The last time my brother and I had dinner he brought me a present. A cutting from his lush wandering jew. He had planted the little stem carefully in a bit of soil and made a small newspaper pot to transport it. He had carried it in hands on the subway all the way to Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. It’s the last physical gift he ever gave me.
At first after he died, I couldn’t even look at it. Gus must have tended to it because it thrived. Over time she grew into a huge, beautiful plant with cascading stems and bright purple leaves. That’s when I started to look at her as a reflection of him. A living connection. An important symbol of my brother. It felt like all I had of him. And that’s when things got stressful.
That plant was so important. Too important. And sadly I didn’t inherit my father’s green thumb. I am bad with plants. I love them. I try to keep them. But on any given day, half of the plants in our house are knocking on death’s door. And that wandering jew has been testing me.
She goes from lush and happy to dry and deadish every other year. I overwater her. I forget to water her. I’ve replanted her a dozen times. I sing to her. I trim the leaves. I replant new cuttings. She comes back for a little while. Maybe a new leaf or two creep up but then her stems get skinny and shriveled all over again. She’s been on a true downward spiral for the last few years.
This winter was especially hard for her. The cold air coming in from our old, gappy windows combined with the overbearing dry heat from our radiators did her in. We’re all a little shriveled after this everlasting winter. Last month I was sure she was never going to recovery. I cried about it. I cried about my brother. Gus told me that it was just a plant. But she doesn’t feel like just a plant to me.
About a month ago I found a couple scoops of old, dried out potting soil. I decided to cut of one last piece and repot it. I had low expectations. I had already said goodbye. A couple of weeks ago she looked wan. The next week she was practically lying down on her soil bed, about to say goodbye to this world.
And then a miraculous thing happened. I tried something new. It only took me eight years to figure it out. Plant food! She needed food, the poor girl. You’d think as a cook I might have figured that one out sooner. Now my little wandering jew is practically perky. Just like me, she’s enjoying the moderate climate and the sunny rays. She has been revived. Refreshed. Growing a new. She makes me smile every time I walk past. And I think of him. Seems like a sign for good things to come. Happy spring, friends! Let’s eat.
Chocolate Shortbread Sandwiches with Malted Buttercream
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen
2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 large egg yolks (save the whites!)
sanding sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup malted milk powder
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg yolks and beat until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until a uniform dough forms. Divide the dough in half, form each half into a disc, and wrap each piece in plastic. Chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Roll one disc out to an even 1/8th inch to 1/4-inch thickness between two sheets of parchment paper. If the dough is too sticky, chill it for a bit longer. Use a 2 1/4 inch cookie cutter to cut circles in the dough. Freeze the dough sheets for at least 10 minutes. (This will help them keep their shape.) Use an offset spatula to transfer the frozen dough circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough. You can reroll the dough. Sprinkle half of the cookies with sanding sugar.
3. Bake the cookies until they are set and the tops look dry, about 14 to 16 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through cooking. Let cool on the sheets for 5 minutes then transfer to rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining cookies.
4. To prepare the buttercream, whisk together the sugar and the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl). Set the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Whisk the mixture over the heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is warm. Rub some of the mixture between your fingers to make sure the sugar has dissolved completely. Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat until you have stiff, glossy peaks and the mixture has cooled to almost room temperature, about 5 minutes.
4. Reduce the speed to medium low and add the butter, a piece or two at a time, and beat until smooth. Switch to the paddle attachment about halfway through adding the butter. Beat until smooth and creamy. While beating, gradually add the malt powder and beat until smooth. It might look a little grainy but it will taste fine. Transfer it to a piping bag fitted with a large, round tip.
5. Turn the non-sugared cookies over. Top each one with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the buttercream. Top each cookie with a sugared top. You can serve them right away, or chill them for a few minutes to get the buttercream to firm up a bit.