Solstice Upon Us: last minute gifts and goodies

( for the pizzelle recipe, please scroll down)

‘Twould seem the night has come and gone; that it’s time to get out that pile of catalogs and start planning the gardens. But not quite yet; the midwinter jamboree extends at least until New Year if not Twelfth Night and for many of us there is still a week or more of socializing and present-giving to go.

* Last Minute Gifts

If you’ve had it to here with shopping and dread the post-Christmas sales, there’s a very strong temptation to shop among the presents you just got, moving the ones that make you sigh from the inbox to the outbox.

If only. Unless it’s something absolutely wonderful and completely understandable like a third copy of On food and Cooking, by Harold Magee, regifting is usually out. Completely apart from the hurt-feelings aspect, if you don’t like it enough to keep it and it comes from a store that offers nothing you’d like to exchange it for, how can you let it represent your taste?

Mercifully, the best present for many adults is something expendable like food or flowers – assuming you could find responsibly-raised flowers which you mostly can’t. A rant for another day. The gifted will probably enjoy anything from a generous hunk of local cheese to a plate of homemade Moth cookies ( see below), but the real present is that expendables cannot possibly be stored in a closet and dutifully trotted out whenever you come over.

Not sure about food or wine or eaux de vie made from American fruit? Candles should do nicely as long as they’re chaste in the perfume and dye departments. Fragrance is a minefield of individual preference, and no matter what they say about beige it goes with almost everything. Conveniently, this means it’s classiest as well as greenest to give a large bundle of unscented, uncolored pure beeswax candles. Too late now to mail order but some natural food stores sell them.

* Tips for stylish gift wrapping and present opening with the environment in mind are at All Wrapped Up.

* Last Minute Cookies

One dough, many choices

Aka Vienna crescents and vanilla crescents

I never knew these were classic Christmas cookies until I was an adult. In our family they were simply the family cookie. (Moth is short for mother; it has nothing to do with bugs.) They take almost no time to make; the dough is extremely versatile; the recipe makes a lot, and everybody loves them – everybody who likes almonds, anyway.

For roughly 60 to 80 cookies:

1 cup whole almonds
½ cup sugar
½ pound butter, at room temperature
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla ( I often use 2)
1 cup cake flour
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
confectioners sugar, optional

If you have a nut grater, use it on the almonds. If you don’t, put them in a processor with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and pulse until reduced to a mixture of almond meal and tiny crumbs. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the rest of the sugar, then beat in the salt, vanilla and cake flour. Stir in the all purpose flour, then the almonds. Dough will be stiff; Moth’s recipe says “ knead in the almonds,” which gives you an idea. Shape as desired and place slightly separated on ungreased baking sheet or parchment paper. Bake at 325 degrees until just touched with gold – 8 to 15 minutes, depending. The hot cookies are supposed to be rolled in confectioners sugar but Moth seldom did and I never do – too sweet and too messy, especially since there are other classics that really need this treatment.


Crescents. Moth’s preferred shape. Use a scant tablespoon of dough for each; they’re easy to form and they have a distinctive taste because the thinner parts get browner. They also have the merit of fitting many on one cookie sheet. This becomes a fault if you forget and overbake them.

Icebox cookies. Form the dough into rolls or squares about 1 ½ inches across. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for 3 or 4 hours to 3 or 4 days. Slice about 3/16ths inch thick. Rolls cut in half the long way make pretty one bite half-circles when sliced.You can also slice them super-thin and sandwich them with jam. Leave plain or decorate with small amounts of icing or chocolate.

Applying chocolate

Deco-ish geometry is easy and fun. So is the Jackson Pollack effect.

Coarsely chop an ounce or two of high quality bittersweet chocolate ( at least 50 percent cocoa). Put it in a freezer-weight plastic bag and close the bag. Lay it flat on the turntable and microwave at half power until most of the chocolate is melted but there are still a few lumps, about 75 seconds. Push the chocolate around in the bag until the lumps melt and the chocolate is completely smooth. Use a razor blade or sharp scissors to cut a very small hole in the corner of the bag. Remember to squeeze from the top.

Those candies? Chocolate truffles. Chocolate truffles that are not offensively immense. Mark Bittman just published a basic recipe in the New York Times that’s pretty much like mine.

These happen to be flavored with Frangelico, a hazelnut cordial. The ones with the chocolate drizzle cage – the lazy person’s dipped-in-chocolate – are plain. The white ones have a toasted hazelnut inside and are rolled in crunchy pearl sugar, sold by King Arthur Flour, among others.

PS. If you happen to have the little molds used for Scandinavian sandbakkelse, moth cookie dough works great in them, too. The chocolate ones below have truffle filling; the jam is peach. Lemon curd is terrific. Needless to say these are not swift. Talk about fiddling! Good though.

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  • minnie Said,

    how about substituting almond meal?? how much do you suggest?

  • leslie Said,

    I’m sure some almond meal could be used, but I don’t know how much; the tiny crumbs are at least half the total, and those irregular nubbly bits add a lot to the texture.

    My guess is that all almond meal would be fine but the dough might be a bit on the dry side. And of course the finished cookies would be sandier; probably like almondy sugar cookies. If you try it, please report back.

    In my distant pre-processor youth the nuts were grated with a nut grater that made very fluffy, not-quite-meal nutflakes (haven’t seen one in years). It’s a little metal gizmo with a 2 part handle and a hopper for the nuts that fits over a tube-shaped grater. After filling the hopper, you close the top part of the main handle to exert pressure and turn the grater with the little handle attached to same. Grated nuts fall into whatever you’re holding the thing over. Doesn’t take as long as it sounds, but it’s a real arthritis delight and as I remember our family’s model, on the flimsy side.

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