It’s all I can do not to just drop everything and turn this into a gardening blog. Maybe a gardening blog with cookies, and cocktails? I jest. But in all seriousness, thank you all so much for your generous comments and advice about planting and gardening. I wish I had you in my back pocket at all times, but you’ve given me a lot to work with and much inspiration. In fact, today’s recipe is made with fresh herbs from the backyard! It’s been unusually warm in Seattle this week, so everything’s growing like crazy and quite thirsty. I learned a valuable lesson: if you take off on the ferry to Vashon Island on a very sunny day to visit a most lovely couple in their new home, eat the best quinoa you may have ever tasted, and forget to water your plants, you will come home to sad basil. This is, apparently, a fact. I’m learning slowly. Also a fact: playing hookie on an island is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately and how to make more space for it in the constant to-do lists of my (I assume our) daily lives. I often feel guilty if I take moments to focus on a non-work related project, but I read something recently that led me to believe taking time out of our day to chop some herbs, knead some dough, and wait for it to rise might just be what we all need more of.
Before we get to foccacia and creativity, some of you suggested that I share a few photos every now and then chronicling how things are going in the garden, and I love that idea. I think we should start small. With herbs: thyme, basil, rosemary, mint and parsley. The cilantro is hiding under the table. It may not make it.
Sam and I decided to take the day off of work on Friday because sometimes you need to do that. It was my first time on Vashon and, as is the case with many people, I became quite smitten with the sweet little downtown, the big grassy plots of land, and the small winding roads. And the best part: I forced myself not to feel guilty about taking a Friday off to do not much of anything on my to-do list. I’ve been reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and it has me thinking about the way in which a mental break and space is so important in driving creativity and inspiration. When we work, work, work and stare at the computer waiting for inspiration to strike — it likely won’t. Or it’ll make a most slow and painfully circuitous arrival.
If you’re unfamiliar with Imagine, it’s an exploration of the science of creativity and how it’s not necessarily a gift that some have, but something we can all work at and learn. There’s that word “work” again. But hold on: many of Lehrer’s suggestions on how to work at this involve taking time to go on a long walk, learning how to daydream productively, and traveling (if your life allows it) — even just for a few hours to a nearby town.
One of my favorite lines from the book is when Lehrer says, “There is something scary about letting ourselves go. It means that we will screw up, that we will relinquish the possibility of perfection. It means that we will say things we didn’t mean to say and express feelings we can’t explain. It means that we will be onstage and not have complete control, that we won’t know what we’re going to play until we begin, until the bow is drawn across the strings. While this spontaneous method might be frightening, it’s also an extremely valuable source of creativity…the lesson about letting go is that we contain our own creativity. We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all.” As an adamant planner and list-follower, I can attest that this is true. I think I can be my worst enemy when it comes to creativity, containing it at many junctures and corners.
There’s a certain amount of fear in moving away from the lists and the scripts. That’s where the routine and comfort lives, but also, according to Lehrer, where creativity most decidedly doesn’t live. I’m sure you can relate to laying on the beach somewhere with little agenda or walking aimlessly around your neighborhood and having idea after idea bounce around unhindered. Whether it’s new business ideas or writing topics or inspiration for how to decorate a room in your house: that’s the fruit of this letting go. And that moment when you’re laying on the beach or taking that walk, you’re literally making space for those thoughts to wander in. Imagine is all about actively taking a role in the birth of more creativity. I like this idea.
So yesterday while there were many, many things that needed tending to I woke up strangely early and decided that it was time to make this pretty spring foccacia I’d been thinking about. No computer, no emails, a sleeping Sam, a coffee maker gurgling away, and dough rising. During this time, did I come up with an idea for a new invention? Nope. But I did make some spaciousness in the morning that made the rest of the day much easier. A self-enforced time out. Allow yourself to try it this week. Rising dough optional.
A few things about the recipe: it is from Canal House vol. 3 which boasts many pretty spring recipes (remember the watercress soup from earlier this year?). I altered the recipe a little, using a bit of whole wheat flour instead of all bread flour and adding more herbs. The result is a most satisfying bite of chewy crust, thinly sliced tart lemon, a smattering of fresh herbs, a healthy splash of olive oil, and an even healthier sprinkling of coarse salt. While I planned on having it for lunch with a green salad, we left it out on the kitchen table and both cut off little pieces throughout the day whenever we walked by.
Because this recipe essentially makes 4 rounds, I froze two sections of the dough to use later. If you go this route, you’ll obviously want to cut the topping quantities in half (only 1 lemon etc.) For the herbs, use whatever you like and have fresh on hand; I loved the combination of fresh thyme and rosemary although I think dill and chives could be really nice, too. And if you have a mandolin to slice the lemons, this is the best way to get them super thin.
Adapted from Canal House, vol. 3
For the dough, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a medium bowl. Stir in 1 1/4 cups water and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Pulse the flour and salt together in the bowl of a food processor. Add the yeast mixture and process until a rough ball forms, about 1 minute. Briefly knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Shape dough into a ball.
Put 2 tablespoons of the oil into a large bowl. Roll dough around in the bowl until coated with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot until it has doubled in size, about two hours.
Pour a thin film of oil into each of four 8-inch round cake pans. Quarter the dough and put one piece in each pan (if you’re making two rounds as we did, only oil two pans and wrap two quarters in plastic wrap and freeze). Using your fingertips, spread dough out in each pan. The dough is elastic and will resist stretching. Let it rest for 5 minutes or so after you’ve stretched it as far as it will go. Eventually it will cooperate and fill the pan.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Cover the pans with damp dishcloths and let the dough rest until it has swollen in the pans a little, 30-60 minutes. Uncover the pans, sprinkle the dough the your herbs.
Using your fingertips, poke dimples into the dough in each pan, then drizzle with oil so it pools into the little crevices. Arrange the thinnest rounds of lemon on top, drizzle with more oil, and sprinkle generously with sea salt.
Bake for 20-28 minutes. Drizzle with more oil when you pull it from the oven.
*You could also make in your stand mixer if you don’t have a food processor. I did the dough in my food processor and was a little worried because it was brimming almost to the top with flour but it turned out just fine. I don’t see any reason why could couldn’t just mix it up by hand the old-fashioned way, too. I’ll likely try this next time.
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 had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
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.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.