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.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.
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 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 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.
I wrote to a friend today lamenting the fact that our fridge is filled largely with leftover grains. And some beer. It's like college, with farro and wheat berries replacing the cold pizza. I had grand visions, when Sam was on the train, that I'd try a few recipes I'd been cutting out of magazines and make proper meals for myself. There were to be the green chile enchiladas or the Moroccan braised chicken. Or even a simple homemade tomato sauce. Instead, I ate pudding. And pumpkin beer. The first night I thought it kind of novel and fun: look, it's like when I lived alone! The second night I admitted it to only Sam on the phone. The third night I thought there may be something wrong. So much for the enchiladas and braised chicken. So much for that tomato sauce. Clearly what I really wanted was some chocolate pudding.
As you're reading this, I'm probably in my little Volkswagon driving five hours North to visit Jean. Remember Jean? She's my dear friend who, exactly one year ago, was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street in Brooklyn. I remember what I was wearing and doing and feeling the second I heard the news. I'll never forget that sleepless night--looking back, I know I was completely in shock and the realization would only slowly sink in. Still today, every single time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge I think of Jean. I'm not really sure why except maybe because of how much she loved the city and how she wanted to move here someday, have a family and settle down.
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.