"Don't worry! It's not scary. Here, I'll go first."
Her curly blonde ponytail bobbed as she picked her way through the freezing mountain river towards the sluice. She waved me over and I waded, fully clothed and reluctant, over to her side. The water was rushing past us, slamming into the rocks downstream in a mess of white spray. I must have looked nervous, because she reiterated: "It's not scary. Watch me."
She sat down in the freezing, frothing water of the sluice and was whisked away, laughing and splashing, to a pool downstream. Our 7th grade students, who had hiked to this stream with us as part of their overnight field trip and were now watching from the shore, cheered. It seemed easy enough.
You need to know a few things about me to guess how I was feeling at that moment:
1. I have older siblings, which made for some traumatic pool experiences as a child.
2. In college, my roommate frantically demonstrated (on the floor of our dorm room) how to swim minutes before our freshman year swim test, where I was positive I was going to be the first student in Davidson College history to drown.
3. It was a year later before I really learned to swim semi-confidently. I still opted out of taking a SCUBA class when I spent my semester doing marine biology because I was afraid I'd panic underwater and drown.
4. I did panic in about 15 feet of water at one point in the Gulf of Mexico, at which point I promptly requested that my friend drag me to the nearby boat. I think the undercurrent of hysteria in my voice got her attention. "Undercurrent" might be the worst word choice ever given the subject matter. Ugh.
Basically, I love water, but I am not fond of drowning.
sweet flowers for this post provided by one of my lovely vacation bible school students!
Ashley had just run the sluice right in front of me, though, and was safe and sound. If my mom were there, she would've begun, "If all your friends were jumping off a bridge...," but thankfully she wasn't there at that particular moment. I sat down in the froth of water, which was much colder than it had seemed when it was only up to my knees.
Gasping from the cold, I felt the water begin to propel me down the stream. I picked up speed and bounced through bubbles and foam before being deposited, laughing and flailing, into the pool of calmer water. Our students cheered. Ashley and I promptly posed for a soaked photo taken by one of them.
That wasn't the first time Ashley had supported or encouraged me. As coworkers, we talked all the time about how to model certain behaviors for our 6th and 7th graders, but she probably didn't realize how often she modeled fun, joy, and above all, bravery for me. I left every conversation with her feeling calmer, more joyful, and inspired -- whether by her fantastic hand-crafted earrings, her creative outfits, her sweet relationship with her family, her bright outlook. How many people can you say that about?
Just recently, Ashley modeled bravery for me one more time. After teaching middle school Spanish for years, she made the decision to move her entire life to Spain, where she'll be teaching middle school English! She told me that the decision -- leaving family and friends and country indefinitely! -- was one of the hardest she's ever made, but after crying for a bit and taking a nap (we both agreed that naps are great for decision making), she knew it was the right choice.
Since she's famous for packing light, I didn't want to get her a physical going away present, but I did want to give her something she could "take with her" to know how special she is to me. She's a cookie baking superstar, so I cobbled together this recipe for her. These florentines are based on some cookies her mom bought once that we all loved. They happen to be the best cookies I've ever had, so I hope she can bake them sometime in Spain and enjoy a "taste of home."
Love you, Ashley!
One year ago: Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies
Two years ago: Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwiches with Creamy Coleslaw and Summer Bean Salad
Sweet Orange Florentines
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: about 15 sandwich cookies
These are the best cookies I've ever tasted, seriously! Don't be afraid of the anise extract -- I hate licorice flavor, but the anise extract here is just enough to give an amazing depth to the orange flavor, not enough to make the cookies licoricey. These cookies are so different than drop cookies -- make sure you only use a teaspoon of mixture for each cookie even if it looks tiny, because they spread out into the beautiful lace you see above. They're easy and a lot of fun to bake!
1/2 cup sliced almonds
3/8 cup macadamia nuts, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
About 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (from about 1/2 orange)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/8 cup sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon anise extract
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the almonds and macadamia nuts together until finely chopped without letting them form a paste. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, orange zest, salt, and finely chopped nuts.
In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, cream, honey, and butter to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is dissolved, continue cooking the mixture for about a minute before removing it from the heat and adding the vanilla extract and anise extract. Stir this mixture into the flour mixture until it's combined and let it sit for about 30 minutes.
Once the mixture is cool enough to touch, use a teaspoon measure to scoop up 1 teaspoon of batter at a time and roll them into balls. Place these balls on your prepared baking sheets at least 4 inches apart -- don't skimp on this distance, because the cookies will spread a lot as they form their "lace." Flatten the balls into discs. Bake one pan of cookies at a time, rotating once halfway through the baking time, until they are thin, lacy, and golden brown, about 6-7 minutes (this is one of those cookies where you inevitably burn the first pan and then get the hang of it, so don't fret. Just keep a close eye on them). Let them cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing them with a thin spatula to a cooling rack. Repeat until all cookies are baked.
In the meantime, melt the white chocolate chips in the microwave according to package instructions (usually half-power, in small increments, stirring often.) Carefully spread a very thin layer of white chocolate (just a whisp or they'll be too sweet) on the bottom of one cooled cookie and top it with another to form a thin sandwich. Place these on wax or parchment paper to dry (you can stick them in the refrigerator to speed up the drying process). Serve immediately or store for up to 3 days in an air-tight container with layers separated by wax paper.