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.”
And sometimes in the midst of holiday traffic, family dynamics, and dozens upon dozens of pies it can be difficult to slow down and pay attention. There are weeks of shopping lists, crowded grocery lines, and hostess gifts where everything can just happen to you. In a wonderful whirlwind kind of way, but still, the days seem to take off. With or without you. And that’s why I’m so thankful for this past Tuesday.
A day we kicked off with donuts. More donuts than I’m going to admit to you right now. We had bad diner coffee and learned quite a bit about lottery tickets and the very fine distinction between a buttermilk glazed donut and an old-fashioned glazed donut. Important stuff on a weekday morning, let me tell you.
With a small cup of coffee to-go, we drove out to West Marin in search of eventual oysters, perpetual rolling hills and occasional sunshine. After a wrong turn that took us to the town of Inverness, we slowly made our way back to Highway 1 and to the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. We bought over-priced charcoal and a dozen oysters. Our picnic table neighbors offered us some of their little-bit-warm Moscato wine and an older couple with a German Shorthair Pointer set up a very proper picnic (good mustard, nuts, crusty bread) a few tables away. We perfected the art of eying when an oyster is ready to come off the barbecue and met the resident cat who set up camp on top of my bag.
After we’d finished our last oyster we drove towards Point Reyes Station in search of a cup of coffee before heading home. It was that time of day where afternoon has decided to retire but evening isn’t quite ready to make an appearance. Still, quiet air was punctuated by the occasional bird landing on the water or a car passing by. We strolled into a kitschy souvenir shop and discovered harmonicas for sale. Sam bought two and we chatted with the women there about local businesses and politics. We left and walked towards The Station House Cafe while breaking in our harmonicas. I told Sam I’m a natural. After a few days of practicing, I still believe this to be true.
We sat at the bar, ordered Irish Coffees, read our books, chatted with the bartender, and people-watched. A once sunny horizon turned thick with fog and we ordered another drink to share. I’m never one to complain about strong drinks, but let’s just say after about an hour it become apparent that we weren’t driving home right away. So a burger happened along with french fries and a Manhattan. And popovers also happened. In a big way. In such a big way that we asked for another basket of them after our meal. I’m not sure if it was the salty ocean air or the slight tipsiness but the popovers tasted like one of the better things I’d had to eat in quite some time. They were eggy and light and we slathered butter on them and I laid my head on Sam’s shoulder.
And it was then that I realized I was sitting in the midst of a perfect moment. Here it was. Without plan or expectation. Without pomp or circumstance. An early winter evening with maybe one too many drinks, a handsome man, and a brand new harmonica.
Yesterday Sam left and on my way home from the airport I picked up a dozen eggs and set about making popovers. I thought I’d make a batch that could cross over into dessert territory or breakfast territory or afternoon tea territory. So these have a little vanilla in them and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. They are quite wonderful. I ate them with just as much butter as I did at the bar that night and I recommend that’s how you eat them, too.
I hope you experienced a few perfect moments during the recent holiday. I really, truly do.
I made my popovers in a muffin tin although you can purchase a special popover pan if you’re so inclined; I’m just a fan of using what I have in my own cupboards. If you do use a popover pan, this recipe should yield 6 popovers whereas if you use a muffin tin, you’ll end up with 8. High heat is important to the success of these popovers so when you’re ready to fill your pan, remove it from the oven quickly and make sure not to open and close the oven door while they’re baking. These are really best the day they’re made. Preferably warm.
Adapted from: Cook’s Illustrated
For the Popovers:
For the Cinnamon Sugar Top:
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Blend the eggs and milk together in a blender until combined. Add flour, melted butter, salt, cinnamon and vanilla until smooth and bubbly, about one minute. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes.
While the batter is resting, it’s time to heat up the muffin pan. Pour 1/2 teaspoon of oil into each muffin cup, using only the outer 8 tins (leave the center ones empty — they won’t heat as evenly). Adjust oven rack to lowest position and make sure there’s not a rack directly above — remember your popovers are going to rise and you don’t want another oven rack to squish them. After the batter has rested 20 minutes, place pan in oven to heat the oil. You want the pan to have a good 10 minutes in the oven to heat.
After batter has rested, remove pan from the oven and, working quickly, divide batter amongst the 8 muffin cups. Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes (don’t open the oven door). Then lower heat to 350 F and continue to bake until popovers are golden brown, about 15 minutes more. After removing from the oven, gently flip them out onto a wire rack. I used a butter knife here–sometimes they take a little shimmying.
For the cinnamon sugar topping: mix the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Thoroughly brush each popover all over with the 1/4 cup of melted butter, then dredge each puff generously in the sugar mixture. Enjoy warm.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
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 didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.