It was my husband Jerry who came up with the idea of secret presents.
It was a simple construct really- starting on December 1, you had a month to do small, otherwise unnoticeable acts of kindness to someone in the family. It could be… starting the car for them while they were in still fighting to get out the door, so the car would be nice and warm for them. Or washing their dishes when they wandered into the living room to call their friend Tina, the chore momentarily forgotten. Flowers on the windowsill in a tiny vase. A new book on their nightstand. A plate of cookies or blondies, Joe’s favorite, on the counter by the stack of catalogs. A love note in your wallet.
The rule was, you didn’t say anything about it. You don’t say, “I started your car for you!” or “check your wallet when you get to work!” But you wrote it down on a slip of paper and on Christmas day, you roll the paper up and wrap it with a ribbon and it goes in the stocking. And when all the presents are unwrapped and the wrapping paper is sighing and hovering over the carpet, you move over to the stockings and soon everyone is unscrolling and reading and exclaiming and hugging and thanking. It’s my most favorite tradition. Even though Jerry only thought of it because of that one year when I lost my job and he hurt his back and we knew the kids would only have two presents each under the tree. Even though he’s gone now, two years this winter.
We still have the scrolls but they list bigger things now. “Called Mom out of the blue to say hi.” “Sent Grandma flowers on her birthday.” “Came home for Christmas.” This isn’t how the game is played, I want to tell my kids, amidst all that swirling paper. It’s not worth the protest, I think to myself. At least there’s a tray of treats on the counter by the catalogs, I think, and in my head, I add a note to my list, the one topped with Jerry’s name.
WELL HELLO. Hanukkah is over. Christmas is in one week. I’m not sure if you’re feeling festive or a little chubby (hi) because of the onslaught of sweets (combined with the hectic frenzy of everything which, for some reason, has made eating regular meals a rare occasion) or maybe the constant reorganizing of your to-do list against your completely blown budget has created a strange twitch in your cheek (OH HI) or maybe, just maybe all of that was true until 11pm last night when you set the last gift under the tree and then 3pm this afternoon when the last box was put on the counter at the post office and NOW you are just on the couch with a blanket over your legs and the tree is turned on and you can sit there and imagine yourself getting up and exercising in the morning (ha).
No matter where you are this month of months, you should really consider baking something. Eat it or give it away, wrap it up with a bow but honestly, even with all the run-around and the cheek twitching (seriously, what is that?) the kitchen is still a warm, welcoming place. And big fat blondies made with brown-speckled, nutty butter and dotted with chocolate chips are welcome too because of course they are.
*Looking for a fun way to be kind? This is pretty great.*
SKS Holiday Recipe Collection
S’more Cookies | The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies | Snowball Cookies (Foodie.com) | Cookie in a Skillet | White Chocolate Peppermint M&M Cookies | Hot Cocoa Cookies | Shortbread Cookies Filled With Caramel | Crisp Salted Oatmeal White Chocolate Cookies | Bourbon Balls | Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies |Beurre and Sel Jammers | Brown Butter Salted Caramel Snickerdoodles | Nutella Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies | Turtle Tassies | Walnut Bombs | Whiskey Truffles | Caramel Corn with Bacon and Cashews | Apricot White Chocolate Biscotti | Homemade Peppermint Patties | Easy Buckeye Brownie Cookies | Nana’s Butter Cookies with Milk Jam | World Peace Cookies | Jam Meringue Cookies
Brown Butter Blondies
2 Sticks (1 cup) of unsalted butter
2 Cups of all-purpose flour
1 Heaping teaspoon of kosher salt
4 Teaspoons of good-quality vanilla extract
1 and 3/4 Cups of dark brown sugar (light brown works in a pinch)
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
- Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. After 3 to 4 minutes, it will start to smell nutty. Watch carefully and when the sizzling subsides, you should see little brown bits drop to the bottom of the pan. Wait until there is a small army of brown bits and pour into a large bowl. Cool completely (about 30 minutes). (Don’t want to wait? Cool butter for only 5 minutes and proceed with the recipe. The warm dough will melt the chocolate chips a bit and you’ll end up with a more marbled brownie. That’s an adjective right? Marbled?)
- Heat oven to 350° F. Prepare your 8 by 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil: just press it into the pan with a little overhang, no need to grease. Set aside.
- Whisk together flour and salt. In another bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla. Set aside.
- Add brown sugar to the cooled butter. Mix with a wooden spoon for about a minute. Add egg/vanilla mixture to butter/sugar mixture. Mix until combined and shiny, about 20 seconds.
- Add flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Mix until there are still a few pockets of flour visible. Add chocolate chips. Mix until evenly distributed and all flour pockets are gone, but do not over-mix! Spoon dough into your prepared baking pan. Spread evenly. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. (Note from Food52: You can’t do the toothpick test with this because it always comes out clean. Instead, look for a crispy top that’s just starting to crack. Firm slightly-browned edges. And when you press on the center, you don’t want it to feel really soft. Don’t stress. You can always throw it back in later. Just know that once it’s cool, it will firm up quite a bit. Also great frozen.)
Remove from the oven and cool completely. Cut into desired portion sizes. Will keep for a few days at room temperature in an airtight container. Or you can freeze them for a few months.