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The Arrival

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Well, hello there! Or should I say, Guten Tag! That's a little formal, though. How about just hallo? Hallo! I'm here! And I brought you two Pfannkuchen! It's New Year's Eve, after all, and that's what Germans eat on New Year's Eve. Jelly doughnuts, that is. Ooh, and these ones are the best. Handmade, filled with sticky plum jam or a tart berry jelly, and light as a feather. You can have both! Go on, then. I don't even mind.

Oh my goodness, I've missed you so much. Yes, you, dear reader. And you, and you, and you. I missed you! Oof, I cannot ever go that long without blogging again. But I have a good excuse, I do. Let me tell you, transatlantic moves? Not for the faint of heart. Not even for the sturdy of heart. Transatlantic moves are a kick in the pants. No, a kick in the head! I do not recommend them, no sirree bob, not unless you enjoy a little bit of existential torture.

In addition to being responsible for a million forms being signed and faxed and emailed and who-knows-what-else, you have to sell your furniture (well, most of it anyway), which can be a little gnarly if you're like me and attached to the pieces that you painstakingly bought over the course of many years and that seemed to fit just so into many apartments, then you have to watch two pleasant enough dudes come and pack up what remains of an entire life, let's face it, and you aren't even allowed to help because then the insurance wouldn't apply, and then after saying goodbye to your friends and your streets and your city and that life I just mentioned, you still have to arrive. You know? I mean, actually get off the plane, adjust to the new time zone and realize that you don't have a return ticket. Ahem.

So I guess that's where I've been. Adjusting, unpacking, looking for an apartment, dealing with the absolute hell that is understanding bureaucratic German, buying health insurance, opening bank accounts and trying to quell the heartache I feel for just a moment every single time Jay-Z and Alicia Keys start singing about New York on the radio, the jerks.

And now here we are, just a few hours, in Berlin anyway, from a new year. And before we leave this old one behind us, I just had to write, to check in and let you know that I'm still here and that I cannot wait to get back to work. For the one thing that remains constant in this incredible, wonderful upheaval is you and this space. And let me tell you, I could cry when I think about what joy and peace that gives me.

So, don't let me keep you too much for now. It's a big day, after all. Make sure you have enough Champagne or Prosecco chilling in your fridge and enough loved ones around you to squeeze tonight, and then at some point today or tomorrow, or a few days from now, whenever you have a chance, remember that there's a girl in Berlin who is very, very grateful indeed that you're in her life. Thank you. And Happy New Year!


Mary Ellen Rae's Cardamom Pistachio Cookies

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While others are feverishly making wax-paper wrapped caramels, soaking fruits for cake, stirring away lava-hot apple butter on the stove, or cooking glossy pots of fudge sauce to be jarred, beribboned, and gifted, I am up to my eyeballs in moving to-do lists for this final phase before I leave New York. Now is the time of administrative purgatory - endless hold times to change addresses, shut down bank accounts, and generally close up shop on the past nine years of a life here.

Let me tell you - I'd rather be making caramel.

Christmas baking and cooking have taken a major back seat. In fact, cooking in general has become rather elusive as of late. Yesterday I cooked together frozen spinach, a can of diced tomatoes and some frozen Rancho Gordo beans into a strange little stew of sorts, realizing as I ate that it was the first home-cooked meal I'd had in almost a week (and practically the first vegetables, too). But I'm not complaining. The reason I'm not at home cooking is that I'm out living this city, seeing friends as much as I possibly can, giving them far too many hugs and squeezing as much juice out of this apple as it will let me. It's delicious. The stove can wait.

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But before I leave you to get back to packing and blowing my city big, wet kisses, I do have one little something to tell you about, something soft and crumbly, buttery and sweet, vaguely exotic and sparkling. A right little charmer, if I do say so myself.

What on earth am I doing baking Christmas cookies, you ask? Old habits die hard, I suppose. It can't be December if the oven hasn't been fired up at least once for cookies, after all, can it? And in any case, I'm participating in the gorgeous Lottie + Doof's 12 Days of Cookies, which was as fine an excuse as any to pull out a recipe I've been saving to try since 2003.

That recipe came from the Los Angeles Times and was for buttery spritz cookies, made using a cookie press. I used to have one of those things, a kind gift from birthdays past, but somewhere in my many moves the thing went missing. The recipe hung on tight, snug in its little folder, smug in the knowledge I'd make it, come cookie press or high water. The thing is, "buttery spritz cookie" is kind of misleading, makes you think I made something Danish-butter-cookie-like. When really what emerged from the oven was something different.

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The truth is, I'm a little tired of the same old Christmas flavors, of cinnamon and hazelnuts, or chocolate and orange peel. There are moments when 2009 feels like the longest year of my life, and others when I realize last Christmas actually just happened last week. Last week! And people expect me to be in the mood for holiday cookies again? The nerve.

So when I saw that this cookie eschewed cinnamon and nutmeg, was austere and plain save for a gentle sprinkling of ground cardamom and a few green shards of pistachio, it became the only thing I wanted to bake. With a nice sparkle of salt to boot, this cookie is a belly-dancing rebuke to the standard brown gingerbread you might just be a little sick of. Between the cardamom and the pistachio, munching on these cookies made me feel like I was celebrating Advent in a souk somewhere, the scent of rosewater hanging heavily in the air, warm breezes blowing through a narrow window.

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Instead of spritzing the dough through a cookie press, I rolled it into a log and chilled it until firm, then sliced it and topped the cookies with their sugary green décor. I made the mistake, though I hope you'll forgive me, of using regular sugar instead of the coarse decorating sugar. I just can't bear to buy anything else kitchen-wise, before the move. The thing is, you really do want that large-grained crunch on top. Regular sugar threatens to push these into saccharine territory. Also, I let them come to room temperature before baking, but I'm not sure why I did that. Don't bother, I'd say.

These cookies are delicate little things. Let them cool on the parchment-lined baking sheet before carefully removing them to a cooling rack. They shouldn't crumble too much, then, but these are definitely not the hardy types. They should be eaten, rather delicately, I'd say, alongside a cup of tea, rather than plunked lustily into the hot mug. Or packed gently between gossamer leaves of tissue paper in a box for presenting. They're an unexpected twist in a box of holiday cookies, an exotic little pop of flavor and crunch.

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And with that, lovelies, I'm going to step away from the computer for a bit. I don't know if I'll post again before Berlin. I have a week left and an awful lot to do. I'll be updating my Twitter feed, if you want to follow along there, and my Flickr page, of course. I know you know that my heart is filled with the greatest jumble of emotions, exhilaration and sadness taking turns setting up shop. I think right now I'm firmly entrenched in I-can't-believe-this-is-happening territory, eyes wide and happy, eyes filled with tears.

This life, man. Who knew?

Cardamom Pistachio Cookies
Makes about five dozen 1.5 – 2-inch cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed using a mortar and pestle
1/4 cup sparkling decorative sugar
1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat for one minute. Add the vanilla extract and egg yolks and beat an additional minute.

2. Sift together the flour and salt. Spoon the flour mixture into the butter mixture and add the cardamom. Beat on low speed, then increase to medium and mix until the batter is combined.

3. Spoon the dough into a cookie press and press out onto ungreased baking sheets. Or roll the dough into a log, wrap in parchment paper and chill for two hours before slicing into rounds and arranging evenly onto the cookie sheets. In a small bowl, combine the sparkling sugar and the pistachio nuts, then sprinkle some on each cookie.

4. Bake just until the edges of the cookies start to turn a pale golden color, about 8 to 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then remove carefully to a wire rack. The cookies will firm up as they cool. When they are completely cool, store in an airtight container. They may be kept frozen up to two months.


Camino's Egg Baked in Cream

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Can a dinner be called adorable? If, say, it consists of one delicate little egg sitting sweetly atop a bed of herbed, tender leeks, bathed in a fillip of cream and gently dusted with salt and pepper, then I would say yes. Besides, anything served in a nice, white ramekin is just so cute. Did I just lose all my male readers with that? I'm sorry, don't leave. You'll want to eat this, too, I promise. Besides, the ramekin was my idea. If you have a cazuela, or other ceramic dish that's a little bigger than a twee little ramekin, you can turn this into a two-or-three egg meal in a flash.

The recipe comes from Camino in Oakland and is just right for those solo dinners at home, though it's also easily multiplied so that everyone at your table can have their own little ramekin. In fact, I recommend that no matter how many people you're cooking for, you make an extra pile of the herbed leeks. (1/4 cup of leeks just feels...unnecessarily fussy.) What do you do with extra cooked leeks? Oh ho ho. Do you have an hour? Stir them into pasta or leftover rice. Use them as sandwich filling or to give scrambled eggs an edge. Mixed with boiled potatoes and milk and puréed, then thinned as desired, you can have anything from leek mashed potatoes to shortcut potage Parmentier (not to mention vichyssoise). They keep well in the fridge for a bit and deepen their flavor as the hours go by and seem to be one of the most useful vegetables ever.

I love useful vegetables.

Anyway, that's about the hardest part of the recipe, cleaning the leeks, that is. I cooked them longer than the recipe called for, about ten minutes, because I like stewy leeks that grow sweeter with each passing minute. Cooking the leeks for just two minutes gives them a bit more bite. Do as you like best. I piled a small amount of the leeks into a ramekin, cracked an egg over the top, poured a few spoonfuls of half-and-half on top and did some artful pepper-cracking. After exactly 12 minutes in a hot oven, I pulled out a savory-sweet baked egg, cream bubbling at the edge, white set just so, and yolk still gorgeously runny.

Ooh, runny yolks. The best part, wouldn't you say?

Armed with a heel of crusty bread, I polished off my adorable dinner in minutes. Eyeing the remaining leeks in the pan, and the oven I'd serendipitously left on, it only took me a few seconds to decide to make a second helping.

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Adorable, schmadorable. These are good.

Egg Baked in Cream
Serves 1 with leftover leeks for many uses

1 1/2 tablespoons butter
4 leeks, sliced, light green and white parts only
Salt
2 sprigs thyme, leaves roughly chopped
2 sprigs parsley, leaves roughly chopped
1 large farm-fresh egg
About 2 tablespoons half-and-half
Coarsely ground black pepper
Grilled or toasted bread slices

1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. In a small sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, a splash of water and a pinch of salt and cook until the leeks are tender, about 2 minutes. Add the herbs and transfer to a 6-inch cazuela, cocotte or other ceramic dish, covering the bottom with the butter, leeks and herbs.

2. Crack the egg into the middle of the dish. Add enough half-and-half to barely cover the white. Sprinkle with salt and coarsely ground pepper. Cook until the white is set, 8 to 12 minutes. Serve with grilled or toasted bread.