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 had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
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.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.