My Vermont Kitchen Gets Out of the Kitchen! Plus a Christmas Cookie Recipe

Chris isn't in Vermont anymore!

Chris isn’t in Vermont anymore!

I mentioned right after Thanksgiving that the month of December was crazy, and that’s no lie. Between work during the week, the weekends have been devoted to traveling, so I’ve been getting out of the kitchen and having other people cook for me, which I admit has been quite the treat!

But before I get to my travels, I thought, since it tis the season, I’d bring you my favorite Christmas cookie recipe. Apologies in advance to my longtime readers, who see me haul this out every year, but to be honest, if I have time to make just one Christmas cookie (or eat one!) during the season, these are it. I can think of nothing better than butter, sugar, and walnuts. So for my new readers, this is my hands down favorite Christmas cookie. No need to pull out the cookie cutters and they are hardly fussy.

This is a family recipe that I think everyone in my family has made at one point or another in their cooking lifetime. The original recipe calls them Butter Fingers, but to be easy, we always formed them into little round balls, hence their “new” name. I recommend a nice cup of coffee or tea with a cookie or two. They are moist and yummy, and like all older recipes, the directions are sparse!

14 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons confectioner sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup ground nuts (I usually use walnuts, but pecans are good, too)
2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon water, mixed

Mix and shape with hands. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Watch to make sure they don’t get too brown. When cool, roll in confectioner sugar.

* * * *

A really bad hair day, but I'm very happy!

A really bad hair day, but I’m very happy!

Last weekend I took the bus down to New York to meet up with my friend, Jana, who lives in Seattle. Besides going to museums and walking through Central Park, we ate at some pretty spectacular places, most which might not make it on your radar, so I thought I’d give a little synopsis in case you find yourself in the Big Apple in the near future and are looking for something to eat!

(I’m sorry for the lack of photographs. I tried taking a photo at the first restaurant, it turned out terrible, so I decided to go without. But the pictures and flavors are in my mind and memory, I just wish you all could enjoy them!)

We started late Saturday afternoon by walking to East Harlem and we went to El Paso (1643 Lexington Avenue) for a late lunch. I was famished; I’d been on the road since 7 a.m., so my three tacos: chirizo, cecina [salted beef], and asada [grilled beef] were spectacular. Also incredible was the guacamole (probably the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant!) and house-made totopos (tortilla chips). Next time I could just order that and be very happy. I should have taken the traditional route and tried one of their specialty margaritas instead of my usual vodka martini. This was a  wonderful restaurant if you want authentic Mexican food, as my sister-in-law would say. The service was wonderful and the food incredibly delicious. What more could you want?


I read that this year’s tree had FIVE miles of lights on it! I thought I might be disappointed, but I wasn’t, despite the crowds!

From here it was a train ride to Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree along with two million other people, and a walk down 5th Avenue. We decided to stop in at a lovely Italian restaurant, Mozzarella & Vino (33 West 54th Street). I decided to have a glass of Italian chardonnay, which was lovely. After sitting and chatting for quite some time, we decided we were hungry again and decided to have another bite to eat. Since mozzarella is half the name of the restaurant, they obviously focus on cheese, so we ordered a tasting platter of three different cheeses with some bread: mozzarella, burrata, and a smoked mozzarella. I’ve only read about burrata cheese in cooking magazines; the outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream; in other words, heaven. I am going to have to seek this out in Vermont. Yet again, I could have ordered and eaten this entire appetizer by myself and been perfectly content. Next time!

rtr-300x225Lots more walking and we were getting tired. Near Times Square and getting cold, we made our way to the subway. Walking past Carnegie Hall and lots of old New York landmarks, I was cold but excited to see these places in person. And then it was right in front of us: The Russian Tea Room (150th West 57th Street)! Almost my entire life I’ve heard about this restaurant, through books and movies. When my book club read Anna Karinina and I was hosting, I went to their website to see what they served so I could cook an authentic Russian meal. Even though they were closing in 30 minutes, we  had enough time to have a cocktail and nightcap at the bar. Stolichnaya martini for me (of course, I had to be authentic and it’s my vodka of choice!) and Irish Coffee for my friend. It would be exciting to be there on New Year’s Eve, but their $500 per person for the six-course meal is a bit cost prohibitive!

Sunday morning, dark and gray, but after a brisk walk through Central Park, we made our way to a nice coffee shop for breakfast. Apologies, I didn’t pay attention to the name, but the breakfast burrito was delicious and held me through a late morning and afternoon of museum walkings until a slice of New York veggie pizza late afternoon. Then dinner was mecca: Mario Batali’s Eataly (200 5th Avenue in the Flatiron neighborhood).

Like I said, bad photos, but this is what greeted us at our table.

Like I said, bad photos, but this is what greeted us at our table.

Mario isn’t my favorite celebrity chef, but he does have a connection with Italian cook Lidia Bastianch, so I was still excited. I’ve never been to a place like this; it’s a market, but also a sort of cafeteria. Over here is the antipasto section, the shellfish area, the fish area, the pizza and pasta area over here. So diners choose what and where they would like to eat. After walking all over Manhattan and two museums that day, we were pooped, so standing at the antipasto area was out of the question. We chose to take the elevator up 14 stories to eat at their brew pub, Birreria. We spent about 15 minutes trying to decide what I wanted to eat because everything looked delicious! And it was. We had a grilled portobello with whipped burrata (again!) with small raw beets and a house-made pork and beef sausage with braised red cabbage and speck. (This was the second time we saw speck on a menu, and I investigated what it was, because I had never heard of it before. Click on the hyperlink. Trust me, it’s delicious.) Our waiter was wonderful and I’m still trying to place who he reminds me of, although we confirmed our paths have never crossed, and it was a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Monday morning, with a few flakes of snow in the air, we decided to take a historic walk through Harlem, which was exciting and educational. But it was getting to be late morning, we hadn’t eaten and we were hungry. So our trusty guidebook took us to Amy Ruth’s, and I couldn’t have been more happy to be here for my last meal in the city. A traditional “soul food” restaurant, a description I sort of dislike, but this was it–and it was incredible. Each meal was named for a famous African American; I ordered the President Barack Obama (fried chicken with cheesy grits and collard greens) and Jana ordered the Rev. Al Sharpton (smothered chicken and waffles), with fresh, moist cornbread to start. For me, fried chicken will always be on the menu for my last supper; growing up my birthday dinner request always was fried chicken and chocolate cake. And with all due apologies to my dad, this fried chicken, eaten at 11:30 in the morning in Harlem, was the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

The chicken was able to tide me over until Massachusetts. My bus driver surprised me by stopping at a store so us weary travelers could stop and pick up something to eat. Needless to say, the stale roast beef and cheddar sandwich was my least favorite meal of the weekend.

There are a million other restaurants in New York, I’d love to try them all, but to be honest, if I went back to these restaurants, I’d be happy as a clam!

Back in the Kitchen Again: It’s Christmas!

Good morning, dear readers, it’s time for true confessions and some recipes. In June I was diagnosed with gallstones, and by October, this had developed into gallbladder disease. For weeks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were bland, innocuous foods as to not upset the tummy. A couple of days before Thanksgiving I had surgery, and since that time, my life, especially the cooking life I adore, has slowly returned to normal. You know I’m not feeling well when my Thanksgiving cooking magazines come in the mail and by the holiday, I still haven’t cracked the spine!

I remember reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times a week or two after 9-11 that has stuck with me these ten years. The theme was what it meant to get back into the kitchen and cooking again; having your life go back to “normal.” For me, six days after surgery, I slowly crept back in the kitchen and made a hearty soup. Each day, I cooked more and more, walking a little farther and a little faster, each making me stronger both physically and emotionally. Being unable to enjoy food and its preparation was an interesting “life course” for me, yet one I would prefer not to take again.

So I knew I was really feeling better when I decided to make Christmas cookies for my co-workers last weekend. I’ve taken a hiatus from making cookies for several years; it seems like every where I turn there are sweets, so I figured why add to the mix and waistline? But after looking over a cookie catalog, I knew my Christmas cookies were better than anything made in a factory, so I thought it was time to share, just two batches. With Christmas music in the background, the stove on, mixer in hand, the kitchen was humming again. It’s good to be back.

Butter Balls
This is a family recipe that everyone in my family has made at one point or another. The original recipe calls them Butter Fingers, but to be easy, we always formed them into balls, hence their “new” name. A Christmas didn’t go by growing up that we didn’t have these in the house. Butter, flour, and nuts, you can’t really go wrong. I recommend a nice cup of coffee with a cookie or two. They are moist and yummy! Like all “older” recipes, the directions are sparse!

Butter Balls
14 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons confectioner sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup ground nuts (I usually use walnuts, but pecans are good, too)
2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon water, mixed
Confectioner sugar for rolling

Mix all ingredients together and shape with hands. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Watch to make sure they don’t get too brown. When cool, roll in confectioner sugar when cool.

Sugar Cookies
When I was growing up, every December we would receive a tin of homemade cookies from my Czechoslovakian great-grandmother. Of the variety of probably seven or eight different kinds of cookies (which she made well into her 90s!), one of my favorites were the sugar cookies. These cookies weren’t like other sugar cookies, these were soft and moist instead of crispy and crunchy.

I was at a Greek food festival earlier in the year and when I was waiting to have dinner, I perused the sweets table and bought a small package of sugar cookies. They were EXACTLY like Grandma’s! Regrettably, the baker had left by then, so I consulted a cookbook I have, Cherished Czech Recipes, and found one that is close to it. I bought two bags of cookies that afternoon, finishing them up the next morning. When I decided to make cookies this year, I wanted to try a recipe similar to Grandma’s. Upon eating these, they don’t taste exactly like them, but they are close substitute!

Czechoslovakian Christmas Sugar Cookies
From Cherished Czech Recipes, collected by Pat Martin, Penfield Books

1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup lard (I used all butter)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
½ cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla or grated rind of orange or lemon (I used vanilla)

Cream sugar, butter, and lard. Dissolve baking powder in buttermilk; add to creamed mixture. Stir in flour, eggs, salt, and flavoring. Roll out thin on lightly floured board and sprinkle generously with sugar. (Note: I decorated with red and green sugar after they were cut into shapes and on the cookie sheet.) Cut the cookies into different shapes with cookie cutters. Bake at 350 degrees until slightly colored.

Cook’s note: It might be easier to before rolling out the dough if you pop it in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes. I had a hard time with it being sticky, since it was quite warm in the kitchen.