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 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.