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.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: