Christmas tea cakes

Two things conspired to make me feel oh-so-nostalgic this past week. First, my best friend from high school called from Minneapolis to tell me that my brother was in the local paper. This did not surprise me. He is not regularly in the paper or anything, but he has the kind of job that one can imagine he might end up in the paper every now and again. No, she said. Third-grade Dave.

Our third grade teacher was looking for former students and the Star Tribune ran a story about her search that included (in the print edition only) a picture of my little brother – young enough so he still had his angelic blond curls (in the way of younger brothers he drove me crazy, sure, but he looked like an angel doing it) – and his best grade school buddy with our universally adored third grade teacher.

Of course this made me think of our neighborhood school and its mostly excellent teachers and walking on our own without adult supervision to and from school about half a mile everyday (well, the moms walked us on the first day of kindergarten, but after that they figured we had enough sense – and neighborhood kids  – to find our way back again). And yes, sometimes this walking took place through truly tremendous amounts of snow (check the snow records for the 70s – those snow levels were high!). And, as my neighbor friend pointed out when we reunited this summer, we had to go over a hill so it really was uphill both ways.

Then this weekend my little family of three snuggled into bed and watched Charlie Brown Christmas and I was back at St. Joan of Arc church in South Minneapolis during Christmas Eve mass or in our living room watching the same cartoon with my brother or walking home from a friend’s house in the dark of a December late afternoon looking into our neighbors’ windows to see their trees. In my mind’s eye, of course, there is a picturesque dusting of snow falling and it is so quiet that the snow crunches loudly beneath my snowboot-clad feet.

People not from there don’t tend to understand how a person can miss snow and cold, but this time of year – as the fog and drizzle of rain more or less set in here in San Francisco – I do. I have no doubt trying to bundle a kid up for months on end would make me nuts, and I’m happy to skip the endless rounds of cold and flu that circulate in the heated indoor air. I certainly don’t miss the toxic gray slush that forms in the streets or that dreary tail-end of the never-ending winter known as March and even April in Minnesota. But I do miss the way the sharp cold air can reach down into your lungs to check to see if you’re really breathing and mostly I crave the peaceful calm that descends on a household when everyone is home and safe and the snow starts coming down.

Charlie Brown Christmas captures so much of this. The kids skating endlessly, catching snow on their tongues, walking here and there as independent as can be – all really speaks to my own childhood (Charles Schultz was, after all, from St. Paul). And when Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas, that sounds about right, too. I was raised Catholic, but a 70s-style progressive Catholic. My mom wasn’t so into the whole “sin” thing and I remember a very intense debriefing after a Sunday school teacher had gone on and on about hell. Sure, Jesus was the son of god, that was always around and about, but what was played up to me was that he had some good ideas about how to be loving and kind to other people. Christmas was about “peace on earth and goodwill towards man,” just as Linus explains, it wasn’t a birthday party.

I’m going to spend the next few weeks creating a little peace on earth and goodwill towards man in my own world. I’ll be spending time with family and friends and seeing that my son enjoys that wonder of wonders – winter break when you’re seven – as much as possible. Then I’m taking off for a week without work or family on this thing called a vacation. I’m thinking that is going to be a fairly awesome way to usher in 2011.

See you back here in January. Check over at Local Foods this week, though – I’ll be posting the Christmas cookie recipes I worked on Sunday with the help of Very Cheery Cousin Katie. It was a bone-tiring day in the kitchen. That may be, however because we cooked up a few New Years cocktails, too.

Walnut buckwheat tea cakes

Swedish tea cakes were my favorite Christmas cookie (other than the rosettes my grandpa used to fry up) as a kid. Then I learned they were also Russian tea cakes and Mexican wedding cookies and Snowballs – everyone, it seems, would like to claim these as their own. I made these with walnuts, but pecans or hazelnuts (roasted and peeled), work, too. I used buckwheat flour because it has such a sandy texture when you bake with it, which is exactly what you want in these cookies. Plus, it gives the interior a cool dark color that contrasts so nicely with the snowy white powdered sugar on the outside. Use regular flour instead, if you like.

1 1/4 cup walnuts

3/4 cup butter

1 1/3 cups powdered sugar (confectioner’s sugar), divided

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buckwheat flour

1 cup all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 300. Pulse walnuts in a food processor until finely minced. Transfer to a large bowl. Put butter and 1/3 cup of the powdered sugar in the food processor and whirl, stopping and scraping down as necessary, until butter and sugar are combined. Add vanilla and salt and whirl to combine. Add flours and pulse to combine. Turn the dough into the bowl with the walnuts and stir (or knead with your hands) to combine thoroughly.

Roll dough into bite-size (or two-bite-size) balls and place on a baking sheet about an inch apart. Bake until set, about 10 minutes. Let cool a few minutes and gently roll each cookie in the remaining powdered sugar. Set on a rack and let cool completely. Then gently toss each cookie in the powdered sugar a second time. It’s like painting a room – two thin coats are infinitely better than one thick one, which gets gloppy and doesn’t cover as well: