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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.