A Little of Both


I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there’s a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter — about what’s in the book and about what’s so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I’m always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.

In a recent interview with IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), Hamilton spoke about being both a cook and a writer:

I love them both. I particularly rely on how they act as antidotes and complements to each other. It’s nice to dedicate yourself to writing and the larger thoughts that writing requires after you’ve spent 12 solid hours trying to sort out how many oysters you need for a party and where am I going to get the lavender for that event…you know, cooking preoccupies you with many little mundane things. The writing is an antidote to that. Equally, when you’re searching out one of those elusive things in writing…your sentences are dead on the page, you can’t express than thought…it can be very nice to just get on the line, grill the fish and send it out. It’s so practical and accomplishable and clean and simple.

I thought about this paragraph for a while. It’s true that baking pies each week doesn’t require a whole lot of thought. In fact, in many ways it’s routine and even rote. Cut butter into flour, prep fruits and nuts, roll out the dough, crimp the edges. Repeat. But then you see sheet trays of golden brown and bubbling pies come out of the oven–a completed task–and you go home. Maybe you go on a run, make some dinner, do something other than bake a pie because you’re done baking pies for the night. Kitchen work has that ‘pump it out and get it done’ thing going on. Writing, on the other hand, is more thoughtful, stimulating, and intellectually challenging. It feeds the mind in a way that baking does not. But I’ll tell you one thing: you rarely ‘pump it out and get it done’ with writing. Writing doesn’t take a day off. Writing moves quietly into your apartment, your shower, your closet, your garage. Even your car. Writing sits right down at your kitchen table and doesn’t budge. Writing is relentless in this way. And that’s why I need it, too.

Later in the same interview, Hamilton speaks about stumbling upon her career path: This is just where I ended up. I have some sliver of talent, so it’s nice to do what you’re good at. And I do like the work of cooking very much. It’s engaging and honest work, and it feels healthy and good at the end of the day.

It’s true that not everyone chooses what they do for work. Some people fall into it, some people are shoved into it. Others simply need to pay their bills and found something close to home. But I think regardless, it’s important to have something that you feel good at– however large or small. And something that engages your mind in different ways. Whether it’s a routine that you do over and over and find comfort in or an ever-dynamic task that challenges and ignites you. Or I think, ideally, some combination of the two.

And as far as combinations and pairs and perfect marriages go, crumbly scones and lightly spiced pumpkin butter are pretty high up there on my list. These scones are inspired by Marion Cunningham’s Oatmeal Raisin Scone recipe in The Breakfast Book although I’ve ultimately used less sugar and whole-grain flours here. Also, when Sam was last in town, he picked up a little container of dates at a Middle Eastern grocery (Persian, Sam says) in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been wanting to bake with them ever since, so these scones morphed into Oatmeal Date Scones with a little orange zest and nutmeg for warmth — the perfect vehicle for a dollop of homemade pumpkin butter.

 

Date Oat Scones

Date Oat Scones

  • Yield: 6 large scones or 8 smaller-size scones
  • Prep time: 20 mins
  • Cook time: 20 mins
  • Total time: 40 mins

If you’ve yet to use oat flour, it has a really nice, mild sweetness that works well with muffin and scone recipes. And I love working with King Arthur’s white whole-wheat flour. To use it for the entire recipe would result in a clunkier scone, but the percentage of whole-grain flours here is pretty close to perfect. The trick is to work quickly so as not to let the butter get to warm. Also, you may find the dough to be a little on the wet side; that’s o.k. Use flour liberally when you’re shaping and cutting them and you’ll be just fine. Since it’s just me in my apartment, I froze these scones and have been quickly heating them in the stove each morning. They freeze beautifully.

Ingredients

3/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup oat flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter, sliced into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled
1 1/2 cups oats
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 cup dates (about 8 dates), coarsely hopped
1 cup buttermilk

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a medium-sized bowl, quickly whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cubed butter and, using your hands or a pastry cutter, rub or cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small, course peas. Do this quickly so the butter won’t warm too much. It’s o.k. to have a few larger chunks of butter. Add the oats, dates, orange zest and nutmeg and stir with a fork to combine. Add the buttermilk and stir until the dough gathers together in an uneven ball (I use my hands at this point).

Take out a large wooden board (or use a clean table surface) and sprinkle generously with flour. Dump out the dough onto the board and roll around in the flour to coat the exterior. Quickly gather the dough into a ball and pat/push it down so it’s circular in shape and about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges depending on how large you like your scones. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly brown.

Pumpkin Butter

  • Prep time: 5 mins
  • Cook time: 20 mins
  • Total time: 25 mins

Adapted from: Turntable Kitchen

Ingredients

1 14-ounce can of pumpkin puree
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons of real apple juice
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup of brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

Instructions

Combine all of the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir the mixture often to ensure it doesn’t stick or burn. After about 20-25 minutes, the mixture will darken in color and thicken–it’s ready!

Now you can transfer it to nice glass jars and refrigerate for 10-12 days.

Comments

  1. tea_austen

    I love what you said here about writing moving into your home and your car, you life and your brain. Guess that's why I never feel like I get a day off, eh? :-)

    And maybe that's why I like to chop onions and cook dinner at the end of the writing day. Those are things I know I'm good at. The rest is necessary compulsion.
    xox

  2. Ashley

    Cooking, writing, and parenting also seem to blend together nicely. In parenting I feel out of control and completely lost at times. In the kitchen I am most confident - me. It fuels me for the role of being a mom. Writing forces me to have thoughts deeper than, "pick up those toys", "please stop screaming", "stop jumping on the couch!".
    Beautiful post, Megan.

  3. Bowen

    I love the idea of deliberate and fierce acceptance of what you want in life - that's exactly what I'm working on right now.

    I think the hardest place to start is opening yourself up to questions - questions of whether you're doing what you want to be doing, questions of risk and change and transition, questions of what kind of balance you want in your life. Once that gate opens, it's pretty hard to look back. More and more I think people are finding they want to make a life that might seem unconventional, but if they accept what they need and defend their vision, they're infinitely closer to making it a reality!

  4. Christa

    Thank you for sharing the recipe!

    I may bake these scones today. I have dates and was wondering what to do with them. This will be perfect!

  5. sara

    oh I love this, megan. In a phase where I HAVE to sit down and right, all I want to do is cook (and not be taking notes about it!). Both of them have their freedoms and shackles, don't they? I would love to hear Gabrielle speak, I've only read a few interviews of hers and she sounds so interesting. Wonderful post.

  6. sara

    I'm loosing it. I meant write not 'right'. Opps ;)

  7. Deb

    Your post has touched a place that is dear to me. I am making a more structured effort to stop my frenzied kitchen activities and write very day. I need to balance cooking, photos and the introspection of writing. Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful post.

  8. Sarah

    I love Gabrielle's ability to read herself. I write fiction writer and makes my living by cooking, but I prefer to temper my writing with baking. There is nothing more soothing than stirring batter with a wooden spoon and knowing that your cake will rise and taste delicious at a time when you're feeling suspicious about the writing process. I return to my pad and paper feeling more open and trusting when I've accomplished something straightforward.
    Then the next problem-who is going to eat that cake?

  9. Jacqui

    i think some of my best writing comes to me in the shower. or when i'm supposed to be writing something else. i like this post, megan. have a lovely week!

    1. megang

      Thanks, Jacqui. You, too. (Yes, your brain needs a break in order to kind of turn back on, don't you think?)

      Sarah: You're so right about being to return to writing after accomplishing something straight-forward. Yes.

      Sara:You have every excuse to "lose it." Hang in there, friend.

      Deb: Fall is the best time to balance those things, I think.

      Christa: Thanks! You'll like them; they're super easy (actually the pumpkin butter you could basically do in your sleep--and it's good on ice cream, too).

  10. Mary

    I know I basically say the same thing after every post but I mean it. Another beautiful post, Megan - every word is perfect. MC's Breakfast Book is my favorite cookbook and I can't wait to try your adaption.

    1. megang

      Oh thanks so much, Mary. Yes that book just wins every time!

  11. Denise | Chez Danisse

    Sometimes I feel I've been falling, or perhaps flying by the seat of my pants, my entire life. I'm always intrigued by process and how people move through their lives and arrive in certain places. I don't think at, let's say 20 years old, I would have ever guessed I'd be where I am today. Life is full of surprises. My experience is that it often makes sense in retrospect, but rarely in the moment. Happy baking and writing.

  12. Aaron from The Amused Bouche Blog

    Loved this post! Absolutely beautiful. I struggle to find time to write because I'm so often busy working my job that pays all the bills. But it's true that writing never leaves me; it's all I want to do all the time, so I'm constantly thinking of things while driving and showering etc. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Kasey

    Beautifully resonating, Megan. I love the comparison between writing and cooking..It's so true that writing is never that pump and churn...Gorgeous adaptation of my pumpkin butter! I need to whip up a batch to go with these lovely scones! xo

  14. kickpleat

    I love this & it's so true about writing and how it just hangs on and head butts you or sometimes just whisps by out of grasp. The scones and the pumpkin butter look amazing and I think I'll make this next weekend.

  15. Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite

    Dates and oats are already a favourite combination of mine ad with pumpkin butter? Fab. Your writing is so beautiful - I feel bad to be only catching up on some of your recent posts now. I always feel calm after I visit your blog, your words are soothing and comforting. I love the comparison you make here between writing and cooking also. You are so lucky you do both for a living - not only are you amazing at both but your passion shines through.

  16. Maris

    I totally agree with you about feeling good at your job. I've gone through so many professional ups and downs in the past year and it's hard to find something that feels fulfilling AND pays the bills. The ability to both, whether it's the same job or you have something you do for income and something, like blogging, that you do because you love.

  17. Jo

    Oh... these look so good!

Join the Discussion

Spring Desserts

Whole Grain Any-Fruit Crisp

Whole Grain Any-Fruit Crisp

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. 

Read More
Cherry and Poppy Seed Yogurt Cake

Cherry and Poppy Seed Yogurt Cake

Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.

Read More
For Now, For Summer

For Now, For Summer

We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.

Read More
Good and Simple

Good and Simple

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.

Read More
Visions of Greatness or Something Like It

Visions of Greatness or Something Like It

[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.

Read More