While I’m never one to rush things this time of year, in staring at my little desk calendar this morning, it’s become clear that Thanksgiving is on the horizon. This year, we’re hosting Sam’s family again for what will be the second time, and I’m not going to lie: I don’t feel any more organized or together after Round 1. Last year there was a lot of turkey talk and I panicked (in hindsight, irrationally so), admitted I had no clue what I was doing, and delegated the bird to Sam who really waited until the eleventh hour (i.e. Wednesday) to buy the turkey and we ended up having a roulade situation instead of a traditional roasted bird, which was all fine and good. I made pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes. I recall making a chicory salad but no one seems to remember it, so it clearly didn’t make that big of an impression. Sam’s sister Christa brought her famous stuffed mushrooms and his nephew, Kevin, brought wine. People were happy, so I was happy.
But it does seem that, regardless if you’ve been hosting for two years or twenty, there’s this constant impetus to regroup and reimagine and somehow do it all better each year. And on one hand, I get that: all the food magazines come, each claiming to have the end all and be all in revamped stuffing or the newest trick to mashed potatoes and it’s all … a little exhausting, isn’t it? What I crave isn’t so much the newest, edgiest stuffing but more the gold standards that we pull out every year. Our family’s classics. We don’t have those yet, but we’re working on it. If it were up to Sam, this simple fruit crisp would be a candidate for sure, and if you’re someone who trembles at the thought of homemade pie, this is a stellar way to make life a little simpler this year.
Fruit crisps and crumbles are great because they’re rustic and forgiving and relatively hard to truly mess up. I used to make a Pear and Cranberry Pie in my early days at Marge, when I’d bake in the wee hours of the morning and sell slices at the farmers market in San Francisco. I often had a slice, sometimes still warm, for breakfast in that period of time after I’d set up the booth but before any customers would arrive. Because our market was in a particularly foggy neighborhood that rarely saw sun, the mornings were really cold and damp: I’d layer up and do a lot of pacing and had a little camp heater at my feet. Pie and coffee always helped. So this crisp is inspired by that pie and my fond memories of those days, and the filling is virtually the same. I mixed up the crumble topping by adding Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat flour, marzipan and sliced almonds to make it a bit more special, a bit less everyday. It’s still as simple as can be to pull together, but feels holiday-worthy. I realize not everyone loves marzipan and the camp seems to be pretty strongly divided, but if you’re in the Pro Camp as we happen to be, I think you’ll be quite fond of this dessert.
I plan to post a few simple holiday recipes this month that I hope you may find inspiring, or may help you round out a holiday meal this season. In truth, I’m doing this a bit selfishly as I’m trying out a few dishes before the holiday myself to see if they’re good candidates for our ‘do again’ list — no crazy four-layer pies or revolutionary ways to do cranberry sauce, but just great, simple classics with perhaps a bit of a twist that I hope you’ll love. We’ll start here, with dessert. Always a solid place to start. Cook’s Note: When shopping for marzipan, if you can find almond paste it’s virtually the same thing, but even better — it’s more difficult to find, so I wrote marzipan into the recipe, but in general, almond paste has less sugar and more ground almonds. Either one will be fine in this recipe.
I generally use either Anjou or Bartlett pears (or a mix of both) for baking as they still hold their shape for the most part and don’t become too mushy. While I love this crisp in the fall, I think it’d be great with berries, too — just keep the proportions of fruit the same and feel free to experiment.
Preheat the oven to 375 F and position a rack in the center of the oven.
Place a 2-quart baking dish (or a 9-inch pie pan or 10-inch tart or quiche pan) and place on a rimmed baking sheet.
Make the filling: In a medium bowl, toss together the pears, cranberries, lemon juice, brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, cloves and salt.
Make the topping: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the almond paste, flour, brown sugar, salt, and butter until the mixture begins to clump together, about 30 pulses (or just let it run continuously until mixture clumps, 20 seconds or so). Scrape into a small mixing bowl, add the sliced almonds and stir to combine. Mixture will be super clumpy.
Scrape the fruit filling into the pan and scatter the topping on top. Bake for 45-50 min, or until the fruit is bubbling up around the edges just a bit and the topping is golden brown. The crumble is best eaten soon after baking but will keep at room temperature just fine for 1-2 days or refrigerated for up to 3 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.