When I get stressed-out, I bake. Last night I woke up at 3 am, electrified by worry. My car’s “check engine” light had come on. I had 100 papers waiting on my desk to be graded, and I had caught a look at myself in a mirror and realized, to my utter dismay, that I looked suspiciously like Winston Churchill. Clearly my best days were behind me.
I knew what I would have to do. Get up and “stress-bake.”
Measuring a teaspoon-worth of pure vanilla extract, or shelling and toasting pistachios engages my hands, nose and taste buds, and shuts down my worrying, judgmental mind. When I cream together sugar and butter, it doesn’t matter that I’ll never fit into the jeans in my bottom drawer. I focus instead on the ingredients in front of me, embrace the solitary, gentle, finite world that is stress-baking, and I feel my heart-rate slow.
I like the house to be empty, or at least for my husband to be asleep, when I bake. Unlike making soup or grilling steaks, chatting and baking don’t go hand-in-hand. So I like to bake early in the morning, before the sun is up, if possible.
I choose my music carefully. Lately I’ve been enjoying Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on cello, or Harmonouche, a band I was introduced to recently at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter that plays gypsy-style traditional jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt. Pick something that will mix well with the smells of ground spices and coffee, with the sound of cracking egg shells against the side of a ceramic bowl, and with the hot air that bakes your eyebrows when bending over an open oven door.
When I came down to the kitchen this morning, I made a pot of coffee and looked around to see what ingredients I had. My mother had given me a bag of gorgeous, whole Georgia pecans, and after a bit of looking at recipes, I decided I would bake Pecan and Brown Butter Biscotti. I began by breaking up 2 cups of the Georgia pecans with my hands rather than rough-chopping them. I enjoyed feeling the pecan oil on my finger-tips, enjoyed the soft snap that each made when its skin broke, and the crackle they made as they fell on top of one another in my ceramic bowl. Being so aware and unrushed is what makes baking a kind of meditation.
I put the nuts on a baking sheet in the oven, and put a stick of butter into a pan on the stove before my husband interrupted my reverie, clomping down the stairs and singing “I Am Woman” loudly. I had a moment of choosing whether to be annoyed or amused, and I chose to laugh. After all, I had seen myself in that faulty, Winston Churchill mirror the night before. He was headed out to shovel the snow that had fallen overnight, and I knew that the minute the front door closed behind him, I would miss him. Better to laugh than to scold, always.
I turned back to the butter I was browning in the pan. I knew it would be ready when the butter blossomed and gave off a toasted smell. I checked on the hand-broken pecans toasting in the oven, listening to my Erik Satie, knowing my husband would be back later, that he would bring a gust of cold air in with him, that we would sit together and eat these biscotti hot out of the oven, mine dipped in coffee, his in hot chocolate. My cares had dissolved.
Looking like Winston Churchill won’t matter to you so much when you have great music on, hot coffee, and some of these to eat. I promise.
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Following is the recipe I used, with my notes in brackets.
Pecan and Brown Butter Biscotti
adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
- 2 cups pecans (1/2 pound), coarsely chopped (Note: I used beautiful whole Georgia pecans my mother gave me as a present, and I broke them up by hand rather than chopping them)
- 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extra (Note: I almost insist that you use pure vanilla extract rather than imitation. Stress-baking is all about playing to your senses, and there are few liquids that are as luxurious as pure vanilla extract. Indulged yourself.)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper for the biscotti. [Note: If you don’t want to rush through the process, wait to preheat the oven until after the butter is cooled. Stress-baking is, by its nature, un-hurried]
Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until lightly toasted and fragrant; let cool. In a medium saucepan, cook the butter over moderate heat until brown and fragrant, about 8 minutes [Note: you will know the butter is ready when it suddenly gives off a toasted smell. Wait for it, but don’t walk out of the room. Burned butter is a different animal than browned butter. One is heaven, the other garbage]. Pour the butter onto a rimmed baking sheet to harden. (This is when I preheat the oven)
In a medium bowl, whisk the 2 cups of flour with the baking powder and salt. In another medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the browned butter with the sugar until combined. At low speed, beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla. Gradually beat in the dry ingredients, then stir in the pecans. (Note: If you haven’t already, eat one of the toasted pecans before you put it in the dough. )
Gather the dough into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Shape each piece of dough into a 14-inch-long log on 1 of the baking sheets. Gently flatten the logs until they are 1 1/2 inches thick. [Note: I wet my hands for this step. It makes it much easier to shape the logs]
Bake the logs for 25 minutes, or until golden and lightly cracked on top. Remove from the oven. Using a serrated knife, cut the warm logs diagonally into 3/8-inch-thick slices. [Note: I eat one then, hot out of the oven before the second baking. I do this because it’s important to test your work, not because they are so soft and delicious. Just saying.] Arrange the slices on their sides on the baking sheets and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden. Transfer the biscotti to racks to cool.
MAKE AHEAD The biscotti can be stored in an airtight container for 2 weeks.