Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Calla Lillies, Almond Cookies and the Cycle of Life

All right everyone, your best Katherine Hepburn impersonations, please, as we say together, "The calla lillies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion.  I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died."*

The cycle of life and death has been much on my mind lately, what with the anniversary of a family member's death, the death of a friend's father and several people I love recovering from serious illness.  In short, all kinds of crap has been happening at once.  Happily, signs of life are everywhere, including the birth of Gracie Soraya Abu Jaber-Eason and Stella Mary Espenkotter (go, girls!).  An orchid that had been merely two lackluster sticks has suddenly, inexplicably gone into lavish purple bloom.  Sweet, red tomatoes are proliferating on my vines.  I've been sloughing off dry skin like a molting snake.  And two days ago, I found this bird egg when I was out walking.  So there is a new bird in the Miami environs and I am glad. 

The enlightened Zen part of me knows loss and death and birth and growth are all part of the grand, mysterious cycle of life.  But most of me is not enlightened and thinks loss and death suck. I fret over why they happen, especially to people we care about, at an hour when a normal person would be asleep.  

Around 3:00 AM the other night/morning, I passed from wondering what loss teaches us (character-building?  No, thanks, got plenty already) to thinking about Katherine Hepburn's line from Stage Door.  Is there, I wondered, a food suitable to any occasion, the calla lilly of cuisine, as it were?  You could make it for someone in mourning or someone celebrating life.   It would need to nourishing and easily digestible for those regaining physical or emotional strength.  It would need to be pure and simple of flavor, rather than complex and elaborately spiced.  It would need to be deeply pleasurable and bespeak life in every bite.  Nourishing, pleasurable and chi (the Tao term for life force) for me means something green and leafy, but if you show up at someone's bedside with a plate of spinach, in most cases, you will not be greeted warmly, despite all your good intentions.  What else, then, epitomizes life force?

Around 4:00 AM it came to me -- almonds.  Rich in protein, magnesium, potassium and vitamin E, what is a nut but the essence of life?  It even looks like a seed -- or an egg.  It is the kernel of life.  Okay, but almond WHAT?  A handful of almonds offer neither comfort or celebration, but an almond cookie, we might be on to something.  Not almond biscotti, though they have their fans.  When you are of delicate disposition, you should not be forced to crack into your food.  What you eat should be tender.  It should yield.  Perhaps it was the chi thoughts that conjured the memory of Chinese almond cookies, sweet, tender, pure of almond and heart.

The problem -- traditionally, they're made with an abundance of egg, which seems karmically inappropriate in light of me finding the hatched bird egg.  They also contain, um, lard.  Cooks from southern-fried Paula Deen to Mexico maven Diana Kennedy say lard is the secret that makes food yummy.  Maybe so, but there's no way the rendered fat of an animal is chi-ish.  

At 5:00 AM, I went to the kitchen.  I surrendered to the need for butter, but would not egg. Instead, I upped the almond essence with a little almond butter.  This recipe is, I hope, suitable for any occasion.  Crisp at first bite, they dissolve in the mouth, they are light in texture, light of spirit.  Bring them to new parents, to a recovering patient, to someone whose heart is in need of a lift. These cookies are easy, pretty, and a sure and sweet sign of life.  

* George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Stage Door, 1937.

Calla Lilly Almond Cookies 

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
1 tablespoon almond butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoon amaretto
2/3 cup almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
2/3 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
24 blanched almonds **

Cream together butter, almond butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in amaretto and almond flour (or ground almonds).  Sift together flour and baking powder and add to butter mixture.  Stir until just combined. Dough will be slightly sticky.

On a lightly floured board, form into a log 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap well in foil and refrigerate until well-chilled, 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350.

Slice dough into rounds 1/2 inch thick and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart.  Gently press a blanched almond into the center of each cookie.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are just turning golden.

Remove from oven and cool.  Makes 2 dozen.

** To blanch almonds -- Pour whole raw almonds into a small heatproof bowl.  Cover with boiling water and leave for 15 minutes.  Drain.  Almond skins will slip off off, leaving you perfect, bare nut kernels.

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