Almost ten years ago, I went to New York for a month. I was eighteen, untethered from the responsibilities I could rely on like school, exams and unrequited love I felt a little bit lifeless. I was with my boyfriend at the time but looking back I honestly felt like I was there alone. It was January and the city was going through one of its worst winters, so often we stayed inside.
We started the trip uptown crashing in a friend’s brother’s apartment in Harlem before moving to a tiny hotel room opposite Chamber’s Street Station. It was only about a foot wider than a double bed and had slightly macabre posters of the Twin Towers on the walls - but the sheets were clean and white. By day two our clothes were hanging to dry from the light-fitting and the snow on the window-sill became our make-shift fridge.
With no plans to fill our days, we would wait for a relief in the weather before walking through the cities snowy streets to try and to find the best cherry pie or cheeseburger. We went across four of the five boroughs to search for what we thought was quintessentially American, the food we’d seen in films. We read through lists on the internet and tick of each top ten we tried. Going to diners that hadn't been mopped since the sixties and fancy cake shops that sold pie by waifish slices. One of the best diners was a 24/7 place that was only a few doors down from the tiny hotel, when we walked in I was ready to go home even though we still had a week left in the city together.
Looking back now, with the absence of photographs from that pre-Instagram era, I find it hard to remember most things from that month in detail (except for this) and these cookies. When we walked into the diner, next to the cashier I saw a huge jar of thump-print cookies.
I grew up making these with my Mum but they hadn’t crossed my mind since I was a child. A rich butter cookie rolled in nuts and filled with jam — they’re simply the best. As children, the thrill of getting to imprint your own finger into the cold dough was the best after school fun we could wish for. I thought then that everything my Mum made was an invention of her own and thumbprint cookies were no exception. In my universe, they were ours alone, something she'd made just for us.
I swore I could tell the difference between mine and my brother's thumbprints even though I’m sure they looked the same. Making them and waiting to eat them felt so wound up in where I'd rather be. This was a trip I had been giddy for just a few weeks earlier but too often we need distance for perspective. A combination of being newly eighteen, far away from home and “in love” but lonely was too much — just a week before this I was passed out on a karaoke bar floor in Korea Town.
I ordered two cookies from the huge glass jar on the counter and glass of milk and wished I was home in my Mum’s kitchen instead of here. They didn't taste the same as I'd remembered but that was okay - eating them had let me feel little again and like everything would be okay.
After leaving the diner we thought we should finally do something touristy. After reading that the Empire State Building was open til 3 we got into a taxi to go. At 2 am on the top of the Empire State Building it is like it’s yours alone. I pressed my cheeks against the grates to see the view uninterrupted. We stood on opposite sides of the viewing deck. I looked down at the buildings below through the television glow windows and into other people's lives.
It was just me, my boyfriend and a security guard named Sam. When we were ready to leave he asked if we’d like a photo. He asked with a smile so sweetly I said yes. Then he said “I thought you were going to propose, that’s what most couples do up here this time of night” before laughing “but I guess you’re just friends”. I don’t know where that photo is now, all I remember after him taking it was Sam saying he had the best job in the world on the nightshift because he got paid to stare at stars.
On the way back downtown I got the taxi to drop us back at the diner. Something about Sam, the city, feeling far from everything and knowing everything was about to change meant that in that instant, I had to taste something like a constant comfort. I got two cookies to take back to the tiny room and Skyped my Mum to show her. New York knew about our special cookies I said excitedly before she told me she got the idea from an American magazine.
I didn’t matter that they weren’t her invention, sometimes when you’re in a funk, remembering something you thought you’d forgot is all you need. It reminds you that one day even this feeling too you’ll forget. What feels excruciating now might just be a memory you lose. I went to sleep worrying about Sam the security guard being cold up on the Empire State Building and working out how to recreate this recipe.
These are such fun cookies to make. As long as you have sugar, butter and flour you can pretty much customise the rest. Sometimes I add ground ginger instead of cinnamon or use dark brown sugar for an extra caramel intensity. For the nuts, I like them with hazelnuts but a mix of walnuts or almonds are both really good. It’s important to keep the skin on no matter what nut you use. That slightly bitter flavour of the skin works so wonderfully with the sweet jam.
160g of salted butter
160g of light brown sugar
1 tbs of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
250g of plain flour
300g of nuts
½ a jar of your favourite jam
In a large bowl use an electric whisk to cream together the butter and sugar
Once that’s fluffy and pale add in the vanilla and cinnamon. Once that’s combined slowly mix in the flour in stages, as it becomes a dough, use your hands to form it together.
Flatten the dough out and let it cool in the fridge for an hour.
Turn the oven to 180°C.
Use a food processor to blitz the nuts together, don’t let them get too fine, you still want some texture.
When the dough is chilled use a teaspoon to measure out the cookies. Form each ball into a sphere using the palms of your hands. As you do this the butter on the outside will start to melt. Fill a shallow bowl with the nuts and roll each ball of dough in them coating evenly.
Once they’re all rolled, press your thumb firmly into the centre of each to make space for the jam.
Fill each thumbprint with half a teaspoon or so of jam.
Bake for 15 minutes until they’re golden and the jam is bubbling.