Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books — there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let’s be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today–about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn’t play favorites or trick you into thinking it’s something that it’s not. It’s a good foundation. A solid beginning.
And solid beginnings? They’re important. The wonderful thing about starting a relationship over the phone and getting to know one another as people, friends, confidants –well before you’re anything more– is that there’s a great deal of trust in that. There’s a good foundation. It makes me feel as if I’ve known Sam for a very, very long time. But lately it’s been delighting me to discover the things that arise that I don’t know about Sam. They’re small things, things people ask me that catch me off guard because after exactly 1.2 million hours on the phone (no exaggeration; we’ve been keeping a log), I don’t know the answer.
There is an apple farmer who does amazing farm breakfasts and lunches at the stand next to me at the Saturday farmer’s market and she just started doing a lovely oatmeal with fresh cream and butter, berries and nuts; I thought to myself, Ah, I wish Sam were here! He’d love this. Then I realized, I have no idea if Sam likes oatmeal in the mornings. Or ever. So I call and we clear that up (he does). Or he’ll call to ask me: Do I like Golden Retrievers? Would I ever want one? (Yes, and sure). How do you feel about Ayn Rand (meh)? Favorite season (fall)? Almond milk: yay or nay (yay)? There are questions that arise. Casual questions, light questions. But questions, still.. All quietly building upon a foundation. Adding to it.
So this recipe today is all about foundations and quietly building upon them. My springtime obsession with rhubarb is in full swing, so in addition to this simple vanilla bean ice cream, I made a baked rhubarb compote (also known as spring in a spoon, if you ask me) to ladle on top. It’s as easy as slicing up a few stalks, adding in a bit of orange zest, a little orange juice and a dash of sugar and baking it into a rich, pink mess of goodness. I’ve been eating it often at all times of the day. I highly recommend a bit for breakfast on top of toasted baguette or random spoonfuls when you need a little happiness in the late afternoon. Because hey, sometimes you can get carried away with the more elegant desserts, the showier cousins. But when it comes down to it, good and simple is what sustains you. That goes for a small bowl of sweetness at the end of the day. It also goes for making future plans with a new love because you can see it all taking shape and it just makes perfect sense. Because it falls into place so, so easily and seems so good. So simple. Because there’s a certain faith in all of that.
This is the perfect go-to vanilla ice cream recipe. Do be sure to let firm up for several hours before serving.
Very slightly adapted from: Chez Panisse Fruit
In a mixing bowl, quickly whisk the egg yolks just until they’re broken apart. Set aside.
Slowly heat the milk, sugar, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds with a small knife and put the pods and seed right into the milk mixture. Stir slowly over low heat until the milk is steaming and the sugar’s dissolved (don’t let it come to a boil here). Slowly pour the milk mixture into the egg yolks, stirring constantly.Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and set aside.
Pour heavy cream into a clean mixing bowl and set aside. Now, cook the milk and egg mixture over low heat until it thickens just enough to cover the back of a spoon (right around 170). Remove from heat right away and strain though a fine-mesh sieve into the bowl with the heavy cream. Whisk together and place in refrigerator to chill fully, at least two hours. Freeze according to your ice cream machine’s directions.
Alice Waters calls for 1/2 cup sugar in her recipe and I’ve found that with good, ripe rhubarb you can get by with a heaping 1/3 cup. It will be on the tart side this way. If you’d like it just a little sweeter, go with Alice and the 1/2 cup. This compote is wonderful with your morning oatmeal, atop yogurt or cottage cheese, layered in between layers of cake or served with ice cream. As we have it here.
Adapted from: Chez Panisse Fruit
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Rinse the rhubarb and wipe dry. Trim off the leafy ends and the tough bottom at the end of each stalk. Cut lengthwise into 1/30inch-thick strips and then crosswise into 2-inch pieces. This should yield 5-6 cups.
Grate the zest of the orange into a nonreactive baking dish and squeeze in 3 tablespoons of its juice. Add the rhubarb, sugar, and pinch of cardamom and toss everything together until the rhubarb is coated with sugar and juice. Cover and bake for 25 minutes or until a knife slides easily into the rhubarb. While warm, spoon onto vanilla ice cream.
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.