In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn’t quite thought through the outfit change scenario — the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
A cup of strong coffee and a simple bowl of muesli and yogurt — the likes of which I recognized from home. Mornings felt nourishing and necessary, a way to break up the days of sensory overload. Muesli was the opposite of perfectly bronzed physiques, shiny yachts, and stylish cover-ups. It belonged in a whole other universe from the one of over-sized sunglasses, gold flip-flops, and wahoo kabobs. Muesli laid itself bare; It wasn’t hiding who it was or trying to be something it wasn’t: muesli was simply oats, nuts and seeds and was always there the moment I awoke.
Mosquitos would be out first thing in the morning, so the scent of citronella joined the more familiar smell of strong espresso brewing. The sun hot enough to burn your shoulders at 10 a.m., we’d finish breakfast and head down to the beach. And the day would unfold itself. During my few days in St. Barths, I read two books, swam in the ocean many times, found a nice collection of sea shells, and took showers outdoors. I ate wild boar risotto and drank Negronis. I might’ve worn gold flips-flops, but it depends on who’s asking. I might’ve worn a new floppy hat, too.
It felt like just the break I’d envisioned — but it also felt starkly different from anything familiar. Back home or otherwise. While I’ve traveled quite a bit, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about St. Barths that made it so so difficult to categorize. Because cruise ships don’t dock there, it really is serene, relatively quiet and starkly beautiful. But couched in that beauty is the sense that everything is over-the-top, from the plates piled with beef carpaccio to the long strands of onyx pearls women wear to the beach. Breakfast was the one time of day that felt familiar and easy, and not at all flashy.
When I returned home late Saturday night, Sam had a big vase of hydrangeas on the table, made me wilted arugula with a runny egg, and caught me up on everything I’d missed. I sifted through the mail and ambled around the house — I’d missed our house. And in the morning, Sunday morning, there was the paper. And I made a big bowl of muesli. There was a noticeable lack of sun, sure. And those gold flip-flops had made their way pretty quickly to the back of my closet. But it felt like the kind of morning I’d been having all week, except this time more familiar. This time, thankful for the tan and sea shells rattling around in my carry-on, but also really glad to be home.
Now, a few words on muesli: While you can certainly eat it much like you would granola (sprinkle it dry onto yogurt or add milk and treat it like a cold cereal), traditionally it’s a cold porridge of raw oats, nuts, and fruits that you soak in the refrigerator the night before serving in some combination of milk, apple juice, water, and/or yogurt. I tend to be a bit of a purist, but a lot of people like to grate an apple into their soaking muesli or toss in some frozen berries (they thaw and soften into the porridge).
I was doing a Marge granola tasting downtown a few weeks ago and a very sweet Swiss couple came up to my table and stared, astonishingly at the little cups of granola. The husband took a photo with his phone, the wife sniffed her sample and stared back and forth – first at me, then the granola. They didn’t speak much English, but eventually we’d established that they’d never seen granola before. The woman said to me in disbelief, “you burned muesli!” I tried to explain the draw of granola: it’s toasted and slightly sweet, and the clumps are ever-so-lovely in yogurt. I became granola’s national spokesperson for that one moment, and let me tell you, it wasn’t working. The astonished stares continued. There was another iphone photo of the granola. Then one of me (I can just imagine this being passed around their small town in Switzerland: proof of the American woman who burns muesli!). They couldn’t understand why you’d add maple syrup and oil to an already perfect mixture of oats, nuts and seeds.
And this, my friends, is why muesli can be a nice re-set button as we ever-so-slowly enter into the warmer spring months. I get the question a lot when teaching whole-grain breakfast classes and talking about muesli: why not just eat granola? And the answer is just as the Swiss couple indicated while walking away from my table: it can be nice to have the raw, stripped down version of something so great every now and again. If you want all of the nutrition of granola (good complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber) but are trying to watch your sugar or fat intake, muesli has your name written all over it. And once you find a blend you like and a routine for soaking it (if that’s your thing), it just might be something you look forward to in the mornings – I know I do.
Use this recipe as a template, substituting any nuts, seeds, or dried fruits you particularly like. If you want to avoid a trip to the bulk bins, feel free to use all oats instead of the three grains listed below – I happen to like all three because they add different color to each bowl, and I particularly love the darker flavor of rye flakes in the morning. Many people toast their oats and nuts when making muesli, too. If I’m soaking my muesli, I tend to skip this step because I find it all softens the same way into my yogurt, so it feels like an unnecessary step. But if you’re going to enjoy this dry much like granola, feel free to toast your dry oats and nuts in a 350 F oven for 7-10 minutes, or until fragrant.
In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Transfer to a large jar (quart-size Mason jar works well here), and enjoy as you would granola or any other cereal, adding milk/nut milks/yogurt as you please.
Alternatively, soak your muesli overnight: For a single serving, scoop out ¾ cup muesli and stir it into ½ cup yogurt and ¼ cup milk or apple juice. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. After soaking, remove muesli from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, about 10-15 minutes. Add an extra splash of milk if you like your muesli a bit looser (I do), a dollop of honey or stir in your favorite jam.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: