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.
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.