Weeks ago, as Sam and I were leaving my mom’s cabin to head back to our respective cities, we stumbled upon something pretty great. Something unexpected, largely because most little towns in Vermont aren’t necessarily known for wood-fired bakeries serving Intellegentsia coffee, perfectly flaky croissants and traditional cannelés. All of that and one of the lovelier open kitchens I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
It was mid-day and we were both starving, but before deciding on a good spot for sandwiches, we strolled down the street to peek into an unassuming little bakery: Vergennes Laundry. This isn’t the kind of bakery you can just peek into and keep on walking. The space is bright and airy with thoughtful details like chunky water jugs, menus on rolls of kraft paper, a cribbage board to post special orders, and a well edited menu with a select few items done very, very well. A pre-lunch snack ensued. We tried a croissant, a gougère made with local cheddar, a crumbly shortbread cookie and a shot of espresso. Sam read the paper and I asked to sneak back into the kitchen to chat with the women about how the bakery came to be in this quiet little town.
Julianne Jones is the owner and head baker. She started out at the farmers markets and, with partner Didier Murat, raised money through Kickstarter to build the wood-fired oven, and through their innovative CSE program, raised enough to help build out the actual space. I was impressed by how calm and quiet everything was in the kitchen. It was as if they had all day to produce the savory lunch items they were working on and couldn’t imagine a place they’d rather be. Julianne wore a simple white dress, pretty linen apron and light slip-ons.
The mad hustle was replaced with a cool repose, the baggy kitchen clothing was swapped for flowy dresses more familiar with garden tea parties than production facilities, and the fluorescent lighting was traded in for beautiful natural light and pendant fixtures hung from the ceiling. I was ready to move right in.
Julianne has built a kitchen that she wants to spend time in — one that can nourish — and immediately upon entering, this is evident. When I asked her if she’s happy now that the bakery’s open and she and Didier are doing what they want to be doing, she looked up at me, paused for what felt like a full thirty seconds and said, “it’s a lot of work.” I recognized this tone: I tell people something similar when they proclaim how amazing it is that I’m following my own dream and how they wish they could do the same. But you could see a certain pride in Julianne’s eyes as she instructed one of her bakers how best to roll out a mound of dough, and commented on how great Didier’s baguette sandwiches looked. They were doing it on their own, together.
Back at the table, Sam had ordered another gougère. It was just what we both needed before lunch: light and pillowy with generous pockets of air. If you’re not familiar with gougères, many people often call them cheese puffs. They’re made from pâte à choux, a great versatile dough that you use to make cream puffs or profiteroles. Here, the only difference is the addition of savory ingredients.
So on the first night of August — what is usually a too-hot-to-bake kind of night in the Bay Area — I broke out some butter, flour, and eggs. I chopped some rosemary and retrieved my good Dijon mustard and set out to make a plate of gougères. Last week I read Ashley’s post about giving boxes of cookies away randomly. Just because. Because it’s unexpected and makes people feel good and is just not done often enough. So I planned on saving a few gougères for myself, freezing a few for Sam’s next visit, and bringing the rest to my Heath coworkers in the morning. Just because.
To recognizing and enjoying the unexpected — stumbling upon a fantastic bakery in an unassuming town, seeing dancers on your ho-hum street doing their thing, coming home to a box of cookies on your stoop, getting a pie plate in the mail from your mom for no reason, or stumbling into work and finding an airy, cheesy gougère with your name written all over it. We need more stumbling, discovering, making, giving.
This recipe is based on a classic Dorie Greenspan recipe. Reading about making the pâte à choux may initially seem a little daunting, but it’s really not. This is a pretty forgiving dough and as long as you work quickly and stir like the dickens when you add the flour, you’ll be just fine. Also, listen to Dorie when she instructs you to add one egg at at time; it’s important for the structure of the dough.
While these are fabulous reheated the next day, they’re so, so good warm right out of the oven. Since I still have some rosemary leftover from Danielle’s garden, I chopped it finely and tossed it in at the end along with a healthy dollop of good Dijon mustard. Feel free to use cheddar if you’d prefer, and add any mix of finely chopped herbs you’d like. These also freeze beautifully if you have leftovers; you can even freeze the mounds of dough before you bake them and bake them off right from the freezer (good party trick).
Position two racks into bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper (or just oil well with olive oil).
Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a vigorous boil in a heavy-bottomed small to medium saucepan over high heat. Whisk until the butter melts completely. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, and stir quickly with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a ball. Keep stirring until dough is no longer sticky and is, instead, smooth, 1-2 minutes.
Transfer the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one at a time and beat until the dough is nice and shiny. At the very end, stir in the grated cheese, mustard, chopped rosemary, and pepper.
Drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto each pan with about 2 inches of space separating each one. Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom. Continue baking until the gougères are golden, firm, and puffed, another 12 to 15 minutes. Serve warm, or transfer the pans to racks to cool.
Glimpses of Spring
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).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.