If you had stopped by our house anytime in the last few weeks, you would’ve likely left with pumpkin madeleines, cranberry cake, half of a cheesecake, or a hearty slice of apple pie. Yes, just a few days ago I turned in a batch of recipes to a magazine I’ve been working with for their holiday issue. It has been an excessive few weeks in our kitchen but whenever possible, we’ve been bringing sweets to friends or down the street to the corner coffee shop (a.k.a. Sam’s office). After I sent in the last of the recipes, it was time for some good, clean food. We went to the store a few night’s ago and bought greens, yogurt, tuna, lentils, an avocado, peanut butter and a few other staples. We had soup for dinner; I had more for lunch the next day. After that much buttercream, it’s time for a bit of simplicity.
Coincidentally, this week I picked up Tamar Adler’s Book An Everlasting Meal. In it, she writes about the pleasures of simple food, of roasted vegetables and a single boiled egg. She writes about how to craft meal after meal with some greens, olive oil, eggs, and a little leftover rice. I think some people think this isn’t really cooking, and this is why I sometimes feel self-conscious talking about what I like to cook for dinner. It’s rarely grand. It’s usually vegetarian and is more of a “throwing together” than a “composing,” but come 7 or 8 p.m, it’s where I usually land. Just last night, Sam and I had roasted sweet potatoes with a little kale and a soft egg on top. That’s my kind of meal. That’s the way I like to do things, and is probably one of the reasons I’m quite drawn to this book.
I read a lot of food writing. I appreciate a great deal of it, and really stop and marvel at some of it. Adler’s writing falls in the marveling category, with sentences describing the best way to cook greens: “hot and lustily, with garlic, in a good amount of olive oil.” Hot and lustily! And of eggs she speaks of the “reassuring fact that so much privacy, cracked open, isn’t a fragile thing at all but ready for gusto, incubating euphoria.” With sentences that will often catch you off-guard, the book is a celebration of the simplicity inherent in food and the most sensible way to approach preparing it. A lot of this has to do with making a meal out of very little, and thinking of leftovers in a new way.
So here we are with some leftover cream and buttermilk from holiday recipe development, and a turned down page from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine in which there was an unassuming recipe for Drained Buttermilk with Soaked Raisins. It ran in a piece on Dutch comfort food and it spoke to me because of its spareness. Instead of raisins, we have some beautiful ripe mangoes on the counter so I diced those and topped my version with juicy bits of sunshiny fruit and ground, salty pistachios. Oh, and of course, a generous dollop of honey.
When talking about her goal with the book, Adler writes, “I only mean to show what cooking is: an act of gathering in and meting out, a coherent story that starts with the lighting of a burner, the filling of a pot, and keeps going as long as we like. So, our end is clear. If our meal will be ongoing, then our only task is to begin.” Last night I began with the leftover dairy in the fridge: I lined a colander with a dish towel, filled it with buttermilk, put it in the refrigerator, and went to bed. I awoke to this.
While The New York Times didn’t call this dish yogurt, I found that it basically is. My version uses less cream, and I’d encourage you to use whatever sliced seasonal fruit or roasted nuts you have on hand. Also, I don’t know why, but I really love this when it has a chance to come to room temperature just a bit rather than right out of the refrigerator. Do note that it must chill overnight in the refrigerator, and that time isn’t accounted for in the total time above.
Put a colander inside a large bowl; wet a clean kitchen towel and wring out as much water as you can. Fold it in half to create a double layer; line the colander with it. Add the buttermilk and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 24 hours.
In the morning, remove the buttermilk from the refrigerator and use a spatula to scrape the thickened buttermilk from the towel into a bowl and stir it until it’s smooth and creamy. Discard the liquid that has strained away into the bowl (or use a little to drizzle on top along with the honey).
In a separate bowl, use electric beaters to beat the cream to a soft peak. Fold the cream into the buttermilk. Portion into individual bowls and top with diced mango and ground pistachio. Drizzle a healthy spoonful of honey on each.
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.