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.
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.