“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”
Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.
Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?
The answer, unsurprisingly, came from Dorie herself. During an interview she gave not long ago, she mentioned how she started in the kitchen in the first place, and how she kept going. She began out of necessity, she said. And carried on because of the pleasure she felt in feeding others. Dorie has always been a baker, and despite winning a number of James Beard Awards for her craft, she still calls herself “a home baker”. A home baker who, with her cookies and cakes and pies and tarts, enjoys making others happy.
These two worlds – M.F.K Fisher’s and Dorie Greenspan’s – so far apart in so many ways, collide in my mind as I stir eggs with flour and dollop dough on a baking sheet. Cooking, baking, writing, are connected by a feeling that, at the base, is humble and deeply human. Pleasurable, too, if we think of these as choices rather than chores. So, while I slip the first batch of cookies inside the hot oven, I remind myself: this is a choice. This is your choice. And it’s one that, if sustained by empathy and kindness and security, will keep acquiring new meanings as you go, learn, stumble and age.
I find myself looking at these cookies now and think about how reassuring their sight is in the morning as I shuffle down the stairs into the kitchen with my eyes half closed and a blanket wrapped around my chest (alas, it’s still cold). I think, too, about the friends I brought them to, and about their dunking them in tea and reaching for just one more, just one more. And finally, I think about the lemony, flowery scent climbing up the stairs as they bake and cool, summoning me to leave whatever it is that I’m doing, go downstairs, and have a snack. All these things – domesticity, comfort, connection – are what fuel words and actions around here. More than the recipe itself. More and beyond the food.
So really, I could have gone on a long tirade about semolina and almond meal and about how lovely they are together, and about what sandy yet tender cookies they produce. I could have told you about how rubbing freshly grated lemon zest in a cup of sugar before adding it all to the rest of the ingredients is a wonderful idea, for it intensifies the citrus flavour to the nth degree and makes the cook high on freshness while at it.
Then, I could have told you about the childish joy of rolling spoonfuls of dough into a bowl of icing sugar, covering the whole kitchen counter in a thin layer of sticky dust. And about how satisfying it is to press your thumb over the soft dough until the edges wrinkle and crack, and your mark is left on the surface of each cookie, and each of them will carry your signature. But these are all things you’ll find out in due time.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about their scent. The original recipe called for vanilla, and lemon, and orange blossom water (or rose water), which, to me, appeared like a cacophony of perfumes, like you’d find in a duty-free or a beauty parlour. And I realise now that this perception of excess has everything to do with me, and nothing to do with the recipe itself. Sensorial perceptions and memories, in cooking like in life, are deeply personal. So here vanilla was, to me, best left out of the equation. Leave it to the sprightly scent of citrus, and to the sweet aroma of orange blossom water ( a hint, just a hint) to give things some character, I thought; they’ll know what to do.
Dorie calls these cookies ‘Moroccan’ and I can see why – ingredients and flavours are reminiscent of those lands. However, semolina and almond meal are now such common ingredients in the cuisine of Central and Southern Italy that, in baking these cookies, my first thought actually went to Sicily – to the almond trees now blooming, and to the crunchy semolina bread that is so typical of the island. My second went to Naples, where one of the most celebrated local cakes, the pastiera, gives a scent of orange blossoms so beautifully intense that one might suspect it contains real flowers. For these reasons and many others, I’d like to think that the actual origin is, in this case, irrelevant (or perhaps, once again, personal). Though I know for a fact that, good as they are, they’ll feel at home in any kitchen, on any table, no matter where.
Almond Semolina Cookies
Adapted from Dorie’s Cookies by Dorie Greenspan via Melissa Clark for the NYT
300g | 1 ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons semolina flour
200g | 2 cups ground almonds
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
150g | ¾ cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
60ml | ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoon orange blossom water
Icing sugar, for rolling
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together semolina, ground almonds, baking powder and salt. Put the sugar in a separate, large bowl. Finely grate the lemon zest over the sugar, then rub them together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the eggs and beat them energetically until the sugar has dissolved. Next, pour the oil in a thin stream and keep beating until incorporated. Beat in the orange blossom water. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three increments, mixing until just combined.
Sift some icing sugar into a small bowl. For each cookie, spoon out a tablespoon of dough, roll it between your palms to form a ball and then roll it in icing sugar. Place the balls on the lined baking sheets, leaving some room between them, then use your thumb to push down the centre of each cookie, pressing so as to cause the edges to crack.
Bake for about 13 minutes, switching the pans after 7 minutes, or until cookies are golden and just firm to the touch. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. Store in an air-tight container or cookie jar for up to a week.Print recipe