I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70’s in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam’s been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
Now I’m not sure if we’ve chatted about this before, but I’m not the best sick person. I don’t do well just laying around, always feeling like I should at least be reading something engaging or watching an interesting movie or taking care of a writing project or two. So after waking up far too early on Sunday, my version of laying low was organizing our baking cupboard, getting our whole grain flours in order, putting on a pot of tea, and getting to work slicing rhubarb. While my to-do list was left alone, I did bake these Rhubarb Custard Crisp Bars, and I’ve been thankful to have them around. Little slices go well with tea. I’ve learned today they’re also quite nice for breakfast. The tart rhubarb is balanced with just enough sugar (they’re not at all too sweet), the spelt crust brings out a buttery toastiness, and the nutty oat topping will remind you of every good fruit crisp you’ve eaten. They’ll remind you of late spring and gentle sunshine and of not being cooped up inside.
If you’ve never worked with spelt flour before, it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great entry way into whole-grain baking, so if you often experiment with whole wheat flour and are looking for something new, today’s your day. Kim Boyce, author of my very favorite baking book, Good to the Grain, describes spelt flour as having a “slightly tart aroma” yet being “distinctly sweet.” It substitutes 1:1 for all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour for most recipes, so you can feel free to experiment away. For these bars, I used a recipe I’ve been looking forward to using from Chicken and Egg but made some significant changes, using whole-grain flour, taking down the sugar by half, and adding my crumble topping I like to use on pies and crisps. The result is a sturdier bite of rhubarb crisp, one you can actually hold in your hand and bring to the couch with you, if need be. Although they’d be just as happy, I think, outdoors on a picnic blanket.
By all means, use all-purpose or whole-wheat flour here if that’s what you prefer or have on hand. And for the crumble topping, feel free to use pecans (or any other nut) instead of walnuts. The crust is simple to make, but if you’re more comfortable working with a food processor to blend in the butter and make your crust, that will work just fine, too. Next time I bake these, I’d love to experiment by layering in some fresh sliced strawberries and sprinkling candied ginger on top.
For Crisp Topping:
For the Crust: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 11 x 7 inch glass baking pan.
Stir together the spelt flour, brown sugar and salt in a small bowl until combined. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the butter is evenly distributed and the size of small pebbles. The mixture should be dry and crumbly.
Press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the pan to form the crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is turning a nice golden brown.
For the Filling: While the crust bakes, whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and ground ginger until smooth. Add the dry mixture into the egg mixture and whisk to combine. Add the rhubarb and stir until it’s completely coated.
For the Topping: In a medium bowl, combine the spelt flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, ground ginger, and chopped walnuts. Stir to combine together. Add the melted butter and mix it into the dry ingredients (I use my hands at this point). The crisp topping should be quite clumpy. If it seems to wet or smooth, feel free to add a bit more flour or oats, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Pour the rhubarb filling over the prepared crust. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top if golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice and serve slightly warm. They are best on the day they’re made, but if you have leftovers, they keep beautifully covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
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.