I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there’s a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter — about what’s in the book and about what’s so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I’m always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.
In a recent interview with IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), Hamilton spoke about being both a cook and a writer:
I love them both. I particularly rely on how they act as antidotes and complements to each other. It’s nice to dedicate yourself to writing and the larger thoughts that writing requires after you’ve spent 12 solid hours trying to sort out how many oysters you need for a party and where am I going to get the lavender for that event…you know, cooking preoccupies you with many little mundane things. The writing is an antidote to that. Equally, when you’re searching out one of those elusive things in writing…your sentences are dead on the page, you can’t express than thought…it can be very nice to just get on the line, grill the fish and send it out. It’s so practical and accomplishable and clean and simple.
I thought about this paragraph for a while. It’s true that baking pies each week doesn’t require a whole lot of thought. In fact, in many ways it’s routine and even rote. Cut butter into flour, prep fruits and nuts, roll out the dough, crimp the edges. Repeat. But then you see sheet trays of golden brown and bubbling pies come out of the oven–a completed task–and you go home. Maybe you go on a run, make some dinner, do something other than bake a pie because you’re done baking pies for the night. Kitchen work has that ‘pump it out and get it done’ thing going on. Writing, on the other hand, is more thoughtful, stimulating, and intellectually challenging. It feeds the mind in a way that baking does not. But I’ll tell you one thing: you rarely ‘pump it out and get it done’ with writing. Writing doesn’t take a day off. Writing moves quietly into your apartment, your shower, your closet, your garage. Even your car. Writing sits right down at your kitchen table and doesn’t budge. Writing is relentless in this way. And that’s why I need it, too.
Later in the same interview, Hamilton speaks about stumbling upon her career path: This is just where I ended up. I have some sliver of talent, so it’s nice to do what you’re good at. And I do like the work of cooking very much. It’s engaging and honest work, and it feels healthy and good at the end of the day.
It’s true that not everyone chooses what they do for work. Some people fall into it, some people are shoved into it. Others simply need to pay their bills and found something close to home. But I think regardless, it’s important to have something that you feel good at– however large or small. And something that engages your mind in different ways. Whether it’s a routine that you do over and over and find comfort in or an ever-dynamic task that challenges and ignites you. Or I think, ideally, some combination of the two.
And as far as combinations and pairs and perfect marriages go, crumbly scones and lightly spiced pumpkin butter are pretty high up there on my list. These scones are inspired by Marion Cunningham’s Oatmeal Raisin Scone recipe in The Breakfast Book although I’ve ultimately used less sugar and whole-grain flours here. Also, when Sam was last in town, he picked up a little container of dates at a Middle Eastern grocery (Persian, Sam says) in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been wanting to bake with them ever since, so these scones morphed into Oatmeal Date Scones with a little orange zest and nutmeg for warmth — the perfect vehicle for a dollop of homemade pumpkin butter.
If you’ve yet to use oat flour, it has a really nice, mild sweetness that works well with muffin and scone recipes. And I love working with King Arthur’s white whole-wheat flour. To use it for the entire recipe would result in a clunkier scone, but the percentage of whole-grain flours here is pretty close to perfect. The trick is to work quickly so as not to let the butter get to warm. Also, you may find the dough to be a little on the wet side; that’s o.k. Use flour liberally when you’re shaping and cutting them and you’ll be just fine. Since it’s just me in my apartment, I froze these scones and have been quickly heating them in the stove each morning. They freeze beautifully.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a medium-sized bowl, quickly whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cubed butter and, using your hands or a pastry cutter, rub or cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small, course peas. Do this quickly so the butter won’t warm too much. It’s o.k. to have a few larger chunks of butter. Add the oats, dates, orange zest and nutmeg and stir with a fork to combine. Add the buttermilk and stir until the dough gathers together in an uneven ball (I use my hands at this point).
Take out a large wooden board (or use a clean table surface) and sprinkle generously with flour. Dump out the dough onto the board and roll around in the flour to coat the exterior. Quickly gather the dough into a ball and pat/push it down so it’s circular in shape and about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges depending on how large you like your scones. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly brown.
Adapted from: Turntable Kitchen
Combine all of the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir the mixture often to ensure it doesn’t stick or burn. After about 20-25 minutes, the mixture will darken in color and thicken–it’s ready!
Now you can transfer it to nice glass jars and refrigerate for 10-12 days.
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?)