Remember when you started middle school and didn’t really know what to expect or what kind of shoes the other kids would wear or how the heck to open a damn locker? But within a matter of days you kind of slyly studied the older kids out of the corner of your eye and put together the pieces pretty quickly? Well the thing about a long-distance relationship is there aren’t really any older kids to study closely and teach you exactly how it all goes down. I guess I should back up and say that I have a few wonderful friends (and so many of you who commented on the last post!), that have offered great advice and shining examples, but ultimately I think on this one — there’s much you must discover on your own. You have to account for two sets of schedules, different needs, and worries and joys. But you navigate, as you must. As you do.
For us, there have been some unexpected ways of doing this. Last week Sam asked me out on a date. Yep, he from Seattle and me down here in Oakland — we both had a lot of work to get done so we had a work date. I was writing about food, he was designing a website and we checked in on each other throughout the night, knowing that we’d talk at the end of it. And a few days ago, I was feeling a little restless with the day and Sam asked if I wanted to go on a walk with him. So he laced up his Seattle shoes, I laced up my Oakland shoes and off we went. On my walk, I saw a neighbor’s orange tree, lingering cherry blossoms, one outdoor wedding, two runners, one chubby squirrel, an impromptu soccer game and a curb-side barbecue. And I thought of Sam the entire time. And then there’s going to sleep at night. We plan our evenings so we’re getting into bed at the same time. There’s something comforting about it — reassuring and important in its own small way. With these things, the distance shrinks. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t say it collapses. But it shrinks. And for now, that’s what we’ve got.
The thing about planning your evenings in this way is that there are some late nights. Sometimes, there’s just a lot to say and that can easily stretch into the wee morning hours. Or sometimes there’s not a lot to say and it still manages to stretch into the wee morning hours. I’ve pretty much stopped drinking too much wine after dinner and bourbon’s out completely or I’d be asleep by 8 p.m. So instead,I’ve been making homemade chai. It has just enough caffeine, is warmly spiced and a tiny bit smoky. I’ve come to look forward to it.
I started making this chai after visiting Samovar Tea Lounge a little while back, a wonderful tea shop and cafe located on a quiet, leafy San Francisco street across from the Zen Center. I met up with my friend Anne who writes a beautiful blog, just wrote a book (!), and has recently gotten engaged to her love, Sean. We sat over two cups of chai tea in the early afternoon and talked about the city, writing, and love. After leaving, I set about to try and duplicate Samovar’s version on my own. For nights with Sam. For late mornings after the coffee pot has been put to rest. For any old time.
Now I know it may seem like a pain to go out and buy spices that you don’t have on hand just to make tea that you could buy ready-made. But for me, there’s something about mixing up all the different spices and taking the time to brew the tea the old-fashioned way. Sure, it could be quicker; it could be easier. As could many of the really good, special, important things in life. But those are sometimes the things that are worth just standing and waiting a while, stirring, tending, steeping, brewing. As it often goes with friends, with tea, with love.
This recipe yields one cup of well-balanced, warmly-spiced Chai tea. Once you make it a few times, play around with the proportions until you get it just the way you really like it.
Pour water and milk into a small saucepan, and begin to heat on the stove-top over medium heat. Before the mixture comes to a boil, add the fresh ginger and remaining spices. When the spice mixture boils, add the loose-leaf black tea. Turn off the heat and let steep for 2-3 minutes. Pour through a sieve to strain out tea leaves and spices. Add the sweetener of your choosing, and pour into your favorite mug.
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.