We had our annual mulled wine party (or winter party) a few weeks ago, a favorite of mine largely because it’s after all the holiday craziness and Sam likes to do a lot of the food, so I get to sit back and relax a bit. On the day-of, I ended up going for a long run, helping Sam with his famous Cheez-Its, buying flowers and chocolate and taking a nap — not a bad way to spend a Saturday. But having friends over to the house wasn’t always this easy: when I first moved to Seattle, I found hosting parties really stressful. I didn’t yet know Sam’s friends well enough to call them my own and was always unsure of what to make, or who I’d hit it off with, or what to expect. I think there were far too many unknowns, and I’m not particularly great with unknowns. Thankfully, Sam’s friends are now my friends too and entertaining has become much more laid back. Now it’s all about having people over — just simply getting people out of their comfortable houses in the dead of January — and making a huge pot of mulled wine (Polish-style grzaniec, Sam would point out, not that “awful german stuff”) and eating snacks and catching up. Some of our friends bring kids, some leave them at home. Some friends bring snacks to share, others flowers, or an old college friend, or a new date. There aren’t many lofty expectations other than wine and conversation, and it always ends up being one of my favorite nights of the season.
It does seem that one of the keys to actually enjoying entertaining is a certain laissez-faire attitude. When I had parties in my San Francisco apartment years ago, I’d plan for a few days what I’d cook and bake, and spend at least a full day getting everything ready, making sure I had enough beverages and serving dishes and music and wine … and I realized that if I was honest with myself I felt about it much like I feel about long distance running: I don’t at all like doing it in the moment, but I love having done it. I wasn’t enjoying myself because I was always wondering if Friend A was uncomfortable sitting by herself in the corner, if the salad needed to be refilled, if the apartment was too hot, if the music was too whiney. It just wasn’t any fun.
When I’d visit Sam in Seattle when we were still dating, he’d have people over often which — initially — also stressed me out for the complete opposite reason: there was zero planning involved. We’d actually get into arguments when I’d attempt to plan the evening or ask too many questions; he’d always assure me it was casual and easy and it’d come together just fine. He’d start preparing food a few hours before everyone was to arrive which would cause me to pace and anxiously clean things that didn’t need cleaning. We once had an epic fight over cumin when our friends Sarah and Chris were slated to come over for dinner, and ended up having to cancel with them because we ultimately couldn’t get our act together (we now lovingly call that The Cumin Debacle). After instances like this, it became clear that our two styles were drastically different and we worried we’d never actually enjoy having people over together in a way that felt good for both of us.
Today: good news. We’ve come a long way. Because Sam genuinely enjoys preparing a lot of snacks and food, I step away from that a bit which makes me feel less stressed. And he now plans the evenings out more and preps things far in advance to make me feel more comfortable. We divvy up tasks and then just enjoy the day without feeling like we spent too much time fussing. And let me tell you: I actually enjoy parties now. Like really enjoy them. I don’t worry too much if we run out of cups or how people are getting along or faring; I don’t aim to make it something that it’s not. We just like to see more of our friends, make a few drinks and perhaps try out a new recipe or two. Or, in the case of the Mulled Wine Party a few weeks ago, stick with some old standbys like Sam’s homemade Cheez-Its.
Sam’s been making these Cheez-Its for as long as I’ve known him; they make an appearance at all of our neighborhood block parties, potlucks, and gatherings at our place. I believe he originally saw the recipe in Ready Made Magazine (RIP) and has since tweaked them over the years. I took further liberties with them here, using all whole grain flours, a pinch of garlic powder, and a healthy handful of poppy and caraway seeds. I’m here to report that they’re even more party-worthy than the originals, and I think we’ll be sticking to this version from now on.
In addition to these incredibly cheesy, buttery crackers — if you’re looking for a few other recipes that are guaranteed party favorites, here is the classic canon as we see it:
Casselberry Biscuits (we made these for the Mulled Wine Party, too)
Deviled Eggs with Basil Aioli and Capers from Molly’s blog
Spinach, Feta and Artichoke Dip from Food 52 (we made this on New Year’s Eve)
Rosemary Dijon Gougeres
Soft Hazelnut Chocolate Cookies
Blood Orange Gin Sparkler from Heidi’s blog
I hope you’re all faring your way through January, staying warm, perhaps having a few friends over or simply drinking hot chocolate or something boozy all on your own. With each passing day, I can sense that we’re getting a little more light, and I’m getting more and more excited about spring (although I know we have a ways to go). But just think of all the outdoor parties that await!
The combination of spelt and rye flours makes these crackers 100% whole grain, but you can also swap in some (or all) all-purpose flour if it’s what you have on hand. These are best the day they’re made, but if kept airtight at room temperature are perfectly fine for three days or so. For entertaining, we like to make the dough the day before and then roll and bake them off before the party.
Adapted from: Good Food Stories
Mix cheddar, butter, salt and garlic powder in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using hand beaters) and beat until soft and combined. Add the flours and 3 tablespoons poppy seeds and mix until dry and pebbly. Add water slowly until dough just starts to come together, then gently gather together and press into a round, chubby disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Divide the dough into two equal pieces, rolling each out into a thin rectangle (shoot for less than 1/8 – inch if you can). Trim away any ragged edges so you’re working with straight edges. Set trimmings aside. Lightly brush the dough with the milk and sprinkle tops with caraway seeds and remaining 1 tablespoon poppy seeds.
Using a fluted pastry wheel or knife, cut the dough into 1-inch squares and place on the baking sheets, leaving about 1/4-inch between each cracker (they don’t spread much at all). Use a fork to poke a few holes in the tops of each. Gather together any scraps and re-roll and cut as needed.
Bake for 12-13 minutes, or until slightly puffed on the tops and golden brown around the edges. At halfway through the bake time, rotate the baking pans to help with even baking. These crackers continue to firm up as they cool, so be careful not to overbake. Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
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.