I have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you’re 32– an in between time when, in my case, you’re no longer a child but don’t yet have children of your own. The magic doesn’t descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.I had a conversation about the holidays with my sister Rachael about a month ago. She was saying how she sometimes ends up feeling disappointed by Christmas largely because she has such high expectations leading up to it. My initial response was that she needs to lower her expectations and get over it: Rach, when you’re an adult, Christmas is really just another day. It’s a rad day because you’re together with family that you usually don’t see and we eat really good cheese and drink champagne. But really, it’s another day. Did it used to look different when we were all little girls, slightly greedy teenagers, or under-rested college students? Sure. But you’ve got to let Christmas change and morph and do whatever it must do to fit in with how you best feel spirited.
And the days leading up to Christmas? They can be filled with so much warmth and anticipation and excitement. Filled with a foggy Sunday, for example, when you drive to your friend Holly’s Berkeley apartment clutching a poinsettia and homemade pumpkin seed sauce. You join other women, most of whom you don’t even know, and stand around like old friends making tamales, drinking spritzers and hot chocolate, and talking about everything from jobs to boyfriends and fiancés to local cheeses and Netflix movies. You leave feeling very, very full. Not of tamales. But of spirit.
The days are also filled with driving to Marin to go Christmas tree shopping with your mom and picking out a doozy of a tree that barely fits inside the living room. Waiting for the volunteers to deliver the tree (we can be lazy), you sit at the kitchen counter with the dogs wagging their tails and staring you down from the other room. Your mom takes you out to dinner in San Anselmo, sends you home with a bottle of wine, and texts you a photo of the tree all lit up in the morning.
The next day you notice a serious lack of Christmas tree in your small Oakland apartment, quickly remedied with the purchase of a little 3-footer on your way home from the gym. Your apartment tree quickly becomes the center of all activity. You plug the lights on first thing in the morning even just for an hour, and again, the second you get home at night. You find yourself sitting next to the little tree and writing cards, talking on the phone, napping, reading.
I’ve talked to a lot of people recently who say they hate Christmas. A really nice couple that sells pasta next to me at the farmers market said they can’t even look at wreaths let alone Chritmas trees, Christmas cookies, lights, ham. I assume they must be Jewish. No, we just hate everything that Christmas stands for. Hmm. A coworker said the same thing. He can’t stand obligatory gifts and feels like it kills the Christmas spirit for everyone. Fair enough. I can’t say that I disagree on that point. But what I will say is it’s easy enough to sit back and talk about how much you hate Christmas ham, strings of lights, and navigating your way through the crowds at the mall (which I do hate, actually). But since you’re a savvy, independent adult, you can also go out and make of it what you will. Find yourself a little slice of spirit. Hate poinsettias? Don’t buy one. Love marzipan jewels wrapped in pretty red foil? Stock up! Hate Christmas music but love festive shop windows? Go for a walk!
So to my sister Rachael I say this: when I told you that Christmas is just another day, I didn’t really mean it. It’s not. It’s a slow, meandering, joyful, peaceful day. It only comes once a year and that alone makes it special. It’s also a day that is brimming with spirit in as much as you allow it to be. In whatever that looks like for you. Because if we’re not open to that– forgetting about expectation, obligations, and overly salty hams for just one moment–that very special glint of magic may just not make it to our doorsteps this year.
One thing that has made it to my doorstep and the doorstep of many a friend this year is is Cranberry Gingerbread. If you do recall, we’re dealing with a glut of cranberries here, people, and I’m reaching for something interesting to do with them. Enter two critical moments/people: 1) One very sleepless Monday night and 2) Melissa Clark, who I first fell in love with after learning she often wrote recipes for “snack cakes” and thought it quite important to enjoy cake throughout the day, not just for dessert. Thank you, Melissa Clark. That contribution? It’s big.
Melissa Clark’s Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread blatantly shies away from daintiness or refinement. She says it’s rude, sticky and wet and I’d have to agree. It’s probably not a cake you’d serve at a wedding, but it’s perfect on a December day when you’ve got tart cranberries in the fridge, molasses and ginger in the cupboard, and have a craving for a hunk of something warmly spiced. Something reminiscent of the holidays, winter, or afternoons in general. Melissa Clark uses fresh ginger and ginger powder and I added some chopped candied ginger and a dusting of powdered sugar on top. It’s almost enough to turn a Christmas-non-believer around. Try it on your very own and see what happens.
Adapted from: Cook This Now
Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9 x 9 inch baking pan.
In a small saucepan, stir together the cranberries, sugar, and 1-2 tablespoons of water. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the cranberries form a thick, bubbling sauce, about 10 minutes. Half of the cranberries should be broken down with the other half relatively whole.
In a separate saucepan, stir together the butter, brown sugar, milk, honey, and molasses over medium heat. Bring it to just barely a simmer and remove it from heat. Don’t let it come to a boil.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, ginger powder, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper. Stir in the butter/molasses mixture and then whisk in the eggs, one at a time until combined well. Stir in the ginger root and candied ginger.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Drop fat dollops of cranberry sauce on top of the gingerbread, evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until the top if firm and an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Note: Cranberries may sink to the bottom–that’s perfectly o.k. Remember, this is supposed to be a messy, delicious recipe. Sinking cranberries and all.
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.