A few weeks ago my Grandpa friended me on Facebook. I immediately texted my two sisters to verify that this was, in fact, Grandpa. They confirmed. And so, confused, I accepted his friend request and popped over to admire his page. It was, as you can imagine, quite bare. He’d accidentally noted that he was born in 1986 and his page boasted a small handful of friends, all quite elderly. I didn’t think much of it at that time until early last week when my mom called to let me know that now Grandpa, apparently, knew everything we were up to. I imagined him incorporating this new bit of technology into his morning routine of checking stocks, doing calisthenics and having breakfast with my Gram at their little table on the porch in Florida. And then a funny thing happened: Gramp started posting on my wall. The first time was on Valentine’s Day when he wished me a very happy day and hoped I was doing something fun for myself. I decided to write back on his wall, wishing him a nice afternoon and letting him know that I’d been pretty busy baking that week. Since then, we occasionally report on the weather and what we’re up to. Many of the cousins do the same thing, so Gramp’s wall is now peppered with cheerful family updates from near and far. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical — even scornful–of social media and the ways technology can sneak into our daily lives. We could all make a pretty lengthy list, I’m sure. But getting messages from your Grandpa that read, “I sit 85 and sunny here today” just isn’t one of them.
On Sunday night, like some of you I imagine, I set up camp in front of the Oscars (whoa, it felt long this year, no?). Sam made hummus, we roasted some veggies and I made a big salad. For much of the show, I was texting with my mom about a particular dress, speech, song, or how happy we were that Ben Affleck won. When I lived with my Mom for a brief spell in California, we got to watch these things together, but now that luxury has passed (and I’m not certain I realized what a luxury it was at the time). But texting with her on Oscar night made me feel just that much closer to her in California — in the same way I felt closer to Gramp knowing how the weather was looking on his side of things.
And then, Monday morning, I found Mr. Miller’s address! My old friend from high school, Lori B., sent me a message with it after reading my last blog post. She asked her parents and they tracked it down, so this week: technology wins! It’s helped me to send small, chatty notes to my Grandpa, 3000 miles away. It’s allowed me to banter about silly gossip with my mom, and get in touch with a very dear former teacher. And I’m thankful for that, although just as thankful to leave it all behind for a few days, too: As you’re reading this, I’m on a very long plane ride heading to what I only hope is a very sunny beach to spend time with my Dad and sister, Zoe and her boyfriend Steffan. It was a bit of a splurge in terms of time (12-hour flight each way for only 3 days of time off), but at the end of February when you live in Seattle, you make these kinds of decisions on a whim. Sun beckons. It truly does. So while I am very much looking forward to getting away from my day-to-day life for a few days, I’m also grateful to have had the chance to glimpse into a few other lives this week. The sunsets and cool drinks and my new straw hat will be nice — I’m sure of that. But I’m not sure that it can top last week, full of connecting with loved ones, reaching out to those I’ve lost touch with, and making a most fine batch of homemade Fig Newton’s. If every week could be so good, really.
Because the flight to the Carribean is quite long, I knew I would need a few snacks. Lucky for me, my friend Casey Barber recently sent me a copy of her new book, Classic Snacks Made From Scratch. I first met Casey at The Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Writers and we hit it off right away. At the time, Marge was still making pies and cookies at the San Francisco farmer’s markets, so Casey and I bonded over talk of homemade snacks, singing the praises of Valrhona oreo’s and strawberry pop-tarts. Since then, she’s done a lot of writing and recipe development for all of those snacks many of us may remember growing up with: Cheez-It’s, Homemade Nutter Butters, Fruit Roll-ups and so many more. While I’ve dog-eared quite a few recipes, I was immediately drawn to Casey’s Fig Newtons largely because they’re made with whole-wheat flour and the jammy fig filling sounded right up my alley. I made a few minor tweaks, using muscovado sugar instead of dark brown sugar (I just love its dark, fragrant stickiness and thought it’d be a perfect compliment to the earthiness of the figs). Other than that, I ended up cutting my Newtons a bit larger than Casey recommends and took a few shortcuts while putting them together. I sampled one before wrapping them up in parchment to take on the flight with me. They’re soft yet crumbly, not at all too sweet and are great for those on-the-way-out-the-door kind of mornings. I imagine they’ll take to long airplane trips quite well, too.
I have a hunch these would be really nice with oat flour as well, so next time I’ll try them with 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 cup of oat flour, and 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour and see where it gets us. I also have a hunch (that Sam’s confirmed) that the dough would be wonderful with a bit of orange zest, so I’ll sprinkle in some next time. Let me know if you make any adaptations you like.
Ever-so slightly adapted from Classic Snacks Made From Scratch
Make the dough: Sift the flours, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, muscovado sugar, and granulated sugar together for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture is fluffy and beige in color. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, mixing in between each addition. Add the dry ingredients gradually to make a soft, sticky dough (I was nervous the dough was too dry — my mixer was struggling — but it turned out perfectly, so if your mixer struggles, just let it continue on). Separate the dough into four pieces and form into flat disks. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Make the filling: While the dough is chilling, stir the figs, orange juice, sugar and ginger together in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the figs are soft and the liquid has a jammy consistency, about 35-45 minutes (I used the back of a wooden spoon to mush some of the figs down to help it reach that jamminess). Transfer the fig filling to a food processor and pulse until pureed but a little chunky. Cool to room temperature.
Putting them together: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. On a floured work surface, take one of the dough quadrants out of the refrigerator . Roll into an 8 x 10 -inch rectangle approximately 1/4-inch thick. Trim the edges evenly, using a pastry cutter or sharp knife.
Spread one quarter of the fig filling onto half of the dough rectangle. Fold the uncovered half over the filling to make a long, sandwich cookie. Slice the filled rectangle into four equal pieces and then cut each of those piece in half (should yield 8 cookies total). Transfer the cookies to the lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining three pieces of dough. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown. Cool on wire racks before serving. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to a week.
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.