I’m writing this on a train around 6 p.m. about an hour North of New York City. To my right is the Hudson River and to my left, one Sam catching up on a few emails. The sun is making its way down ever so slowly and my black ballet flats are more than ready to trade in carpeted train hallways for city streets and firm ground. This is our fourth day on the train. We left Seattle clutching a week’s worth of clothes, enough work to keep us busy on the train, a few novels, a bottle of wine, a cocktail in a flask (thank you, Brandon), rye in another flask (thank you, Sam), a few cameras, and these crackers. Final destination: Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. With a quick stop-over to visit my sister Zoe and her boyfriend Stefan in the West Village, eat meatballs, and check out a few bookstores.
I’ve been wanting to tell you about these crackers for a long time. But first: cross-country train trips. While I very much miss showers, the trip has gone by pretty quickly. The first two nights we had a sleeping car so we spread out (a little) and had a comfy chair, couch of our own, and large window. When we boarded, the nice gentleman who took care of our particular hall brought us little bottles of champagne and we proceeded through Washington and Idaho, ambling down to the dining car after a few hours for a dinner of roast chicken and crab cakes (with real silverware and linens!). We woke up in Montana just as the sun was rising. There were golden hayfields and long expanses of sky. Sam took a lot of photos, we kicked off our shoes, and watched the seemingly never-ending fields for what felt like hours.
Then there was North Dakota. I’m dedicating this next paragraph to my mother who claims I have an uncanny ability to make everything sound so rosy on the blog, failing to mention little hiccoughs or missteps along the way. Hiccough ahead! You know those bickers that couples have that begin over not much of anything and escalate so you feel like you’re in a bad movie and you’re not sure what you’re even arguing about anymore? Then usually someone storms off, you have some time apart, and come back together to say how silly it all was? Well when you’re on a train, there’s nowhere to storm off to. You’ve got four feet of space to work with. So maybe you decide to escape into the tiny bathroom. With a pillow, as though you may stay for a few hours because it’s the only other room to go to. Maybe you refuse to eat breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. Perhaps you even pace the hallways, thinking your neighbors will invite you in for tea. They do not.
In the train you’re stuck staring at one another, so arguments have a fine, fine way of just going. And going. Through North Dakota, Minnesota and perhaps Wisconsin, too. Sam would like me to add there was a chunk of Illinois in there as well. Right as we got off in Chicago we decided the trip was too important and we’d already wasted too much of it to bicker any further. We’re both stubborn people, we admitted. It was time for a fresh start. We had a lay-over before catching our next train in the early evening, so we walked right over the river in Chicago, shared sandwiches and a beer at The Berghoff and proclaimed that the next train would be different. And so it has been.
We didn’t have a sleeping car for the Chicago to New York leg. Sam usually travels coach, but had decided to upgrade us for the first leg so that I’d have the best cross-country experience for my first time on the train. So onto New York we slept in the train chairs and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. You wake up with the sun just like you do when you’re camping and head into the dining car for breakfast. You sit down with strangers, feel a little like you’re at summer camp, and discover that train oatmeal is surprisingly great. If you make friends with the dining attendant, he may offer to bring you extra fruit and treat you with his wide, toothy grin. You may meet a lovely woman named Lisa in the viewing car outside of Montana who tells you in the first thirty seconds of conversation that she’s leaving her husband, she’s had it, and he can have all the money from their two homes. You’re not quite used to this many conversations with strangers, but you tell yourself to get over it. You see photos of her grandkids and start to tell her stories, too.
The night before we’d left Seattle, we’d both been in charge of packing a few separate things: I took care of snacks and water, Sam took care of booze and books. We both had a pretty distinct vision of how we’d break these things out and enjoy them whizzing our way across the country. I figured we’d have crackers and peanuts one afternoon a few days into the trip, and be so thrilled to have a little something homemade at that point. Sam figured he’d read to me at night and we’d sip from whiskey he brought from our bar at home. Neither of those things had yet to happen. But there was still time. We were slowly coming back around to that picture we’d both had in our heads. So while we were a good day off, we pulled out the crackers and the flask as the train jetted along the Hudson River, making fun of ourselves, marveling at the perfect saltiness of the crackers and sharing ideas for what we’d do in the city that night. And that’s where I write to you now, in a quiet moment before we leave the train and hop on the subway to find my sister’s apartment.
If you’ve never made your own crackers, this is a really great recipe to begin with. Two kinds of flour, millet and a smattering of seeds bake up with olive oil and a little water into crumbly, slightly soft crackers. If you’re new to millet, it’s actually quite wonderful and you can find it in the bulk bins at any well-stocked grocery store. It cooks up quickly (as a porridge or a pilaf-type side dish), but here you’re just adding the millet in raw for extra crunch. Lately, I’ve been tossing it into muesli and granola or toasting it in a dry skillet and sprinkling it on top of yogurt. It’s pretty great.
This recipe is from Alana Chernila’s delight of a book, The Homemade Pantry. I wrote a bit more about it on Bay Area Bites right when it came out, and had a chance to chat with Alana then. She’s wonderful and humble and has developed some very fine crackers (among dozens upon dozens of other recipes) that I’ve been making often since cracking open the book the first time. I’ve made a few tweaks to the recipe here, adding a little more salt, tossing in sesame seeds and poppy seeds and a touch of parmesan. Out come very worthy train snacks, indeed. Celebratory ones, in fact. Crackers to acknowledge you’re strong enough to get right back on track if you should momentarily derail. As we all do at times.
Alana mentions that you can use up to 5 cloves of garlic here and add chopped rosemary if you’d like. Thyme could be nice, too. And next time around, I might add a smidge of lemon zest and red pepper flakes.
From: The Homemade Pantry
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, combine the two flours, baking powder, millet, flax seeds, sesame and poppy seeds, salt, garlic, and parmesan cheese. Add the olive oil and combine with a fork. Slowly add 1/2 cup water, mixing with your hands as you go. Continue to add more water (up to 1/4 cup if necessary) to the dough until it holds together. Knead the dough with your hands in the bowl for a good 2 minutes, or until smooth and very workable.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, press into a flat disc, and roll with a rolling pin until the dough is 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. For square crackers, use a pizza wheel or sharp knife and cut the dough into 2-inch squares. For round, use a 2-3 inch biscuit cutter. Any leftover dough can be re-rolled to make additional crackers.
With a spatula, transfer the cut crackers to parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle each cracker with a little salt and ground pepper. Bake for 20-22 minutes, switching the position of the sheets midway through, until the crackers are hard to the touch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cover at room temperature for up to 7 days or freeze in a freezer-safe bag for up to 3 months.
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.