I’m writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom’s lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I’ve made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That’s basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we’ve arrived happily to the land of lingering.
You may recall last summer I wrote about the cabin here in Lake George. This year we’re staying for just a touch longer and hoping to allow ourselves to truly enjoy a little vacation. Before we left I cleaned out the fridge and discovered two neat little pints of strawberries I hadn’t gotten a chance to slice up yet. Now before we move on, I should also mention that I’ve developed a recent obsession with the ginger biscuits at Cafe Besalu in Seattle. They’re round, light and fluffy as air and have just a hint of ginger. Last time I was there I chatted with the owner about the biscuits, hoping to learn a bit about what flour they use. It became clear pretty quickly that that information would not be available to me. He said that he milled his own flour. End of story, apparently. I poked and prodded to no avail. O.k., I’d move on to the question of buttermilk vs. cream: surely these were cream biscuits given their texture, yes? The world may never know. So here I was a few nights before we were to leave town, continuing to obsess over these biscuits, staring at the strawberries on hand, and deciding that I’d give it a go. A summery version of Besalu’s biscuits with local strawberries and cream. Lots of cream.
I found just the perfect place to start on Molly’s blog: a cream biscuit by the wonderful Marion Cunningham, a breakfast legend. I just adore her and keep telling myself I should bake all the way through The Breakfast Book; as you’ve probably gathered, there just hasn’t been time for that sort of thing lately. But, my friends, there’s time for these biscuits. They’re quick! And so simple! And light and wonderful and a good excuse to use up extra cream and strawberries.
I will say these didn’t rise quite as much as I would’ve loved and I don’t think that’s so much a symptom of the recipe as it is that I over-kneaded them. The one and only thing the owner of Cafe Besalu did tell me was that their ginger biscuits are so light you have to be careful not to overwork them. Verrrry gentle, he said. I think I could’ve been gentler. I urge you to be gentle. Because these didn’t get as big of a rise as I’d expected and because I cut them into squares, I think a more appropriate name for this recipe is a Biscuit Bar. A Strawberry and Cream Biscuit Bar. Still light. Still fluffy. Just a touch flatter than a classic biscuit, but full of fresh berries, sprinkled with sugar, and laced with lots of fresh cream.
I hope you have a wonderful week and a most restful mid-week holiday. While I’m here at the lake, I’m going to be working on some recipe testing for the cookbook , and I also have a few other things in mind:
Reading: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, re-reading some Laurie Colwin, and dipping into Richard Ford’s newest. Also one of the most recent issues of The New Yorker apparently has a great long piece on Ben Stiller that’s supposed to be pretty insightful. In case you’re wondering what Sam’s reading on the dock: Homer’s Odyssey. It makes me smile every time I look over at him in a sea of women and fashion magazines.
Eating: I have so many recipes I wanted to try while here, but I’m keeping realistic goals considering I do want this to feel like vacation — not to mention the only place to shop for groceries is Walmart which I’ve succesfully avoided so far. But I will absolutely make a blueberry pie. It’s time to make a blueberry pie. I’m also hoping Sam will make his famous-in-my-world pancakes.
Drinking: Gin & Tonics. And Negronis, of course.
Listening: Design Matters Podcasts with Debbie Millman. Sam introduced me to these and while they’re technically more design-focused, the folks interviewed are fascinating and I think the conversation applies to any creative craft or inclination. Surprisingly, Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing, isn’t half bad, either.
Playing: A new-to-us dice game that I imagine old ladies really dig: Farkel. It’s pretty amazing — do you all know this game?! My mom’s friends picked it up at the small local library here, and it’s been our late-night entertainment for the past few nights. We’re going to track one down to bring back to Seattle with us.
Marion Cunningham calls for 1 – 1 1/2 cups cream in her recipe; I used 1 cup here and they turned out just fine. That being said, if your mixture feels too dry and crumbly, drizzle in a little more cream to bring it all together. If you don’t have pastry flours at home, reach for all-purpose flour before reaching for a regular whole-wheat flour which will yield too dense of a biscuit on its own. Cunningham recommends kneading for one minute — I’d just give it a few turns next time — 20 seconds or so.
Adapted from: Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book (via Molly Wizenberg)
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (If you don’t have parchment, leave it as it is, ungreased. The parchment is just for easy cleanup.)
Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Slowly add the cream and stir briefly just until the dough comes together. You can do this by hand if you’re comfortable or with a simple wooden spoon. Gather the dough together; If it feels shaggy or too dry, slowly add more cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, just until the dough comes together.
In a small bowl, dredge the strawberries with the 2 tablespoons of the remaining flour to coat.
Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead for 20 seconds or so — you don’t want to overwork the dough. Pat the dough into a large square about ½ inch thick. On one side of the square, lay the strawberries out onto the dough. Fold one side of the square over the top of the berries to meet the other side of the square, creating a little pouch for the berries. Essentially, the berries are now nestled inbetween two layers of biscuit dough.
Working quickly, press the dough down to 1/2 inch thickness once again. Don’t worry about squishing the berries –the flour will absorb some of that liquid and if you work quickly to re-flatten your square, they’ll bake up just fine.
Cut into 12 squares. Brush the tops of each with the melted butter so that all sides are coated. Sprinkle the tops with sugar. Place the biscuits 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.