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!
If you’re familiar with Alice Medrich’s previous books, you know that she’s truly a dessert genius with meticulously-tested recipes that span from the very classic to the innovative. This book takes a different approach in that each recipe features what she calls “flavor flours,” wheat-free flours that contribute different rich flavors (as well as colors) to your favorite baked goods. There are flours I’ve worked with often like buckwheat (a favorite of mine on this site) or oat flour, and then there are those that are new to me like white rice or chestnut flour. I remember first reading Kim Boyce’s book, Good to the Grain, and feeling this sense of excitement as a new approach to baking and a whole range of ingredients opened up to me, and I feel similarly with Alice’s insistence that flavor should rule and that whole grain baking doesn’t need to be fussy or complex; most of these recipes are incredibly simple.
Choosing flours for their flavor is a new concept to many because flour is often seen as the agent that helps our bread to rise or our cookies to come together. Much like sugar is often just seen as a generic canvas to sweeten, flour is viewed as a reliable leavener — that’s it. But different whole grain and nut flours boast completely distinct flavors and these can be immensely exciting to experiment with. If we take this recipe in particular as an example: this bread features warm fall spices and darker flavors like pumpkin, so Alice opts to use buckwheat flour for its earthiness (she calls it an “almost woodsy note”). If you just swapped in all-purpose flour or a more mild whole grain flour here, the bread wouldn’t taste as complex; the flour itself is actually helping flavor this loaf. In addition to buckwheat flour, this loaf relies on white rice flour which I hadn’t worked with before and which I’ve fallen in love with. It has such a lightness to it, and a really mild flavor so it allows the more dominant flavors (here, pumpkin) of a recipe to really shine. It’s common for whole grain muffins and loaves to be a bit squatty — and in my experience, more so with gluten-free flours. But the crumb in this loaf is so light and delicate that I’d take squatty, tender and packed with flavor any day.
I’ve long been playing with whole grain flours in our kitchen, but this past year I’ve been getting really excited about the way that different natural sugars help infuse flavor into baked goods in much the same way, so I decided to use muscovado sugar here for its dark, almost damp sweetness, and I folded in a handful of dark chocolate chips at the end for an extra treat. This bread lasted all of two days in our house and thankfully Sam just left with a generous hunk to take with friends on a quick overnight trip to one of the islands. It’s a good one to share — to spread the delight.
Alice’s recipe is perfect as is, but I’ve been craving chocolate lately so I decided to fold in a few leftover dark chocolate chips we had in the cabinet, and I love the look of the top of this loaf sprinkled with colorful pepitas. It’s wonderful toasted with butter — morning, noon, or night.
Slightly adapted from: Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with parchment paper.
Combine the butter, sugar, and eggs in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment until lighter in color, about 2 minutes. Alternatively, use a handheld mixer and beat for 3-4 minutes.
Add the rice and buckwheat flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pumpkin puree and beat on low speed until smooth. Fold in the chocolate chips. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, and sprinkle the top with pepitas.
Bake the loaf for 45 -50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the loaf in the pan for at least 2 hours before unmolding and slicing. The cake keeps, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Let come to room temperature (or toast!) to serve.
Note: To make muffins, line 12 regular muffin cups and prepare batter (See above). Bake at 375 F for about 20 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.