I have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you're 32-- an in between time when, in my case, you're no longer a child but don't yet have children of your own. The magic doesn't descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.
Most of the recipes I feature on the site are things I've bookmarked and planned out -- I don't often just whip something up on a whim, take a photo, and blog about it. Until this week. Don't get me wrong. I had a recipe planned for you (and it'll appear next week instead. And it's quite wonderful). But this week has brought about some bumps in the road and unexpected surprises. If you could call them that.
A few days after Thanksgiving, Sam and I found ourselves at Elmwood Cafe reading books and drinking giant soy mochas out of ceramic bowls. I'd been flipping through Lucky Peach magazine and the article On Perfect Moments caught my attention. In it, Daniel Patterson talks about searching for perfect moments and how they pop up when you least expect or plan for them. Since he's a chef, he frames the discussion in terms of cooking with fennel and how most cooks don't think to use the green fennel buds that haven't flowered yet. He says, "What appeals to me about these fennel buds is how they reflect this idea of paying attention, of recognizing perfect moments. Right now is the only moment that fennel plants will yield this particular flavor."
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
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.
It's undeniably September, but I'm going to refrain from writing that kind of a post. On evening runs, it's getting darker just a touch earlier and, like clock-work, summer is kicking into swing full-force in the Bay Area. We're good for Indian summers and we're also known for forgetting they happen each and every year. We all walk around shocked that it's hot in September when it's always hot in September. So while I'm excited for all that fall brings, let's look back at summer for just a second and then talk about cake, shall we?
Melty popsicles on the first weekend of September. Banana popsicles, to be exact, with a little bourbon and brown sugar. Thoughts of an Indian summer, a little jaunt here in one week, and choosing to linger -- over morning coffee, evening drinks, a good book. Choosing not to linger over the television, online to-do lists, or starting to think about the holidays.
We all want for things. Whether you care to admit it or not, it could be an actual possession like a new pair of jeans or an espresso machine or it could be for someone to swoop in and pay off your credit card bills or your student loan payment. Perhaps it's a much-deserved vacation with your sweetheart or having Labor Day off from work. More time to work-out and write letters or organize the garage. Maybe we wish for warmer summer evenings ... or cooler summer evenings. But this week I met a pretty wonderful woman who assured me she has it all. She wants for nothing.
So apparently it's June. And maybe you're in a part of the country that's been having more summery, balmy weather than we have had here in the Bay Area. Maybe you've already been grilling and have bought yourself a new pair of flip-flops. Because I know it's happening out there. I've been eyeing some sweet J. Crew sandals myself and am thinking about swimsuits, soft-serve ice cream and canoes over the 4th of July weekend. But right here, right now at my little school-house desk, I haven't been seeing too, too much of that.
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.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
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'm not at all a New Years person. I was trying to think about a memorable New Years that I've had and I actually can't recall a one. Oh wait, I take that back. I do remember one New Years in college that involved a bathtub and a really bad taxi ride. But that's another story altogether. I'm also not the kind of person who has any desire to get all anxious about making plans, really good plans, better plans than any year before. It just seems like a lot of work. I had a boss once who would ride her bike up this great peak in Boulder, CO and spend the day alone. Just hanging and thinking and setting intentions for the year ahead. This is much more my style than expensive prix fixe meals or hotel parties. So while I didn't ride up any major peaks today, I did bake a pie. A simple lemon pie -- so simple, in fact, that the Shakers used to make this very same recipe well over a hundred years ago. It's bright in citrus flavor with a rich, buttery crust that will make you smile. You do want to use Meyer lemons if you can get your hands on them. They're not at all bitter and make for a truly magical pie. You deserve no less on New Years Day.
Last week at my favorite yoga class, the instructor started talking about the concept of Remembering Forward. It'd been a long tough class and my mind was wandering over to latte land, but as I half listened, the concept grabbed me. It goes something like this: Imagine one year from today. So it'd be November 17, 2011. Now imagine one area in your life that you want to work on or make a change in. This could be your relationship, a friendship, work. Anything. Think about one specific change that you'd like to see happen in that area, and then you turn to a friend or your partner and you play the 'Remembering Forward' game. You're now in November 2011 and that change you wanted to see happen? It did. Your dialogue with your friend or partner makes it come alive. For example, when I was listening to the instructor talk about the concept I started running through what mine would look like:
Mary Oliver is a wise woman. I'd love to have tea with her someday. Or take a really long walk. Apparently she loves birds and I could pretend that I really loved birds for that one afternoon (I hate birds). But in all seriousness, she's one fine poet and has given me great perspective on living life to the fullest and coming to terms with death. I came across one of her poems last week and have been rereading it almost daily ever since. It's a good one. I want to share it with you and then we're going to talk light, fluffy cupcakes and salted caramel. Deal?
Last week was a whirlwind of flour, sugar, cool fall evenings, early morning drives to the industrial part of the city and some new baking friends. I enrolled in a one-week intensive baking course through San Francisco Baking Institute in methods and ingredient functionality. It was fascinating to learn the science behind what I do and love (the "why's and "how's" lurking behind recipes and formulas). I haven't done the whole commute thing in a long, long time so after a few days of really bad morning radio I gathered up a new play list. And you know what I've found about this particular playlist? Not only is it fabulous for weaving in and out of traffic on Highway 101, it's also great for shaking your booty while you're making butterscotch 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.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one:
Today we've got cookies and sisters on our hands. You may remember me talking about Zoe, my youngest sister, and the weekend she graduated. But I'm not sure that I've talked a whole lot about Rachael. She's the middle sister in our family and loves to cook and eat as much as I do (see proof below). Actually, she's a far better cook than I am. She's one of those intuitive kitchen people who just wings it without a recipe. Confidently. And it all turns out just fine. There's another area where Rachael and I differ in the kitchen: she's a planner, menu-writer, and list maker. Now, don't get me wrong: I love a good list. But I'm not the kind of person who maps out what I'll prepare and eat for the week, makes a shopping list, and lets that list dictate what I buy at the grocery store.
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.
So my blog's birthday came and went. I was never the type of person to bake my blog a cake (although I think it's awesome that some of you do) but I have to say, I was surprised when I realized the other day that it's been just over a year since I started. How'd that happen? Birthdays are cool for a few reasons. First and most importantly, cake. Second, cards and family and friends and a check from your grandma. If you're a member of my family and you happen to be home at the time, you get to wear the beat up, pink glittery birthday crown. That thing's been around the block. Let me tell you. But the other cool think I notice as I get older is the element of reflection when birthdays roll around--thinking about the past year and how you want the next year to pan out. I began A Sweet Spoonful never having published a piece of writing but always wanting to. I started it late one night on a complete whim figuring at least it was one place where I'd see my work in print. Now, one year later, I'd call myself a writer. I started out with small local publications, peeing my pants with each acceptance letter and now you can occasionally find me in national rags and, if you flew Frontier this winter, you saw me in your trusty in-flight magazine. I talked about fried chicken and grits and all my friends who read it had a good chuckle.
Do you ever play the 'if only' game with yourself? It goes something like this: "if only I had a Mini Cooper, I'd be happy" or "if only I'd studied harder, I would've gotten into a better college" or "If only I had a bigger apartment, everything would be fine." Of course you do. We all do. My 'if only' game is kind of more like a neurosis and an obsession rather than a fun hypothetical consideration. The earliest I remember it showing its ugly face? 5th grade. All of my friends brought those packaged pies from the grocery store -- the ones filled with bright yellow lemon filling, gooey chocolate pudding, or glowing fake cherry. My mom packed me carrots, hard boiled eggs, and healthy sandwiches. I was convinced my life would be better if I had pies in my lunch. I'd be happier, certainly. I remember eying those pies on a daily basis and wondering what the hell was wrong with my family. If only.
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.
So here's what a day off looks like--a day off nearing the second half of June where I try to squeeze in way too many things because I know I won't have another leisurely day in awhile. Is that what you do on your days off? Oy. There was a double espresso with almond milk, my favorite yoga class, and plenty of ball with Noel: There were also drop biscuits to make. Whole wheat drop biscuits from Good to the Grain to be more specific. There were also strawberries to wash and slice. My sister's boyfriend flew in tonight from Philly and I wanted to make dessert but didn't have much time. Solution: drop biscuits with strawberries and cream.
We had a bit of a heat wave in the Bay Area this past weekend. Saturday, in particular. There's nothing like coming off of a long flight from China and having your typically foggy city greet you with blazes. I mean really, there was no easing into summer. But it's no problem. I've gotten my cotton skirts out of storage and plan on wearing them all summer long. That and flip-flops and high ponytails. There will be iced coffee in the mornings and lots of leg-dangling in my mom's pool. What is a problem, however, is even thinking about turning on the oven to bake during the summer. But I've found a solution. Its name is slump. Do you know slumps? If not, you should. I'll introduce you.
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.
When I graduated from college, I didn’t want to go to all the ceremonies. I felt above it all. Don’t get me wrong--I was glad that I'd finished, but I went to a school the size of my entire hometown, and felt I’d just be lost in the crowd during graduation. But my mom talked to me about the importance of ceremony in your life—milestones deserve their moment. And she’s right. Ceremony and a little pomp and circumstance sort of force you to reflect on your accomplishments. Otherwise, something as big as a college graduation or a wedding would be just another day that, eventually, you wouldn’t remember apart from the rest. You need finality, you need reflection, and you need to share and celebrate accomplishments with others.
It strikes me as very odd that I've never written about ice cream here. This is because it's my very favorite food of all time. I won't admit how frequently I eat ice cream each week--hopefully family members will practice restraint with their comments on this particular post. But really, ice cream makes me very happy. Growing up, Bon Boniere was our little local ice cream shop downtown. Sometimes when I'd get home from school, my mom would promise that if I was lucky, maybe my dad would feel like going out for a cone later. Then the obsessing would begin: M & M or Bubblegum? It was like my mantra as the Brady Bunch wrapped up and dinner time grew near. I'd hear my dad pull up the driveway and know that I should give him a few minutes to put down his briefcase before I bombarded him with the all-important question of the evening: can we go?