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.
Winter Comfort Food
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
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).
If I asked you about what you like to cook at home when the week gets busy, I'm willing to bet it might be something simple. While there are countless websites and blogs and innumerable resources to find any kind of recipe we may crave, it's often the simple, repetitive dishes that we've either grown up with or come to love that call to us when cooking (or life in general) seems overwhelming or when we're feeling depleted. While my go-to is typically breakfast burritos or whole grain bowls, this Curried Cauliflower Couscous with Chickpeas and Chard would make one very fine, very doable house meal on rotation. The adaptations are endless, and its made from largely pantry ingredients. I never thought I'd hop on the cauliflower "rice" bandwagon, but I have to say after making it a few times, I get the hype.
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
It's been a uniformly gray and rainy week in Seattle, and I'd planned on making a big pot of salmon chowder to have for the weekend, but then the new issue of Bon Appetit landed on my doorstep with that inviting "Pies for Dinner" cover, and I started to think about how long it's been since I made my very favorite recipe from my cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. I'm often asked at book events which recipe I love most, and it's a tough one to answer because I have favorites for different moods or occasions, but I'd say that this savory tart is right up there. The cornmeal millet crust is one of my party tricks; when we need a quick brunch recipe, this is what I pull out of my back pocket because it's so simple and delicious. This is a no-roll, no fuss crust with a slightly sandy, crumbly texture thanks to the cornmeal, and a delightful crunch from the millet. In the past, I've used the crust and custard recipe as the base for any number of fillings: on The Kitchn last year, I did a version with greens and gruyere, and I teach cooking classes that often include a version heavy on local mushrooms and shallot. So if you are not keen on salmon or have some vegetables you're looking to use up this week, feel free to fold in whatever is inspiring you right now. Sometimes at this point in winter that can be hard, so hopefully this recipe may help a little.