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 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.