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.
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.