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
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: