Wednesday, October 21, 2009

brown sugar and pecan shortbread

baked shortbread
there are two types of people:
those who went to camp and
those who not only didn't,
but don't understand how the
people who did, can recite
a camp song at a moment's notice.

from the age of 6
until the age of 18
i spent my summers
at camp.

some of those years,
i was working,
first as a waitress
(yes, we had waitresses at camp)
and then as a counselor.
most importantly,
the last 10 years were
spent all at the same camp,
making the collection of summers
a huge chunk of my childhood memories.

it was, thank goodness, a former
sleep-away camp that had been
converted into a day camp.
i don't think i was the kind of
kid who could have handled
eight weeks away from my own house.
but we had tennis teams and ceramics,
jewelry-making and nature,
two swims a day, s'mores,
talent shows, counselor shows,
ultimate frisbee and color war.
on good days we had ice cream sandwiches
or watermelon at snack time.
on bad days? ice pops. usually orange.
when it rained,
we went bowling or roller skating
or stayed in our bunks listening
to a group leader tell us
the same scary story year after year.
and when the last day of camp came,
preciously close to my birthday each year,
we sobbed.

because, above all else,
camp for us was about friends.
friends who lived just far enough
away, that we rarely saw each
other throughout the school year.
who we would send letters to -
when you are young, 20 to 30
minute distances might as
well be the other side of the country -
in efforts to keep in touch during
the winter. friends who somehow
felt like your best friends in
the world, who knew the most
about you, who knew
who kissed who
on the picnic tables
during free swim and knew
who always got the shaft
when the poor waitress
set a tray of nine pizzas down to
a table of 10 girls.

when we were 9, we made lanyards
and crossed our fingers that we would
all get our blue tags so that we
could swim and dive together
in the deepest end of the pool.
by 11, we hosted sleepovers,
trying to stay awake and succeeding,
thanks to the peanut butter cups, twizzlers
and store-bought chocolate chip cookies
we insisted our moms' bought.
at 15 we were waitresses.
we snuck frozen pb&j sandwiches,
from the walk-in every day before we left,
fought over boys
and at the end of the summer,
sang a song about camp
that a couple of girls had written
to the tune of sunshine day from the brady bunch
and hard-knock life from annie
in the counselor show.
and at 16, we planned nights to
have parties at each other's homes,
see tom petty, the cranberries
and once, montel jordan, in concert.
eight weeks at camp is
a year in the real world.

my last day of camp
was a thursday, one day before
the official last day of season.
and one day before i left for college.
non-camp people cannot understand
that. but 12 years later, i still am not ashamed.
pine grove played a big role in my life.
and gave me some of my closest friends.
lauren is from camp - we bonded at 10
after learning that we both had the same
pink towel that boasted ballet slippers
and our names, respectively, in embroidery.
and, my freshmen and sophomore year
college roommate was from camp.

by the end of college,
i had lost touch with almost
everyone, save for lauren.
a few years later, the two of us
got back in touch with one,
another lauren (there were actually
five of them altogether). and a year
after that, we decided to look up
and then find, our friend, alexis.
the first time we went out to dinner -
a group of four 25-year-olds,
not the group of 11-14 teenagers
we once were - i looked around the table
and saw us as 16. sure, now we had
college degrees, jobs, boyfriends (and,
for one, a husband), but it was obvious
that we fell right back into place,
in a way that you can only do with
certain people.

none of us live very close to the others,
but we've stayed in each other's lives
for the past five years: meeting for
dinner, going to each other's weddings
and most recently, alexis' baby shower in june.
alexis' daughter, riley was born in august,
and this past weekend
lauren and i finally met her.
i wanted to bring them something
nice, but let's face it,
i am not crafty.
so, i baked.

(but, um, lauren brought an adorable
onsie - why didn't that cross my mind?)

i turned to one of my favorite books
to rely on: alice medrich's pure dessert
i have many one-day-i-will-make recipes
mentally marked off in that book
and i was glad to finally bake the
brown sugar and pecan shortbread,
made from raw sugars.

even though i love baking,
when it comes to cookies,
i'm a huge fan of the bar variety.
you mix, press, pat and bake -
no dropping spoonfuls of dough
on cookie sheet after cookie sheet,
cooling the pans, rotating and
spending hours at the oven in
11 minute increments.

these cookies worked out for
me this time, but normally
they might have a step too
many to be considered
a simple bar cookie.
chopped pecans
you make the dough,
which couldn't be simpler:
melted butter
vanilla extract
muscovado sugar
press it into the foil-lined pan
and then wait several hours.
shortbread dough
i got this far and then realized
something: i had no desire to
be in my apartment any more.
larry had been away for work
for several days already and
suddenly, everything seemed
very quiet. so instead of
sucking it up and staying,
i piled
everything -
the pan filled with dough,
the cookbook,
extra pecans for pressing,
demerara sugar for sprinkling
two large knives for cutting,
and a tin for giving - into
a bag and headed to my mom's,
an hour away.

i was a sight,
showing up with
my large pocketbook,
camera bag,
overnight bag,
cookie bag
and no coat,
all for one evening.
and after a few tries,
i was able to explain
to my mom that yes,
i brought unbaked dough
to her house and yes, it
was going to sit on her
counter for a few hours
longer before i have to
bake them,
cut them into squares,
place them on a baking sheet
and bake again.
shortbread (baked once) with pecans and demera sugar
nothing about this recipe
was hard. at all. i even
cut something resembling
squares without
traumatizing myself.
but, this nutty shortbread
is not especially fast.

it is however bursting
with two types of
raw brown sugar,
toasted pecans,
a rich butteryness
and a slight crunch,
thanks to the second
bake in the oven.
and they're more than
worth it for an old friend.
especially one, that you used to
eat lorna doones with at snacktime,
something i remembered
as i pulled them out of the oven.
shortbread squares, ready for their second baking
i loved these cookies because, yes,
they'll crumble in your mouth,
but they survived a rainy trip to
staten island without breaking.
for me, they were the perfect thing
to bring to alexis and her family.
they ate them, one hand on the cookie,
the other on riley,
just as i hoped it would be.

(oh, and while i was busy baking,
my sister was at a wedding. one of
her camp friends was getting married.)
alexis and riley
brown sugar and pecan shortbread
adapted from alice medrich's pure dessert
the original recipe was to be baked in a 8" pan, but i used a 9" so i multiplied everything by one-quarter. i have no idea if that's the correct conversion, but it worked well for me. the other change i made was that i only had dark muscovado sugar and the store did not have any, so i used something called golden bakers, which when eaten out of hand reminded me a bit of dried pineapples. once baked in, it just tasted like a lovely, rich brown sugar. oh, and one last thing: this dough looked kind of funky and overly buttery when i first pressed it into the pan, but by the time i baked it, it looked much more normal, like a real dough.

15 tablespoons (1 stick, 7 tablespoons), unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/2 cup, plus 2 1/2 tablespoons firmly packed light muscovado or golden bakers sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum
1 1/3ish teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups, plus 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
heaping 2/3 cup pecans, chopped
demerara, turbinado or granulated sugar for sprinkling (i used demera)

line bottom and sides of 9" baking pan with aluminum foil. in bowl, stir together melted butter, sugar, rum, vanilla extract and salt. add the flour and half the pecans; mix just until combined. transfer to prepared pan. pat in evenly. let stand 2 hours or overnight (no need to refrigerate).

position a rack in the lower third of the oven. heat oven to 300˚f.

sprinkle remaining pecans over the dough; gently press into surface. bake 45 minutes. remove pan from oven (leave the oven on). sprinkle the shortbread with demerara sugar. let cool 10 minutes.

using foil, carefully remove cookies from pan and transfer to cutting board, making sure not to break them. using a sharp, thin, long knife, cut into squares (i made 25). place pieces slightly apart on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet. bake 15 minutes; let sit on pan 2 minutes.

using spatula, transfer to cooling rack; let cool completely. transfer to an airtight container.

*i'm not going to lie. in that picture of alexis and riley, she is actually opening lauren's gift. not eating a cookie.

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