I received a note in the mail recently. Addressed to me, obviously, but in my own handwriting. A strange sense of familiarity struck as I stared at it, trying to figure out when exactly I’d addressed it. In Boston? In San Francisco? Maybe it was a mistake, a card I’d meant to send to someone else but accidentally sent back to myself (stranger things have happened). I stared at the envelope turning it over and over in my hands–still nothing. I opened it to find a single card with my name printed at the top.
Have fun. Don’t be scared. Dare to love again.
The note was in my writing, and it was from practically two years ago. I vaguely remember how I felt when I wrote it: Small. Uncertain. Fragile. After moving to San Francisco and realizing pretty quickly that I’d be going it solo, I started doing yoga almost every day just to clear my head and, frankly, have an excuse to get out of the apartment. I remember New Years Day when everyone (including my own parents) was hung-over after too much partying the night before. The light was soft and yellow that morning and the streets were completely empty. I was up early, made a pot of coffee, sat in my little window nook overlooking the city, and decided yoga was a good way to escape all of the New Years Resolution-ness that was bound to start weighing down on the day. I strolled into class, rolled out my mat smack in the middle of the room and sat on down.
We did very little yoga during that class. Instead, we did this exercise that I felt pretty uncomfortable with at first; it seemed too touchy-feely yet everyone was participating and there was no way to sneak out of the room. The teacher had these little wispy papers that deteriorated when you lit them on fire. So we wrote three things we wanted to let go of in the coming year and took turns coming up to the front of the room and burning them. I remember it all being strangely emotional–emotional in a very public way. Usually I would’ve put my guard up and excused the activity as silly, but I let myself actually take it all in and feel that day. We talked a little about our hearts. Everyone had a story.
At the end of class we wrote a note to ourselves that listed three things we wanted to work on in the coming year, three bits of advice. The instructor collected them and promised she’d send them sometime in the future but wouldn’t say exactly when. So here we are, and it’s a very different kind of day, week, year, isn’t it? I hardly recognize or remember the Megan that, shakily and tearfully, wrote this note. And I keep staring at it in awe and gratitude that I’ve been so blessed with a family that encourages following your heart; friends that encourage laughter, cocktails, eating out, and ice cream cones; and, of course, Sam.
So what would today’s note read? I think my advice to myself would be a little less grand in scope. I recently quit my very part-time retail job at Heath Ceramics to make more space for writing and Marge. The discount at Heath is pretty hefty and generally when people quit they make a few large purchases to round out their collection. But on my last day I looked around the shop and couldn’t think of much that I needed. I ended up buying a small bottle of good olive oil and some coffee beans. Daily pleasures I’ll use often–nothing grand, nothing showy, nothing that takes up much space. Because my life is so full on this Saturday in late September.
This weekend I’m traveling up to see Sam for almost a week. When you have been counting down the days and hours until you’re back in each others’ arms, cookies are a darn fine distraction. And not just any cookies, but wonderfully chewy ginger cookies that are soft on the inside yet slightly crackled on top. They’re nothing like light, crisp gingersnaps; they’ve got a little more heft. They’ll make your kitchen smell like fall in one moments time and are perfect for slicing off little bits throughout the evening if you happen to be up working at your desk late at night. But tomorrow they travel to Seattle. Where I’ll be for the longest visit yet. I’ll take some photos and bring them back to you. Maybe in the meantime, you whip up a batch of cookies.
Like many good things, this cookie recipe is the result of an accident (well, really, two accidents) while I was studying at the San Francisco Baking Institute. The first time I miscalculated the amount of flour and the second time we misread the spice profile. Both mistakes have given me one of my favorite fall cookie recipes of all time. Do use bread flour here instead of all-purpose flour: the higher gluten-content is integral in achieving the nice heft and chewiness that these cookies are so good for. Make a double batch; they freeze beautifully.
Preheat the oven at 350 F.
In the bowl of a stand-mixer or in a separate bowl using electric beaters, cream the butter and sugar until well combined, about one minutes. Then add the egg and molasses and mix until just combined, 20-30 seconds. Add all of the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated (don’t overmix here).
Using a large tablespoon or ice cream scoop (see note) portion out roughly 2 ounce balls and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until the tops and edges are golden brown and slightly crackled. The very center can remain slightly soft and even just a tad jiggly. When the cookies cool, they will firm up, leaving the inside and center wonderfully soft.
Note: I use a blue scoop (2 ounce, #16) for most cookies in the bakery and at home. It makes for a larger cookie.
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.