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.
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.