This past week I've been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We've been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies -- and while I've loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we'd pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn't realized that it was also my grandma Marge's thing). Zeke, my mom's former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80's. Sam's mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we've started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn't -- it seems that part isn't as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There's such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
After we cleaned the kitchen and put away all the platters, I made myself a cup of tea and thought about what could be done differently. This Thanksgiving was our first year actually cooking and hosting and honestly, for two longtime ex-vegetarians, preparing a turkey feels like a pretty major task. The week before, we had family in town for Oliver's first birthday party and between baking cupcakes, ordering helium balloons and thinking through a simple brunch menu for close to 50 people, I felt pretty spent as far as entertaining was concerned. So Sam took on all things turkey, and I made my cranberry sauce and pie Wednesday night. A good compromise. And yet, it still felt like a lot for some reason and I found myself pacing around the house throughout the day, deliberately staying out of the kitchen and wondering at what point in adulthood things feel more natural (if not actually seamless) when it comes to entertaining during the holidays.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
For the past few months we've been talking a lot about how we spend our time at home and how important it is to be more deliberate and creative about it. How quality time feels like something we have to really chase down or plan for in ways that we didn't before Oliver. I remember a few years ago -- a year ago, even -- writing about our leisurely weekend mornings, crawling back into bed at 11 am for a second cup of coffee and the newspaper, just appreciating the light move across the room while discussing our day. Those days now seem further away than they are, and can seem as though they're permanently behind us. Which is fine (and also not fine). But the thing I've been noticing, and which doesn't feel as fine, is how much of my down time at home, especially at night, is spent "decompressing" on my phone. Eventually we started thinking about how to make the bedroom more of a quiet, spacious, tech-free place that we each want to spend time in, and finally we set about doing just that. To try to get back to breakfast in bed every now and then, to talk about our day instead of staring at our phones. We made some big changes in the bedroom (and made breakfast in bed) and I'm excited to show you around. (If Oliver will allow.)
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.
Last week Sam and I were supposed to head to Olympic National Park to stay in an old lakeside cabin for a few nights. Lake Crescent, to be exact: a crystal clear spot complete with a rickety traditional lodge, canoes, hiking trails and hot springs. We'd planned the trip months before and were both so looking forward to some much needed downtime, but because of the government shutdown all of the National Parks were affected so we received a call the morning we were to head out of town that we should stay home. Sam was still in bed at the time; I'd been up early packing and laying out sweaters and novels and getting big thermoses of coffee ready. As I began putting away the sweaters and novels and setting the thermoses of coffee aside, I became more and more disappointed. I crawled back into bed and broke the news to Sam. Not surprisingly, he exclaimed with a smile, "where should we go instead?!" This is a 'roll with the punches' gene that I do not have. A few hours later we were in the car headed to Portland, where we had two memorable meals, a handful of great cocktails, a number of good neighborhood strolls and one very fine piece of pie.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I'm not at all a New Years person. I was trying to think about a memorable New Years that I've had and I actually can't recall a one. Oh wait, I take that back. I do remember one New Years in college that involved a bathtub and a really bad taxi ride. But that's another story altogether. I'm also not the kind of person who has any desire to get all anxious about making plans, really good plans, better plans than any year before. It just seems like a lot of work. I had a boss once who would ride her bike up this great peak in Boulder, CO and spend the day alone. Just hanging and thinking and setting intentions for the year ahead. This is much more my style than expensive prix fixe meals or hotel parties. So while I didn't ride up any major peaks today, I did bake a pie. A simple lemon pie -- so simple, in fact, that the Shakers used to make this very same recipe well over a hundred years ago. It's bright in citrus flavor with a rich, buttery crust that will make you smile. You do want to use Meyer lemons if you can get your hands on them. They're not at all bitter and make for a truly magical pie. You deserve no less on New Years Day.