I might’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks trying to get these pumpkin muffins right. Before Oliver was born it would’ve been the better part of a single morning, with a good cup of coffee in hand. Uninterrupted time at home — the kind of time I need to weigh ingredients, take recipe notes and photograph ingredients — is pretty scarce these days. I often cook and bake in the evenings to prep for future meals, but obviously for the blog I like to snap a few photos to show you and that’s pretty hard to do at 10 pm. The upside is that I tested these muffins a few times to get them just right and did lots of futzing and experimenting with ingredients. In my mind, they’re the perfect pumpkin muffin: not too sweet, whole grain, fragrant and warmly-spiced.
I’ve lately been thinking about trying to carve out time to feel more creative in the kitchen. We do a lot of cooking, but it’s generally quite dutiful, purposeful and specific: bake some squash for dinner and bang out a simple tomato sauce, for instance. While you’re at it, puree a little baby food. But the days of languishing in the kitchen feel a bit far off, at least for now. Sam shared an article with me by Kim Brooks called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom: Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work? When I saw the title I sighed, refusing to believe the headline, although more and more these days realizing I may just be a living example of it.
In her article, Brooks explores the effect that domestic life has on creative work and the conflict that arises between being a parent and being a writer or artist (or creator of any kind). She says, “The idea that writers, artists, inspired and creative people make bad spouses, parents, homemakers, partners is nothing new. It’s a trope that has served the (usually male) writers of the canon well… although it’s easy to dismiss such pronouncements for their obvious misogyny, women writers, too, have often struggled with domestic obligation.” The down and dirty of it, she says, is that “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
You need those long stretches of time to sit and daydream and watch the curtains flap in the breeze — to think some unsettling thoughts that may (or may not) just drive you towards your next creative project. But if you do that long enough, whose going to feed the baby and clean the kitchen counter?
I kept thinking to myself while reading, ‘so what’s the solution?’ I want to write another book eventually. I have projects I’m excited about starting. My sewing machine is gathering dust. I want to stare at some damn curtains flapping in the breeze. A few of the women in Brooks’ piece ended up re-jiggering their focus a bit, still creating but the subject was different. Maybe approaching creative projects in a new way than they did before. For me, the key is managing expectations. It would be too hard to run a granola business, work on a food writing career and have hours in the week to tackle creative projects — all while raising and loving on one small Oliver. Something’s got to give.
I’m currently ghostwriting a cookbook for someone else, which is wonderful because I still get the satisfaction of seeing a project come together from start to finish, but I’m not generating the creative juices behind the book (the recipe concepts). And frankly, I’m not sure I could pull off my own cookbook right now. I conquer specific tasks really efficiently, but finding the spaciousness in my day (and my mind) to sit down to brainstorm and just let my mind wander — all the necessary building blocks of creating something new — just isn’t a currently reality. And for now that’s just fine. And for later, a little more of this (thanks to my friend Nicole Gulotta for pointing me to it), please:
Getting it Right
Lying in front of the house all
afternoon, trying to write a poem.
Waking up under the stars.
These pumpkin muffins are based on the Pear Hazelnut-Oat muffins from my cookbook which have long been a fall favorite around our house. I decided to try them with 100% spelt four to amp up the nutrition a bit, but as always, if you’d like to use all-purpose flour instead, by all means go at it. I think these would be great with whole wheat pastry flour or kamut flour, too. The streusel is unapologetically buttery, fragrant and has nutty bits of pepitas strewn throughout. I could eat it all on its own. The muffins came out of the oven nicely domed and made the house smell like October. I cut one in half and took it on my early evening walk with Oliver — thinking about that Jack Gilbert poem and waking up under the stars, but simultaneously feeling quite happy to be out on a walk with my boy.
These spelt pumpkin muffins are not too sweet and delicately spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. I use ground pepitas in the muffin batter itself, and then a generous hand with that buttery pepita streusel on top. If you’re using canned pumpkin, you’ll end up with a little extra and I’ve been using it up in pancake batter on the weekends or smoothies during the week. While I did use buttermilk in this recipe, I have a hunch whole milk or your favorite nut milk will work just fine, too.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a standard 12-cup muffin tin (or line with papers)
Make the streusel: Combine the muscovado sugar with pepitas, oats, flour, cinnamon and salt. Add the butter and, using your fingertips, press the butter into the dry ingredients and mix together until the streusel comes together when squeezed. Refrigerate until ready to use.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, ground pepitas, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. Set aside.
In another mixing bowl, whisk together the melted butter and sugar. Fold in pumpkin puree. Whisk in the buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla. Fold in the flour mixture gently, being careful not to overmix.
Fill the muffin cups nearly to the top and sprinkle generously with streusel topping. Put the muffins in the oven and bake until the tops are golden brown and feel firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin. Serve warm or room temperature. Muffins will keep for 3 days in an airtight container.
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.