I recently got The September Issue from Netflix–the documentary about Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. It was fascinating on many levels but the thing that struck me the most was how unhappy she seemed. We all know how immensely driven and talented she is, but when she spoke of what her other siblings do for a living and what they think of her work, her eyes would gloss over and she’d become distant. When she spoke of her own work at the magazine, Anna mentioned that it often made her angry and agitated–that she’d know when to throw in the towel when she started getting angrier and angrier throughout the day. I don’t know about you, but I may just settle for quiet, small-scale contentment rather than feeling that way day in and day out.
So then I was running yesterday, and I started to think about a quote from the film Alice and Wonderland. In short, Alice hesitates to help the Mad Hatter in his resistance against the Red Queen. The Mad Hatter is disappointed, noting “You used to be much more muchier…you’ve lost your muchness.” I smiled during this scene and continue to think about it. What does this even mean? What is this muchness? A state, a passion, a spark, a sense of wonder or confidence or fearlessness or comfort with the hear and now. I don’t know. Now perhaps the larger question at hand is what does all of this have to do with Vogue and with blackberry cornmeal muffins for breakfast?
I think Anna Wintour was realizing throughout the film that she’d perhaps started to lose her muchness. It was a sad thing to watch onscreen, and I’m sure you’ve all witnessed it with real folks in real life. It looks like a dimming, a deflation, or a constant hesitation. I’ve seen it in nursing homes, with marriages that have gone on far too long, or with students who have resigned to be the dumb kid or the one who will never actually get into college. Now these muffins won’t turn any of those situations around. They’re not quite that good. But they’ll help you maintain just a little chunk of your muchness, I assure you. They’ll give you something to look forward to in the morning whether you’re taking on the work commute, finishing up your taxes, or slugging through a never-ending to-do list. I can’t guarantee a state, a passion, a spark, a sense of wonder or confidence or fearlessness or comfort with the hear and now. But I do hope that you’re experiencing at least one of those things right now or that, at the very least, you’re taking stock of your muchness–of where you are currently and where you want to be. I know that I am.
The great thing about these muffins is that they’re quick. Like fifteen minutes quick. You literally mix the wet and dry ingredients together, throw the muffins in the oven, and have a warm tray of goodness sitting in front of you in no time. The recipe is a huge amalgamation of similar muffins I’ve made since living in Boulder, CO. many years ago. They’ve evolved since then and today I use a mix of whole wheat and white flour, low-fat yogurt, and agave instead of too much sugar. The berries get warm and gooey in the oven, so do plan on having at least one right out of the oven with a little butter. They freeze beautifully as well.
If you plan on using frozen blackberries, just be sure to toss with 1 tablespoon of flour before adding to the batter — this will help prevent them from sinking straight to the bottom of the muffin and staining the batter.
Preheat the oven to 375 F, and grease two muffin pans.
Whisk together the first six ingredients in a large bowl. Stir together the yogurt, oil, agave syrup, vanilla and eggs in a separate bowl. Fold wet ingredients into dry mixture with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until combined. Gently fold in berries.
Fill muffin cups to the top and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate pans and bake 10-12 minutes longer or until muffins are slightly golden and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center. Cool muffins in pans for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.
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.