Last week I didn’t write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it’s likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it’s even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you’ve been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country — to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He’s an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
We all tell ourselves we should unplug (myself included) and may even try to do it for a weekend and reflect on how we did. But I haven’t been in a situation in quite some time where I didn’t have any choice about the matter — where there was absolutely no cell access, no land line, no television, no Internet (I should say, there was spotty wireless access in the basement bar in the lodge, and I did sneak down there a few times to text family and put up a few Instagram photos). So the days went something like this: snowshoe, read, sit by the fire, repeat. We brought a few flasks of cocktails and nursed those in the evening. The days felt long and full.
For those of you who read this post about our first train trip, you’ll understand that there was a bit at stake with this second overnight train trip: could we do it? Would it even be enjoyable? Would we still like one another at the end of it? This was our train do-over, really, and I’m happy to report that it went famously. The trip from Seattle to Essex is a quick overnight ride: we boarded around 4:30 p.m. and by the time we woke up in the morning we were practically there. I couldn’t stop looking out the window in the early morning hours before breakfast. The landscape was winter encapsulated: craggy snow-covered mountains, abandoned barns, tiny little mountain towns with backyards that could each tell their own story. Their own long story.
When we got back to Seattle, Sam sent me a short opinion piece in The New York Times called The Quiet Ones. The subject of the piece is the “Quiet Car” that some Amtrak commuter trains maintain, a place for passengers to read, gaze out the window, write or just get away from their loud cell-phone-chatting seat mate. It is a car devoted solely to quiet. There is a mutual understanding that this must be followed and the conductor makes an announcement at the beginning of each trip to ensure that everyone understands.
After reading the piece, I became enamored with one of the last lines: “We’re a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows.” This is how I started to feel in Montana after not too much time at all. Ironically, with the lack of connectedness I was experiencing without email or cell access, I felt more connected to other things that would usually go unnoticed in the day. I began to nod at our inn mates as I walked by, recognizing and acknowledging them for who they were: escapees from the modern world — even for just a day or two. We all listened for the trains and began to memorize their daily schedule, taking comfort in the regularity and reliability of the whistle in the train yard right below the cabins.
The day we left, there was a big group checking in that had been coming for 30 years straight. I’d heard the inn staff talking about them — apparently they’d rented out the entire second floor and the bar knew from experience to stock up on extra whiskey. They were rumored to be a rowdy bunch. Maybe the rowdiness set in after we departed because the only evidence of the group that I saw that day were a few older women who came to sit next to me by the fire to read. I was taking notes on a book I’d brought along and happened to drop my pen. Normally the noise would be nothing–you or I wouldn’t even notice it on an average day. But both women looked up, startled, and I found myself apologizing profusely. We all started laughing and began talking about how the quiet is just different in Montana. It settles in deep.
So while I have yet to experience The Quiet Car on an Amtrak train, I experienced our own piece of it this past week and loved every second of it. I’ve showed you a few photos here of energy bars and I must tell you: they didn’t make the trip. I’d had grand hopes of packing homemade snacks, but the hours before we left had me racing around to finish up too many last minute things (those never-ending lists!), so it simply didn’t happen. It’s too bad because, in hindsight, I have to say that these are very Montana-worthy bars. For now though, they’re very Wednesday morning-worthy bars and what’s been sustaining us through longer-than-usual afternoons as we catch up with work.
These bars were inspired by a collision of forces: Tracy made her own version of Lara Bars with dates that I’ve been eying ever since reading her post. Then my other friend Cheryl made a version using cocoa which, likewise, I couldn’t stop thinking about. Then I read about this Almond Joy Butter and decided it was time to come up with a no-bake energy bar recipe that utilized that very special marriage of flavors: coconut, almond and cocoa. Since I tend to try and eek whole grains into pretty much everything these days, these have oats and quinoa flakes stirred in at the very end and are sweetened solely with dates and just a swirl of honey.
I hope you have a most wonderful rest of the week — perhaps even claiming a seat in your own Quiet Car somewhere.
A few words on this simple recipe: I use Medjool dates for these bars because they’re pretty large in size and are super soft and sweet. If you see Deglet Noor dates at the store, they’ll work just fine, too. And if you’re not familiar with quinoa flakes, I buy them in a box from Ancient Harvest; they’re essentially quinoa that’s pressed down into really thin flakes so you can make a quick quinoa hot cereal in a matter of seconds, really. I don’t do that, but I do add the flakes to cookies, breads and bars for extra protein and a bit of texture. They’re pretty great; I hope you try them out in your own kitchen — I’m still experimenting with them, so we’re both a bit new to the game if you haven’t worked with them much. But here’s a good start: the bars that were meant for Montana but never quite made it.
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with enough parchment so that it hangs over each side. Place almonds and cashews in a food processor and process until both are ground well but not to the point where they’re too fine and sandy, about 20 seconds. Pour chopped nuts into a bowl and set aside.
Put dates in the food processor and process continuously for 1-2 minutes (depending on your dates), or until they begin to come together in one mass. Add coconut, oats, half of the chopped nut mixture, cacao powder, honey, coconut oil, cardamom, ginger and salt. Process just until the mixture comes together. It can have a tendency to all get stuck on one side of the food processor and you want to make sure the ingredients on the very bottom are getting incorporated too, so scoop the sides and bottom as necessary. You’ll process for about 3 minutes.
Turn the mixture into a medium bowl and add the quinoa flakes and other half of nut mixture. I use my hands here to knead the “dough” and thoroughly incorporate the flakes and nuts. The “dough” shouldn’t be fully uniform—you want to see little bits of nuts and grains.
Scoop into the prepared pan. Use your hands or the back of a spatula to press down and create an even, firm layer. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or freeze for 45 minutes if in a hurry) — this will help firm them up so you can cut them easily.
When ready to slice, lift the bars right out of the pan by grabbing onto the overhanging parchment paper. Cut into small squares (I usually opt for about a 2 by 3” size). Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 7 days. Alternatively, wrap individually in plastic wrap and freeze 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.