We live one block away from a hot chocolate cafe here in Seattle where they also happen to sell really nice truffles and little sweets. When Sam works out of his home office, he’ll often go there for a change of scenery and without fail, he brings me home a truffle. My favorites tend to be the vanilla sea salt, but it’s really a toss up between that and the dark chocolate marzipan. I’m not sure where he got the idea, but last month for Valentine’s Day, Sam decided to strike out on his own and made homemade truffles instead of buying them. He researched how to make marzipan and bought these little chocolate molds to turn them into truffles. I wasn’t privy to any of this, really, and the night before I had strict instructions to stay out of the kitchen. My best guess was that there was chocolate cake on the horizon. Little did I know the next day would include truffles with our morning coffee.
When I was in my twenties, I had a lot of thoughts about how holidays should be or what I felt my partner should do for occasions like birthdays or Valentine’s Day. For whatever reason (probably because holidays were such a big deal in our house growing up; my mom did, after all, invent the “birthday table,” a tradition in which she transformed our dining room table into a themed celebratory centerpiece with streamers, balloons and the ever-present birthday crown), I felt like I should have a certain kind of Valentine’s Day — that if it was the right person and if they truly loved me, they’d surely know that you were supposed to get flowers and chocolates and write a sentimental card worth saving for years. I think a lot of those feelings were centered around the constant questioning about whether the person I was with at the time was the right one, if they were really ‘my person.’
But a funny thing happens as you get older – or seems to have happened as I’ve gotten older. It began to occur to me that what love and gestures I could make were at least as important as those I hoped for in return. I also began to suspect that my many prescriptions, the affirming gestures, devotions and rituals I’d practically formed into a checklist, actually fell so far short of the serendipities, surprises and gesturing of a truer love. A lot of those shoulds really needn’t have been, really (although let’s not get carried away: I do still really love birthday cake).
So Valentine’s Day came and went without a grand dinner or many of the things I used to feel it should include. Instead, we woke up to bagels and lox from Eltana, strong coffee and Sam’s marzipan truffles. The sun came out for the first time in a quite few days, so we decided to go on a long walk and ended up visiting our friends, Brandon and Molly, and sipping small berry smoothies from straws at their kitchen table. Later that afternoon, we walked down to the beach with Molly and June to look for sea glass, the sun bright and the air brisk, the day so casually unfolding on its own without any of the prescribed notions or forced gestures that I’d once clung to. It was several hours later, the afternoon light mostly faded, before we all got home, feeling a little windswept but like we’d had quite a day. Suffice it to say, I’ll take long impromptu walks, sea glass and wood-fired bagels over a dozen roses any Valentine’s day of the week.
I was so impressed with Sam’s little marzipan jewels that we decided to make them again and photograph them — we timed it around Oscar weekend so we could share them with a few friends who came over. I thought this would be a full day project, but the marzipan really takes a mere 5 minutes to come together and let’s just say it’s reallllly good I didn’t know this fact until now. So if you’d like, you can just follow the marzipan recipe here, store it in the refrigerator, and slice off little bits to have with tea or coffee. That’s treat enough.
If you want to go all the way and turn them into truffles, you will need a little mold and you simply melt dark chocolate in a double-boiler (we didn’t fuss with tempering it and it still came out shiny and snappy) and put a dollop in the bottom of the mold, place a little truffle ball on top of that and cover it with a spoonful of chocolate. Then chill to firm. Alternatively, if you don’t have a mold, I think you could easily just spear your little marzipan balls with a toothpick and dip them into the chocolate, laying them out on parchment to cool. They’ll be more rustic looking that way, but no less delicious.
Megan’s Note: If you can find almond meal made from blanched almonds (versus the more “natural” almond meal made from almonds with the skin still on), that’s the easiest route. Alternatively, you can blanch and grind your own almonds; if you do this, just aim for a very fine texture. Second, there seems to be a lot of discussion on the internet about the relative safety of the raw egg white in most marzipan recipes; our consensus (and the consensus of many) is that most eggs today are pasteurized and since you’re refrigerating the marzipan, it’s really not an issue. If you have personal reason to be concerned or are still nervous, Sam assures me that you can use two spoonfuls of corn syrup instead of the egg white, but we’ve not tested this so I can’t speak to the flavor or consistency.
The first time Sam made these he used more sugar and a stronger extract; we both agreed it might be nice to try and tone both down, and I think this ratio is spot on. While I’m often nervous about the addition of rose water to desserts as I think it can become overpowering very quickly, it’s so subtle here you will barely notice. I’ve seen bakeries who use a little orange blossom water instead, and that would certainly be nice, too.
For the marzipan:
For the chocolate coating:
To make marzipan: Scoop the almond meal and powdered sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix to break up any lumps. Add the almond extract and rose water and mix to combine. Add the egg white and mix again until it takes on a dough-like consistency. If dry and crumbly still, add a little water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, until it comes together into more of a dough. Turn the marzipan out onto a clean surface and knead a few times so that it fully comes together and begins to soften into one nice ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Store marzipan wrapped in plastic wrap or waxed paper, refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, or frozen for up to 6 months.
To assemble truffles: Using low, controlled heat, melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, stirring frequently to ensure it melts evenly. Using your favorite truffle mold, dollop a little chocolate in the bottom of each indent and swirl around until the interior is completely covered. Grab a small piece of marzipan and roll it into a ball and then a flat little disk roughly the diameter of your mold. Press the marzipan disk into each of the molds, and then top each with enough chocolate to reach the top of your mold. When finished, place in the refrigerator to cool and firm up (or the freezer if you’re eager like us). If you’d like to top each with a sprinkling of salt, get a small cup of water ready and dip your finger in the water. Moisten the top of each truffle lightly and sprinkle the salt on top — the little wet spots will dry leaving a pretty, salted top.
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.