A few days after Thanksgiving, Sam and I found ourselves at Elmwood Cafe reading books and drinking giant soy mochas out of ceramic bowls. I’d been flipping through Lucky Peach magazine and the article On Perfect Moments caught my attention. In it, Daniel Patterson talks about searching for perfect moments and how they pop up when you least expect or plan for them. Since he’s a chef, he frames the discussion in terms of cooking with fennel and how most cooks don’t think to use the green fennel buds that haven’t flowered yet. He says, “What appeals to me about these fennel buds is how they reflect this idea of paying attention, of recognizing perfect moments. Right now is the only moment that fennel plants will yield this particular flavor.”
And sometimes in the midst of holiday traffic, family dynamics, and dozens upon dozens of pies it can be difficult to slow down and pay attention. There are weeks of shopping lists, crowded grocery lines, and hostess gifts where everything can just happen to you. In a wonderful whirlwind kind of way, but still, the days seem to take off. With or without you. And that’s why I’m so thankful for this past Tuesday.
A day we kicked off with donuts. More donuts than I’m going to admit to you right now. We had bad diner coffee and learned quite a bit about lottery tickets and the very fine distinction between a buttermilk glazed donut and an old-fashioned glazed donut. Important stuff on a weekday morning, let me tell you.
With a small cup of coffee to-go, we drove out to West Marin in search of eventual oysters, perpetual rolling hills and occasional sunshine. After a wrong turn that took us to the town of Inverness, we slowly made our way back to Highway 1 and to the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. We bought over-priced charcoal and a dozen oysters. Our picnic table neighbors offered us some of their little-bit-warm Moscato wine and an older couple with a German Shorthair Pointer set up a very proper picnic (good mustard, nuts, crusty bread) a few tables away. We perfected the art of eying when an oyster is ready to come off the barbecue and met the resident cat who set up camp on top of my bag.
After we’d finished our last oyster we drove towards Point Reyes Station in search of a cup of coffee before heading home. It was that time of day where afternoon has decided to retire but evening isn’t quite ready to make an appearance. Still, quiet air was punctuated by the occasional bird landing on the water or a car passing by. We strolled into a kitschy souvenir shop and discovered harmonicas for sale. Sam bought two and we chatted with the women there about local businesses and politics. We left and walked towards The Station House Cafe while breaking in our harmonicas. I told Sam I’m a natural. After a few days of practicing, I still believe this to be true.
We sat at the bar, ordered Irish Coffees, read our books, chatted with the bartender, and people-watched. A once sunny horizon turned thick with fog and we ordered another drink to share. I’m never one to complain about strong drinks, but let’s just say after about an hour it become apparent that we weren’t driving home right away. So a burger happened along with french fries and a Manhattan. And popovers also happened. In a big way. In such a big way that we asked for another basket of them after our meal. I’m not sure if it was the salty ocean air or the slight tipsiness but the popovers tasted like one of the better things I’d had to eat in quite some time. They were eggy and light and we slathered butter on them and I laid my head on Sam’s shoulder.
And it was then that I realized I was sitting in the midst of a perfect moment. Here it was. Without plan or expectation. Without pomp or circumstance. An early winter evening with maybe one too many drinks, a handsome man, and a brand new harmonica.
Yesterday Sam left and on my way home from the airport I picked up a dozen eggs and set about making popovers. I thought I’d make a batch that could cross over into dessert territory or breakfast territory or afternoon tea territory. So these have a little vanilla in them and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. They are quite wonderful. I ate them with just as much butter as I did at the bar that night and I recommend that’s how you eat them, too.
I hope you experienced a few perfect moments during the recent holiday. I really, truly do.
I made my popovers in a muffin tin although you can purchase a special popover pan if you’re so inclined; I’m just a fan of using what I have in my own cupboards. If you do use a popover pan, this recipe should yield 6 popovers whereas if you use a muffin tin, you’ll end up with 8. High heat is important to the success of these popovers so when you’re ready to fill your pan, remove it from the oven quickly and make sure not to open and close the oven door while they’re baking. These are really best the day they’re made. Preferably warm.
Adapted from: Cook’s Illustrated
For the Popovers:
For the Cinnamon Sugar Top:
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Blend the eggs and milk together in a blender until combined. Add flour, melted butter, salt, cinnamon and vanilla until smooth and bubbly, about one minute. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes.
While the batter is resting, it’s time to heat up the muffin pan. Pour 1/2 teaspoon of oil into each muffin cup, using only the outer 8 tins (leave the center ones empty — they won’t heat as evenly). Adjust oven rack to lowest position and make sure there’s not a rack directly above — remember your popovers are going to rise and you don’t want another oven rack to squish them. After the batter has rested 20 minutes, place pan in oven to heat the oil. You want the pan to have a good 10 minutes in the oven to heat.
After batter has rested, remove pan from the oven and, working quickly, divide batter amongst the 8 muffin cups. Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes (don’t open the oven door). Then lower heat to 350 F and continue to bake until popovers are golden brown, about 15 minutes more. After removing from the oven, gently flip them out onto a wire rack. I used a butter knife here–sometimes they take a little shimmying.
For the cinnamon sugar topping: mix the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Thoroughly brush each popover all over with the 1/4 cup of melted butter, then dredge each puff generously in the sugar mixture. Enjoy warm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[ 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.