My friend Autumn recently pointed out an article in The New York Times all about living alone. Not like me in my city apartment, but like folks who choose to be fiercely independent and move somewhere isolated where they can truly be away from it all. The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, profiles three individuals (all men, interestingly enough) and discusses their compulsion to live in isolation. One man describes a feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself: “you don’t have to answer to anybody.” There’s also a feeling of self-sufficiency. Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. A 27-year-old British man spent the last year living in a hut he built in Sweden as a way of being environmentally responsible. Regardless of the justification (and I suppose there doesn’t really need to be one) “Embracing the Life of Solitude” made me really think about what it means to deliberately choose to be by yourself.
Now that desire for extreme solitude isn’t a feeling I can relate to. While I am enjoying living alone, I will ultimately want someone to share moments with. But I will say that lately I’ve surprised myself. I haven’t freaked out (totally) like I thought I would and I haven’t hid in bed with the curtains drawn. When I’m here in the apartment I often turn on the TV for background noise, touch base with friends and family on the phone, and have a pretty deliberately jam-packed calendar. So solitude it’s not. But I kind of like the small changes that I’ve discovered in the cadence of my days: I go to bed later for some strange reason, I’m reading much more, making tea and sitting on my little stoop, chatting with my neighbors and not rushing home right after work, meeting up with new friends and being more spontaneous. All good things. Oh, and yes, I’ve been known to throw in the towel and eat pudding for dinner. I can’t recommend it enough. When you’re inclined to throw in the towel–whether it’s choosing a summer of solitude or eating a Southern dessert for dinner (and then breakfast the next morning), I’d say by all means. Because –at least for me– there’s no one around to tell you not to or to judge the nutritional composition of your dinner. It doesn’t matter if it sounds good to anyone else. Remember when you were little and the saying ‘you’re not the boss of me’ was your biggest weapon? Ya, kinda like that.
I think the first time I had banana pudding was actually at Magnolia Bakery in New York. I’m embarrassed to even talk about it because I was one of those twenty-somethings in line for the cupcake they saw on Sex in the City. Have you been to the bakery? It’s actually quite likeable in a very vintage Americana way with colorful cake-stands and tablecloths and really darn good cupcakes. But that night we knew we wouldn’t be back for a long time, so in addition to cupcakes I bought a few not-so-memorable cookies, a piece of pie, and a to-go container of banana pudding. We sat on the bench across the street, kicked off our shoes, and a quiet fell on the street corner as we sampled each treat. We ambled back to the hotel on that humid night in New York with sticky fingers and smiles. I’ll never forget that banana pudding: super creamy with the ripest bananas and piles of fluffy whipped cream. When I got home, I looked up the recipe in the Magnolia Cookbook only to discover they use instant pudding. It really wasn’t much of a recipe at all–more like add some bananas to some instant pudding and call it a day. Let’s just say that’s about the time when banana pudding and I parted ways. But thanks to this simple recipe, we’re back together.
The recipe is from a great book that focuses just on Southern desserts. We’re talking lemon ice-box pie, Hummingbird cake, Coca Cola cake–nostalgic desserts culled from the editors of Southern Living Magazine. I cut the published recipe in half because, let’s face it, I don’t need 12-14 servings of anything laying around my apartment. But even so, I had some pudding leftover after I filled my serving dish, so I made a few individual glass jars–next time I think I’ll do them all in glass jars. I like how you can see the layers of the pudding through them. I also adapted the recipe to include less sugar and a bit more flour for a slightly thicker pudding. I encourage you to throw in the towel and try some for dinner very soon.
Adapted from: Classic Southern Desserts
Whisk milk and egg yolks in a bowl and pour into a heavy saucepan. Add sugar, flour, and salt and whisk together until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until thickened. If it’s not getting as thick as you’d like after 20 minutes, feel free to add another teaspoon of flour. Remove from heat; stir in the vanilla.
Arrange one-third of vanilla wafers in bottom of a small serving dish. Slice 1 banana and layer over wafers. Spoon one-third of custard over bananas. Repeat until custard is gone and you have a few solid layers.
Beat whipping cream at medium speed with an electric mixer until foamy; gradually add powdered sugar to mixture, beating until soft peaks form. Spread over custard. Serve immediately or cover and chill for eight hours.
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.