You know where to find Grains of Paradise (or even what they are) and smoked paprika. You love beets, fatty fish, and biscotti. You use the word “tangle” to describe salads, judge people for their restaurant choices, and hate doing dishes in the morning. You are Amanda Hesser–or, at least, share some of her endearing, neurotic traits.
A food writer for The New York Times, Hesser’s writing is luminous, visual, and snappy. Good food writing literally picks you up and draws you into a tactile world in which you’re literally sitting at a country table alone at dusk, at a busy wedding banquet, or on the floor of a bare apartment listening to an ambulance drive by. In short, you’re not at home holding a book thinking about laundry or work deadlines. With Hesser, I was transported to a summer afternoon in Maine or her back balcony in Brooklyn Heights. I read “Cooking For Mr. Latte” in a day and a half; I lay in bed drinking it all in, mentally cataloging all of the recipes I’d try and becoming immersed in the back story of dating Mr. Latte (later we learn, Tad), eventually getting married, moving to Brooklyn, and coming to terms with family/friends/changing relationships. Essentially: the pedestrian elements of daily life that we all experience. Yet most of us don’t draw it out in such a sensuous, affable way.
When talking about old friends, Hesser writes: “When dining out, she does not order salad. She will begin with foie gras or sardines and move on to things like braised rabbit, lamb, and pheasant. When she shops for groceries, she buys her cheeses, olives, and wine from the Wine and Cheese Cask on the corner of Washington and Kirkland, bread from Hi-Rise, and her meats from a butcher. Nan understands that it is all right to buy a good pate for an appetizer, and that one perfect croissant is better than five good muffins. She is a dedicated minimalist who knows how to be generous” (182). I now know Nan. Hesser excels at small details that illuminate character fully in a matter of seconds–what any good writer strives for.
When talking about food in her chapter “Single Cuisine,” Hesser writes: “I might toss a poached egg with pasta, steamed spinach and good olive oil, and shower it with freshly grated nutmeg and cheese. Or, I might press a hard boiled egg through a sieve and sprinkle the fluffy egg curds over asparagus. It’s not traditional comfort food, but it works for me. I like rich, full flavors paired with clean bitter ones–a gentle lull and a bracing finish” (288). The way in which Hesser describes her simple meals alone is the same exact way I felt while relishing her sweet food memoir: a gentle lull as I lay squandering away the afternoon, and a bracing finish when I turned the last page. I was sad to leave Brooklyn, intimate dinner parties and trips to the market, and genuine vignettes about navigating through the food world–one day at a time.
Stand-out recipes in the collection include: Beet and Ginger Soup, Chicken Salad w/ Basil Mayonnaise, Chocolate “dump-it” cake (her mother’s go-to birthday cake recipe), and Mountain Honey Gingersnaps with Candied Ginger.
For more of Amanda Hesser, catch her upcoming project Food52.com, a recipe sharing/contest/archive that will culminate in a cookbook compilation. With Amanda at the helm, it promises to be a gracious and tantalizing endeavor. I want to be her when I grow up.
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 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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
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.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.