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.
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.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.