We all want for things. Whether you care to admit it or not, it could be an actual possession like a new pair of jeans or an espresso machine or it could be for someone to swoop in and pay off your credit card bills or your student loan payment. Perhaps it’s a much-deserved vacation with your sweetheart or having Labor Day off from work. More time to work-out and write letters or organize the garage. Maybe we wish for warmer summer evenings … or cooler summer evenings. But this week I met a pretty wonderful woman who assured me she has it all. She wants for nothing.
I still work at Heath Ceramics one day a week and have been balancing it nicely with Marge and a few writing projects. The people are amazing, an occasional drive down to foggy Sausalito is always welcome, and I actually enjoy chatting with customers and meeting new people. Last week, I approached an older woman in a wheelchair and started talking to her about the weather and her day — basic small talk. She told me her name was Beatrice but wanted me to call her Bee. She asked if I had children and told me she liked my earrings. Eventually we got to talking about dinnerware and she mentioned that she’d had her Heath collection since the 1960’s (we hear this a lot). I asked her what other pieces she might need to fill in or round out what she already had at home. Now Bee was probably in her late 80’s or early 90’s. She looked at me for the longest time and then slowly smiled, telling me she had it all.
While I initially thought she was referring to the entire store (we get our fair share of customers who come in and literally do own the majority of the store), what she meant was that she had everything she needed. At this point, she was giving things away to her kids and grand-kids. She told me that you get to a certain point in life where things don’t matter anymore and you don’t necessarily care to surround yourself with more of them, but with people instead. She’d loved to cook years ago; her husband Alfred approached and assured me she was an amazing cook. He missed her cooking. But now, the two explained, it’s all about time. Time that they realize they don’t have a lot of. They’d rather have someone cook for them and leave more room in the day to be out in the garden, read, talk with each other, and be around people they love.
Much like Bee and Alfred, my grandparents began the process of making more room in their days a few years ago. They started clearing out their barn in Upstate New York and even some rooms in the main house, too. I remember about a year ago, we were told to think of things that we wanted from the house, and I just couldn’t do it or make that kind of request. It seemed odd and slightly morbid. I did ask for one of the Russian dolls my grandma always kept at the end of the hallway leading to the blue bedroom. As kids, we’d spend what must’ve been hours taking them apart and admiring the little village of wooden women you could create — all from one original doll. It was magical. But now after seeing my mom and aunts spend time organizing files and papers, box things up to donate, and tackle the yard and the garden, I get it more and more. It’s not so much morbid, it’s just clearing the way for new kinds of days. More spacious days.
Over the July 4th holiday, my grandpa brought up a big box of old cookbooks that he’s been encouraging my grandma to get rid of. He let us choose some that we’d like to take back with the understanding that he wasn’t taking any back home. While they probably haven’t looked through the cookbooks in over a decade, I’ve been unable to put them down. They’re a portrait of a certain time period, a certain type of cook, and a way in which women used to organize the kitchen and the pantry. And there are actually some pretty great recipes that I’m going to make for you / with you here. So that’s something we can look forward to in the coming weeks. That and ice cream.
So this ice cream recipe? We’ve talked ice cream a few times before: we’ve chatted Strawberry Ice Cream and whipped up a classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. This week I wanted to make a really rich, special ice cream that used just a few ingredients. While I love summer fruit, I’ve had my fair share of peaches and sweet berries lately. And I’ll admit to testing some new cookie recipes in the kitchen for Marge and helping the lovely new Danish bakers test their new lemon tarts. So when you’ve had just a little too much or when you have just enough, rest assured that you can mix together a few egg yolks, a little milk and some crème fraiche and it’ll always result in a dense, slightly tart ice cream that satisfies in just the right way. To share. Or not to share. You decide.
As we admit to ourselves the things we want for (justified or not), we can also acknowledge that there’s a thread that weaves through the fabric of each day, I think. For my grandparents, Alred and Bee, and me and you– I’m willing to bet it’s time well spent with people you love. Sure, new jeans are nice. Time off is nice. Having a fairy godmother come in and pay off your American Express bill each month would be really nice. But when it comes down to it, I just want to have days on end with people I get a kick out of.
This recipe is slightly adapted from ice cream genius, David Lebovitz. I add a little vanilla to his recipe, and I think a bit of orange zest would be really nice, too. If you don’t want to buy crème fraiche, combine 2 cups heavy cream with 1/4 cup buttermilk and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours, until thick. I had some leftover figs from the farmers market and decided to roast them with a little honey. The sweetness of the honeyed figs balances beautifully with the subtle tartness of the crème friache ice cream.
For the Ice Cream:
Set a mesh strainer over the top of a medium-sized bowl and set it in an ice bath. Set aside.
Warm the milk, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan. In a separate small bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the original saucepan.
Over medium heat, stir the mixture constantly with a heatproof plastic spatula or wooden spoon, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and into the bowl sitting in the ice bath. Stir until the mixture begins to cool. Chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, at least two hours.
Once cool, whisk in the crème fraîche, then freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Wash and stem figs, and heat the oven to 375 F. Slice them in half and arrange cut side up on a baking tray. Drizzle the honey over top, and roast for about 15 minutes, or until the honey is just being to get dark and caramelized. The figs should not be too soft that they’ll fall apart. They should still hold their shape. Let cool until you’re able to handle, 5-8 minutes, then spoon over bowl of 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.