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.
My good friend Keena was working in India for the last few months and just returned to Seattle, eager to experience as much Pacific Northwest summer as possible in September. I'm with her on this one: It just so happens that towards the end of this month, the farmers markets I've been doing will also come to an end, so things seem like they're both simultaneously gearing up (hike! picnic! beach!) and wrapping up at the same time as I also feel a sense of wanting to cram in as much as I can before the days start getting noticeably shorter. And truly: there's no better recipe to commemorate such efforts than these fresh corn grits with oil-poached summer tomatoes.
For many years, I've always made a summer to-do list. I usually set to work on it right at the beginning of June when the days feel long and ripe with possibility. The list often involves things like learning to bake sourdough bread or making homemade ricotta, doing an epic hike I'd read about in a local magazine, training for a marathon, or reading specific novels. It is always a pretty aspirational list, and I generally don't make much of a dent in it -- resulting in the guilty feeling come late August that I'd wasted too many lazy afternoons when I could've been baking sourdough or making ricotta or doing memorable, epic hikes. But this summer is going to be a bit different: there will be no list. We wait so long in Seattle for long stretches of sunny days, and now that it stays late until 9:30 (or later?), I want to see more of our friends and find stretches of time to do not much of anything except catch up, tan our legs and eat farmers market berries. That's my list.
I received The Sprouted Kitchen Bowl + Spoon cookbook in the mail not long before we moved to our new house, and I remember lying in bed and bookmarking pages I was excited to try but also feeling overwhelmed with where to start: the truth is that this summer has been a relatively low-inspiration / low energy time in the kitchen for me. I'd been chalking it up to pregnancy but when I think back and if I'm honest with myself, my cooking style tends to be very easy and produce-driven during these warmer months. I rarely break out complicated recipes, instead relying on fresh tomatoes and corn or zucchini and homemade pesto to guide me. But last night I cracked open Sara's book and pulled out a few peaches I've had sitting on the counter, fearing their season may be nearing its end. This morning as I was making coffee, I sliced up the peaches, toasted the pecans and churned away -- having a bite (or maybe two) before getting it into the freezer to firm up.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
We just returned from my mom's cabin on Lake George in upstate New York where we often spend the 4th of July. As usual, each bedroom was packed with family members (this year the couch was even occupied for a night), and our days with reading, lounging on the dock, swimming a bit, maybe jogging down the road or playing tennis if you were feeling ambitious. We drank a notable amount of seltzer water; I managed to read three books and my mom threw us a family baby shower complete with balloons, chocolate cake and Mike's rhubarb bars. In previous years, my mom has planned most of the dinners and even some lunches, but for breakfast we'd all fend for ourselves. I'd often bake a pie or a batch of brownies in the afternoon and everyone would help out where they could, but she would largely do the shopping and brunt of the cooking. This year was different: having just moved from California to Vermont, my mom had a lot on her plate and sent out an email before the holiday weekend asking us all to chip in and help with the meals. Sam and I claimed Friday dinner: we grilled sausages and Sam made his famous deviled eggs. We cut up some unusually seedy watermelon that I found at the co-op in Burlington before we drove out to the lake, and I made a summery quinoa salad that I expected to be kind of epic. The trouble was that it wasn't. I overcooked the quinoa until it was kind of a congealed mush and everything just went downhill from there. But I knew that the idea was strong -- to pack a whole grain salad with all the things of summer (corn! tomatoes! basil!) -- so when we got home to Seattle I tried again. And this time it's a winner.