A few months ago I went to a food writing conference in San Francisco and attended a session on managing to make good money as a cookbook author or freelance writer. It was a late night session and I hadn’t had a chance to grab dinner (or lunch, for that matter), so my friend Sarah and I slurped down a quick bowl of tortilla soup at the lobby bar and jetted over to grab our seats. In addition to questions about payment and negotiation, the organizers asked us to confidentially rate our level of happiness in our field of work. During the session, I soon realized I was the only one who rated my happiness below an 8. My reason — which I happily shared that night: it’s lonely work. There are days when I don’t see anyone besides Sam and the woman at the grocery check-out line. You’d think a nice antidote to this would be the work I do with Marge where I’m on my feet in a very physical production kitchen — and it is. But I’m still the main baker and, until quite recently, I was alone in the kitchen. So I generally go from writing at home in my office to baking alone in a commercial kitchen. For a person who generally likes people and enjoys talking and sharing ideas and inspiration, I’m out of luck on both counts. But slowly, over the past few weeks, I’ve started to realize things are changing. For the better — and for good, I think.
After well over a year baking at Delancey on their days off, I’ve recently rented a new space in a glorious, big shared commercial kitchen downtown. In the Bay Area, I rented a shared space as well and befriended Cassandra and Kate, who make caramel corn and cupcakes, respectively. There was always hustle and bustle in that kitchen — and I generally left with a few tamales for dinner or an empanada or two to have for lunch the next day from one of the food trucks that would park outside. My new kitchen here in Seattle has buttery walls and huge windows overlooking a quiet tree-lined street. There are 6 convection ovens (!!), I have three times the amount of storage (read: no more fifty-pound bags of oats in the back of my car) and I bake while other companies are around. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize how much I missed that. I don’t yet know everyone’s name but there are three women who make ice cream for a living, on Sunday morning I work with a woman starting her own chocolate company and a man who bakes for a big wholesale cookie company. We share information on vendors, packaging and distribution. There’s chatting and laughter. It’s just what I need.
In addition to the new shared kitchen, I’ve started doing farmers markets for the summer season. I thought long and hard about hiring someone to do the markets for me — everyone told me it wasn’t the best use of my time, and that I should focus on building the company and being the face of the brand rather than standing outside for hours on end selling a few bags of granola each week. Well, I’m happy to report that Marge is selling far more than a few bags of granola at the markets. And after a lot of deliberation, I’ve decided I’ll be the only one to do them. I’m convinced that the granola sells so well because of the connection I make with the neighborhood families, couples and students. I know that Jeannette likes to mix the Apricot Pistachio granola into her cookie batter; I know that Steve, an older gentleman with a bit of a lisp, will agree to try a sample but only under the pretenses that he’s not going to buy anything — and then he inevitably buys a bag each week; I know that Sara stops by to avoid rush hour traffic and buys a bag of granola each week to send to her pregnant daughter in Ohio. She really likes to talk about the weather and always asks me if I packed a raincoat … just in case.
I’m starting to get to know the other vendors, too. There’s Cougar (how could you forget that name?) who works for a baking company down the row from me. They drive a cool blue VW bus that Sam covets. There’s (another) Sam who makes fresh pasta and has set an all-time record for taking down his tent and entire set-up in about 8 minutes flat. I aspire to be that good someday. Many of us trade with one another when the market ends. I usually come home with smoked salmon, salad greens, fresh pasta, and berries. It could be much worse. In the time in between markets, I’m often doing deliveries or dropping boxes at the post office where I run into Avery who stands outside each weekday selling the Real Change newspaper. Because we see each other so often, he now opens the door for me and we often chat about what he ate for lunch (yesterday it was curry). Sam brought him a bag of granola once about a month ago and ever since, he gives me almost-inappropriate hugs and has coined Sam “The King” and me “Queen.” Yes, trips to the post office have become more interesting.
These people are all part of my new circle — all because of Marge, really, and this little thing I’ve created that I can really feel expanding and stretching its limbs. Because of all of these changes, it’s been a touch quieter than I’d like around here lately. But I’ve been excited to write this post for awhile now — to share with you this new toy that is taking up prime real estate in our kitchen right now, and a cookbook that has earned a place on top of our stack. The appliance is the Nutrimill Grain Mill and the book is Gluten-Free Girl Everyday by our friend Shauna Ahern and her husband, Danny. Not surprisingly, the two go together hand-in-hand.
If you’re new to the idea of home grain mills, they’ve really come a long way. They used to be big and heavy and cumbersome. Now you can choose hand mills or electric mills — the Nutrimill happens to be light, relatively quiet and electric. With it, you can mill everything from quinoa flour to coarse cornmeal to garbanzo beans or buckwheat. I can just see my mom reading this right now and scratching her head: why go to the trouble? Why not just buy flour from the store? It’s a good question and we certainly still buy flour from the market, but if you grind your own you’re guaranteed the freshest, most delicious flour available (and you can really taste the difference). Also I’m not sure if you’ve tried to buy, say, quinoa flour lately but it’s pricey. Really pricey. As are many specialty grain flours, and this little contraption makes it easy to just dump in a few cups of quinoa and out comes silky, beautiful, affordable flour.
Now how does Shauna’s book play into this idea of new circles of people and belonging and grain mills? If you’ve met Shauna in person, she welcomes you into her home as if she’s known you forever. There is laughter and bare feet and, if you’re lucky, Danny might make you lunch. From the first time I met Shauna, I felt we’d been friends for some time. And, of course, she happens to be gluten-free so she knows her whole-grain flours inside and out, constantly experimenting to find blends and mixes that she likes and that translate to recipes typically calling for white flour. And that’s where everything converges. With beautiful fluffy whole-grain waffles from her cookbook, with milling my own flour in the morning, and with a new realization of why it makes sense for me to stand at the markets each week: to see this new circle that I’m now a small part of.
The original waffle recipe in Shauna’s book is actually a savory one: Millet Waffles with Smoked Salmon, Crème Fraîche and Capers. I’d bookmarked the recipe a few weeks ago, and Sam and I had even picked up smoked salmon. But then at yesterday’s farmers market I traded granola for these beautiful little summer strawberries from Alm Hill and couldn’t stop thinking about this coconut milk whipped cream, so a slight tweak was born. I’d make Shauna’s delicious waffles, but instead of doing them savory, I’d add a little lemon zest, touch of sugar and vanilla and top them with sliced berries and coconut milk whipped cream.
I used a blend of millet, teff and buckwheat flour for these waffles. Shauna has a recipe for the blend in her book — if you don’t yet own the book, you can read her relatively recent post on making your own blend at home from a variety of different flours. Now I realize many of you don’t have a flour mill at home and want a simple, doable waffle recipe. You can certainly buy bags of flour outright instead of milling them, and feel free to experiment with other whole-grain flours you see in the store. I think these waffles would be wonderful with a mixture of buckwheat and spelt flour. You could play around with whole-wheat flour, oat flour, and/or barley flour. The operative word here is “play,” I think. And it’s a word you’ll find often throughout the pages of Shauna and Danny’s book.
Although I planned on having these waffles for breakfast, the morning got away from me so we had them for lunch instead — it felt decadent and made an average Thursday feel like a Sunday. Just for a few minutes. And then I left the house and walked to the post office to drop off a few packages. Avery met me and opened the door enthusiastically: “Queen! I didn’t think I’d see you today!” He bid me farewell with his characteristic too-long-for-comfort hug and a request that I say hi to The King when I see him. I got home and did just that.
A quick note on kitchen scales: When beginning to work with whole grain flours, it’s really important to dust off that kitchen scale. If you don’t have one, they’re relatively inexpensive and really come in handy for a variety of reasons. I use this one and love it. Why are they so important? 1 cup of one variety of whole grain flour won’t weight the same as 1 cup of another. For example, 1/2 cup of buckwheat flour isn’t going to weigh the same as 1/2 cup of quinoa flour. This is important because if you swap in and out flours and are only going by cup measurements, your proportions will be off and your end product will suffer. But if you’re weighing your whole-grain flours, you can’t go wrong: you know that, even if you’re not using Shauna’s Whole-Grain Baking Mix, if you use 170 grams of your favorite whole-grain flour blend, you’ll have delicious waffles.
In my humble opinion, the coconut milk whipped cream is indispensable here. Do note that it works best when the can of coconut milk has been refrigerated overnight. I forgot and did a slight cheater’s version by popping it in the freezer for an hour, so mine was a touch looser than I would’ve liked — but no less delicious. Regardless of method, it does need chilling to help it whip successfully, so plan ahead for that. And while I used strawberries here, any juicy seasonal berry would be delicious. Sam has put in a request for thinly-sliced banana next time. I think he may be onto something.
Adapted from: Gluten-Free Girl Everyday
Prepare the batter: Whisk together the flour, millet, baking powder, salt and natural cane sugar in a bowl. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, stir together the buttermilk, vanilla extract, eggs and lemon zest. Add the melted and cooled coconut oil and stir well. Pour in the liquids into the dry ingredients and stir together with a rubber spatula until the batter is well combined. If the batter seems to thick to scoop and pour, add 1-3 tablespoons additional buttermilk to loosen it up a bit. Let batter sit for 30 minutes before you make the waffles.
Make the waffles: Preheat the oven to 250 F. Turn on your waffle iron, and when it’s come to full heat, brush both surfaces with oil and pour about 1/2 cup of the batter into the bottom of the iron. Cook until the waffle is golden brown and crisp on the edges, about 5 minutes. Put the waffles in the warmed oven while you cook off the rest.
To serve: Arrange 1-2 waffles on each plate and spoon a generous scoop of strawberries onto each. Dollop the coconut whipped cream on top.
Glimpses of Spring
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).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.