We’ve been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I’ve always been a morning person, so this isn’t particularly challenging for me — although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down (“gosh, aren’t we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?”), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn’t wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible — and now I get it. I should’ve napped more. I should’ve listened.
In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I’ve had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I’ve made up some wacky baby tunes that I’m happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.
We’ve let many holiday traditions go this year and for a very good, bright-eyed and just-starting-to-smile reason. At first I was disappointed that we wouldn’t have time to put Christmas lights up outside the house or dress up and go to the bar at the Sorrento Hotel like we’ve done in the past to address Christmas cards (or do Christmas cards at all, frankly). But this year is just different, Sam is good at reminding me. It won’t always be as it is now with so much time at home on our couch — we’ll go out again in good time and dress up and have cocktails and write Christmas cards. And I think I can see that he’s right. But even in letting a lot of holiday traditions go this year, I decided there still must be gingerbread.
Now I’m a bit biased when it comes to gingerbread. My favorite recipe is the Whole Grain Gingerbread from my cookbook. I worked on that recipe for a long time to get it just right, just to my liking. It’s deeply spiced and fragrant with citrus and molasses, relies on whole grain flours yet is light enough for morning snacking. With fresh ginger, candied ginger and dried ginger, to me it’s the real deal. But lately I’ve been very much in the spirit of trying other people’s recipes — it feels a bit like letting them cook for me, and there’s nothing more comforting these days than letting others cook for you. I have a lot to say about this after having so many friends bring food by for us after Oliver was born, but I suspect you are all busy preparing for the holiday weekend, so I’ll save it for a very-soon-to-come post.
If you aren’t familiar with Alana’s work, I’ve so loved her first book The Homemade Pantry (remember these crackers?). In it, she has straightforward, delicious recipes for many things we often buy at the store but can easily make at home. She talks about cooking for her family and her life as a home cook and you very much entrust yourself in her hands — she knows what she’s doing and will guide you so that you will, too. The same is true with her new book, The Homemade Kitchen. It has even more narrative than her first book, with sections devoted to discussions on feeding others, feeding yourself, being a beginner cook, slowing down … and so much more. It’s a really rich cookbook, and when I stumbled upon her pear gingerbread at the very end of it, I felt like it was a direct invitation. It was time to try a new-to-me recipe and let Alana cook for me, so to speak.
Megan’s Notes: In Alana’s recipe, she calls for 1/2 cup honey but I wanted to eek in a little molasses so I opted for 1/4 cup honey and 1/4 molasses (instead of the full amount of honey) and it tastes wonderful and plenty sweet. I also used whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour (certainly use all-purpose if you’d prefer and if you do, Alana calls for 2 cups) and added a few tablespoons of milk to account for the extra moisture that the whole grain flour needs. In general, you’ll want to be very careful not to over bake the gingerbread — the pears add a bit of moisture and the very top may look a touch wet when you pull it out of the oven for this reason. That’s good! It’ll be super moist and flavorful when it cools and firms up a bit.
Alana suggests to serve this with whipped cream, crème fraîche or caramel sauce and boy would those all be delicious. I suppose it’s a testament to her great recipe that I found it was just right all on its own. As with most gingerbread, it’s even better the second day.
Lightly adapted from: The Homemade Kitchen
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9-inch square or equivalent pan.
In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, honey, molasses and brown sugar over low heat. Gently stir to combine as the mixture melts. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour the butter mixture into the flour mixture and combine with a few strokes of a wooden spoon, taking care not to over mix.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, yogurt and milk. Add the egg mixture to the batter and whisk to combine. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.
Lay the pears on top of the batter in a pinwheel shape. Bake until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the cake, about 30 minutes. Store, covered, at room temperature.
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.