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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.