I recently spoke to a group of high school students about life as a writer. They were having a whole week of writerly immersion, to encourage the idea that writing isn’t just about that pain-in-the-neck assignment you have to turn in to your English teacher on Friday.
The students, they had great questions about the writing life, and about what it’s like to be a food blogger. Do people steal your photos and stories? How do you publish a book? What’s your favorite recipe? Don’t you run out of ideas to write about and recipes to cook? Who’s your boss?
Wow. Some questions were easier to answer than others. A favorite recipe? Couldn’t possibly say, but just to choose one, I told them the recipe for lavender-orange blossom cookies I was developing ranks darn high for fun and delicious.
Do I run out of ideas? Hmmm. Not so much. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Because when you’re doing the creative work that you’re meant to do, everywhere you turn, both physically and mentally, seems to lead you down a road of thought that breeds new ideas. And you breed what you feed, emotionally and intellectually. So I try to allow my mind time to wander, quiet spaces to do it in, and to stay open to where the path might lead me.
Example: those lavender cookies? I had no idea what plate I was going to use to show them off for you. I was taking the photos at my mom’s place downstate, and just when I want to lament that I don’t have what I need from my stash of stuff with me, I turn around and see my grandmother Alice’s painted plates on display on the shelf. They’re so beautiful, and though they’ve been in view all my life, I have never actually taken them in my hands to truly look at them. One is painted in the perfect shades of lavender, God bless you Alice. When I reach ever so carefully for the plate, I discover a ribbon taped to the back. Alice took first place in the Spring Art Exhibit in Fostoria, Ohio 1962.
The plate, the ribbon, they explained so much. My mother’s inclination to paint, her encouragement of artistry of any kind in her children, those sorts of things.
But they especially spoke to me of my own creative process, and the way one thing leads to another, and then another. The lavender last summer led me to think about classic lavender shortbread, which led me to our classic melt-away Lebanese graybeh, and what might happen if we added lavender and orange blossom water together in a cookie? Good things happen, very, very good and delicious things. It’s a flavor combination, and a cookie, and a story worth writing and sharing.
Just after I discovered Alice’s ribbon, I received my own sort of ribbon. One for telling stories here, from the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). They selected Rose Water & Orange Blossoms as a finalist in their annual competition, in the category of narrative culinary blog. How very nice and exciting, an affirmation of the creative process for this endeavor that began long ago. I’d love to be able to tell the students about what it’s like when your boss for that work is yourself, but more importantly when your boss is your readers. It’s to them you feel the most loyal, the most desire to write and cook and create well for, the most grateful that they might read from one sentence you’ve written to the next, without clicking away.
And that while a teacher’s approval, or a ribbon, or a finalist position is a truly wonderful thing, it is in large measure kept taped to the back of the plate while the most hard-won and captivating part, the art itself that comes from deep and mysterious forces, faces the world.
Lavender-Orange Blossom Shortbread (Lebanese Graybeh)
The clarified butter makes a difference in the texture of the cookie, so resist the urge to use regular butter; here’s one way to make it. I bake these a little longer than traditional graybeh, which would be paler and with little to no browning on the edges. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
3/4 cup clarified unsalted butter (6 oz.), room temperature (not melted)
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon table salt)
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped or ground dried edible lavender
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 1/2 cups plus about 2 tablespoons all-purpose, unbleached flour
Heat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center position. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using a hand-held mixer if you don’t have a stand mixer), beat the butter, sugar, and salt until it is very light and fluffy, almost like whipped cream, about 3 minutes.
Lower the speed and mix in the lavender and orange blossom water. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time, and once 1 1/2 cups have been added, spoon in another 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour, mixing until the dough is quite dry but holds together. If the dough is too soft, it will not hold its shape when baked, so it’s better to err on the side of crumbly drier dough than dough that is too soft.
Shape one-third of the dough at a time into a log about an inch wide and an inch tall, squared off on top. Cut the dough with a sharp knife on the diagonal to make 1 to 2-inch diamonds. Place them on the prepared sheet pan about an inch apart, and bake one sheet at a time for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheet front to back halfway through, until the cookies are light golden brown. Cool the cookies completely and store them in an airtight container for up to one week.