Jeff has been traveling for the past week or so, which means that my evenings have gone something like this: shower after work, change into black leggings and a sweatshirt that Jeff gave to his Dad ten years ago and that I plucked from Jeff’s Dad’s Goodwill pile two years ago, tune old clock radio to NPR, climb on top of the washing machine to retrieve the mixer, mutter expletives regarding the heaviness of said mixer, climb down from washing machine, and…….bake.
Now, butter, flour, and sugar may not be good substitutes for a husband, but I’ll tell you what is: coaxing them into cookies while listening to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air. Although we’ve never met, Terry and I have spent a lot of time together, the bulk of it between June 2007 and August 2008. Jeff was taking classes towards his second Master’s degree nearly every weeknight then, and turning on the radio and turning out something from the oven became my own nightly ritual. What do we have to show for it? Well, Jeff can speak expertly on International Financial Regulatory Standards, and… I can recognize Terry Gross’s voice anywhere.
There’s no particular “catch” or schtick to Fresh Air; it’s one woman interviewing people. I find it compelling, though, for two reasons: first, I think we all ought to ask each other more questions; and second, I love not being able to see the person speaking. This, I think, is the charm of radio programs, and what makes them gratifying in a way that watching television or reading the paper or surfing the internet just isn’t. There’s something oddly intimate about getting to know people through their voices alone. I think it strips them down to their real parts, whatever those may be. Terry’s practiced interview techniques don’t hurt, either; after all of our time together, I can tell by her inflection when she’s ultra-prepared and feisty for a toughie, like this guy; or when she’s just kicking back and enjoying the ride with a smooth-sailer, like Will Ferrell.
But whether the guest is a poet, a bioethicist, or a banana historian, I always feel a tad more edified afterward. Last week, a well-known journalist was on the program, and she said something that should be obvious but somehow seemed prescient in this age of media overload: that we oughtn’t confuse information with understanding. Maybe it’s just me, but listening—without a barrage of images—commands a different, sometimes deeper thought process than looking.
Of course, lest you think I’m getting a little too self-congratulatory here, allow me to admit that I generally lose at least 5-10 minutes of the program to cursing over spills and injuries resulting from our kitchen’s modest square footage, and that I am sometimes a rather “active listener” who calls out encouraging/antagonizing comments during some of Terry’s interviews (“Whoa, she’s pulling out the big guns after only five minutes!” or “He knows what you’re trying to do, Terry, and he already said he wasn’t going to talk about his childhood!”). But when all is said and done, the best reason for listening to the radio in the evening is that you can bake while doing it. And if you are going to bake, which really, you should, since it’s December 17th and there’s no better excuse, these are the cookies to make.
I know that by this point, you’re probably a little suspicious of Chef Sue Sous’s palate. I mean, I’ve given you curry, gin cookies, and pruney meatballs. If they’ve got anything in common, it’s that they’ve probably made you make a face. I don’t blame you a bit. But listen up, people: there’s nothing funky about these cookies, and that’s what makes them brilliant, buttery keepers. You only need six ingredients--I bet you’ve already got them on hand—and you’ll get 70-100 rounds with jeweled, jammy centers.
They’re called “Aunt Sis’s Strawberry Tart Cookies,” and they were originally published in a 1993 Gourmet (and are now listed as the favorite cookie recipe for that year in Gourmet’s Favorite Cookies 1941-2008). I have no idea who Aunt Sis is or if she’s still with us, but the woman knows, or knew, her cookies. These tarts are the only recipe that I’ve made every year since I started baking Christmas cookies in a serious (ha!) way in 2001. They’ve been around the block, so to speak. And honey, they’re just as good as they ever were.
So, 8 days until Christmas, here’s my wish for you: a big old hunk of butter, a sturdy mixer, and the sound of a familiar voice during it all.
Aunt Sis’s Strawberry Tart Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 large egg yolks, beaten lightly
1 cup strained strawberry jam*
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, the sugar, and the salt, add the butter, and blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal.** Stir in the egg yolks, blend the mixture until it forms a dough, and chill the dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the dough soften slightly, roll level teaspoons of it into balls, and arrange the balls about 2 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheets. Using your thumb, make an indentation in the center of each ball, being careful not to crack the dough around the edges. (If the dough cracks, reroll it and try again.) Fill each indentation with about 1/4 teaspoon of the jam and bake the cookies in batches in the middle of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the edges are pale golden. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 2 minutes, transfer them to racks, and let them cool completely. The cookies may be made 1 month in advance and kept frozen in airtight containers.
Makes 70-100, depending on whether you use teaspoons or tablespoons.
*You can use any flavor of jam you like; I use raspberry for half and strawberry for half. Also, I don't strain my jam and just glop it in. For cleaner presentation, you can strain.
**I use my food processor for this part, by putting the flour/sugar/salt mixture into the bowl of the processor and then distributing the butter bits on top. I pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand. I’ve made the recipe both ways and haven’t noticed a difference in the results.