Do you ever play the ‘if only’ game with yourself? It goes something like this: “if only I had a Mini Cooper, I’d be happy” or “if only I’d studied harder, I would’ve gotten into a better college” or “If only I had a bigger apartment, everything would be fine.” Of course you do. We all do. My ‘if only’ game is kind of more like a neurosis and an obsession rather than a fun hypothetical consideration. The earliest I remember it showing its ugly face? 5th grade. All of my friends brought those packaged pies from the grocery store — the ones filled with bright yellow lemon filling, gooey chocolate pudding, or glowing fake cherry. My mom packed me carrots, hard boiled eggs, and healthy sandwiches. I was convinced my life would be better if I had pies in my lunch. I’d be happier, certainly. I remember eying those pies on a daily basis and wondering what the hell was wrong with my family. If only.
Then in junior high I wanted crutches with a passion. This sounds odd, I realize. But those girls got a whole lot of attention. Older boys carried their books and friends crowded around to hear the story of how it all happened…for the twenty-ninth time. If only. Then in college, my ‘if only’ was all about real estate. Instead of settling into dorm life and putting up crumby posters like most normal young adults, I began searching the internet to see what kind of off-campus housing was available. I had to get out of there. And unfortunately this ‘if only’ hasn’t yet dissipated. For the past ten years, I’ve been obsessed with buying my own house, convinced that every problem–big or small–would surely dissolve if I had a place that was my very own. I’m tired of moving. I’m sick of moving boxes, and every month it seems silly to write a rent check that goes directly into someone elses’ bank account. If I had my own house, I’d work on tile projects and paint and buy mid-modern furniture at estate sales and have fruit trees and a yard and it’d be all mine. In fact, I recently discovered a house on Craigslist in Durham, North Carolina and I’ve fallen in love. I’ve never visited North Carolina. Or the South in general. After hearing about it, my sister suggested I get therapy.
Now I just finished the book, Life Would be Perfect If I Lived in That House, by Meghan Daum (who I adore, by the way. Check out her other stuff). In it, Daum describes her unwavering real estate addiction which she thinks was likely helped by moving around so much growing up. I’ve never identified so much with a memoir in my entire life. I read it in one day. And not just because I could relate, but because Daum explores the meaning behind this constant search, this tireless gazing towards the future:
I came to be the president of my own personal academy of domestic desire, the overseer of a pantheon of architectural structures and corresponding price tags that led to a most adolescent form of existential inquiry: Where should I live? Why can’t I afford to live where I want to live? How come where I want to live is so tied up in why I live?
I realized with each flip of the page I’d been biting my nails. I was anxious and couldn’t put it down. Why exactly was I so obsessed with where I should live? It was, I realized, getting in the way of actually living and had been for quite some time. Then I finish the book and find myself in tears. Daum writes:
Maybe learning how to be out in the big world isn’t the epic journey everyone thinks it is. Maybe that’s actually the easy part. The hard part is what’s right in front of you. The hard part is learning how to hold the title to your very existence, to own not only property, but also your life. The hard part is learning not just how to be but mastering the nearly impossible art of how to be at home.
And there’s the rub. Learning how to be comfortable with where you are at this very moment–not constantly looking for the next ‘if only.’ Do I have the answers for what this would look like? I wish. Do you? If so, please share. I realize living each day looking towards what will be isn’t healthy, but it’s what I’ve done for so long I’m not quite sure how to live any differently. So for now, I’m tackling one of my oldest ‘if only’s’ in the hopes that my current, most pressing ‘if only’ eventually works itself out. I’m making hand pies…a lot of them. And allowing myself to eat them at lunch or late in the afternoon or whenever the heck I feel like it. Because at this present moment, that feels right. And that’s all I’ve got.
These hand pies are special because they’re made with blenheim apricots, the fleeting summer stone fruit that is a bit sweeter than its cousins and infinitely more fragile. I found them at the Berkeley farmer’s market this past weekend and snatched them right up. They’re quite literally like taking a bite of summer sunshine itself. The crust is flaky and buttery: a good old fashioned pate brisee (Martha Stewart’s no-fail recipe). As long as you don’t let the dough get too warm and work with it quickly, it will be your friend. The apricots are cut into small pieces and lightly spiced with cinnamon and coriander, a splash of lemon and a dash of sugar. While I’d nab a bag of apricots while you can, these hand pies are versatile: add any fruit you have on hand or make a savory pie with your favorite greens, spicy lamb or ground beef, or herbed potato and cheese.
While a biscuit cutter would certainly be handy to get the round shape here, I just used the flip side of a round container with a mouth of about 4 inches. If you have a larger biscuit cutter (5 inches) and want to make more generous hand pies, go ahead. Don’t stress too much about size–it will simply affect the final yield of hand pies you end up with.
Dough recipe from Martha Stewart
For the dough:
For the filling:
Make the dough:
In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.
Prepare the pies:
Combine the apricots, lemon juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and coriander in a small bowl and gently stir to combine. Put in the refrigerator while you prepare the dough.
Take out one disk of pie dough and place on flour-dusted surface for a few minutes to slightly soften. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick. Use a 4 inch biscuit cutter to cut about 10 circles (you may need to gather the scraps and re-roll). Set them on a large plate and put them in the refrigerator to chill for 10 minutes (don’t skip this step-it will make the pies much easier to assemble).
Prepare a baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper. Then, take apricots out of refrigerator, set a mesh strainer over a bowl, and pour the fruit into it, straining away the excess juice. Return the apricots to the original bowl and add the flour, tossing to coat.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Remove the dough circles from the refrigerator. Put a small spoonful of fruit onto one half of each circle of dough. Using your finger, brush a little cold water along the border of the circle (to help it seal) and fold the top half of the dough over the apricots, pressing the edges gently to seal. Make a decorative edge by pressing the edges of the dough together with the back of a fork. Repeat with remaining dough circles. Brush the tops with the egg wash. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the tops begin to brown. Don’t worry if some of the filling leaks out. Allow the pies to cool for 15 minutes before eating.
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.