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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.