions don’t appeal to me. I used to consider this a character flaw—thinking I should be able to set a goal and achieve it, regardless of how silly it is.
I’ve done remarkably little cooking over the holidays, and even less baking. This is simply a consequence of the happy busyness of the season—and because luckily other people are baking and cooking for me. But there are so many excellent holiday traditions that revolve around recipes. And I do seize the chance, when I have it, to make old favorites (cinnamon rolls and sugar cookies) and attempt new, festive-sounding ones (gingerbread brioche and miniature peppermint chocolate layer cakes).
“Dough is ready!” my mother would call to us. My sisters and I would drop whatever we were doing and rush into the kitchen—elbows out, prepared to claim our spot. The kitchen in our old yellow farmhouse was small but cozy: graying white tile, a white formica kitchen table, and a white refrigerator humming in the corner papered in school notices and birthday invitations and our art. We’d crowd in, kneeling on the mismatched chairs around the table. The focus of all this chaos: an oversized beige ceramic mixing bowl with a navy stripe around the top, filled with bread dough.
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.)
Merry merry! I’m here to wish you happy holidays. I’m also here to offer a recipe that’s too festive not to be making this week: chocolate peppermint bundt cake. But let me pause here and defend this cake’s rightful place in your kitchen year-round. I appreciate eating seasonally (and that’s a topic for an entirely separate set of musings), but that’s an ethos to follow when you’re thinking about buying ingredients: strawberries in summer, kale and potatoes in winter, and so on. But SPOILER ALERT I am about to let you in on a little secret that will set you free (kidding, hyperbole) and open new worlds (and by ‘new worlds’ I mean ‘lots of pints of Americone Dream’).
The scent of warm bread fills the kitchen. There's sugar and spice too—cinnamon and sugar and a hint of festive, fragrant flavors like nutmeg and cloves. I sniff the air. “Butter,” I think, picturing myself early as I methodically sliced two sticks into pale yellow pats and dropped them into the bowl of my stand mixer. A faint yeastiness hints at what’s rising inside the oven: a gorgeously browned brioche loaf, prettily domed with a curved surface as the hillocks of pale dough puff in the heat.
There are some good things that you can’t really have enough of, like the scent of warm bread baking, the feeling of finding matched socks in a tumble of clean laundry, or sunshine on your face on a very cold day. Other things—say, a cranberry cocktail topped with a chilled pour of Prosecco or Christmas music—are very nice but you could argue that you can very easily have too much of them.
Cozy weekends feel even more so in the winter. The rain-soaked streets are dark tonight, lit up in spots by the amber glow of street lamps. I’m sitting at a cafe on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue —I’m at a window seat watching people duck into restaurants. The ramen shop across the street has a sleek wooden bar in the front, illuminated by dozens of hanging pendant lamps. Further up, a dive bar beckons with multicolored Christmas lights and neon signs for 2-for-1 happy hour drinks and holiday-themed shots (yuck! Can it be true that once upon a time I happily threw back shots on a Saturday night? Between you and me, my shot of choice was the ‘springbok shot’—a lethally delicious combination of creme de menthe and Amarula liqueur discovered while studying abroad in South Africa).