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.
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.
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.
Adapted from: Turntable Kitchen
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.
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.