Here we are: a rare, quiet afternoon with blocks strewn all over the living room floor, leftover coconut rice and cucumber salad for lunch, and the front yard strewn with fall leaves. I'm behind on business bookkeeping and was going to try to borrow a neighbor's lawnmower to mow our back grass, but instead thought I'd sit down and share a recipe with you, which I've been working away at slowly instead of rushing urgently, feeling like you all MUST HAVE CAKE in your life this very minute. I mean, don't get me wrong: this cake is a MUST HAVE CAKE kind of cake, but after listening to an episode of Death, Sex and Money with Ellyn Burstyn talking about the importance of having "should-less days," I've taken more time than usual with this one, giving myself a little more grace with all the niggling "shoulds" that prevail.
This cake came about around 8:30 a.m. this past Monday, a window of time in which many things seem to get done as it's when Oliver goes down for his first nap. Sam had made a legendary fried rice with lots of mushrooms and fish sauce for dinner the night before, so I was snacking on leftovers with a cup of coffee and racing around the kitchen trying to finish measuring and whisking before Oliver woke. The goal was to bake something sweet (but not too sweet) to take with me to work the next day, and I knew of just the thing. In no time, the oven was preheating, I was on my second cup of coffee, licking the spoon, and patting myself on the back for pulling together homemade cake batter in under twenty minutes -- all while silently deeming Sam the fried rice master of the universe. Or at least, our house.
For many years, I've always made a summer to-do list. I usually set to work on it right at the beginning of June when the days feel long and ripe with possibility. The list often involves things like learning to bake sourdough bread or making homemade ricotta, doing an epic hike I'd read about in a local magazine, training for a marathon, or reading specific novels. It is always a pretty aspirational list, and I generally don't make much of a dent in it -- resulting in the guilty feeling come late August that I'd wasted too many lazy afternoons when I could've been baking sourdough or making ricotta or doing memorable, epic hikes. But this summer is going to be a bit different: there will be no list. We wait so long in Seattle for long stretches of sunny days, and now that it stays late until 9:30 (or later?), I want to see more of our friends and find stretches of time to do not much of anything except catch up, tan our legs and eat farmers market berries. That's my list.
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.
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!
Lately I've been waking up like clockwork at 7:30, rolling out of bed and getting right to work. I'm up a good hour before Sam on most days, so I start the coffee and sit down at our breakfast nook and begin prioritizing emails. Some days I don't get up again until it's time for lunch (it's been a big month: more on that very soon), and work can really cloak the whole day in a way that can make it tough to differentiate a Tuesday from a Saturday. And then a book and a conversation can change that quite suddenly, too, and introduce a new morning routine. Even if just for a day or two. Such was the case with these whole-grain pancakes.
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.
I moved to Seattle last February so this January business is all new to me. I remember pulling into the city in the U-Haul we lovingly named Hugh on a sunny February afternoon. We were eager with anticipation and hope, schlepping everything into the house in tee-shirts with a few strong helpers and occasional mild cursing. Seattle really made a showing that day. I'm gathering that wasn't exactly typical, although I really do appreciate the gesture. This year the winter mornings have not been warm enough to encourage tee-shirts. They've been quiet, extremely cold but -- lately -- startlingly sunny. That bright light, despite the layer of ice on my car, has helped get me to yoga when I'd much rather stay inside nursing a cup of coffee. It's been enough to inspire me to send letters to old friends, organize all of my tax documents, make some pretty great oatmeal and take long winter walks with Sam. I'm not letting myself have the space or the moment or the luxury to miss those warm summer days that now seem like a distant memory. I know they'll come back (they will, right?). For now, there's just putting one foot in front of the other, getting my work done, and sneaking out in that light whenever it decides to make a showing.