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.
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.
Spice Cookies from the new cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Our days are a shuffle between yes and no, between obligations that must be tended to and doing something for ourselves to maintain our curiosity and excitement. To being a good partner, friend, daughter, sister. A negotiation, a tug and release, a push and pull. Oftentimes the pendulum swings drastically to one end, where work overtakes the day-to-day shuffle and dinner dates and lake walks and calls with old friends take the backseat. Then there are the moments when there are house guests, obligation emails, car headlights to replace, mouse traps to set and dentist appointments to keep. Work gets pushed aside, you start feeling guilty and become acutely aware of this funny thing called balance. When referring to the fullness of her summer days recently, Kelsey from the lovely blog Happy Yolks wrote: "We are living the length and width of our days." I love this sentiment for its deliberateness (hey, Wednesday, I'm going to live the heck out of you!). For me lately, it's not as much about camping and hiking and taking advantage of the lingering summer sunshine, but about taking each day and trying to squeeze an increasingly stressful work life, a little play, time with Sam, an actual home cooked meal or a trip to the grocery store into each little nook and cranny of a day. Without going crazy. Or making Sam crazy. Or both.
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.
The past few weekends have been busy ones, filled with house guests, window-box planting, and quite a few writing projects. Sam and I both love our house so much, and having people over always heightens that -- sharing the breakfast nook in the mornings and seeing the living room fill up with more than just the two of us. I love an excuse for a mid-afternoon stroll through Fremont, and a reason to fill up on chocolate samples at Theo. Of course, house guests must eat, so there's always Vietnamese food at Green Leaf and later at Tamarind Tree, beautiful salads at Sitka and Spruce, pizzas at Delancey, drinks at Ocho. Then on Monday, after a trip to the airport, there's a comparative quiet and a noticeable lack of Theo chocolate, tofu spring rolls, and Dark and Stormy's. Enter this weekend: just the two of us, garden planning and patio-sitting at our neighborhood bar. The sun was out, the breeze was warm, and sometimes beer just sounds good at 3 p.m. It was on these walks that I realized, yes, spring may have arrived in Seattle.
I have this theory that it's bad luck to talk about something until you're pretty darn sure it's going to happen. When I applied to graduate schools back East, I sent an application to Harvard. I didn't tell a soul. I actually remember walking it out to the mailbox and sending it off on its own, as if the secret might contaminate my other mail somehow. The reason? I didn't see the point in getting everyone excited about the chance I may go to Harvard if I didn't end up getting in (and, for the record, I didn't). These past few months have brought about a little bit of quiet sneakiness in their own way. For a while now, Sam and I have known I'd be moving to Seattle. I started telling a select few friends but was cautious to talk too much about it -- I wasn't sure exactly when we'd find a house or what it would look like or if we'd even like the same houses. I wanted to be very sure before sharing the big news with you, but now I can't wait to tell you: Sam and I found a very sweet craftsman house on a quiet little block with a big tree in front, a huge basement, and a backyard. And I can't stop thinking about it.
There are some things you don't question or plan for. They're the things that just happen, that unfold throughout the day or week or month. The things we don't always document or discuss because they don't really seem important enough, but that -- all the same -- so often bring us together in one way or another. Patterns or obsessions or phases. Late-night online shoe shopping. Permission to nap at odd hours. Spontaneous cell-phone photo exchanges. Maybe you can relate. Maybe lately you've been doing something similar. As you do. As we do.
Two weeks ago while Sam was visiting, we threw a small dinner party. I think it was his idea, actually. I'd yet to have a get-together in my new-ish Oakland apartment and the thought of the two of us spending an afternoon cooking for a room full of my friends was pretty darn nice.
I failed geometry in high school. Literally failed. Had to take it over the next year. And I was a really good student so this was shocking (well really, I wasn't all that shocked at all when it came right down to it). I doodled on my Converse in class and wrote moody poetry. Numbers have never been my thing. Words, yes. But not their more logical cousins. So it's been a bit of an uphill struggle these past few weeks getting the financial statements and tax stuff all squared away for Marge. I'm slowly learning Quickbooks and have some nice people helping me out (thanks Mariane and Carol!) but it's still a lot of accounting jargon. I feel like I need flash cards. Instead, I make snacks.
I picked up the most recent issue of Time Magazine to find Jonathan Franzen on the cover. I'm a big fan of Franzen and think what he does in depicting ordinary folks living ordinary lives is nothing short of genius. If you're looking for intricate plots and ax murderers, you won't find them with Franzen. But you will find average couples sitting around the breakfast table all out of milk, listening to lawnmowers in the distance and wondering why it is they got married in the first place. The good stuff. The real stuff. So while the article made me interested to read his new book Freedom, I was most struck by the way in which Franzen works--his process, his routine, his desk.
In a recent post, I mentioned that I'd just gone up to my family's Tahoe cabin for a few days with my dad. I mentioned ice cream and lounging by the lake. What I didn't mention is the grand renovation that's taken place this past year making our humble, rather tiny cabin into something a bit less humble and much less tiny. When I really think about it, our Tahoe cabin is the one stable house in my life. My folks are divorced and live in different houses than the one I grew up in, and if you've been around the blog for any period of time, you know I'm a serial mover. So the Tahoe cabin is it. It's where I've been coming at least twice a year since I was two years old. Same little town, same street. During the renovation this year, my dad just kept saying how I wouldn't believe it--how much different it was. I'd overheard conversations about reclaimed barnwood and tile, about a courtyard breezeway and flat screen TV's. So when I drove up, I'll be honest: I expected to be a little sad. I braced myself to put on a big happy face for my dad and thought of all the ways I could tell him how great it was. I figured I'd miss our funky little cabin and all its quirks. After a record breaking personal best of 3 hours and 15 minutes, I pulled up, parked, and saw a totally new house. The funny thing? I wasn't at all sad or nostalgic or disappointed. Don't get me wrong: it was different. But it was great, too. The sleeping loft was still there, the windows looking out onto the lake were still the center of the house, and the stools at the kitchen counter--all there. It just got a face life. A fancy face lift.
Summer. Barbecues, road trips, flip-flops, rope swings, a new swimsuit, homemade popsicles or rides with the windows down and feet out the window. Reading outside. Doing just about everything outside. Gardening. Sprinklers. The list could go on. Lately I’ve been thinking about the time when summer actually felt like an eternity. Remember that? The days right before you or your friends had a car and you came up with impossibly creative ways to pass the time--perhaps feeling bored and tortured, not realizing how you’d look back on those listless, empty afternoons with nostalgia and longing. During those summer days, the above list would look quite different: making chocolate chip cookie dough and eating it straight out of the bowl. On the roof. In our underwear. Or walking downtown barefoot with my best friend Kristin to buy fried rice from the one and only decent Chinese restaurant in our small town. We'd wear cut-offs and put on lots of fruity lip gloss and hope to be noticed. We’d spend hours making mix tapes and sneak bottles of Zima and clove cigarettes into the garage for a smashing afternoon of pure daydreaming. The Cure. The Flaming Lips. Sublime. Tori Amos. Kristin and I would sneak out at night and traipse around the park with boys much too old for us. Those were the days. How little we knew and how much we thought we knew. But such is adolescence. I don't really miss that. The one thing I do miss is the cadence of the days, the way they literally folded into one another into a beautiful, long swath of months we called summer.
For those of you who follow me on twitter, you've probably gathered that I'm a huge Kim Boyce fan--I really haven't been this excited and inspired by a cookbook in a long time. Perhaps ever. I had the opportunity to meet Kim last week at Omnivore Books and hear her take on the different whole grain flours she uses in Good to the Grain and how each affects the flavor and texture of her recipes. If you want a more detailed review of her book, I wrote a short piece for Bay Area Bites last week, so feel free to read more there.
As many of you may recall, I lost one of my best friends earlier this fall. It's the saddest thing I've ever gone through. Sure, I've lost folks I love very much, but they've always been older and it's never been out-of-the-blue. But Jean was my age with dreams the size of Texas and a heart of solid gold. I'm talking 24-karat. I still have moments where something happens and I think about what a kick Jean would get out of it. Lady Gaga and Elton John at the Grammy's. Jersey Shore (no one loved bad reality TV more than Jean). This Friday would've been her 30th birthday, so I'm flying out to Boston to attend the first annual "Jean-a-bration." We're celebrating a big birthday and a big life that we all miss so dearly in a big way. And you know what? There's nothing that girl liked more than a party. I know she'll be proud. I've really never tried to celebrate an event or landmark when it's tinged with this much sadness--so we'll see how it goes. I guess there's no right or wrong way to go about it. I went to graduate school in Boston and haven't been back since. So I'm excited to visit all my old haunts. I'll take photos for you and share some of my favorite places to eat when I return. And if you have any favorite Boston spots, let me know! It's been a few years since I've been back, and I hear things have changed a bit, so I'd love any suggestions. In the meantime, I wanted to leave you one of the best comfort drinks I know, perfect for heavy hearts or just a really gray afternoon: Mexican hot chocolate made with Ibarra.
Yesterday, I wrote a post for Bay Area Bites about my recent experience learning how to make Denise's Pieces, our family's very favorite Christmas treat. If you're interested in reading all about our afternoon, head on over and check it out. Otherwise, I wanted to share the recipe with you all here. First it's worth mentioning that Christmas wasn't Christmas at my house without Denise's Pieces. Denise used to work with my dad, and has since become a family friend. She is infamous for her English Toffee and sends out fifty pounds each holiday season. Her Aunt Betty taught her the recipe twenty-five years ago and she's been perfecting and adapting it ever since. Each holiday, my sisters and I argue/gorge/hoard pieces from the tin to stretch out the supply--but this year, Denise agreed to drive up to our house the day after Thanksgiving and teach us the insider secrets (lots of stirring) and the recipe.
I was peer-pressured into baking. I can't say that it's ever happened before. But recently, Jamie at Life's a Feast and Deeba at Passionate About Baking encouraged me to join them and a few other food bloggers to a "Mac Challenge": making macarons and sharing our results with each other while fielding questions via twitter. Jamie came up with the idea as it was the one thing she had shied away from for so long (macarons are notoriously difficult to make perfectly, with their long sought after "feet" on the bottom and delicate, chewy shells). I, too, tend to shy away from extremely fussy desserts. But I love the sweet, pastel-colored confections and thought I'd join in and try my hand at it. (Friday): When I got the recipe that many of the ladies were starting with first, it was in grams and I don't have a kitchen scale ("Dear Santa..."). So I found David Leibovitz's lovely recipe for chocolate macarons using volume instead and set out for greatness. My meringue looked perfect and glossy.
Our bocce team is no longer in last place. I think we're second to last-- but still, let's celebrate the small victories. Chocolate seems to help. We definitely play a little better. I noticed this when I made Katherine Hepburn's brownies a few weeks back--so last week, I decided to test Amanda Hesser's recipe for her mom's Chocolate Dump-it Cake (found in Cooking for Mr. Latte), a birthday staple in the Hesser household. I was intrigued because you make the cake all in one saucepan and I hadn't tried sour cream frosting before. Hesser claims, "For the icing, you melt Nestlé's semisweet-chocolate chips and swirl them together with sour cream. It sounds as if it's straight from the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but it tastes as if it's straight from Payard. Everyone loves it." She wasn't kidding--the icing was remarkable. It's substantial (unlike occasionally whimpy buttercream), smooth, and has a creamy chocolate depth.
For people who love brownies, these are legendary. There are a few different recipes floating around claiming to be the definitive one and there are different stories about how the brownies came to be. The one most commonly held to be true is that Liz Smith of Better Homes and Gardens went to interview Ms. Hepburn for their August 1975 issue--these are the brownies she was served. Whichever story or version you subscribe to, the reason I love Katherine Hepburn's recipe (and brownie philosophy in general) is because she believes in using very little flour. A belief I share. If you are a "cakey," thick brownie person, these may not be for you. But if you like thinner, chewier, denser brownies--keep reading. These are super easy-you make them in the saucepan itself, so very few dishes. I made a small change: the original recipe calls for 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate and they yield a really nice, mild brownie. I make mine with 3 oz. chocolate which notches up the dense, rich flavor.