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.
In reflecting on the conference and what I learned, one of the best parts about the whole thing was witnessing people so excited about their work and craft. Farmers talked about their grain-drying machinery with such excitement it was contagious (despite the fact I wouldn’t know a grain-drying apparatus apart from a hair dryer, in truth).
I met Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers and we chatted about Red Fife wheat, entrepreneurship and farmers markets. She led a great whole-grain baking class with cookbook author, writer and photographer Naomi Duguid. We huddled outside next to the wood-fired oven and made Montreal-style bagels, biscotti, pear cardamom skillet cake, and these little thumbprint cookies which Dawn sells at her farmers market booth back in Toronto.
In all of the conversations I had over the three days, the one topic that kept coming up is how to balance the work we love with the life we envision for ourselves. One of the key presenters was a farmer who lives in Upstate New York, Thor Oechsner, and has an innovative business model in that he mills his own flour and has a bakery on site where they sell goods to the public. It’s not often that you can stroll into a bakery and purchase a muffin made from the wheat grown right on site. When asked by an audience member, “what’s next?” he paused for a long time and said he’s trying to figure out how to scale down, actually. He’s gotten so good at scaling up and adding on the next big thing — over and over — that now he wants to figure out how to make more time to play his accordion and eat dinner with his partner at night. The feeling seemed to strike a chord with many of us, and reminded me of an article I read in the New York Times a few weeks back.
The piece was called “You Can’t Have it All But You Can Have Cake” by writer Delia Ephron, and it managed to connect the notion of “having it all” — that elusive and hotly-debated concept that has gotten so much press this year — with Ephron’s experience in New York City bakeries: “To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse. A total eclipse is when the moon is at its perigee, the earth is at its greatest distance from the sun, and when the sun is observed near zenith. I have no idea what that means. I got the description off a science Web site, but one thing is clear: it’s rare. This eclipse never lasts more than seven minutes and 31 seconds … Which is why I love bakeries. Peace descends the second I enter, the second I smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread, see apricot cookies with scalloped edges, chocolate dreams, cinnamon and raisin concoctions, flights of a baker’s imagination, and I know I am the luckiest person in the world. At that moment, in spite of statistical proof that this is not possible, I have it all.”
It’s notable because all of the talk around “having it all” tends to be focused on what is, often, our particularly American understanding of it: marriage, kids, the perfect work/life balance, interesting travel, local food. You get the picture. But here, Ephron talks about the smaller moments where we can feel the eclipse — where we can feel like we do have everything we need in that one moment. For Thor Oechsner, the farmer in Upstate New York, it sounds like this eclipse would happen in a quiet room with his accordion. For me, it happened sitting outside next to a warm oven amidst a layer of “Pacific Northwesty” fog with nowhere in particular to go.
And this morning when I baked up these cookies before Sam got up (and maybe again when we had two with our coffee) I had it again. It was a slow morning, despite the weekday-ness of it. When I laced up my boots for the first time this season and noticed that particularly Autumn gold of the sunlight falling into our yard, I had it yet again.
This cookie recipe is based on one that Dawn gave the group for Rye Poppyseed Thumbprint Cookies. I’ve been on a big buckwheat kick lately, so I used buckwheat flour instead of rye flour, thinking that the flavors of the buckwheat would compliment the very special apricot jam we’ve had sitting in our cupboard for awhile. I made them a few times, futzing with the flour measurement to get them just right, and made a few tweaks to the method to guarantee perfectly crumbly home-baked cookies. You could certainly play around with another whole-grain flour that you’re excited about — I can’t imagine a more forgiving recipe for such experimentation. You could also coat these in toasted sesame seeds instead of poppy seeds (next on my list) or even unsweetened coconut.
The thing I love about these cookies is they’re pretty legitimately rustic. You can envision them being made in simple kitchens one hundred years ago, with no more in the way of equipment than a bowl and a fork to cream the butter and sugar. There’s no fear of over-mixing, perfect incorporating, aeration — anything other than just making sure all the ingredients are in your bowl. And combined well. That’s my kind of baking. I can become overwhelmed with fancy French recipes that require much tending and perfect, precise temperatures and techniques (Or, my imprecise oven can become overwhelmed with these). But this kind of rustic whole-grain baking? This is where I feel most at home.
To learn more about Kneading Conference West, check out their website.
The event is annual, so maybe you’ll join us next year?
Keep in mind that these cookies are different from some other baking recipes in which you’re looking to cream the butter and the sugar for a number of minutes to introduce air into your dough. Here, you really just need to mash the sugar into the butter we
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a fork (or your hands). Add the egg yolks, vanilla extract, salt and flour. Mix well and knead together a few times with your hands to gather the crumbly pieces of the dough together.
Roll walnut-sized pieces of dough into a ball.
Whisk the egg whites until slightly foamy and place poppy seeds in a nice, shallow bowl.
Roll balls of dough in egg white and then in the poppy seeds. Set on baking sheet and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Make indent with your thumb and fill with 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of jam.
Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the dough has turned a golden brown — the cookies should feel soft and they will firm up as they cool. Cool on cookie sheet for 15 minutes. Enjoy warm. Or room temperature. In the morning — or in the evening. Store covered at room temperature.
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
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.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.