“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.

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29 Comments on Sweet Orange Florentines

  1. Christine Zammit
    June 24, 2012 at 10:18 am (11 years ago)

    Best of luck, Ashley, in all you do.

  2. Jenny @ BAKE
    June 24, 2012 at 1:23 pm (11 years ago)

    What a perfect gift for your friend. She’s so brave to move!

  3. DessertForTwo
    June 24, 2012 at 2:18 pm (11 years ago)

    Awww, such a sweet story. Thanks for sharing! And I wish her the best of luck 🙂

  4. Kathy
    June 25, 2012 at 4:46 pm (11 years ago)

    These look wonderful – just right for summer. And what a sweet memory you enhanced and made for your friend, the cookies her mom bought and the story you wrote to go with this recipe. This would be a good one to try with my niece, the aspiring chef.

    And I have to comment on the nap – I am prone to taking naps when life gets overwhelming. It’s like stepping out of the crazy for a few minutes and coming back refreshed. Just this past Friday I stopped by my brother’s house for lunch after work and was explaining my stressful, so much to do life. I listed all the things I needed to accomplish that afternoon and ended the list with “take a nap,” which he almost said in unison with me. Taking a nap is a useful tool in my box of ways to manage life. Love it that others do this too.

    Blessings to your friend for her big adventure and to you also for being brave. 🙂

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm (11 years ago)

      That’s exactly how I feel too, Kathy!! Sometimes you just need to go to sleep. Ashley said that’s how most of her big decisions go. LOL. I’m going to start incorporating a required nap whenever I’m trying to decide on something 🙂

  5. Laura Janeli
    June 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm (11 years ago)

    These look delish and the photos are beautiful. I can’t wait to make these for someone, great gift idea! Thanks for sharing Julie!

  6. Jen @ Savory Simple
    June 25, 2012 at 7:24 pm (11 years ago)

    I’m not a fan of licorice, either, but anise does work well with orange!

  7. Sophia Spach
    June 25, 2012 at 11:07 pm (11 years ago)

    THESE LOOKS AMAZING! Awwww and I love the whole post about Ashley, she will be missed by many!

  8. ashley
    June 26, 2012 at 10:55 am (11 years ago)

    absolutely beautiful! thank you so much julie, for your calmness, your model kindred spirit for the rest of us, your inspiring ideas and comments, and for always smiling even in rough moments. you are a gift 🙂 love you and can’t wait to try these! hopefully i can find the extracts- and i LOVE anise! And they actually use it quite often in treats here in Spain. Thanks again! LOVE YOOOOOU!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm (11 years ago)

      LET ME KNOW if you can’t find anything and I’ll make you a care package 🙂 Here’s hoping you have an oven soon, but even if not, I’ll have to look for some no-bake treats. We miss you already!! Love you!

  9. Heather
    June 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm (11 years ago)

    The pictures in this post are gorgeous!

  10. Lisa
    June 26, 2012 at 7:39 pm (11 years ago)

    Hi, Julie! We just looked up your blog and Anthony was excited to see “his” flowers in the photos. 🙂 You may have recognized the spearmint in your zinnia-daisy bouquet: I have an herb garden in addition to the flower and veggie gardens, so if you are ever in need of some fresh herbs, gimme a holla. 🙂 (Sage, rosemary, basil, lime basil, thyme, lavender, orange mint, flat parsley, oregano, spicy oregano and dill.)

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm (11 years ago)

      I did think that looked like some sort of mint! How funny!! Thank you, Lisa — I might have to take you up on that! What a lovely lineup!

      You and Anthony check back in tomorrow for something else he’ll recognize 🙂

  11. Jenni
    June 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm (11 years ago)

    These cookies are simply amazing!! I have made chocolate florentines before, but I am so loving the idea of refreshing orange instead!

    I don’t have the opportunity to comment on every post like I want to, but I just wanted to let you know how thoroughly I enjoy your blog – the recipes are fantastic, and I love to read your stories as well! Keep up the awesome work Julie!! 🙂

  12. Riley
    June 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm (11 years ago)

    Just looking at these is making my stomach growl! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Javelin Warrior
    June 29, 2012 at 4:46 am (11 years ago)

    Another delicious creation – I’m featuring this in today’s Food Fetish Friday (with a link-back and attribution). I hope you have no objections and I always love dropping by to see what you’ve created…

  14. Elisabeth
    July 12, 2012 at 9:10 am (11 years ago)

    Hi Julie

    I just wanted to let you know that these florentines were a raving succes with the guests for my mum’s birthday party. (We’ve been chatting on facebook about the anise seed/licorice powder)
    I’ve been reading up on your blog and I love your style. Thank you for being an inspiration, I’ll be following you closely.
    All the best, Elisabeth


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