Fig and Cheddar Shortbread

Fig and Cheddar Shortbread // Queen Smithereen.
An unfortunate rule of thumb in my world: when in doubt, overcomplicate. I ran into an acquaintance of mine recently who got me to thinking about how silly it is for me to be afraid of the things I am afraid of. Grace and I had been walking through the Mill City Ruins in lovely downtown Minneapolis when a friendly voice pulled an Adele and said, “Hello.”

We strolled aimlessly through the farmers market, catching up on our last few weeks of excitement. Between sloppy bites of eggy bison burger, he told us he was admittedly still drunk from the night before. We joked that his bouquet of flowers could be used for whack-a-mole purposes, and I held the lovely things as he perused the heirloom tomatoes. On the way back, we got to talking about daring to do the things that frighten us most.
Fig and Cheddar Shortbread // Queen Smithereen.
I suppose I never paused to consider how completely un-terrifying most of my fears are. Actually, that isn’t the issue at all. Really, truly, I have been able to recognize what I am afraid of from an empathic standpoint:

This happened –> which is why I approach things this way –> which is why I am afraid of this –> which is why I do or do not do that.

He asked what I was afraid of currently. I remember a large horde of burly men whizzing past on bicycles right around this time. I remember Grace picking up speed and edging closer to the side of the path. I remember remembering my friend Alex talking Billie Holiday in the exact same place weeks before.
Fig and Cheddar Shortbread // Queen Smithereen.
We walked past a question, etched into the sidewalk: How many worms can you find? It was a game. I thought about what I feared. We began to spot the places where the city had once populated worm statues; Grace pointed out that not a single one was still there. All of them, gone. In their wake, there were crevices in the sidewalk. Spaces that were no longer filled. Voids.

That, my friends, is the thing I am most afraid of. Voids. Of all kinds. Especially the people-shaped ones.

When you let anyone in, you welcome the possibility of hurt. You welcome the prospect of losing them. You open yourself up to answering that question, “How many worms can you find?” with, “None, anymore.” You become vulnerable to the possibility of a pockmark in your sidewalk. Sometimes, I just don’t know if I can handle another scar of what once has been in my life, but isn’t anymore.
Fig and Cheddar Shortbread // Queen Smithereen.
But then I realized something: there I was, thinking about how little I can stand to welcome new things at the risk of losing them…and all the while, I was in the presence of two people I have opened myself up to in the last year. In that moment, it became clear that maybe some of our personal growth can be incidental. Maybe all it takes is the right combination of human traits, or the right timing, or the right culmination of events…

Which brings me back to that time I made this shortbread. Fearlessly, I combined sweet elements (dried black mission figs, pure vanilla extract) with savory (sharp cheddar, cayenne, black pepper). With salt, tang, richness, depth, and the teensiest bit of sweetness, we find our mouths full of cookies and useless questions:

Do these kind of taste like a fancy Cheez-It? Is it dessert, or isn’t it? Do we serve them with soup or with ice cream? Can we treat them like normal cookies, and dip them in milk? Can we consume, like, ten of them at once and not realize it?

To all of the above, probably.

I guess I’m trying to let go-even if it’s only a little bit-of the things I am not required to understand. Because maybe we don’t always need the Why element. These shortbread cookies, at once a million questionable things, confuse the palate in deliciously surprising ways. Let’s not overthink it.

One Year: Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Toasted Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Two Years: Black Bean Salsa
Three Years: Pappardelle with Brown Butter and Chives

Fig and Cheddar Shortbread
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies

3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
3/4 cup dried black mission figs, sliced into thin (1/8-inch thick) rounds
sea salt, for sprinkling

In a medium-sized bowl, beat together butter, sugar, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Beat in vanilla extract. Beat in flour and cheddar until just combined. Fold in dried black mission figs. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 1/4-inch thick round. Use a 3-inch biscuit cutter to cut the dough into small circles. Use a sharp knife to quarter each circle. Gently press a fork into the rounded side of each quarter. Roll out the leftover dough again and repeat. Spread cookies out on baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle each with sea salt. Bake the cookies in batches, about 12-14 minutes. Rotate cookies halfway through the baking time. Store cookies in an airtight container for up to three days.

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