happy birthday, auntness

pecan shortbread, on wicker

I have a great-aunt who keeps KitKats tucked away in that little fold of skin above her kneecaps.

At least that's what she has always told me. Her name is Aunt Eileen, and today, dear readers, we celebrate the first anniversary of her eightieth birthday. Or, I should say, her un-birthday, which is the closest Aunt Eileen comes to her actual birthday, most years. She was, in truth, born on February 29th. It was a leap year. I always blink a few times in wonder when I consider this twenty-four hour wrinkle in time. It drifts, here-again, gone-again, through the years. It's all very scientific, of course, this leap year business. Without it, our seasons would shift, and who wants to run the risk of celebrating the Fourth of July under a foot of snow? Yet mathematical invention or not, there you have it: an extra day on the calendar, a whopping twenty-four hour bonus every four years to fill up with our lives. It's hard to deny that there's something magical in that. How very Aunt Eileen it was to be born on a such a day.

As I write this, I find myself wondering: Do people say things like, "I'm in my early 80s?" Looking at this tall, beautiful woman, it doesn't seem possible that she is in her eighth decade on this earth. Seriously, people, I've seen sixty-year-olds who look far worse for the wear. I have my suspicions that Aunt Eileen's timeless beauty has something to do with this leap year thing. She has, after all, celebrated her actual date of birth a mere twenty times.

When I was three or four years old and, to my dismay, there was no sign of a little sibling in site, I asked Aunt Eileen if she would kindly be my sister. My little sister, that is. To my delight, she obliged. Now, in case you're wondering, it is a very convenient thing having a fully grown woman as your little sister. She can do all kinds of fun stuff that typical little sisters can't, like pull you to the playground in a red wagon, and serve up big bowls of ice cream. I remember one playground outing in particular: A little boy over by the slide pointed at Aunt Eileen and asked, "Is she your mother?" "No," I shot back, as if it were obvious, "She's my sister."

When we moved to Cleveland in 1986, visits to Aunt Eileen's became blissfully routine. Kasey, my little sister in the more traditional sense, was eventually born, and took her place by my side. We would spend long afternoons at Aunt Eileen's playing cards, dreaming up stories about the blue-haired doll, Priscilla, who sat perched on Aunt Eileen's pillow, and filling up on KitKats before dinner. With gusto, Aunt Eileen sang us songs from her high-school choir. Her quavery falsetto, I now know, was mostly a put-on, but when she told me that she had taken singing lessons, I believed her. We always left Aunt Eileen's with a "prize" of our choosing: a plastic flower, perhaps, a dainty figurine, or a KitKat for the road.

Within the four walls of Aunt Eileen's home, I had some of my most unusual culinary adventures. Aunt Eileen, you see, is queen of the frozen foods. I'll never forget the feast she whipped up (or, more accurately, thawed out) when I first brought my college boyfriend home for a visit. I couldn't wait for Justin to taste my mother's chicken soup, but it was the spread at Aunt Eileen's that pleased him most of all. On a dining room table draped with a fine cloth and studded with linen napkins, sat a platter of knishes, potato pancakes, and pastry-wrapped mini-hot dogs, fresh from the cardboard freezer boxes and hot out of the oven.

Oh, Aunt Eileen, in more ways than you know, you have made my life, well, my life. It doesn't get much bigger than that. Thank you.

By the time you're reading this, I hope that a box of pecan shortbreads will have safely arrived at your doorstep. When I saw this recipe, I thought of you, because these shortbreads remind me ever so slightly of the nut cookies Bubbie used to make, the ones we both so adored. (Bubbie, by the way, my great-grandmother and Aunt Eileen's mother, is no doubt to blame for Aunt Eileen's culinary shortcomings. Bubbie was a brilliant cook, who allowed no written recipes, no measuring cups, and no helping hands in her kitchen. When Bubbie passed away, what was poor Aunt Eileen to do but acquaint herself with the frozen food aisle?)

Enjoy the shortbreads, sister of mine, and don't forget to share them with Priscilla.

pecan shortbread, cooling

I love you, Auntness. Happy Birthday.

Postscript -
Imagine my surprise when I learned, post-post (after I had posted this post, that is), that Aunt Eileen actually just missed being born on the 29th of February by a few measly hours! I could have sworn that she has always told me that she was a leap year baby. But I must be mistaken. That, or it was just one of those tall tales little sisters - even pretend ones - sometimes make up to impress big sisters. She was, in fact, born on March 1st. Aunt Eileen does, however, admit to wishing, quite hard, that she had been born on the 29th. Rather than change my story, which in spirit still rings true, I'd rather call this post like I see it: a birthday wish, granted.

Pecan Shortbread

from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, with my commentary

I have to be honest. This shortbread is a certain kind of cookie for a certain kind of cookie lover. You can't go into it expecting things like a chewy crumb and oozing chocolate. These cookies are crumbly and dry, but in a good way, and intentionally so. How else would they stand up to a proper dunking in a cup of chamomile-lavender tea? What makes this shortbread satisfying is its straightforward, buttery flavor, toasty pecans, high-quality extracts, and the all-important hint of salt. Ms. Garten suggests cutting the dough into 2 1/2 inch cookies. Because these cookies are so buttery-rich, I prefer slightly smaller rounds. I also prefer my shortbread a bit thinner than the 1/2 inch height she suggests.

3/4 pound (that's three sticks, folks!) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1 t. pure almond extract
3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. pecans, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Add the pecans and mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 40 minutes.

Roll the dough 1/2 inch thick (according to Ms. Garten. I say, roll the dough a little thinner than that) and cut into 2 1/2 in squares with a plain or fluted cutter (again, according to Ms. Garten. I prefer smaller cookies, given how rich and buttery they are). Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. All to cool to room temperature and serve.


kasey said...

Sorry to have ruined the magic of the whole born-on-the-29th thing. It doesn't just make this post wonderful, but it makes Aunt Eileen even more Aunt Eileeny. And the recipe looks delicious (as do the pictures). I have all the ingredients at hand; I just need to get over the 3 sticks of butter.

Love you.

Sara said...

Your shortbreads look absolutely perfect! I have this recipe, but haven't made it yet. Happy birthday to Aunt Eileen!

Jess said...

Thanks, Sara! I'll pass your birthday wishes along to Aunt Eileen.

Janet said...

Actually she is in her *ninth* decade.

I enjoyed your memories of your aunt.