Cookies and Bars
While self care seems of paramount importance this time of year, I've come to loathe the term. It's just ... everywhere. Don't get me wrong, I can really get down with frequent yoga, baths, candles, and afternoon chocolate bars just because, but any time a phrase or sentiment catches on so quickly and fiercely in popular culture, I tend to withdraw. Between the daily awfulness on the news, the increased urgency around everyday errands because The Holidays Are Coming, and impending shipping deadlines, I often feel like I'm ricocheting from task to task rather than taking things in or appreciating them. And of course, this is the time of year to take things in and appreciate them, to show gratitude and thanks, to give thoughtfully and receive graciously. All of that? It's feeling like a lot right now.
In the first days after coming home from the hospital with Oliver, we got a few care packages from friends and neighbors. One was a box from my friend Anne in San Francisco with a handful of sweet little baby things and a batch of homemade breakfast cookies. They reminded me of the recipe from my cookbook and, because I was up at all odd hours of the day and night, they fueled me equally well at 3am and 3pm. The other box was from one of our neighbors: homemade chocolate chip cookies. In truth, they weren't even great cookies and normally I may not have even eaten them, but I cried with happiness every afternoon when I reached for one -- they were keeping us going.
This past week I've been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We've been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies -- and while I've loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we'd pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn't realized that it was also my grandma Marge's thing). Zeke, my mom's former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80's. Sam's mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we've started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn't -- it seems that part isn't as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There's such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
It's Friday morning and I've been up since 6 am. I may have had one of these rice krispy bars at that time and perhaps another on my way out the door three hours later. Basically I've successfully convinced myself that since they're made with brown crisped rice cereal and are sweetened with unrefined sugars that we're basically in breakfast territory here. But in reality, these are quite decadent: as if Rice Krispy treats weren't delightful enough on their own, this recipe takes them up a notch in all the right ways, adding bittersweet chocolate, almonds, toasted coconut, and a little sea salt. They're just the thing to close out this busy, whirlwind late spring week.
Each Monday, we go to a parent's group where we get together with 7 other couples who live in our neighborhood and compare highs and lows from the week, ask each other questions, and chat about an organized topic. I was a bit skeptical before signing up for the group, thinking maybe it'd feel like a waste of time or maybe just too difficult to attend consistently. But so far we've loved getting the babies together and having an excuse to get out of the house and talk to other parents who are dealing with similar issues. Last week, one of the other moms described how she's started to feel like she'd like a little distance from her son. Her comment resonated with me although I bet it may not have with everyone: I think it's one that we're not really encouraged to feel or discuss at this stage in the game. I can't tell you how many times I've been told to savor every second -- that it goes by so fast. To enjoy those baby snuggles all day long. And all night, too. And don't get me wrong – I get a big ol' kick out of hanging out with Oliver. He's started to smile and giggle and I've turned into that crazy mom who is clucking and cooing in the middle of the grocery store aisle in response to his laughter. He clutches his weird toy chicken for dear life as I carry him around the house, one arm draped lazily over my shoulder. Sam's been playing folk songs on the guitar for him, and I've started to read to him in the rocker, and talk him through how to make a good cup of coffee and a decent egg each morning. But there are certainly moments when I'd perhaps like to savor Oliver just a little less and, say, do something for myself. Popular sentiment or not, it's just the truth.
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.
I am officially on maternity leave and it feels stranger than I'd imagined. I thought it'd be all about catching up on novels, leisurely baking and maybe sewing a little something for Sprout. Going on lots of walks with friends and out to lunch. The reality is that most people are working during the week and can't just sneak away for lunch dates, and sitting around the house aimlessly reading seems to make me antsy. Instead, I find myself deciding that certain tasks have immense and immediate purpose (when they never seemed to before): repotting our house plants, researching new insurance plans, and planning a new product line for Marge for 2016. In the midst of all of this though, I've found some time to catch up on Netflix movies (any recommendations?), went out to Lebanese food with Sam, and finally made it to a cafe on Capital Hill I've been wanting to try for quite some time. It's gotten a bit chilly in Seattle this week so I've been making lots of cider and chai in the afternoons for an energy boost, and there certainly doesn't seem to be a shortage of soup-making or baking -- which brings me to these not-too-sweet, protein-packed blondies that I've taken quite a liking to.
I've come to the conclusion that for a rather detail-oriented person like myself, the last weeks of pregnancy can feel like preparing for the apocalypse. I'm trying to fight this feeling with everything I have and remind myself that after the baby is born, grocery stores will still be open, we'll have family visiting, and friends will drop by -- but still, I've been cooking up a storm and straightening up the house as if the baby will really care. In recommending recipes to me in emails and in your comments on my last post, many of you mentioned not forgetting breakfast or something sweet, and I realized amidst the carne asada and beef stew, it'd be nice to have a small treat, too. As I scanned the archives of the blog, I realized that brownies are a bit underrepresented here, and this batch of super fudgy crackly-top, salt-sprinkled beauties is just the thing to remedy that.
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 spent the weekend slowly packing -- working through my office and then moving down to the kitchen. We've still got about two weeks until we actually move but I hate leaving things to the last minute and feeling like a crazy person (regardless of how much one plans, doesn't moving pretty much always make you feel like a crazy person?) So instead of working on freelance projects or doing carefree spring weekend things, I spent some quality time carefully selecting kitchen items I know we can live without for a little while: colander, salad spinner, yogurt maker, madeline pan. Making donation piles of books, old games and pants I haven't worn in two years doesn't seem to be a problem, but when it comes to the kitchen it's hard for me to let go. Case in point: the madeline pan. Do I remember the last time I made a madeline? Not really. But beyond the things I chose to pack, I'm interested in the ones I've deliberately left out, knowing I clearly can't live without them: ice cream maker, muffin pan, favorite salad bowls, pie plate. Apparently, there's ice cream and pie in our future balanced with a few good salads and a muffin or two. At about 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, we'd run out of newspaper and good packing boxes and it was time to take a break. I scanned a few recent cookbooks to see if a recipe called to me right away, and sure enough I found just the thing in Anna Jones' new A Modern Way to Eat. Cookies. And not just any cookies. These are soft, slightly chewy Coconut Oatmeal Cookies made with oats, toasted coconut, coconut oil and a little brown sugar. They're so simple you can pull them together even if you've packed much of your kitchen into boxes and aren't entirely sure where your measuring cups now live.
I had every intention of starting a new tradition this year and hosting a cookie swap with some of our local friends, but somehow the season really got the best of me and it just hasn't happened. But! That hasn't stopped me from getting a head start on holiday baking; I posted a photo on Instagram the other day of some of my very favorite holiday cookbooks, and asked if there was a way we could all just take the whole week off to bake instead of work. Judging from the responses, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks this would be a really great idea. But back here in reality, cookie baking is relegated to later evenings or, I hope, this weekend we'll find some time to eek in a few batches (the recipe for Sam's mom's Nutmeg Logs is up next, and I'm set on making gingerbread men to take with us down to the Bay Area). Right now on our countertop, we've got a batch of these crumbly, chocolatey, whole grain shortbread that have proven to be a big hit. The ingredient list is small and simple, the technique foolproof, and I think they're a real standout in a sea of holiday cookies.
I've been dreading writing my vows for months now -- much in the same way I dreaded writing term papers or tackling really big, looming projects. To cope with the fact that I wasn't yet actually writing anything down on paper, I bought different journals, thinking the problem was that I didn't have the right note-taking vehicle. I bought a little black Moleskine. Still wasn't feeling inspired. I picked up an Indian-print handmade paper journal at the student bookstore in the University District. It collected dust. I pulled out an old notebook covered in a print of Babar the Elephant doing yoga -- surely this would be the ticket. Sadly, not so much. I finally pinpointed what my problem was: I had no idea what writing vows even looks like. I knew it was important to both of us that we do so, but most of the weddings I've been to have been pretty standard and I hadn't seen many examples of couples writing their own. Enter Google. YouTube. Enter deciding to give up for weeks on end. And then one night, I poured myself a cocktail and decided to make a batch of cookies. Sam was out with a friend and as I sat waiting for the cookies to bake, I started to miss him and think about all of the reasons I love his company. The vows wrote themselves that night. No Babar journal, no YouTube inspiration -- just the smell of warm walnut-flecked cookies and thoughts of why I looked forward to seeing Sam walk though the door.
It was almost 90 in Seattle earlier this week. Now it's 10:15 p.m. and I'm nursing a little thimble of bourbon and a very dark chocolatey walnut brownie, thankful for these long, light nights. Already thankful for July and hopeful that it'll feel like a spacious and slow season of tomatoes, late nights, early mornings, picnic table dinners and learning to grill (finally). Over the past few years I've done a sort of summer bucket list on the blog, listing a few things I'd like to tackle or accomplish that season. But this year that feels all off for so many reasons. Namely, between wedding and honeymoon planning and houseguests and attempts at weekend getaways -- I can't stomach many more lists. Let's deem this the season to get rid of lists, shall we? A season in which there are still so many things to get excited about, from brownies to books to podcasts and music. So let's dive in.
Last week on an oh-so-early Monday morning we climbed into the car and headed to the airport to catch a plane for Palm Springs, California. Around this time of year in Seattle we all start really craving sunshine and last year I promised myself that a break was in order, so after the holidays we just scheduled it and put aside all the questions about work and if it was even possible to leave for four whole days-- and just left. Now I'll be the first to admit that it took me a while to get into the groove of vacation and to not be sneaking in emails and worrying about business contracts and granola orders. But on Day 3 a funny thing happened: I started to feel as if I'd just finished a really good yoga class ... but that feeling lasted all day long. Hello, vacation! How I missed you.
Last weekend I flew home to California to do a number of book events for Whole-Grain Mornings. I've done readings and classes here in Seattle but had yet to travel to promote the book, and it was such a treat to do so in my old stomping grounds. Sam took the train down to meet me and we stayed at my mom's house just North of San Francisco. She threw a wonderful book party on Friday night and despite the torrential (!!) downpours, many old friends and colleagues came to join us along with a large handful of my mom's friends and neighbors. There was Prosecco and lots of cheese and a few hours to really get to mark the completion of the cookbook. When everyone left, Sam and I took off our shoes, did the dishes and sat at the kitchen counter eating leftover olives and Jeni's ice cream straight from the container (not sure I can vouch for this pairing for future reference). It turns out that funny mix of exhilaration and excitement but utter fatigue had hit -- and it stuck around that weekend.
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.
This very week, each year, I'm faced with immense vacation guilt. If you've been reading the site for awhile, you know that Sam and I visit my mom's cabin in Upstate New York for July 4th each year. Grandparents, aunts and uncles come. A small handful of cousins along with a few novels, a bit of sunscreen, and some old tennis rackets. What doesn't come along are work emails or granola orders or vendor spreadsheets. And at first I always feel like the world might come crashing down if I leave these things for one week. And then I always return and pick up right where I left off ... with a decided lack of world-crashing-down. So I'm reminding myself of that this morning, one day before we take off, with just enough time for me to share these delicious fresh banana blondies with you.
I wake up in the morning and consult the Google calendar. Lately I'm not sure how I could make much of anything happen without it. Tasks are driven largely by to-do lists with breaks for an occasional lunch. And lots of granola baking in between. My yoga teacher hasn't seen a whole lot of me, and Sam and I finally went grocery shopping for real last night (it's been awhile). This time of year seems populated by things that other people need done: from the farmers market organizers to new Marge vendors and book-related emails -- there's a lot to tend to. That is, until the craving to bake cookies strikes on Sunday night and it seems that, actually, everyone can wait.
A few weeks ago my Grandpa friended me on Facebook. I immediately texted my two sisters to verify that this was, in fact, Grandpa. They confirmed. And so, confused, I accepted his friend request and popped over to admire his page. It was, as you can imagine, quite bare. He'd accidentally noted that he was born in 1986 and his page boasted a small handful of friends, all quite elderly. I didn't think much of it at that time until early last week when my mom called to let me know that now Grandpa, apparently, knew everything we were up to. I imagined him incorporating this new bit of technology into his morning routine of checking stocks, doing calisthenics and having breakfast with my Gram at their little table on the porch in Florida. And then a funny thing happened: Gramp started posting on my wall. The first time was on Valentine's Day when he wished me a very happy day and hoped I was doing something fun for myself. I decided to write back on his wall, wishing him a nice afternoon and letting him know that I'd been pretty busy baking that week. Since then, we occasionally report on the weather and what we're up to. Many of the cousins do the same thing, so Gramp's wall is now peppered with cheerful family updates from near and far. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical -- even scornful--of social media and the ways technology can sneak into our daily lives. We could all make a pretty lengthy list, I'm sure. But getting messages from your Grandpa that read, "I sit 85 and sunny here today" just isn't one of them.
Last week I didn't write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it's likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it's even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you've been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country -- to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He's an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn't feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices - Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar's on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
Spice Cookies from the new cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Hello there, August. You have brought with you wonderful tomatoes which I've been eating almost daily, outdoor weddings, a new camera to play with, and sunny clear mornings. You've brought iced coffee with a touch of simple syrup, dinner with friends outside, and nights spent sharing a beer while watching the Olympics (those runners!).
I'm writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom's lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I've made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That's basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we've arrived happily to the land of lingering.
While I was sick last week, I had a lot of time to think about this space and the community here. We're lucky, aren't we? We're lucky to have each other and to be able to draw inspiration from one another. Our lives from the outside might look very different, with varying professions, family lives, and geographic settings. But if you're sitting down reading this today, I'm guessing you like to talk about food and prepare food and think about the ways in which it intersects with our daily lives, work, and relationships. I'll be honest: there are days I question this space. Days when the week is unbelievably busy and I don't have time to make a recipe for the blog, and I wonder what the point is anyway. There are gray days when the love for it can wane under other pressures and priorities. But then there are days when you're sick for almost a week and have time to lay on the couch and read food blogs you usually don't have time for. To catch up on your friend's writings around the web, in awe that there's such goodness out there. You people! There is so much generosity of spirit and intelligence, humor and talent, and I'm over-the-moon-happy to be a part of it all.
I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70's in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam's been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
There were lots of goodbyes. This is true. There were going-away parties with friends I see often and others with those I haven't seen in over a year. Or maybe two. We're talking about lots of cocktails, a few beers, a pizza, some Chinese food, and a few donuts. Really, I felt so loved and reluctant to leave this amazing group of people who know how to make me laugh and what to say when the cards are down. It felt a little sudden and sadder than I thought it'd be. But then, Sam arrived.
In our family, Christmas cookies come about in one of two ways: we either make them or folks drop them by the house. I'm sure something similar happens with you, too. And there are the tins of cookies that you're thrilled to receive and look forward to for weeks and others that you stow away until the day comes when you don't feel all that guilty throwing them out. Growing up, a woman my dad used to work with would send her eponymous Denise's Pieces each year. They're a pretty standard chocolate-covered toffee but they're soft and buttery and hide-from-your-sisters good. Two years ago, Denise offered to drive over from Sacramento to give us a tutorial and teach us how to make the toffee on our own. Yes! Best day ever! At the end of the day, Rachael, Zoe and I learned we were pretty awful at making toffee. We also learned Denise's caveat: once she shows you how to make the toffee, "you're set free." Free, we asked? That's right: you no longer get a tin of toffee in the mail. No! Worst day ever!
I received a note in the mail recently. Addressed to me, obviously, but in my own handwriting. A strange sense of familiarity struck as I stared at it, trying to figure out when exactly I'd addressed it. In Boston? In San Francisco? Maybe it was a mistake, a card I'd meant to send to someone else but accidentally sent back to myself (stranger things have happened). I stared at the envelope turning it over and over in my hands--still nothing. I opened it to find a single card with my name printed at the top.