December 10, 2011

[Advent] the time before Christmas: a time to prepare, reflect.

Look at the beautiful humans around you. Be thankful.

Cozy up.

Bake these cookies.

And drink a warm beverage.

Read The Polar Express with a child.

Listen to this music.

Savor the beauty of the season. Be quiet.

And give with a generous heart.

Be well in these advent days.

Love, AJL



all is calm, all is bright.

December 25, 2010

Christmas this year is quiet, small. It is appropriate that day-old snow covers the ground, and with it comes an eerie silence. I have enjoyed listening to the beautiful, haunting composition of Handel’s Messiah, reading Joshua Banner’s meditation on Isaiah 9, sharing our tradional Christmas Eve buffet, with a not so traditional tawny port, opening gifts so carefully crafted and thought through, reading the John 1 account, and crowding into historic Trinity Lutheran Church, Soulard, to sing the songs, and pray the prayers.

This morning, we sat around the table, with homemade cinnamon rolls, a french press, mimosas, and incredibly tender hearts. We lit the four candles of the advent wreath; the white Christ candle lit for the first day of Christmas. We shared words and songs, and decided to forgo our big Christmas lunch in order to just sit, rest, read our new books, and admire the snow. The cornish hens and pies and potatoes will wait until tomorrow. The movement towards a quiet togetherness is what this Christmas requires. There is much to think on, much to rest in, and much to be thankful for. It may not be the Amy Grant Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree Christmas that we are accustomed to, with wrapping paper strewn about, rushing around to see family and cook and be merry. But that is okay, it is good.

It is a Silent Night sort of Christmas.

And it is my heart that everyone has much hope and light this day, many kisses and much love, delicious food and delightful conversation; that there is merriment and rejoicing.

Happy Christmas and much love.

the cookies of christmas

December 22, 2010

Christmas brings out the cookie-lover in all of us. There is great appeal in creaming butter and sugar, adding flour, salt, egg, and baking powder, together with a variety of other ingredients, to create something bite-size, warm, and memorable. This year, my sister, brother and I made the lemon cookie that Dad loves, Mother’s favorite molasses cookie, and we tried a new recipe: mexican chocolate butter cookies, in addition to the classic decorate-able sugar cookie. It is a time when everyone gathers around the hearth of the oven to enjoy a sweet treat and celebrate the season. (Note: If you are not familiar with the Cook’s Illustrated recipes, they seem a bit more complicated than usual. Read through a few times before you make it. Every step is tested by their kitchens and worth following.)

Mexican Chocolate Butter Cookies

Adding cinnamon, a touch of cayenne, and almonds gives this simple chocolate butter cookie a bit of bite, and it is not too sweet. So good.

adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

20 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks), softened to cool room temperature (about 65 degrees)
1/2 cup cocoa powder (about 2 ounces)
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 cup sugar (7 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (11 1/4 ounces)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375 degrees. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and espresso powder; stir until mixture forms smooth paste. Set aside to cool, 15 to 20 minutes.

2. In skillet set to medium heat, toast 1/2 c. sliced almonds, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

3. In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix remaining 16 tablespoons butter, sugar, salt, and cooled cocoa mixture on high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute, scraping sides of mixing bowl once or twice with rubber spatula. Add yolks and vanilla and mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl. Mix flour and spice/almond mixture. With mixer running on low, add flour mixture in three additions, waiting until each addition is incorporated before adding next and scraping bowl after each addition. Continue to mix until dough forms cohesive ball, about 5 seconds. Turn dough onto counter; divide into three 4-inch disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate until dough is firm yet malleable, 45 to 60 minutes. (Alternatively, shape dough log, 2 inches in diameter and about 12 inches long; use parchment paper or plastic wrap to roll into neat cylinder. Chill until very firm and cold, at least 1 hour.)

4. Roll out 1 dough disk between 2 large sheets parchment paper to even thickness of 3/16 inch. (If dough becomes soft and sticky, slide rolled dough on parchment onto baking sheet and rechill until firm, about 10 minutes.) Peel parchment from one side of dough and cut into desired shapes using cookie cutter(s); using thin metal spatula, place shapes on parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Gather dough scraps and chill. (For cylinder-shaped dough, simply slice cookies 1/4 inch thick and place on parchment-lined baking sheets.)

5. Bake until cookies show slight resistance to touch (see photo below), 10 to 12 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time; if cookies begin to darken on edges, they have overbaked. Cool for 5 minutes, then, using spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack; cool completely.

6. To make glaze, combine 1 bar dark chocolate, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 cup heavy cream in a microwave save bowl and melt slowly. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, and stir. Spoon on top cooled cookies.

Lemon Glaze Cookies

This is a cookie for serious lemon lovers. It is quite tart.

adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

Lemon Cookies
¾ cup (5 1/4 oz.) granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. grated zest plus 2 Tbsp. juice from two lemons
1 ¾ cups (8 1/4 oz.) all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
12 Tbsp. ( 1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½” cubes
1 lg. egg yolk
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Lemon Glaze

1 Tbsp. softened cream cheese
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 ½ cups (6 oz.) powdered sugar

1. For the cookies: Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions; heat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. In the bowl of food processor, process granulated sugar and zest until it looks damp and zest is thoroughly incorporated, about 30 seconds.

Add flour, salt, and baking powder; pulse to combine, about 10 one-second pulses. Scatter butter chunks over. Pulse until mixture resembles fine cornmeal, about 15 one-second pulses.

3. In a measuring cup or small bowl, beat lemon juice, yolk, and vanilla until combined. With machine running, add juice/yolk mixture in slow, steady stream (process should take about 10 seconds); continue processing until dough begins to form ball, 10 to 15 seconds longer.

4. Turn dough and any dry bits out onto counter (or board); working quickly, gently knead the dough together to ensure no dry bits remain and dough is homogeneous. Roll dough into cylinder approximately 10 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. Center dough on piece of parchment (waxed paper or plastic wrap will work in a pinch ). Fold paper over dough.

Grasp one end of parchment. With other hand, use bench scarper to firmly press parchment against dough to form uniform cylinder. Roll parchment and twist ends together to form tight seal. Chill dough until firm and cold, about 45 minutes in freezer or 2 hours in refrigerator.

5. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough log from wrapping and, using a sharp chef’s knife, slice dough into rounds 3/8-inch thick. Place on prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 1 inch apart.

Bake until centers of cookies just begin to color and edges are golden brown, 14 to 16 minutes, rotating baking sheets front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking time.

6. Cool cookies on baking sheet about 5 minutes, using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature before glazing.

Lemon Glaze:

1. Whisk cream cheese and lemon juice in a medium nonreactive bowl until no lumps remain. Add powdered sugar and whisk until smooth.

2. When cookies have cooled, working one at a time, spoon scant teaspoon glaze onto each cookie and spread evenly with the back of spoon. Let cookies stand on a wire rack until glaze is set and dry, about 1 hour.

Soft Molasses Cookies


3/4 cup shortening
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt (see note below)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg

1. Cream together shortening and brown sugar.
2. Stir in egg and molasses and mix well.
3. Fold in dry ingredients and stir.
4. Cover and chill till firm (1-2 hours).
5. Preheat oven to 350°.
6. Roll dough into small balls and roll in white sugar.
7. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet.
8. Bake at 350° for 9-10 minutes.
9. Leave on sheet one minute until set.


December 21, 2010

The Chicago-based band Sleeping at Last asked listeners to submit Christmas video footage to combine into a community-made music video for their song “Snow.” The film is beautiful, providing a simple, pieced-together back drop for the song. The lyrics are so rich in the reflections of Christmas past, present, and future – as we look for hope and cling to love.

The branches have traded
Their leaves for white sleeves
All warm blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees

Christmas lights tangle in knots annually
All families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
All the bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly
As sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
And may the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set
And all glasses are full
The pieces go missing
May we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
Cause life without revision will silence our souls

Let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
And may the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers
The snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates
Our future is white
New Years resolutions are reset tonight

[Snow by Sleeping at Last on the December EP]


December 20, 2010

I flew into Saint Louis yesterday afternoon to spend the week of Christmas with my family. I was met with a bit of snow remaining on the ground, and news of the untimely death of a family friend. It is difficult to understand why these sort of things happen, but the truth is, we may never know. And we have to make peace somehow.

Growing up, whenever I asked my Mom or Dad what they wanted for Christmas, they always just replied, “Peace on earth.” Even if the response was in jest, it rings so much truth in my heart this year, as death and brokenness remain. Pray for peace, and look to the manger.

So it is with heavy, yet hopeful hearts that we look towards the week ahead. For the first time in a while it will be just us. And because we love each other so much and have so much to celebrate, we will cook, and bake, and drink, and be merry. Gifts to give, songs to sing, games to play. We will stop our lives and responsibilities, quiet our aches, and join together behind the red door on Seminary Terrace. We have so much. We have each other.

[photo credit: Lisa Lessing]

O Come Emmanuel

December 16, 2010

From time to time there is a song that captures the breath from my chest and connects me to something greater about life. A coworker and friend shared this beautiful song, written by some dear friends of hers, March of Morn. It acts as a lingering prayer of light and truth, grounding me in the beauty of the season. With advent longings, my heart aches for joy, truth, and restoration. They take the classic haunts of Come Oh Come Emmanuel and infuse it with an energy and hope that is coveted this particular holiday season.

[please listen]: Sing O Come Emmanuel

Bright morning star, come and lend us your light/ O Come Emmanuel
Burning brightly within us, hold back the night/ O Come Emmanuel
Come on, come on, light of the world, sing oh come Emmanuel
Hope to us all, a son has been born/ O Come Emmanuel
Echoes the song in Bethlehem/ O Come Emmanuel
In chorus sing, Hallelujah
On iTunes, click here.