We had a little housewarming party on Saturday. We bought beer and made spiced nuts and and stocked up on whiskey. That afternoon Sam baked homemade crackers and rushed around building recessed spice shelves. I roasted eggplant, baked a failed bundt cake, and bought far too much cheese. My sister Rachael came early with paper napkins and salami; my friend Tracy was in town from the Bay Area and swung by with her friend Joy; couples and singles and even baby Oliver came over to say hello. Some stayed for hours, some a few minutes. Regardless, it all felt like a pretty big deal. This was our house. Finally.
It’s certainly not news to either Sam or I that we’re very different party people. I’m a planner and a list-maker and feel most comfortable prepping things days in advance whereas Sam’s most frequent line is “we’ll figure it out,” and he often begins a project 2-3 hours before a party. Usually without a recipe. And you know what? It’s always just fine. Not really just fine, it’s usually quite wonderful.
But in the thick of it, if I’m not planning and list-making, I feel untethered. Which is silly, because really, we’re talking about a gathering of friends here, not a race for the presidency. Sam believes the more you stress about a party, the more you miss what it’s really about. It should be enjoyable. He was reminding me of this around 10 a.m., 11 a.m., again at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. It was that kind of a day. And as much as I hate to admit it, he was right. Everything turned out just fine: we had way too much cheese, and lots of leftover food. As with most parties, folks gathered in the kitchen after a few hours. Right around this time, Sam began making his almost-famous-in-some-circles Casselberry Biscuits. Fancy olives and dark chocolate brownies step aside: everyone fell for these simple little biscuits comprised of not much more than butter, sugar, flour, nutmeg and raisins. I’ve begged Sam for the recipe for a good 9 months now. He’s finally given in. Today’s a big day.
I actually had Casselberry Biscuits for the first time in Oakland. Sam and I had a dinner party in my tiny apartment and, of course, I over-planned and Sam decided to whip them up at the very last minute. My friends still ask for the recipe. I think part of their charm is that you cook them in a skillet on the stove-top, so they’re always warm. And the recipe makes quite a lot of them, so they continue to replenish themselves throughout the night. This becomes more and more important the later it gets and the more dark porter you drink. I know this to be true.
Sam pre-cuts the biscuits before the party and lays them in a pan with wax paper separating each layer. An hour or so into the party, he heats up a skillet and starts cooking the biscuits, setting them out on a big plate for folks to grab. The raisins get all warm and soft, the nutmeg becomes fragrant, and the outsides gets brown while the inside stays delightfully soft. We eat them right out of the skillet but you could certainly have them with just a little butter or your favorite jam, too.
Many people ask about the name. Casselberry is a town outside of Orlando, Florida where Sam and his family lived when he was a boy. His mom, Nancy Tanasy, made these biscuits often and Sam remembers helping in the evenings with Sydney Poitier movies on in the background. I thank them both for bringing them into my life. And I know I have friends in a few different states who are saying the same thing right about now.
Because this recipe makes quite a few, I offer you some advice: first, don’t underestimate how many people will eat. They will eat many. Second, they’re easily freezable and you can keep them pre-cut in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and pull them out whenever a craving strikes. Sam has made these with currants instead of raisins and even added a little citrus zest. These are a forgiving biscuit. Sam laughed as he watched me make them because I was being quite precise with the flour measurements. These aren’t a moody dessert. Don’t fuss over them. Don’t stress over them. They’ll turn out just fine.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add the egg and milk, and mix until combined. The mixture will seem chunky at this point, but don’t worry it will smooth out once you add the dry ingredients.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients, excluding the raisins.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until combined. At the very end, add the raisins and stir just long enough to incorporate them into the dough. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for one hour. After chilling, roll the dough out about 1/2 inch thick on a well-floured board. Cut into shapes with a sharp cookie cutter.
Lightly brown the biscuits on a hot, greased griddle or skillet, about 30 seconds-1 minute per side. Serve warm.
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.