"My white paper knight made from white sugar, white butter, white flour, and a pinch of white salt. My soul mate."
I like to tell myself that I have only lied once in my life.
I must have been about six or seven years old. It was a sunny Sunday morning at my dad's house. And as I have mentioned before, my father and I are creatures of habit. It was 1989, and Sunday morning meant Raisin Bran.
I had just finished picking out all the sugar coated raisins from the cereal box. I had tossed a smattering of bran flakes into my bowl reluctantly for good measure, but most of those I generously conferred to my father, who accepted them with utmost gratitude. A little while later, mouth full of bran and one-percent milk, he announced that he was going to take a shower. But I had spotted something in the kitchen before the Raisin Bran, and I sensed an opportunity.
"Daddy?" I intimated innocently. "Can I please just have one Chessmen cookie? Pretty please? Just one?"
My father has never begrudged me anything. "Just one," he allowed.
In defense of my young self, I really had absolutely no design or anticipation for what was about to happen. It was like any other Sunday. My father walked barefoot across the wooden floors, and left the room. I looked disdainfully down into a bowl filled with nothing but a shallow puddle of milk and neglected bran flakes. Then I got up, went to the kitchen, and took down that white paper sack of Chessmen cookies, nestled in their fluted white paper nests.
I lifted out the first layer, and rifled through as I always did for the knight. My white paper knight made from white sugar, white butter, white flour, and a pinch of white salt. My soul mate. I meticulously, as I always did, bit the golden butter rim away like a frame from a portrait. Then I nibbled away at the outline of the horse's head. And then I bit his head off. The experience left me in a state of wondrous rapture. I was eating cookies alone in an apartment just after breakfast. This, I thought in my little head, is how it must be to be all grown up.
All grown up, I sighed. "All grown up" was a time when nobody told you how many cookies to eat. You could sit and munch on white knights to your heart's content. That was before I realized that liberty and metabolism maintain an inverse relationship, and that eating white knights might somewhat encumber my finding Prince Charming. Or, to put it in chess terms, encumber me (the queen) from ever taking the king. I reached one stubby little finger down into that crisp, foil lined, perfect white paper bag. I ran that finger between the fluted white paper sheet and a whole row of awaiting Chessmen. And then I did something I never did before: I reached in, and plucked one. I didn't even stop to see if it was the white knight. It could have been a bishop for all I knew. I didn't nibble away borders. I just ate it. In one go. Just like that. And it was gone. And then, I did it again.
And suddenly, just as the apartment was awash in Sunday sunlight, I was awash in guilt. Now that blessed white paper bag was not the horn of plenty or the torch of liberty and glory; it was loud, and it was evidence. I crinkled it up as silently as I could, raised a few cookies up one layer in the bag, and placed it back silently in the kitchen.
My father came back into the room, and sat down to tie his laces. "How many cookies did you have?" Check mate.
And so, for the second time that day, I did something that I'd never done before--or since.
Now that I'm all grown up, and in Provence eating my weight in buttery cookies, I thought this week's French in a Flash should reflect a little bit of how life comes full circle. Every patisserie that I visit, whether they are selling butter cookies flavored with anise, with lavender, with lemon, or with, my favorite, orange flowers, I always order exactly one.
Luckily, this recipe makes around 24 cookies, so if you feel like being really grown up, you could just eat the whole batch. They are crumbly shortbread, with that perfect sweetness countered with the punch of salt. And for flavoring, two things that always remind me of the South of France: lemon, and lemon verbena, or verveine, as it is known here. The bright zing of the lemon and the mild cleanliness of the verbena make the perfect, traditional pairing. I love these; they are rustic and comforting, unusual and satisfying, but easy as pie. Only they're cookies.
Tisane Shortbread Cookies with Verveine and Citron
- 2 sticks butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 heaping tablespoon finely ground verbena (3 tea bags)
- A Note about Some Ingredients
- Lemon verbena is a standard on the French tisane, or herbal tea, menu. It is harder to find in the States, although I often find it in its Lipton form at South American or other imported markets. If you can't find verbena, you could certainly try switching up flavors. Try your favorite herbal tea; I would go with chamomile.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, and lemon zest until just combined.
Sift the flour and salt together, and stir in the verbena. If you are using whole leaf verbena, and not tea verbena, you'll want to run it through the food processor to get it very fine. Add the dry ingredients into the wet in three batches, restarting the mixer on low speed, and then raising it to medium. When everything is just combined, stop mixing.
Separate the dough into two parts, and place each half on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Roll the dough into two logs about 2 inches in diameter and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until cold throughout, about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Take the dough out of the fridge.
After the dough has sat out for about 10 minutes, carefully cut the dough into 1/2-inch thick discs, trying not to crumble the dough. Lay the discs onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with a dusting of sugar to form a sparkling, firm crust on the top of each cookie. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden and firm. Allow to stand for a few minutes, until they are firm enough to move. Remove to a wire rack to cool, and serve with tea.