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.
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 had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
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.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.