Last week on an oh-so-early Monday morning we climbed into the car and headed to the airport to catch a plane for Palm Springs, California. Around this time of year in Seattle we all start really craving sunshine and last year I promised myself that a break was in order, so after the holidays we just scheduled it and put aside all the questions about work and if it was even possible to leave for four whole days– and just left. Now I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a while to get into the groove of vacation and to not be sneaking in emails and worrying about business contracts and granola orders. But on Day 3 a funny thing happened: I started to feel as if I’d just finished a really good yoga class … but that feeling lasted all day long. Hello, vacation! How I missed you.
An unusually large concentration of our friends have visited Palm Springs this year and I was a little skeptical that it would feel overly fancy (think tight white pants and metallic sandals) but it was actually quite the opposite — or at least our experience was. We stayed at the Ace Hotel and had a room with a little patio that was perfect for early morning coffee drinking and late night star gazing. There were a lot of young families and it was surprisingly mellow. Our days were filled with lots of reading and strolling, some riding into town on bikes and sharing milkshakes. There may have been an 11 a.m. Negroni at some point which I was pretty delighted by.
The photo above and below were taken on our jaunt to Joshua Tree, where we spent a day ambling about rocks and dusty trails filled with other-worldy cactus, Joshua trees and windy vistas. On our drive home we stopped at Shield’s Date Garden where I snatched up a jar of date butter and some blonde dates which are, apparently, a variety that Shields cultivated themselves. While there, we shared a date shake and sampled just about every date known to man.
Beyond Joshua Tree and biking into town, we largely stayed by the pool and read — with breaks to wander to King’s Highway, the hotel restaurant, for a meal (two words: kale salad!). I realized about halfway into the trip that one of the things I loved about Palm Springs is there’s not a whole lot to cram in and do or see. Often when I travel I feel a bit of urgency to get to the newest restaurant or see the sights that friends have talked about — that ‘you must see this before you come home’ scenario. And that type of travel often feels rushed and frenetic and not all that restful, really. But in Palm Springs that doesn’t seem to exist. To be honest, we found most of the food in town to be underwhelming and were perfectly content sitting outside and reading and napping for a large part of the day.
I’d planned on trying to recreate the date butter we bought at Shield’s for this post but I’m sorry to say that TSA took it from my carry-on bag. I felt I made a serious case for the fact that it wasn’t a liquid — it was just solid dates that had been smashed up, but alas Sam whisked me off and pleaded with me to stop making my serious case. Apparently I’d become pretty attached to the idea of that date butter (since then, Sam has ordered some for us online to try so I’ll report back!). Instead, today I’m sharing with you a recipe for Date Walnut Breakfast Bars from Jennifer Katzinger’s beautiful new book, Honey and Oats.
This book was waiting for me in a big stack of mail when we got home and instead of unpacking or showering or doing any number of things that made more sense, I dug right in. Honey and Oats reflects the way that I bake at home — with whole grain flours and natural sugars. In truth, I’d been flirting with the idea of a second cookbook that would focus more on natural sugars and low and behold, Jennifer has beat me to it! But I’m so glad she did; if you are excited about the way that whole grain flours change the flavor of a recipe, you should get excited about this cookbook for the way that natural sugars can do the very same. There’s so much good here.
I’ll surely write about another recipe from this book this season (so many bookmarked!) but because I had these beautiful new blonde dates and very little in the way of groceries at home, I decided breakfast bars were in order. Now the bars in Jennifer’s book are called Date Bars and they’re poised as more of a dessert but in truth, I think because they’re so low in sugar and have such a soft, crumbly crust that they’re really great for breakfast. I added ground walnuts to the crust which is already packed with oats and a little coconut sugar — I also added a touch more salt and on the next go around, I think I’d fold in some sesame seeds or flax seeds for a little crunch.
A note on coconut sugar: I’ve been experimenting with this natural sugar more and more at home. It looks a lot like brown sugar and tastes much less sweet than granulated white sugar. Made from the flower buds of the coconut palm, it’s becoming more popular among natural sweeteners because of its darker flavor profile and beneficial nutrients including a handful of vitamins and minerals. You can find it at many health food stores, but if you’d rather not make the trip you can use your favorite natural sweetener here instead (natural cane sugar like turbinado would be great).
When I make these again, I think I’ll put the date mixture into the food processor and smooth it out a bit — it has a rustic texture which in many ways is perfect for the crumbly crust and topping but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like with a more uniform filling. For the record, Sam likes them just as they are.
Slightly adapted from: Honey and Oats
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 13 x 9 inch baking pan.
In a medium saucepan, simmer the dates in the water for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently and mushing them down as you go. Continue until a thick paste has formed; avoid letting the mixture boil or burn.
Meanwhile, lay the walnuts out on a small baking sheet and toast for about 8 minutes, or until fragrant. Set aside to cool. Once cool to the touch, pulse in a food processor until coarse and crumbly.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, oats, ground walnuts, and coconut palm sugar. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut the butter into the dry mixture until crumbly. Add 2-3 tablespoons cold water and mix lightly until larger clumps begin to form.
Press 3/4 of the dough into the prepared pan. Spread the date mixture on top. Cover with the remaining dough and pat it down lightly. Bake until the top is lightly browned, about 35-40 minutes. Let cool for 1 hour before cutting into slices (I prefer 2-inch square slices but 1-by-3 inch rectangles are nice, too). While I do think these bars are best enjoyed the day they’re made, feel free to cover leftovers and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.
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.