My friend Autumn recently pointed out an article in The New York Times all about living alone. Not like me in my city apartment, but like folks who choose to be fiercely independent and move somewhere isolated where they can truly be away from it all. The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, profiles three individuals (all men, interestingly enough) and discusses their compulsion to live in isolation. One man describes a feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself: "you don’t have to answer to anybody.” There's also a feeling of self-sufficiency. Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. A 27-year-old British man spent the last year living in a hut he built in Sweden as a way of being environmentally responsible. Regardless of the justification (and I suppose there doesn't really need to be one) "Embracing the Life of Solitude" made me really think about what it means to deliberately choose to be by yourself.
It's been a long weekend. Not long like 'yay, it's a holiday' long. More like 'hours piling onto hours piling onto more hours' long. I'm pretty firm about this remaining a food blog, so I won't bore you with the details of what's been going on in my life. But let's just say I'm cooking more for one now than for two. Moving has a way of highlighting problems rather than solving them. So after twelve years of comfort, stability, laughs, road trips, cups of coffee, holidays, birthdays together, apartments spanning the country--I'll be spending a bit more time alone. I've actually written this paragraph many times trying to just come out and say it. So there it is. And I've had enough sleepless nights, tears, and a rather lousy appetite because of it. So hell. Today it was time to bake a cake.
I started writing this post numerous times, trying to figure out how to just come out and say it. I skirted around the issue. I sugar-coated it. But here, I'll just come out with it: I stole this cookbook. No really, I full-on stole it. And it's fabulous. Now let me explain: This fall, I was an intern at a local weekly paper here in San Francisco. It started out strong with assignments, bad coffee, and seminars touching on San Francisco history and politics. I was engaged. I envisioned a future with me traipsing about the city covering local food and culture. I wouldn't make much money, but I'd be happy. And well-fed. But in a very short time, the support faded and I found myself at a dark, windowless desk trying to look busy and not sulk that nothing I ever wrote seemed to make it to the right person's desk. The scheduling of the internship was such that I couldn't accept a full-time job anywhere, and I was the oldest intern by a solid ten years. I kept telling myself it could go somewhere. Who knows? In the meantime, I got to know Twitter. I did a little online shopping. I taught myself photo editing techniques, and learned a little hmtl code. I even wrote letters to relatives I hadn't seen in way too long. The high point of each day was checking the mail. I spent way more time on the task than my fellow interns, making piles for the appropriate editors and studying the upcoming events and book releases to see what might be worth checking out. And then, there were the days when publishers and PR folks would send books, cd's, free tickets and the like. So now you can see where this is going. On a particularly dreary and stormy afternoon, my editor received a recipe compilation from the editors at Food & Wine entitled, Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes. In it, the they'd gone through the most exciting cookbooks from 2009 and pulled their favorite dishes. Ah hah. It must be mine. I looked around and slid it into my welcoming messenger bag. I know, I know--stealing's never good. Even if you are a jaded, overqualified intern. And after a mere few hours, my conscience started to get the best of me. So I left a note. It went a little something like this. Dear ______ (overworked editor): You got a cookbook in the mail today and I'm borrowing it for research purposes. Let me know if you ever need it back. Thanks, Megan (intern in the back left corner). There. Phew. Now it wasn't technically stealing. And guess what? The editor that rarely published my pieces also never checks her mail. Imagine that. Three months later, that note's probably still sitting there. Lucky for us because now I can share these cookies with you.
I'll keep this short and sweet because, let's be honest, we've all got things to attend to. Somehow I woke up this morning staring December 21st in the face and none too pleased about it. We always talk about how we can't believe it's already such and such holiday/season/milestone, but this year it's really true. I blinked and it was almost over. So hopefully you have things a little more under control than I do at the moment. I got an exciting temporary writing job so I've been hunkering down in my pj's writing online copy while trying to check things off my holiday list: wrapping, card-writing, packing up boxes (YES, we found a place and I can't wait to tell you all about it). At my yoga class a few days ago, the instructor was talking about what a magical time of year it is and she started going on and on about our dynamic energy fields. I'll admit it, I tuned out in the midst of my downward dog. But something she said resonated with me: across so many cultures and religions, at this particular moment in the year, millions of people are celebrating their holidays and beliefs. When that many people start devoting their energy towards something good-- looking inward and celebrating with family and friends--it does something to the energy around all of us. It may be a little out there for you. In some ways, it's a little out there for me. But there's always that moment when I feel Christmas come on, that little tugging inside that reminds you what magic and belief feel like--and that's what I think she was alluding to. So here's to hoping you get everything done on your list in the coming days. But even more importantly, here's to hoping you find some light and that you can step into the playfulness, anticipation, and awe of the season...if only for a few moments. Now let's get right to business with three simple words: Eggnog Popcorn Balls. I came across this recipe on Chow.com recently and couldn't wait to try it.
Thanksgiving came and went in a flash. It's always so odd how we think and plan and make lists and have dreams about rolling out pie dough...and then it's all old news. I hope your day was relaxing and wonderful. Wasn't the long weekend incredible? I took a photography class on Saturday, and we meandered around the Mission shooting murals, rusty cars, and cafes. I don't often get the chance (or take the chance) to really slow down and notice the stray dandelions growing in the sidewalk cracks or the way a bike is leaned precariously against a red garage door. I noticed these things on Saturday. I came home knowing all about histograms, setting a custom white balance, and organizing photos in Lightroom. But more than that, I had an opportunity to spend the whole day slowing down and exploring alleys, graffiti, and community gardens. I went home feeling nourished. We all focus so much on nourishing or feeding our bodies during Thanksgiving--but it's important to think about what nourishes and keeps the rest of you going, too. What excites you, inspires you, makes you want to wake up in the early hours of the morning and hit "go?" Lately for me, it's my photography, stunning books like A Year of Mornings, the way the afternoon light shines into my bedroom and how my dog Maddie knows exactly where to find it, knit hats, blogs like this and this and this, drops of eggnog in my coffee, routine, linen napkins.
Although it's one of my favorites, I haven't had a piece of pumpkin pie yet this fall. Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did have a few bites of a piece from Mission Pie but that doesn't really count. I seem to have a tendency to over-do it with pumpkin pie and get a little tired of it before Thanksgiving. So I wait, thinking of other ways to use pumpkin. I was leafing through my recipe binder the other night and stumbled across this recipe for Pumpkin Semolina Cake. Semolina flour is available in most supermarkets, so you shouldn't have much trouble finding it. It's often used to make homemade pasta and pizza dough because it has a higher gluten percentage, making pasta stretch easily rather than breaking apart. While Italians use it for pastas, it's traditionally used in Greece, North Africa and the Middle East to make crumbly baked goods. Because of the high egg content in this recipe, the cake is almost pudding-like with a large, moist crumb (thanks to the semolina flour). I'd never baked a cake in a water bath before, although I'd heard of people doing so with cheesecakes. It turns out, it's a common practice with delicate foods and egg-based desserts (of which this is one) because it allows them to cook at a lower, even temperature. This cake is best served warm with a dollop of homemade whipped cream. And I think it's especially nice served with cinnamon or mint tea. It should tide me over until Thanksgiving when I'll savor my first real piece of pumpkin pie. However, I loved this cake so much that--dare I say--it could even be a nice substitute.
I have a confession. I'm reading Twilight. It's ironic in a lot of ways. When I was teaching, my students were always dying to get me to read it. Nah, too busy kids. Translation: SO below me. But I've been sneaking around, reading it deliberately face down in public places and keeping it on the DL when talking to friends. I know it's silly. I shouldn't be ashamed. But for someone who has an advanced degree in English literature and is generally a little snobby about their reading material... it's a new thing for me. And you know what? It's amazing. I can't remember the last time I read something for no other purpose than to escape. Obviously I read for information or for a nice story/plot, but more often than not, I read to admire the craft of an author. So as I'm still struggling to find a full-time job and getting a little more antsy with each passing day, I've also decided to try and be gentle with myself. It's cool. Watch Mad Men in the middle of the day. Why not? Someday (hopefully soon) I'll look back on this day and marvel that I had the time to do such a thing. And in that vein, I've decided to loosen up the reading reigns and have at a little trash. Why not? Got something better to do? So I'm unstoppable now. As any Twilight reader will tell you, these books are rather addicting. No they're not written well...at all. But there's something appealing about Stephanie Meyer's quick prose and the way she taps into your long-lost high school psyche. Yesterday I wanted to whip up a little snack to go with my daily dose of vamp-lit. And I knew exactly what it would be: I bought this sweet little apple pie mold at Williams Sonoma and had been waiting for just the right time to make these individual pockets. It turns out they're the perfect companion to shameful afternoon reading.
As many of you know, Linnea and I currently live at my mom's house. It's a long story that involves my mom going back to graduate school, the family dogs, her eventually moving home, and me losing my job. It's very temporary and while I never envisioned being thirty and living at home--really, it's wonderful. I've gotten to spend so much time with my mom: sitting at the counter watching her cook; obeying her nonsensical driveway parking rules; talking about books, celebrities, Obama's charm. But Linnea and I have set a date that January 1 we'll be moving out. It's time. I can't wait to live right in the city, where you can get a piece of pizza after 9 p.m. (you can't get anything after 9 p.m. in Marin) and walk out your door in the morning to grab a cup of coffee and hop on the bus. I miss the constant buzz of a city, the way the sun glints off the buildings, and the proximity of your neighbors. That being said, Linnea, my mom and I all had a lovely (albeit quiet) suburban Halloween. We baked, we drank, we ordered a pizza, we drank some more, we carved pumpkins, and we handed out mini candy bars to the --drumroll, please-- one trick-or-treater who dropped by. I had big plans for my pumpkin this year. I was going to carve a cupcake on the front, and it was going to be epic. Well suffice it to say, my vision fell flat (pumpkin below is mine, the two below that are my mom's and Linnea's). Blame it on failing high school geometry or that second glass of wine, but it really ended up looking like a pumpkin with the entire front carved out. Oh well. At least one thing turned out just as planned: Rose Levy Beranbaum's English Gingerbread Cake.
It's raining, it's before 8:00 a.m., and I'm eating cookies for breakfast. But these aren't just any cookies: they're made without egg, so they're almost more like pumpkin drop biscuits. They're amazing with hot coffee and the latest episode of Dexter. I got back from Jean's memorial last night and have given myself this day to hunker down a little, do some laundry, nap, hang out with the dogs, read, watch movies...whatever. Since my folks moved to the Bay Area when I left for college, I don't go back to my hometown for holidays--or for much, really. So going back to Eureka is always odd. Sometimes I feel nostalgic walking around the quaint downtown, getting a bagel at Los Bagels, or going to the park. But this trip was, obviously, a different one filled with days that seemed to go on forever, family friends I haven't seen in fifteen years, and new friends from Boston that Jean loved dearly (and I can see why). So it was mentally exhausting for many reasons. And today I'm just laying low. I do have a few people coming over to potentially purchase my Vespa (cross your fingers!), but other than that, this could be a stay-in-your-pj's kind of day. And these are the perfect laying low cookies.
This dessert came to be for a few reasons. One: it's the first day of fall and this seems like the perfect bridge-into-autumn dessert, using late summer berries and incorporating Bosc pears from the farmers market. Two: I've been awfully into rustic, free-form desserts lately. Recently, Linnea was up in Sonoma--ambling around the square with her mom--and brought home a book called Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson. Both are from Portland, OR and Julie owns a little small-batch bakery there by the name of Baker and Spice. She started out selling her tarts and crumbles at the farmers market...and business grew. I can see why. There's just something nice about unfussy desserts with a reliable crust that showcase beautiful, seasonal fruit. The ingredients are simple: mainly butter, sugar, buttermilk, eggs, and fruit. And the method almost seems intuitive, as if you're keying into something that people have been doing the same way for years and years.
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.