I spend a lot of time in the self-help section of my local bookstore.
I’d rather tell you I spend that time in the cooking section. But that’s a lie, because I thumb through many more self-help hardcovers than I do cookbooks – and I read a lot of cookbooks. I’m just a self-improvement junkie.
Or rather, I’m a reading-about-self-improvement junkie.
In my purse is a black leather-bound notebook lined with little passages and tips for a better me that I’ve transcribed. Current selections: find a prominent place to display aspirational images, catnap on weekends, connect with an old friend for coffee each month, professionally sharpen my knives with the seasons, eat only the very best bread.
Likewise, I keep a thick folio of recipes that I’ve meticulously cut from magazines and categorized by type over the years. These are only the very best recipes, I tell myself, the ones I know I will make. Ask me how many I’ve tried. (None.) But I do feel accomplished as I file and index new additions each month.
There’s a pattern. Doesn’t matter if it’s a self-help book or a cookbook or classical literature. I’m an equal-opportunity reader. I treat all of my books like a good piece of fiction. Just as I’m not putting Anna Karenina into action (er, wisely?) I’m not starting my own Happiness Project or cooking up the Moroccan-spiced cod on page 73.
No doubt I learn many things in my literary travels, but it’s odd to treat self improvement and cooking as bedside table fiction. I only learn so much by reading, making the occasional note and filing away the good parts. The space in my brain and black notebook that hosts tips for meaningful mornings and ways to cook fish has become awfully crowded.
So this morning I yanked from my bookshelf an old favourite cookbook-as-novel: Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jam. Kiros is also my favourite cookbook author. I ordered her beautiful book the day it came out, back in June 2006. When it arrived, I bookmarked a single recipe – a shortbread-based jam sandwich cookie that jumped from the page. It is baked in one great slab, pieces sliced off as needed for snacking. It was then and still is now, my platonic cookie. The version I’ve created is sweet, buttery, dotted with walnuts, scented with orange zest and crammed full of homemade cranberry-raspberry jam. The stuff of great fiction.
Four years later, I’ve used a cookbook as intended: as a book from which to cook. I can’t promise I’ll stop roaming the self-help aisle anytime soon, but if these cookies are any indication, maybe I should put more ideas-filed-away-for-later into regular rotation.
Jam slice cookies
100g (3.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
100g (3.5oz) white sugar
1tsp finely grated orange zest
200g (7oz, 1 -2/3 c) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
40g (scant 1/3 c) finely chopped walnuts
200g (7oz, 2/3c) jam of your choice – I used homemade cranberry-raspberry – recipe follows
1 12×16 inch (30x40cm) baking tray
In bowl, work together softened butter and sugar with a fork to an even consistency. Incorporate orange zest. Add flour and baking powder by mashing in with fork until an even, mealy texture is achieved. The mixture won’t stick together at this point. Incorporate the egg with your fork until the texture feels like and resembles soft, damp sand. Add the walnuts, stirring just to combine. Press together with your hands into a compact, smooth ball. This is really easy-to-handle dough – it should come together with little fuss and with none sticking to your hands or the bowl. If it does stick, the dough is too damp. Add flour by half-tablespoons until dough is no longer sticky. Divide into two equal-sized balls, wrap in cling film and refrigerate at least 30 minutes until firm enough to roll.
30 minutes before you start rolling the dough, preheat oven to 325 degrees F (170 degrees C). Line your baking pan with parchment paper.
Right on the parchment-lined pan, roll out the first dough round until it’s roughly rectangular in shape and 2-3mm thick. Use flour as needed so the dough doesn’t stick. Try to ensure an even thickness – the middle will tend to be thicker than the sides, which you can easily fix by pressing out the centre of the dough with your fingertips, then continuing to roll. Note that the dough rectangle will not quite be as large as your pan (see photo).
Spread the jam over the dough right to the edges, as you would on a piece of toast. On a second piece of parchment, roll the other half of the dough, using the method above. When this piece is about the same size and shape as the first, roll loosely over your rolling pin and gently unfold over the jam-spread dough. If it doesn’t line up exactly, not to worry. Just cut away excess pieces and patchwork assemble until the jam is mostly covered. The cookies’ taste will not suffer!
Bake slab for about 15 minutes, until the edges just start to go golden. Since it’s a shorbread, you don’t want it too much darker. Remove from the oven and cool until just warm to the touch. Lift from the tray to a cutting board. At this point, you can cut into shapes with a cookie cutter or slice into squares with a sharp knife. I prefered to just leave the slab intact, and slice off pieces as needed (i.e. bits shaved secretly as I walk to and from the kitchen…)
These will keep in a biscuit tin in a cool place for about five days.
(Adapted from Tessa Kiros’ Jam Shortbread, makes one 8×10 inch slab.)
Christmas jam (raspberry-cranberry jam)
I love this jam because it’s like a bite of Christmas and is made even better paired with the walnuts and orange in the shortbread base. I keep the seeds in, but if you prefer a smooth jam, pass the warm (not hot) mixture through a fine sieve.
1c red raspberries
1c cranberries, picked over
5 Tbsp (125g) white sugar
1 Tbsp (15mL) water
1 medium saucepan, preferably one with high sides to prevent splattering
In saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar and water. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently and scraping down sides, for about 10 minutes, until mostly cooked down and glossy. Reduce heat to medium and add raspberries. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the raspberries break down, about 5 minutes. When it’s ready to remove from the heat, the mixture should be a very loose jam consistency. It will firm up as it cools. If using the same day for shortbread filling, let sit at room temperature until ready to assemble. If using as jam, store using a sterile canning or freezing method.
Makes two-thirds of a cup.