I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70’s in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam’s been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
Now I’m not sure if we’ve chatted about this before, but I’m not the best sick person. I don’t do well just laying around, always feeling like I should at least be reading something engaging or watching an interesting movie or taking care of a writing project or two. So after waking up far too early on Sunday, my version of laying low was organizing our baking cupboard, getting our whole grain flours in order, putting on a pot of tea, and getting to work slicing rhubarb. While my to-do list was left alone, I did bake these Rhubarb Custard Crisp Bars, and I’ve been thankful to have them around. Little slices go well with tea. I’ve learned today they’re also quite nice for breakfast. The tart rhubarb is balanced with just enough sugar (they’re not at all too sweet), the spelt crust brings out a buttery toastiness, and the nutty oat topping will remind you of every good fruit crisp you’ve eaten. They’ll remind you of late spring and gentle sunshine and of not being cooped up inside.
If you’ve never worked with spelt flour before, it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great entry way into whole-grain baking, so if you often experiment with whole wheat flour and are looking for something new, today’s your day. Kim Boyce, author of my very favorite baking book, Good to the Grain, describes spelt flour as having a “slightly tart aroma” yet being “distinctly sweet.” It substitutes 1:1 for all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour for most recipes, so you can feel free to experiment away. For these bars, I used a recipe I’ve been looking forward to using from Chicken and Egg but made some significant changes, using whole-grain flour, taking down the sugar by half, and adding my crumble topping I like to use on pies and crisps. The result is a sturdier bite of rhubarb crisp, one you can actually hold in your hand and bring to the couch with you, if need be. Although they’d be just as happy, I think, outdoors on a picnic blanket.
By all means, use all-purpose or whole-wheat flour here if that’s what you prefer or have on hand. And for the crumble topping, feel free to use pecans (or any other nut) instead of walnuts. The crust is simple to make, but if you’re more comfortable working with a food processor to blend in the butter and make your crust, that will work just fine, too. Next time I bake these, I’d love to experiment by layering in some fresh sliced strawberries and sprinkling candied ginger on top.
For Crisp Topping:
For the Crust: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 11 x 7 inch glass baking pan.
Stir together the spelt flour, brown sugar and salt in a small bowl until combined. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the butter is evenly distributed and the size of small pebbles. The mixture should be dry and crumbly.
Press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the pan to form the crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is turning a nice golden brown.
For the Filling: While the crust bakes, whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and ground ginger until smooth. Add the dry mixture into the egg mixture and whisk to combine. Add the rhubarb and stir until it’s completely coated.
For the Topping: In a medium bowl, combine the spelt flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, ground ginger, and chopped walnuts. Stir to combine together. Add the melted butter and mix it into the dry ingredients (I use my hands at this point). The crisp topping should be quite clumpy. If it seems to wet or smooth, feel free to add a bit more flour or oats, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Pour the rhubarb filling over the prepared crust. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top if golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice and serve slightly warm. They are best on the day they’re made, but if you have leftovers, they keep beautifully covered and refrigerated for up to 2 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?)