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Nineteenth-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin said that “the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of a man than the discovery of a star.” It’s also the epigraph from this gem of a book: Maria Lo Pinto’s The Art of Making Italian Desserts, with recipes for chestnut souffles to rose-petal conserve from Aunt Gioia’s kitchen. We quickly learn that Aunt Gioia had fallen in love with a sailor who brought her recipes, jars of spices and other delicacies from his travels whenever he came home on leave. Sadly, he was lost at sea. She turned her kitchen into a ship, with enough space in the “stern extension” to comfortably seat eight people for alfresco dining. The chapter on fillings starts like this: “Have you ever had the good fortune to lie flat on your back under a spreading almond tree in blossom in the midst of springtime?”

Syltkaka

Jam thumbprint cookies from Unna Bakery’s traditional Swedish cookies.

Now might be a good time to mention that almond paste and marzipan are some of my favorite things on earth. I ate it by the pound when I was pregnant (not cheap), and my four-year-old ended up with a hankering for it. I buy it from one place in the city–an old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn where I lived for many years, and also recently scored a few bottles of Fabbri’s extraordinary cherries. I use them for everything–garnishing daisy-shaped matcha cakes to tossing into a Shirley Temple, with a bit of extra juice.

Marzipan, fruitcake & Swedish princess cake

The last few weeks have also given me the chance to learn about Swedish baking traditions from experts like Johanna Kindvall (co-author of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break), Ulrika Pettersson of Unna Bakery and Robert Tell, head baker of New York’s Fika, for an article I’m writing about taking time for coffee (or tea) and a nice sweet. (Robert shares my passion for marzipan so we naturally spent a good bit of time talking about the beauty of Swedish princess cake.)

princess cake

Princess cake at Fika with SerendipiTea English breakfast, sparking my interest in the tradition of Swedish fika. November 2015.

What a delight and privilege to visit with each of them, being offered fresh-made rye bread right in Johanna’s kitchen, or Ulrika’s divine chocolate-caramel cookies, sitting at her table over stories about family recipes. Her elegant cookies are based on the 19th century tradition of kaffereps, where women were required to make seven sorts of cookies for social gatherings–a source of beauty as well as anxiety under the pressure of having to do everything right. All of these cookies were meant to be served with coffee, she told me. Indeed, the chocolate snits were utterly perfect with it. Still, I couldn’t help but start dreaming about tea pairings that might bring out some of the delicate flavors of her airy dream cookies (like a white Bai Mu Dan or elderflower infusion.) Tea fika, anyone? Plans are underway for winter.

fruitcake prep

Fruitcake preparations with Christmas figs from my local Italian store, whole citron, blackcurrant tea extract, and Atelier Perfume cognac & blood orange oils. December 2015.

Early mornings are my favorite time of day: I love sitting down for a quiet breakfast with my son, and indulging him in whatever little treats we have on hand. Lately, I’ve been having homemade Ukrainian biscotti from Olia Hercules’ marvelous Mamushka cookbook, alongside Bellocq’s Christmas tea (a lucky discovery from last year.) We talk a little bit about our advent calendar themes for the day like “candy canes” or “mistletoe.” Most amazingly, I stopped by the Christmas tree seller on our street yesterday to see if he had mistletoe. (He’s been coming to our corner for years, and I always want to pop into the trailer to play checkers and have doughnuts.) As it turns out, he made a film called Christmas, Again that’s showing at the Museum of Modern Art right now. (Please do read more in this Wall Street Journal piece.) He told me he didn’t have mistletoe because no one ever asks for it these days; the WSJ photographer was there snapping shots while we spoke. I think I’ll make some Swedish gingersnaps for the crew next week.

ukrainian biscotti

Ukrainian biscotti from Olia Hercules’ Mamushka & some made-up-as-I-went-along matcha cakes with Fabbri cherries. My table, December 2015.

This morning, I’m going to infuse some rum with Assam tea for a milk punch cocktail to serve friends coming for the first night of Hanukkah this weekend. (We celebrate quite a few traditions in my house.) I came across it in a most excellent book–the Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl, whose teas are also terrific. The fruitcake I made on the first day of December is currently soaking in bourbon, but I’m thinking I’ll just sneak a few slices to go with the milk punch. Both are great to have on hand for an afternoon decorating the tree.

I used to get pretty overwhelmed by the buzz of the holidays, and everything there is to do. Chopping ingredients, in truth, has long been one of my worst enemies. I’ve often thought to myself: “if I can just get through the chopping, everything will be okay.” What about just doing things for the sake of it? I’m starting to find more joy, even in chopping. Nor will stars fall from the sky if I burn the bottoms of the gingersnaps a bit or the milk punch doesn’t turn out as I hoped. I’ll just add the rum to egg nog, give out a few of Unna’s jam thumbprint cookies, and drop a hibiscus flower or two into glasses of Prosecco. We can just sit and watch the beautiful petals unfurl. You can even eat the flowers.

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