In just a little over one month, I’ll be sending off the manuscript for the cookbook and breathing a huge sigh of relief. Now, at this very moment, I’m rifling through a desk full of notes, revisions, to-do lists, ingredient conversions, and word-count spreadsheets. It is the opposite of breathing a sigh of relief and yet, Sunday afternoon rolled around and I wanted to be in the kitchen like I used to be. Without notes or computers or spreadsheets, but instead with a recipe I was excited about, a little music, and my own thoughts. No pressure to get anything perfect, no brainstorming about flavor profiles — just a bowl of flour and sugar, citrus to zest, and butter to cream.
I recently filled out a brief survey about myself for a teaching engagement this winter. When asked what I felt I was good at, the first thing that came to mind was work. Then I thought, I can’t possibly say I’m good at work: I need something more interesting. What’s my second choice? And I stalled. And stalled. And then felt really troubled that I was stalling so much. So I caved and wrote down “my work” and briefly explained that I was very much a first child in the sense that if I set my mind to something, I get it done.
When I was in talks with publishers about the cookbook and the question of timelines came up, my agent asked me if I could do the book in a little over six months as that was what the publisher wanted. I’d never done a book before; I had absolutely no clue if I could, but I knew that I would. And I knew I’d say yes to her, and to them. For the first time in my life, I said a resounding yes and signed a resounding contract to something I had absolutely no idea if I could do. I just kept telling myself and others that it’d get done somehow. So while I suppose I wish I had something a bit more exotic to put in the blank of that questionnaire (tango or rock climbing or flying small planes), right now my mind is firmly planted in the work that I do, and guess what? It’s getting done!
Everyone says you learn something about your process once you get towards the end of your first book. I always kind of shrugged that off, thinking that I’d been cooking and baking for years and writing about food for some time — what more was there really to learn? Well I’ll tell you: I’ve gotten to the point of the manuscript where I’m doing much less creating in the kitchen and much more revising of work and recipes I’d written many months ago. Going through those recipes, it’s clear I’ve learned a lot. The revision process is looking to be long. I’m spending lots of time tightening up, clarifying, re-testing, and adding in useful information for home cooks on planning ahead and adapting.
As many of you know, I used to be a teacher. So when I think about learning, I think about actively being taught a skill or teaching someone something new. Writing this book hasn’t looked like that. No one has taught me how to write the book, no one taught me how to create or write a recipe — at times, I certainly wished there were Cliffs Notes. But there just aren’t. So the only explanation I have when I sit down and compare the work I’m doing now and the work I was doing at the very beginning: I just got better from actually doing it. I suppose that’s what happens when you work and work and practice and practice. Sam can attest to the fact that I even dream about the recipes and tell him in half-sleep about the trouble I’m having with a particular oatmeal or ingredient (sometimes the ingredients are even on suitcases. Or planes). Ohhh, boy.
So while, apparently, I’m thinking about the book even in my sleep, things have finally started to feel a bit less frantic. My entire work flow has become tighter, I learned how to squeeze recipe work into the chunks of time after dinner or before heading out to bake for Marge. I can see the book’s shape now. I’m in a fortunate spot of having a month to step back, take stock, pare down, and fill in. I’m also in the fortunate spot of feeling like this will be a book that I’d like to own myself — that’s what I always wanted. To write something that I’d like. I knew if I did that, I’d done all that I could do and hopefully, others would find it useful and inspiring as well.
These cookies were the result of my “time off” in the kitchen. And I chose well. They’re from Jerusalem, the new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I talked about the book briefly when I made beet dip a few months ago. It’s a collaboration between Ottolenghi and Tamimi, two men who grew up with many of the same experiences and only lived a few miles from one another, but in very different worlds. Tamimi is Palestinian; Ottolenghi is from the Jewish part of Israel in the West and Tamimi from the Arab quarter. The collaboration is beautiful, which wasn’t shocking after delving into Plenty with gusto and glee. I have what feels like dozens of recipes bookmarked –everything from a butternut squash tahini dip to leek meatballs. Not surprisingly, the salads looks stunning and simple, and there is a semolina marmalade cake that will happen very soon in our house.
But first, these cookies. They are substantial and almost biscuity with a wonderful combination of warm spices, cocoa, citrus and raisins. The notes mention that they’re very loosely inspired by Pfeffernusse (my mom’s favorite dark and spicy Christmas cookie) but are more like an Italian spice cookie. I ended up making a few tweaks to the recipe largely because we were out of a couple of ingredients. I used part whole-wheat flour and natural cane sugar instead of white sugar as that’s what we have around these days. I also used a combination of golden and regular raisins although the recipe calls for currants. Choose which you’d like best — the raisins were wonderful and got quite plump in the brandy; I’d likely use them again.
With the exception of the changing leaves at Greenlake towards the very top of this post, these photos were taken on a recent trip to Lummi Island with Sam, my mom who was visiting from California, and my sister Rachael. We stayed at the Willows Inn, ate amazing olive bread from Bread Farm on the drive up (thank you, Ashley!), and enjoyed two completely computer-free days. Then, came home to make cookies. Enjoy.
This recipe is quite straight-forward and simple: a wet and dry ingredient affair. It does call for 1/2 an egg which I often find fussy, but I followed faithfully here. To do so, beat your egg and use a scale (or a keen eye) to divide it in half. Also, the recipe calls for superfine sugar, but I took my turbinado sugar and ground it down into more of a fine powder in the food processor instead. If this seems like a hassle to you, by all means use superfine sugar or white granulated sugar instead.
Slightly adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
For the cookies:
For the Glaze:
Soak the raisins in the brandy for 10 minutes. Mix together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, spices, salt, and dark chocolate. Mix well.
Put the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon and orange zest in a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment and beat to combine but not aerate much, about 1 minute. With the mixer running, slowly add the egg and mix until incorporated. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the raisins and brandy. Mix until everything is combined. Then gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it comes together and is uniform.
Divide the dough into balls the size of 3 tablespoons and shape each into a round ball. Place the balls on 1 or 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing each out about 3/4-inch. Press down gently to flatten cookies slightly. I found that they don’t spread much at all, so the shape they are going into the oven will be similar to the shape they are coming out — I did press them down quite a bit to guarantee a flat cookie. Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes (mine took 15), or until the top firms up the center is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 minutes and transfer to a wire rack. While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin, smooth icing forms. Pour 1 tablespoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie. Finish each with a pinch of candied peel placed at the center of each cookie. Store in an airtight container for a day or two.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.