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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
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).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.