I had a different kind of post planned for today. I’d wanted to talk to you about measuring your own success and how the markers of success can be tricky. I can imagine that post, and I think you would’ve liked it. Heck, maybe I’ll still write it. But this afternoon I worked the farmers market and witnessed a few things too good not to mention. The Marge Granola booth sits right next to a woman who sells beautiful flowers. In my weeks working next to her, I’ve learned a lot. I know that red dahlias are the most popular. I also know that they last four days. I know what wild amaranth looks like in all its fluffy stalkiness, and I can pick out the best lily in a bunch. I’m often gifted a few stems at the end of the day, and have so loved placing them all around the house. Each week a new color.
The woman who runs the flower booth has a young nephew that comes with her to help each week: sweeping up leaves, making bouquets and taking customer’s money. He can’t be more than ten or eleven, is an incredibly hard worker, and has warm, smiling brown eyes. He recently got new shoes and I watched as he polished them up throughout the afternoon, his aunt giving him a hard time while chuckling: Relax with the shoes. She turned to me, and whispered, “His two loves? New shoes and chicken.” When it slowed down a bit later in the day, I asked him what kind of chicken he likes the best and his face lit up. A once quiet shy kid, quite suddenly, couldn’t keep quiet.
The same afternoon, a young boy walked up to the granola table and asked what he could buy for $1. I apologized and explained that we don’t have anything to sell for $1. Head down, he moseyed on over to the flower table and asked the same question. The woman said that most of the single stems were $1 — with the exception of larger flowers. His face lit up. He scanned all of his options, and ultimately walked away with a stalk of purple wildflowers, clutching them tightly. Proudly.
Towards the end of the day as I was starting to pack up, a handsome, older African-American man walked by pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. He stopped and said he had a question about my granola ingredients: How exactly did I get the sunflower seeds to use in the granola? I explained that we have a distributor who delivers them, that I don’t actually harvest them myself. He seemed confused by my response — pointing to the sunflower display to my right and reiterating his question:
“How do you get the seeds from those flowers to use in your granola cereal?”
I answered, “Oh, you don’t. Or we don’t, anyway. That would be very labor intensive.”
“Well then, what are they for in that case?” he gestured towards the summery stalks.
“They’re for decoration. People put them in a vase in their house,” I assured him.
He seemed utterly stumped, continuing to look back and forth from my granola to the sunflowers.”Why?”
“Why? Because they’re pretty,” I said. “They’re just pretty. That’s all.”
A broad, slow smile swept across his face revealing a few gappy gold teeth. He looked up at me and repeated slowly, “Right. They’re just pretty. And that’s all.”
I’ve always said that I love baking because it makes people happy — it makes people smile. But let me tell you something: bakers have nothing on flowers. That table to my right sees a lot of joy, and now that I’ve started to pay attention, it’s one of my favorite parts about working Friday evenings. There are young boys with new shoes, pre-teens clutching wild flowers, big gappy-tooth grins and realizations about the importance of beauty for beauty’s sake. A bag of granola can’t complete with that.
Now how does ice cream relate to any of this? Well I might make the case, as I have to anyone who knows me well, that ice cream needs no case, really. But early last week I decided to make ice cream for dinner for no good reason other than the fact that the house was stuffy, neither of us were too terribly hungry, and I had fresh figs that I needed to use. I’d seen a recipe for Fresh Fig and Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream in Martha Stewart magazine last month, and as I was laying out the ingredients I remembered the wonderful flavor combination of fig and fennel in one of favorite Theo chocolate bars. So out came the fennel seeds and this ice cream quickly became fennel-kissed and oh-so-delightful.
There are many fennel ice cream recipes floating around online; those recipes generally call for infusing the fennel seeds in the warm milk for at least 30 minutes. My version boasts a subtle whisper of fennel so as not to compete with the sweet, earthy figs or smooth dark chocolate. I warm the milk and cream with the fennel and then let it steep for almost ten minutes and that seems to do the trick just fine. The directions ask that you freeze the ice cream for 2-3 hours before serving, but there are some nights when you don’t want to wait that long. So you eat it soft, by the spoonful, right out of the container For no other reason than it’s summer and it tastes delicious.
You can make the base for this recipe up to two days ahead of churning the ice cream. And next time I make it, I just might fold in some sliced almonds or chopped hazelnuts at the very end.
Adapted from: Martha Stewart
For the Mix-Ins:
Combine milk, cream and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally; remove from heat. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let mixture sit off the heat for 10 minutes. Strain.
In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Gradually whisk in half of the milk mixture. Pour egg-milk mixture back into the pan along with remaining warm strained milk and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 6-8 minutes or so.
Prepare an ice bath in a bowl large enough to hold another bowl comfortably. Strain custard through a fine sieve into a bowl set into the ice bath. Place in refrigerator and let cool for at least 1 hour, or until quite cold. Meanwhile, chill a loaf pan in the freezer.
When ready to churn the ice cream: sprinkle figs with sugar and toss to coat. Let stand until juicy, about 5 minutes. Fold figs and chocolate bits into custard base with a rubber spatula. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to the cold pan. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until hardened, 2-3 hours.
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.