I picked up the most recent issue of Time Magazine to find Jonathan Franzen on the cover. I’m a big fan of Franzen and think what he does in depicting ordinary folks living ordinary lives is nothing short of genius. If you’re looking for intricate plots and ax murderers, you won’t find them with Franzen. But you will find average couples sitting around the breakfast table all out of milk, listening to lawnmowers in the distance and wondering why it is they got married in the first place. The good stuff. The real stuff. So while the article made me interested to read his new book Freedom, I was most struck by the way in which Franzen works–his process, his routine, his desk.
Franzen’s adamant about eliminating any and all distractions, and works in a rented office with absolutely no access to the internet, zero wall decorations and a completely empty desk. Basically, a shell of a room with an old Dell laptop. This got me thinking about the way I like to work and the ways I’m most productive. Since I do a lot of writing at home, I could relate to much of what Franzen said about eliminating distraction–although I’m not nearly as vigilant (and therefore, probably much less productive) about it as he is. That’s my desk below. I hoard dessert books and like to keep little plates of lemons around from my mom’s tree. And that’s my new Target binder. Yeah, I’m getting organized. Oh, and that’s my favorite coffee mug of all time.
I think when you live alone, your sense of how you best work naturally regardless of anyone else’s schedule, baskets of laundry cluttering up your space, or favorite television shows blaring in the near distance becomes quite amplified. I work more at night now then I used to. I gear up my Pandora and have fresh flowers around my desk. And numerous glasses of water. I won’t answer the phone and I’ll turn off twitter.
The other room, besides my office, where I get lots of work done and find a great sense of peace is in the kitchen. So I got to thinking about what kind of space I like to keep there and how I best function. I’m not one of those easy-going kitchen people. I don’t really like to breezily chat with girlfriends while I whip up something quick for dinner. I know people who do this. I’m so not in that club although I aspire to be. I concentrate, reread recipes numerous times, lay things out in minorly-obsessive ways, clean as I go, pace a little. I will never be one of those moms that includes their kids in major cooking projects. The thought of help in the kitchen–especially help from lots of tiny hands–makes me immediately begin to sweat.
Sometimes the nice thing about a recipe is that it allows us tightly-wound kitchen folks to loosen our apron strings just a little and ease into a new way of doing things. This is the case with this fabulous cookie recipe I found on my friend Kelsey’s blog, The Naptime Chef. Kelsey focuses on recipes that busy moms can accomplish during the time in which their kids are taking a mid-day nap. So these are darn simple cookies. But what I really love about them is their crackly tops, rich chocolaty flavor, and bits of chocolate and pecans scattered throughout. They’re also not at all too sweet–the espresso powder and unsweetened chocolate kind of temper that. I made a few minor tweaks to Kelsey’s recipe–mainly in the addition of pecans and just a little less flour. If you’ve got some cocoa powder lying around from the deluxe brownies, use it up here.
From uncluttered desks, to decorated cubicles, to telecommuting and skyping–whatever you do for work and however you find productivity and inspiration–I’m thinking a chocolate cookie always helps. Happy Monday.
Slightly adapted from The Naptime Chef
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy in a stand mixer or with hand beaters. This should take a good five minutes–you really want to aerate the cookies and fully work in the sugar here. Then add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition until just combined.
In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and espresso powder. Stir with a whisk to make sure the dry ingredients are well mixed.
With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure smooth incorporation. Don’t over beat–just mix until all ingredients are combined. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix in chocolate chips and pecans.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Using a 1 1/2″ ice-cream scoop or plain old teaspoon, scoop dough onto the sheet and lay out 2″ apart. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before
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.