Our days are a shuffle between yes and no, between obligations that must be tended to and doing something for ourselves to maintain our curiosity and excitement. To being a good partner, friend, daughter, sister. A negotiation, a tug and release, a push and pull. Oftentimes the pendulum swings drastically to one end, where work overtakes the day-to-day shuffle and dinner dates and lake walks and calls with old friends take the backseat. Then there are the moments when there are house guests, obligation emails, car headlights to replace, mouse traps to set and dentist appointments to keep. Work gets pushed aside, you start feeling guilty and become acutely aware of this funny thing called balance. When referring to the fullness of her summer days recently, Kelsey from the lovely blog Happy Yolks wrote: “We are living the length and width of our days.” I love this sentiment for its deliberateness (hey, Wednesday, I’m going to live the heck out of you!). For me lately, it’s not as much about camping and hiking and taking advantage of the lingering summer sunshine, but about taking each day and trying to squeeze an increasingly stressful work life, a little play, time with Sam, an actual home cooked meal or a trip to the grocery store into each little nook and cranny of a day. Without going crazy. Or making Sam crazy. Or both.
Sam actually said something last week that gave me pause. We were talking about our approach to challenges and the Big things that life can bring. He said that I’m an interesting mix of tentative and bold, that I approach challenges cautiously, even fearfully, and so I often have a hard time looking forward towards future accomplishments. It’s only when I look back that I can appreciate the marathons and published articles and graduate degree and really good pie crust. So I don’t always walk up to things in life with a big, fat YES because I am (and always have been) cautious and guarded of how they will affect me and my daily life. I’m protective of that. That’s really all we’ve got, yes? Cups of coffee together, being fulfilled by work, getting excited about new books and upcoming travels, and supporting one another through it all. I’m sure you’ve seen all of those very quotable cards that encourage us to just say Yes to new challenges and opportunities, to take life by the horns and dive into things with abandon. That’s nice and good and important. But saying no or taking the day to think about the ramifications can be pretty great (and necessary), too.
On the always engaging blog Five Cool Things, writer Richard Pelletier recently wrote a whole post on the idea of yes and no, highlighting this quote from poet Ted Hughes: “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” So living the length and width of my days with heart and the knowledge that while I may be having trouble looking ahead and seeing that this book will.get.finished and we will.all.survive, I know that in a years time, I’ll look back and smile at it all. And feel proud. That’s how it eventually works when you approach things and give them your full heart, tentatively and fearfully at first, or with abandon. The end result, I think, is the same.
So these days I’m guarding my Yes’s by saying No every once in a while. You don’t have to take every phone call throughout the day. Especially the ones that may interrupt a cherished lunch break with your partner. You don’t have to pay the bills the day they arrive or weed the garden every few days. Weeds will always be there. But having a day full of heart in your work, your afternoon chai, your evening run or dinner with family? Yes. So I’m trying to think this way in these coming few months where I feel a bit chained to my desk and kitchen, where I feel I don’t have as much freedom to travel as I may like or take weekends off. Remember that push and pull and tug and release? Those weekends off and freedom to travel will return. Right now, the pendulum has just swung the other way for a bit. And as I get acquainted with how it looks on this side of things, I’m all about Yes. And No.
Saying Yes: long runs + yoga, homemade tomato sauce, reading Luisa’s new book, finally seeing this film, listening to a lot of the Rebirth Brass Band (we just saw them in concert and they’re really incredible), taking the bus more just to people watch, riding my bike more to get a different sense of the city, working on a holiday granola flavor for Marge, buying a new striped bag, backing up my computer files much more often, making a towering cake from this charming book, eating lots of ripe figs (with cheese!).
Saying No: Not responding to every email or phone call that comes my way within the hour, turning down occasional social invitations that get in the way of the cookbook, worrying about not having dental insurance, realizing keeping in touch is a two-way street and not feeling guilty about being slightly out of touch with old friends, writing opportunities that may not best serve the big picture of my career, midnight ice cream (o.k., that one was a lie; I always say yes to ice cream).
This particular ice cream is one I’ve wanted to make for months. Sam bought me the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream cookbook a while back and occasionally I flip through it and become overwhelmed with all of the flavors. If you’re not familiar with Jeni’s ice cream, she’s an Ohio gal who has created this technique using cornstarch and cream cheese (no eggs!) to make ultra-smooth, wonderful ice creams with flavors like Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Banana Ice Cream with Caramelized White Chocolate Freckles, and Sweet Basil and Honeyed Pine Nut Ice Cream. There’s a lot of goodness here. A lot to say yes to.
I adapted this recipe slightly by adding toasted almonds and drizzling in a little melted chocolate and coconut oil to create a chocolate crackle I’m quite fond of. Instead of white sugar, I also used light brown muscovado sugar, a natural cane sugar that has a wonderful molasses flavor that compliments the dark flavors of this ice cream beautifully. You can find muscovado at a well-stocked grocery store or your local natural grocery. I use it frequently in baked goods, too (makes your chocolate chips cookies wonderfully chewy) or sprinkled on top of oatmeal and porridge.
Please note, I didn’t add prep/cook times here as it will depend so much on the model of ice cream maker you have; regardless, you will need to freeze until firm, at least four hours.
Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.
Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the coffee, and let steep for 5 minutes. Strain the milk mixture through a sieve lined with a layer of cheesecloth (or very fine-weave, clean dishtowel) to extract as much liquid as possible and discard the grounds.
Return the cream mixture to the pan and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Toast the almonds for 5-7 minutes, or until fragrant. Let cool completely then chop roughly.
Place chocolate feves in a small saucepan with the coconut oil. Heat over very low heat, stirring constantly, until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and set aside. You’ll want it to be slightly cool but still pourable when you add it to the ice cream machine. If it has cooled too much to pour, simple slowly reheat once again.
Pour the ice cream base into the frozen ice cream machine canister and process/spin until thick and creamy. At the very end, slowly drizzle the chocolate drizzle into the machine and add the toasted almonds, a small handful at a time.
Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment against the surface and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.
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.