A few months ago, I spoke here about the meals I was planning to make before the baby arrived. I made beef carnitas and pulled pork, and cooked and froze lots of whole grains. I prepared a few different soups and froze a handful of brownies and blondies. Ziplock bags were neatly labeled and freezer shelves were organized by type of food. Clearly, I wasn’t messing around. About that time, a friend emailed me and suggested we do a meal train and even offered to organize it. My initial thought was that we really didn’t need it and could take care of feeding ourselves on our own (apparently, I’m not big on asking for help). The freezer was stocked and we had family visiting who would surely cook … but the more I thought about it, I knew our friends would want to swing by and having a little structure would probably make them feel more comfortable.
Taking the uncertainty out of it (What time should I bring food? Is now a good time? Should I text or call? What if I wake the baby?) turned out to be a good thing for everyone and before we knew it, we were getting little email notifications from friends who had signed up to bring us meals. Some indicated what they’d bring (quiche! lentils! “something delicious”!) and others left it as a surprise; some stayed for a cup of tea and others dropped a bag at the door. Regardless of the meal, the gesture felt overwhelming and I realized that we needed that almost as much as the roast chicken, soups, homemade pasta sauce, and pints of gelato. In the midst of the insular, exhausting and all-encompassing weeks of caring for a brand new baby and trying to care for ourselves, we needed to see our friends, some who had had kids and understood what we were going through and others who could relate to just generally feeling overwhelmed and not quite yourself. I was so glad we’d said yes to it all.
Those that know me very well know that I can be a little controlling when it comes to food. Maybe I haven’t spoken much about that here — while in my teen years and my early twenties that manifested as more of an eating disorder, now it looks much more like a general concern that most meals be well-rounded. Or at least that the day as a whole looks this way. If we have a heaping stack of pancakes for breakfast, I’ll try to make a big salad for lunch. If Sam makes pasta for dinner, I try to sneak in something green to go with it. Maybe even some protein. It’s all quite mundane to talk about, really. I even bore myself in thinking too hard about it let alone writing about it here, but after I had Oliver I realized how deeply ingrained this had become in my day to day life. All of a sudden I wasn’t able to control what we’d eat or even when we’d eat. The meals were definitely not always well balanced. Breakfast often consisted of a few leftover holiday cookies or half of a burrito from the night before. It was more survival mode than leisurely meal planning.
I remember breaking down sobbing one night as I sat eating while Sam rocked the baby across from me, his plate of food sitting on the coffee table getting cold. I worried it’d be months (years?!) before we got to sit down at the table and actually eat dinner together. He assured me it was just temporary. That we were eating together, just not taking bites at the same time. Things were different. Things are still different and will be for a very long time. Mostly in good ways, of course, but also in ways that have taken some getting used to. Oliver is two months old today and has graced us with big toothless smiles and occasional six hour stretches of sleep (!!!). Lately he’s also graced us with good chunks of time where he’ll lounge on his funny elephant pillow on the kitchen floor and just hang out listening to A Boy Named Charlie Brown while Sam and I sit and eat dinner together. It feels like a coup.
I recently wrote about Alana Chernila’s newest book, The Homemade Kitchen and in it she has a chapter on feeding people in your life when they’re sick or there’s a death in the family or a new baby. Of this she says, “It can be easy to talk yourself out of bringing dinner. Particularly when there’s a birth, death, or illness, walking into someone else’s experience can feel awkward. We want to give space … But on the whole, we usually think people want more space than they actually do. You don’t have to visit, or to fill the house with conversation. You only have to bring dinner. The presence of that little box, the pot, the food into which you put care — it will remind them they should eat, and it will make them feel taken care of when they need it most …When we bring dinner, we say: I’m your community. I’m here for you. Eat.”
When I think back to why the meal train felt so significant, it really came down to this: feeling cared for by our community. On days when we wouldn’t leave the house and would be lucky to shower, it made us feel less alone. And it also allowed me to completely focus on the task at hand — Oliver — and relinquish all cares and thoughts about the smaller, more mundane parts of the day … like whether or not we’d have a green vegetable for dinner. I didn’t know what dinner would be until it arrived on our stoop. Or even when it would arrive. But all of a sudden, it really didn’t matter.
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As with most things related to pregnancy and babies, there is a wealth of advice online about what foods to bring to families after they have a baby. Some of the advice is good, some not as much. I really like this Kitchn post because it touches on other elements of a meal or parts of a day beyond casseroles and soups. There were a few friends who would throw in a little something extra for a snack, and others who sent a favorite breakfast treat. When our families weren’t in town, getting to the grocery store was a challenge so fresh snacks and fruit were really nice, too. And cookies. It was certainly the season of cookies and they never seemed to get old.
And as it happens, these cookies from Samantha Seneviratne’s book The New Sugar and Spice are the first thing I’ve baked for us “just because.” After flipping through the book for a few minutes, I was immediately intrigued with her focus: in short, she discusses how so many American sweets really rely on sugar for flavor, resulting in overly sweet cookies, cakes, breads. Samantha has long been really interested in the way spices amplify flavor in baked goods, so she set out to create a baking book that experimented with bold spices and less sugar. Of these cookies, she notes “They are unique enough to be strikingly delicious and familiar enough to please the staunchest traditionalist.” And while we really loved them, I decided to bring a plate to my book club earlier this week to share. It was cold and rainy and the first time I’ve left Oliver to do something social on my own. I showered and actually put on jeans. And as the night ticked on, I looked around at our growing group of ladies, all sharing cheese and wine and lentils and cinnamon rolls and cookies and all manner of conversation not related to the book we were supposed to have read, and found myself thinking again about my community here. It really, truly feels like a coup.
I was intrigued by these cookies when I noticed that they call for coconut oil instead of butter. This makes them a little lighter than a traditional chocolate chip cookie. I made a few tweaks, using half spelt flour and turbinado sugar instead of granulated sugar. Certainly use all-purpose flour and granulated sugar if you’d prefer. But I think these cookies are pretty forgiving and a good chance to experiment with a whole grain flour if you’d like. If you don’t have pistachios, any nut would be great here. I’m aiming to make these again with walnuts or pecans and an additional handful of coconut.
Slightly adapted from The New Sugar and Spice
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, combine the coconut oil, brown sugar and turbinado sugar together until creamy. Stir in the vanilla extract and the egg. Add the flour mixture to the coconut oil mixture and stir to combine. Fold in the chocolate, pistachios and coconut.
Scoop the dough in 2-tablespoon scoops and place on the prepared baking sheets, at least 2 inches apart. Sprinkle each cookie with a bit of flaky salt. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. Let the cookies cool on the sheets on racks for about 5 minutes. While these cookies are best eaten the day they’re made, they can be stored covered at room temperature for up to 2 days.
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.
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.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.