As many of you may recall, I lost one of my best friends earlier this fall. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever gone through. Sure, I’ve lost folks I love very much, but they’ve always been older and it’s never been out-of-the-blue. But Jean was my age with dreams the size of Texas and a heart of solid gold. I’m talking 24-karat. I still have moments where something happens and I think about what a kick Jean would get out of it. Lady Gaga and Elton John at the Grammy’s. Jersey Shore (no one loved bad reality TV more than Jean). This Friday would’ve been her 30th birthday, so I’m flying out to Boston to attend the first annual “Jean-a-bration.” We’re celebrating a big birthday and a big life that we all miss so dearly in a big way. And you know what? There’s nothing that girl liked more than a party. I know she’ll be proud. I’ve really never tried to celebrate an event or landmark when it’s tinged with this much sadness–so we’ll see how it goes. I guess there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.
I went to graduate school in Boston and haven’t been back since. So I’m excited to visit all my old haunts. I’ll take photos for you and share some of my favorite places to eat when I return. And if you have any favorite Boston spots, let me know! It’s been a few years since I’ve been back, and I hear things have changed a bit, so I’d love any suggestions. In the meantime, I wanted to leave you one of the best comfort drinks I know, perfect for heavy hearts or just a really gray afternoon: Mexican hot chocolate made with Ibarra.
I first learned of Ibarra when I was around sixteen. It’s when I started drinking coffee because–you know–everyone else started bringing to-go mugs to class and it all seemed very adult. This great bakery downtown did Mexican mochas made with Ibarra and I jumped on the wagon. They had a rich chocolate flavor with spicy cinnamon notes. It all seemed magical and mysterious until a few years later when I realized you can buy Ibarra at the store and the drink I loved so much was pretty darn easy to emulate at home.
Now this particular recipe is for Mexican hot chocolate, but feel free to add a shot (or two) of espresso to make yourself a Mexican mocha. You can find Ibarra at a Mexican grocery store or a well-stocked gourmet food market. It is made with granulated sugar so a) don’t munch on it right out of the package–it’s grainy! (I tried) and b) no need to add sugar. I have a friend who puts a little almond extract in her whipped cream, and I think that’d be a nice touch for this, too. So drink up. In the name of love and chocolate and life and memory and gratitude. And while you’re doing all that, I’ll drink to Jean.
Chop tablet of Ibarra into blocks for easier melting. Then warm the chocolate, chile, milk, and dash of salt in a small saucepan. Heat until the chocolate is melted–should be quite hot (although not boiling).
Froth with a hand-blender (or blend in a blender) until the bits of chocolate are completely dissolved and the top becomes foamy. Top with whipped cream and cinnamon and drink immediately.
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.