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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.