Weeks ago, as Sam and I were leaving my mom’s cabin to head back to our respective cities, we stumbled upon something pretty great. Something unexpected, largely because most little towns in Vermont aren’t necessarily known for wood-fired bakeries serving Intellegentsia coffee, perfectly flaky croissants and traditional cannelés. All of that and one of the lovelier open kitchens I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
It was mid-day and we were both starving, but before deciding on a good spot for sandwiches, we strolled down the street to peek into an unassuming little bakery: Vergennes Laundry. This isn’t the kind of bakery you can just peek into and keep on walking. The space is bright and airy with thoughtful details like chunky water jugs, menus on rolls of kraft paper, a cribbage board to post special orders, and a well edited menu with a select few items done very, very well. A pre-lunch snack ensued. We tried a croissant, a gougère made with local cheddar, a crumbly shortbread cookie and a shot of espresso. Sam read the paper and I asked to sneak back into the kitchen to chat with the women about how the bakery came to be in this quiet little town.
Julianne Jones is the owner and head baker. She started out at the farmers markets and, with partner Didier Murat, raised money through Kickstarter to build the wood-fired oven, and through their innovative CSE program, raised enough to help build out the actual space. I was impressed by how calm and quiet everything was in the kitchen. It was as if they had all day to produce the savory lunch items they were working on and couldn’t imagine a place they’d rather be. Julianne wore a simple white dress, pretty linen apron and light slip-ons.
The mad hustle was replaced with a cool repose, the baggy kitchen clothing was swapped for flowy dresses more familiar with garden tea parties than production facilities, and the fluorescent lighting was traded in for beautiful natural light and pendant fixtures hung from the ceiling. I was ready to move right in.
Julianne has built a kitchen that she wants to spend time in — one that can nourish — and immediately upon entering, this is evident. When I asked her if she’s happy now that the bakery’s open and she and Didier are doing what they want to be doing, she looked up at me, paused for what felt like a full thirty seconds and said, “it’s a lot of work.” I recognized this tone: I tell people something similar when they proclaim how amazing it is that I’m following my own dream and how they wish they could do the same. But you could see a certain pride in Julianne’s eyes as she instructed one of her bakers how best to roll out a mound of dough, and commented on how great Didier’s baguette sandwiches looked. They were doing it on their own, together.
Back at the table, Sam had ordered another gougère. It was just what we both needed before lunch: light and pillowy with generous pockets of air. If you’re not familiar with gougères, many people often call them cheese puffs. They’re made from pâte à choux, a great versatile dough that you use to make cream puffs or profiteroles. Here, the only difference is the addition of savory ingredients.
So on the first night of August — what is usually a too-hot-to-bake kind of night in the Bay Area — I broke out some butter, flour, and eggs. I chopped some rosemary and retrieved my good Dijon mustard and set out to make a plate of gougères. Last week I read Ashley’s post about giving boxes of cookies away randomly. Just because. Because it’s unexpected and makes people feel good and is just not done often enough. So I planned on saving a few gougères for myself, freezing a few for Sam’s next visit, and bringing the rest to my Heath coworkers in the morning. Just because.
To recognizing and enjoying the unexpected — stumbling upon a fantastic bakery in an unassuming town, seeing dancers on your ho-hum street doing their thing, coming home to a box of cookies on your stoop, getting a pie plate in the mail from your mom for no reason, or stumbling into work and finding an airy, cheesy gougère with your name written all over it. We need more stumbling, discovering, making, giving.
This recipe is based on a classic Dorie Greenspan recipe. Reading about making the pâte à choux may initially seem a little daunting, but it’s really not. This is a pretty forgiving dough and as long as you work quickly and stir like the dickens when you add the flour, you’ll be just fine. Also, listen to Dorie when she instructs you to add one egg at at time; it’s important for the structure of the dough.
While these are fabulous reheated the next day, they’re so, so good warm right out of the oven. Since I still have some rosemary leftover from Danielle’s garden, I chopped it finely and tossed it in at the end along with a healthy dollop of good Dijon mustard. Feel free to use cheddar if you’d prefer, and add any mix of finely chopped herbs you’d like. These also freeze beautifully if you have leftovers; you can even freeze the mounds of dough before you bake them and bake them off right from the freezer (good party trick).
Position two racks into bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper (or just oil well with olive oil).
Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a vigorous boil in a heavy-bottomed small to medium saucepan over high heat. Whisk until the butter melts completely. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, and stir quickly with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a ball. Keep stirring until dough is no longer sticky and is, instead, smooth, 1-2 minutes.
Transfer the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one at a time and beat until the dough is nice and shiny. At the very end, stir in the grated cheese, mustard, chopped rosemary, and pepper.
Drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto each pan with about 2 inches of space separating each one. Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom. Continue baking until the gougères are golden, firm, and puffed, another 12 to 15 minutes. Serve warm, or transfer the pans to racks to cool.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)