I’ve always wanted to be from the South. Odd because I’ve only been to Austin, TX and many would say that hardly counts. Last week I tried to pick up some tips while in West Virginia. Like Austin, there’s apparently quite a bit of debate about how truly Southern West Virginia is. But I’ll tell you, it was humid, there were mosquitoes, mint juleps, biscuits at lunch, “ma’ams” and “ya’alls”, a great deal of bacon, and bright floral wallpaper. I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I stayed at The Greenbrier Hotel for the Professional Food Writers Symposium. It was other-worldly in so many ways: long hallways leading to blasts of color, a line of white rocking chairs looking out over an expansive lawn, horse-drawn carriages, farms and country roads, and porches with wicker chairs that hold you tight in the mornings and even tighter in the evenings as the light turns a dusky shade of purple.
There were three very square meals, dozens of new friends, one Dorie Greenspan (!), uncountable oaks and sycamores, patches of inviting lawn, pages and pages of notes and handouts, and many a smiling stranger.
There was afternoon tea in which couples would languish with nowhere else to go–continuing to refill their cups while listening to the piano until it was time to dress for dinner. Women pulling along tow-headed children in neat pastels with matching shoes. Men golfing in plaid shorts and families playing croquet and shuffleboard.
So there were all of these things and more. But for me, most importantly: there were my people. One of the women at the symposium appropriately deemed it “our tribe.” For those of you who do any kind of writing, you know that sometimes it can be a lonely endeavor. It’s just me and my antique desk and some coffee and an existential battle to turn off twitter and unplug from email. Sometimes there’s a little dish of M & M’s and often there’s some Pandora. But that’s about it. Baking is also pretty darn lonely. It’s just me rolling out pie dough early in the morning. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember music or listen to a podcast, but often I’m running over thoughts in my head or sneaking out to talk to Sam for a few minutes while a sheet of cookies cools.
Rarely do I have people to talk to about my craft — people who are equally excited about new cookbooks, jam techniques, revolutionary ice cream methods, writers, authors, bloggers. People who talk about how they do things, what works for them, what you should try, who you should contact, who knows who and how the heck it is that we’re all connected. Talking, sharing, exchanging, advising, giggling, eye-rolling. These were the people who, all week, were right across the table from me at the crack of dawn gossiping over a soft boiled egg or drinking dry martinis in bright turquoise chaise lounges as the second hand neared midnight.
I’ve been home for a little over a week now. I miss my tribe dearly. Reality has a way of forcing you to jump right back into daily life though, doesn’t it? I made almost 60 pounds of granola last weekend, baked pies for the farmers market, and managed to unpack, throw a load of laundry in and download these photos. I made an heirloom tomato salad and caught up with a few friends. My head is still spinning. In a good way. You see, that’s what happens when you’ve got your people around. That’s what happens when you’re challenged, baffled, inspired, and nourished.
In addition to all of the great networking and new friends, I’ve taken home a cocktail recipe that I couldn’t seem to get enough of while at the Greenbrier. The Mint Julep.
At the hotel bar, we’d meet before dinner and order mint juleps. They were served in the traditional silver cups and were just the way I like them: strong and not at all too sweet. The Greenbrier uses perfectly-shaped, pearl-sized pieces of ice and I actually spent some time searching these out here in Oakland with little success. So I settled on some good mostly-crushed ice. I know some of you on the East Coast are in fall mode right now, but in California it feels more like July than September. So there have been mint juleps this week. And I hope you’ll find time to squeeze one in before the evenings get too chilly. I hope you can enjoy one with “your people,” too. Whatever that looks like for you. It’ll mean more that way. Trust me.
Place mint leaves in the bottom of a glass cup or traditional silver cup. Add the sugar and muddle the mint and sugar together, breaking down and bruising the mint and making sure the sugar is dissolved. Fill glass with finely chopped ice. Pour bourbon over the ice. Stir well; add more ice if needed. Garnish with a few sprigs of mint.
Note: If you like your mint julep a touch sweeter, make a mint simple syrup and add 1-2 teaspoons, depending on taste.
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.