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Summer flipped off like a switch here in Texas. One minute it was apocalyptically hot and dry, the next it was raining, cooler, the sun slightly filtered. It’s still hot, but everything is gentler outside and the bugs and the birds and the flowers know it. They’re busy feasting and blooming and probably murdering each other too (even the purple gerardia that cropped up overnight in great clusters throughout the pasture is sucking nutrients from its neighbors, according to mom’s wildflower book). Nature red in tooth and claw, as my folks like to say (they’re quoting a Tennyson poem I am only reading in its entirety right now at this very minute, so I feel like less of a poser).
But my mind isn’t on murder this month. I’m in the grips of that weird, sweet, wistful feeling that this particular season always inspires in me. At least I think it’s always like this. Every year I forget, and every year I live it anew.
It’s not a craving for sweaters or pumpkin spice or even cold weather. It’s been a long time since I lived anywhere that actually manifested the beautiful death and decay of fall—golden, mulchy leaves, dead branches, chilly East Coast winds. I hate sugary coffee concoctions and I only think about sweaters as part of a satirical Milano moment montage I like conjure with my sister (me with my cowl neck on my glamorous balcony, hugging my white pant legs and cradling my giant mug of designer tea, delicately nibbling that damn Milano). I don’t really identify with people of the fall.
This is different. It’s a longing for something I can’t place. It’s not friends—that’s a yearlong ache. Those folks don’t live here mostly, and I always feel their absence.
It’s not sadness at the year’s passing. Good riddance. I am grateful for this year, a good year, a fairly productive year, one I was surprisingly present for, managed to relish, even. But I’m always moving on. I don’t spend a lot of time in the past unless it comes knocking. It’s over, I can’t change it, and the present is so very preoccupying.
No. I think it’s contentment. It’s contentment experienced by someone who is always a bit restless, a bit (a lot) critical, and ill at ease. With myself. With the world. On end.
I’ve been happier—by which I actually mean contented, I often confuse the two—than I thought possible in this Texas life, next door to my parents, cohabiting with a mind-blowingly stable and loving partner and a doggo who keeps me sane and snuggled. I hate to even write that because I suspect there’s always a heavenly finger hovering over the “smite” key on the celestial keyboard, just waiting for me to get too comfy. (Maybe they’re in a cowl neck sweater too. Maybe smiting is god’s Milano moment.)
Maybe that’s it. Maybe, whatever progress I’ve made, whatever trauma I’ve overcome, achievements I’ve celebrated, I still don’t know what to do with myself in a contented head space. For as much time as I spend sat on my ass, I am bad at being still. Is it possible that I feel guilty for contentment, or that if I were doing everything I was supposed to be doing—things I can’t even identify, let alone tackle—I’d be…what? More content? Or less content, which is the point? Is that the point? Surely not (another prayer to St. Shirley, as my mom would say).
It’s not ingratitude. I think expressing these doubts, this shifty discontentment, can sound like ingratitude. It is helpful to remember, and I say this to myself as much as I say it to you, that we can hold these things simultaneously: contentment and discontentment. Acceptance and rejection. Gratitude and yearning. We can embrace the baffling chaos at the same time that we’re trying to overcome it, or make our way through it.
Which is why I think nothing, absolutely nothing, is a black and white truth, including this uncharacteristically firm declaration from yours truly. And I think the moment we feel we’ve found the truth we’ve got to question it. And if that smacks of moral relativism to you, you’re right, and I don’t like it any more than you do. The truth you hold to be self-evident may not be my truth, and if we weren’t all desperately trying to find a foothold in this existential quicksand we’d be better at embracing grey. Or Greige. The Greige Areas. I don’t pretend to understand it and I’ll spend the rest of my silly little days mulling it over.
Just watch out for the person, the entity, the organization, that speaks in absolute truths. Ask yourself what they’re selling. That’s all I’m saying.
I am also saying that contentment rests uneasily atop ever-shifting ground, and maybe that’s what I’m feeling. Both things are true, and life is never static, so that contentment brings with it a kind of sadness that it will pass. That all things end. I think Bhuddists call it attachment. It’s hello and goodbye in one breath.
It’s fall in Texas, a soft but swift transition, a season of in-betweens, and I like to savor this sweet uncertainty by baking. Like all cooking, baking is centering for me, but unlike all cooking, there are usually cookies when it’s over. I haven’t turned my oven on for more than 15 minutes since early July, and I am happy to be baking again. Content to be flipping through my baking books for fresh inspiration. Looking forward to when my partner fires off the first fall pizza. To swapping cookies with my mom. To gazing over my cashmere-clad knees at my spotless garden from my immaculate white couch as the maple leaves flutter to the ground, Milano cookie in hand.
I had leftover apple cider syrup from the Smitten Kitchen caramels I make every Christmas and it’s kept perfectly well in my fridge for almost a year now. So, I developed a little recipe riff on Fanny Farmer’s molasses cookies to usher in this sweet-sad seasonal unfolding, and to share something nice with my mom who’s been showering my household with cookies for weeks (she’s got the fall bake bug too). I’d love for you to bake some, share some, hoard some, whatever feels right for you this season.
Happy fall y’all.
This recipe is inspired by wistful fall feelings, the thrill of turning the oven on after a grueling summer, and the Smitten Kitchen apple cider caramels I make every year for Christmas gifts. It’ll take a while—like up to two hours—to reduce a one-gallon jug of unfiltered apple cider into the thick amber syrup you’ll need for this recipe. BUT, you’ll have plenty of syrup leftover, and it will last forever refrigerated—like up to two years, no kidding. So, do yourself a favor and let the cider reduce on your stove and fill up your house with the smell of fall. Then bake these super easy cookies. They are thin, soft, and moist in the middle, and ringed by a crisp-chewy edge that tastes like apple toffee.
You don’t have to let the sticky dough chill before baking, but it makes them easier to roll into uniform(ish) balls for a more even bake. If you want cookies right away, go for it. Your cookies might bake a little more unevenly and you’ll have more dough on your fingers for lickin’, but neither of those things are deal breakers.
Ingredients for Apple Cider syrup
1 gal unfiltered apple cider
Ingredients for Cookies
1/4 c apple cider syrup
1/2 c butter, well softened (room temp)
3/4 c dark brown sugar
1 c all purpose flour
1/4 c almond flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt, plus extra for garnish
1/2 tsp baking soda
Instructions for apple cider syrup
- Pour the apple cider into a large stockpot and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring and checking once in a while, for 2 hours until the juice has reduced to about two cups of thick, amber syrup. When the syrup gets darker and thicker you’ll have to stir more often. If you’re unsure when to stop cooking, use the frozen plate test you’d use for jam making. Freeze a small plate or saucer and then drizzle the syrup on the cold plate. This will cool the syrup enough to check how thick it is. Pour the syrup into a mason jar or similar lidded container and store in the fridge for the coming apocalypse (it will keep for well over a year).
Instructions for cookies
- In a large bowl, combine the apple cider syrup, butter, brown sugar, and egg and stir to combine (you can also do this with a paddle attachment in a stand mixer).
- Add the flour, almond flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda to the wet ingredients (don’t worry about pre-mixing in a separate bowl, life is too short and it makes no difference here) and mix until fully incorporated. You should have a cohesive, sticky dough.
- Refridgerate for 2 hours or overnight. This makes the sticky dough easier to hand roll into balls.
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Remove dough from fridge and roll into roughly half tablespoon balls, placing each on your cookie sheet about 2″ apart as the cookies will spread.
- Bake for 10 minutes until centers look fairly set and edges are browned. Rotate your pans halfway through the baking time (turn the pans and swap racks) and sprinkle each cookie with a tiny pinch of salt before placing the trays back in the oven. If you have nice chunky or flaky salt on hand, use that for your sprinkles.
- Allow cookies to cool, remove them from the cookie sheet with a spatula, and store in an airtight container. Cookies will keep for about two weeks and reheat beautifully, if you want to serve them under a scoop of ice cream.