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.
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.