As you’re reading this, I’m probably in my little Volkswagon driving five hours North to visit Jean. Remember Jean? She’s my dear friend who, exactly one year ago, was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street in Brooklyn. I remember what I was wearing and doing and feeling the second I heard the news. I’ll never forget that sleepless night–looking back, I know I was completely in shock and the realization would only slowly sink in. Still today, every single time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge I think of Jean. I’m not really sure why except maybe because of how much she loved the city and how she wanted to move here someday, have a family and settle down.
I debated for a long time about driving up and seeing Jean’s grave on the anniversary of her death. I’ve never gone to visit a grave and done the whole ‘bring flowers and hang out’ thing. I don’t really know what that looks like. I guess I’ll find out. I’m already stressed about what color flowers to bring and worried I may truly unravel. But Jean’s mom is there and her brother’s driving up, and I want to spend time there. Just being. Just sitting on her couch and chatting. I hear a rumor that we’re actually going to plant an illegal rhododendron bush by her headstone (apparently, digging in cemeteries is kind of looked down upon).
Last week, I was thinking about Jean–knowing September 28th was getting closer and closer. I hopped over to her blog, a place where she was exploring the person she was becoming after moving to New York: a writer, an explorer, a lover, a friend. The last entry on her blog was dated September 22: the same date I was sitting there underneath my covers starring at my computer screen…one year later. This was Jean’s last blog post–the last words she had on public record for all to read. And you know what they said?
“I live in special city, I have parents who love me despite my flaws, I have friends who know all of my misgivings and we can laugh about it openly. I know I’m not perfect, I’m flawed and selfish and downright goofy at times. But underneath all that, the person I see, is someone who is doing their best, who is honest, who is nice and also very caring. I am out there, loving and learning and at the end of the day, I can respect myself for that.”
Every time I read that I get chills. If only we can all be so lucky to have such understanding and gratitude towards the end of our lives. I wish that for everyone, and I thank Jean everyday for showing me what a life well lived really looks like. That girl knew how to take a risk and have a good time. She may have been messier than anyone I’ve ever met, she may have spilled bacon grease all over the stove and left uncountable trails of sunflower seeds wherever she went, but she lived the hell out of life.
So now…I’m on the road, cookies in tow. Because while I don’t really know what people do when they visit a gravestone, I do know that when you stay at someone’s house you should always bring a little something. Preferably, something sweet.
These are the perfect chocolate sandwich cookie: nice rich flavor from the cocoa powder, perfectly crisp cookies, and fluffy filling. I use Valrhona cocoa powder and don’t get caught up with whether one or another is dutch-process or not: just use the darkest, highest quality cocoa powder you can find/afford. For the cookies themselves, I adapted the recipe from Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and experimented with a filling that I was happy with: not too firm and not too sweet. Just right.
For the cookies:
For the filling:
Pour the sugar into a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Then add the flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa and quickly pulse to combine. Add the butter and process very quickly just until coarse crumbs form. Blend in the egg yolks and vanilla and scrape the melted chocolate into the batter. Mix to combine.
Preheat the oven to 400 F and grease 2 baking sheets. Make sure the oven rack is in the center of the oven. Gather the dough together on top of a piece of parchment paper or wax paper and divide it in half. Shape each piece into a flattened rectangle. Set one disk aside and roll out the first one by covering it with a sheet of parchment or wax paper and rolling it into about a 13 by 15 inch rectangle. The dough will be 1/4 inch thick.
Cut out as many cookies as you can using a 2-3 inch round cookie cutter (or the bottom of a glass). Gather any remaining scraps and cut out more cookies. Bake for 7-9 minutes, or until the edges are very slightly darkened. The cookies may rise a little during baking, but flatten out again once cool. Since these cookies are naturally dark, it’s easy to over bake them, so be careful. Cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Repeat with the second half of the dough. If it gets too soft, put it in the fridge for five minutes. Cool all the cookies on a rack for at least 30 minutes before frosting.
To make the frosting, place the butter and lard/shortening in a mixing bowl and gradually beat at a low speed, pouring in the sugar and vanilla as you go. Turn the mixer on high and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
To assemble the cookies, fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip with the frosting. Pipe teaspoon-size circles of filling onto the center of one cookie, and gently place another on top. Work all the filling evenly inbetween both cookies by pressing them lightly together. Can store at room temperature, in an air-tight container, up to 1 week.
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.