What I’m about to tell you doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s one of those rare things that happens to you and that’s so much bigger than you — it’s difficult to put it into words. And the reason I have waited to tell you is because I haven’t really known the right way to go about it. But this space has always been as much about my life as it is about food, and if we never talked about any of this I probably wouldn’t blog again for a very, very long time. Because this is, now, my focus. My attention, my daydreams, my real dreams, my heart, and a glimpse into the future. This is it. Meet Sam.
Sam lives in Seattle. I live in Oakland. We met in August or September over coffee to talk about designing the website for my baking business, Marge. We sat outside, talked websites, ideas, and business. I’m sure Seattle weather came up (as it does) and I remember Sam commenting on the weight of the letters in the typeface of the bakery sign. I kind of loved that. There was something about him, even then, that captivated me in a certain way. Right when I thought about beginning a baking business, I knew I should take notes along the way so I could look back and remember the whole thing. These notes are filled with everything ranging from lists to sketches to fully fleshed out paragraphs. A few weeks ago, I reread them and found an entry from the day after I met Sam that very first time.
A bakery, looking for a man I’d only spoken with over email and wasn’t too sure what to expect. A smart man, I knew. A man that was excited about Marge and that excitement and passion for his work assured me we’d get along just fine. A notebook of ideas. A fine hat. A long talk sitting outside with glints of afternoon sun. And breezes. Smiles and laughter and a strange and sudden trust. And a lot of “Get this’s” — I’d never sat down and thought about Marge in this way, and it was nice. There was possibility and assuredness there, and when I looked at Sam talking about it all, I know this somehow. Echoing somewhere is the Rilke quote: “Dig into your self for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even down to its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” The impulse about Marge, yes. To create something. The impulse, I think, to know Sam better: yes, too.
Now fast forward months and months and you’ll find a Megan that routinely spends hours upon hours on the phone with Seattle Sam. A Megan who forgets where she parks, walks to yoga without her yoga mat, buys sorbet and leaves it in her car overnight, finds music and food to sound and taste infinitely more amazing. A Megan who finds herself smiling throughout the day. For no discernable reason. A Megan that hasn’t seen this much light in a very long time. Actually, ever. And if you fast-forward just a bit further you’ll find a Megan that just dropped Sam off at the airport last week after an amazing two-week visit.
A visit that, in many ways, is hard to explain to people who want to know everything we did and saw. Truthfully, there were dozens upon dozens of moments but so many of them were deliciously quotidian: holding hands and strolling through Point Reyes Station, beers at Magnolia on Haight, riding around on Sam’s back (across streets, over bridges, from room to room), shopping for records, early morning farmer’s markets together with double thermoses, hiking Tennessee Valley and running from waves, Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe, afternoon coffees at Cafe Zoetrope, Sam making bacon and eggs in the morning, a few new books, listening to old Bruce Sprinsteen, Friday Night Lights together on the couch, port, finger-crossing for parking spaces, whirlwind trip up to Lake Tahoe to nap by the fire and work in each others’ company, sunny Dolores Park.
So you see, Sam and I have fallen in love. This, by the way, doesn’t work wonderfully well for people who like to plan, manage, and control their lives (yours truly). If I’d been able to choose, I certainly would’ve chosen a man who lived closer. Sure, saying goodbye on the curb at the airport is no fun. But I’m telling myself not to try to make perfect sense of it all or figure out all of the logistics this second. Because it’s not that kind of thing. Rather, this falls more in the ‘blindly and patiently’ camp. The ‘take deep breaths’ camp and the ‘don’t scare Sam away by making a spreadsheet of your future life together’ camp. Yes, one of those.
And so, in the spirit of ‘blindly and patiently’, I’m leaving you with two things today. First, an encouragement to grab onto the hand of the one you love (or the nape of their neck or their kneecap or shove your hand down the back pocket of their jeans. You get it). Quite a few people I know who saw Sam and I happily with one another encouraged us to enjoy it while it lasts with the underlying assumption that it won’t. That it never does. With it being that spark, that light, that inability to look away. So I want you to grab onto the hand of your love this afternoon. Just because. Just because I know it can last. And second, I’m leaving you with a wonderful recipe for a rustic olive loaf–a bread that takes a little time, nurturing, and patience. And with all three, it comes out perfectly every time. As I know it will with my Sam.
Although it seems like a long first rise, the recipe is pretty accurate here. Plan out the following day to allow for enough time. Before baking, I brushed the loaf with infused rosemary olive oil and a little sea salt. Use your favorite olive oil — or nothing at all.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, olives, and yeast. Add the water and, with your hands, mix until the dough is wet and sticky, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.
When the first rise is complete, dust a work surface with flour. Gently scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece–can use a dough scraper or spatula here. Lift the edges of the dough in toward the center and nudge and tuck them in to make it round.
Place a tea towel on your counter and generously dust it with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered 4 1/2 – to 5 1/2 -quart heavy pot in the center of the rack. Remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. Brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. *** (see note)
Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to gently lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly.
***If using Le Creuset or similar pot, remember to screw off the knob on top of the lid — it’s not meant to withstand quite that much heat.
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.