Little Bits at a Time
In just a little over one month, I’ll be sending off the manuscript for the cookbook and breathing a huge sigh of relief. Now, at this very moment, I’m rifling through a desk full of notes, revisions, to-do lists, ingredient conversions, and word-count spreadsheets. It is the opposite of breathing a sigh of relief and yet, Sunday afternoon rolled around and I wanted to be in the kitchen like I used to be. Without notes or computers or spreadsheets, but instead with a recipe I was excited about, a little music, and my own thoughts. No pressure to get anything perfect, no brainstorming about flavor profiles — just a bowl of flour and sugar, citrus to zest, and butter to cream.
I recently filled out a brief survey about myself for a teaching engagement this winter. When asked what I felt I was good at, the first thing that came to mind was work. Then I thought, I can’t possibly say I’m good at work: I need something more interesting. What’s my second choice? And I stalled. And stalled. And then felt really troubled that I was stalling so much. So I caved and wrote down “my work” and briefly explained that I was very much a first child in the sense that if I set my mind to something, I get it done.
When I was in talks with publishers about the cookbook and the question of timelines came up, my agent asked me if I could do the book in a little over six months as that was what the publisher wanted. I’d never done a book before; I had absolutely no clue if I could, but I knew that I would. And I knew I’d say yes to her, and to them. For the first time in my life, I said a resounding yes and signed a resounding contract to something I had absolutely no idea if I could do. I just kept telling myself and others that it’d get done somehow. So while I suppose I wish I had something a bit more exotic to put in the blank of that questionnaire (tango or rock climbing or flying small planes), right now my mind is firmly planted in the work that I do, and guess what? It’s getting done!
Everyone says you learn something about your process once you get towards the end of your first book. I always kind of shrugged that off, thinking that I’d been cooking and baking for years and writing about food for some time — what more was there really to learn? Well I’ll tell you: I’ve gotten to the point of the manuscript where I’m doing much less creating in the kitchen and much more revising of work and recipes I’d written many months ago. Going through those recipes, it’s clear I’ve learned a lot. The revision process is looking to be long. I’m spending lots of time tightening up, clarifying, re-testing, and adding in useful information for home cooks on planning ahead and adapting.
As many of you know, I used to be a teacher. So when I think about learning, I think about actively being taught a skill or teaching someone something new. Writing this book hasn’t looked like that. No one has taught me how to write the book, no one taught me how to create or write a recipe — at times, I certainly wished there were Cliffs Notes. But there just aren’t. So the only explanation I have when I sit down and compare the work I’m doing now and the work I was doing at the very beginning: I just got better from actually doing it. I suppose that’s what happens when you work and work and practice and practice. Sam can attest to the fact that I even dream about the recipes and tell him in half-sleep about the trouble I’m having with a particular oatmeal or ingredient (sometimes the ingredients are even on suitcases. Or planes). Ohhh, boy.
So while, apparently, I’m thinking about the book even in my sleep, things have finally started to feel a bit less frantic. My entire work flow has become tighter, I learned how to squeeze recipe work into the chunks of time after dinner or before heading out to bake for Marge. I can see the book’s shape now. I’m in a fortunate spot of having a month to step back, take stock, pare down, and fill in. I’m also in the fortunate spot of feeling like this will be a book that I’d like to own myself — that’s what I always wanted. To write something that I’d like. I knew if I did that, I’d done all that I could do and hopefully, others would find it useful and inspiring as well.
These cookies were the result of my “time off” in the kitchen. And I chose well. They’re from Jerusalem, the new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I talked about the book briefly when I made beet dip a few months ago. It’s a collaboration between Ottolenghi and Tamimi, two men who grew up with many of the same experiences and only lived a few miles from one another, but in very different worlds. Tamimi is Palestinian; Ottolenghi is from the Jewish part of Israel in the West and Tamimi from the Arab quarter. The collaboration is beautiful, which wasn’t shocking after delving into Plenty with gusto and glee. I have what feels like dozens of recipes bookmarked –everything from a butternut squash tahini dip to leek meatballs. Not surprisingly, the salads looks stunning and simple, and there is a semolina marmalade cake that will happen very soon in our house.
But first, these cookies. They are substantial and almost biscuity with a wonderful combination of warm spices, cocoa, citrus and raisins. The notes mention that they’re very loosely inspired by Pfeffernusse (my mom’s favorite dark and spicy Christmas cookie) but are more like an Italian spice cookie. I ended up making a few tweaks to the recipe largely because we were out of a couple of ingredients. I used part whole-wheat flour and natural cane sugar instead of white sugar as that’s what we have around these days. I also used a combination of golden and regular raisins although the recipe calls for currants. Choose which you’d like best — the raisins were wonderful and got quite plump in the brandy; I’d likely use them again.
With the exception of the changing leaves at Greenlake towards the very top of this post, these photos were taken on a recent trip to Lummi Island with Sam, my mom who was visiting from California, and my sister Rachael. We stayed at the Willows Inn, ate amazing olive bread from Bread Farm on the drive up (thank you, Ashley!), and enjoyed two completely computer-free days. Then, came home to make cookies. Enjoy.
- Yield: 15-18 cookies
This recipe is quite straight-forward and simple: a wet and dry ingredient affair. It does call for 1/2 an egg which I often find fussy, but I followed faithfully here. To do so, beat your egg and use a scale (or a keen eye) to divide it in half. Also, the recipe calls for superfine sugar, but I took my turbinado sugar and ground it down into more of a fine powder in the food processor instead. If this seems like a hassle to you, by all means use superfine sugar or white granulated sugar instead.
Slightly adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
For the cookies:
For the Glaze:
Soak the raisins in the brandy for 10 minutes. Mix together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, spices, salt, and dark chocolate. Mix well.
Put the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon and orange zest in a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment and beat to combine but not aerate much, about 1 minute. With the mixer running, slowly add the egg and mix until incorporated. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the raisins and brandy. Mix until everything is combined. Then gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it comes together and is uniform.
Divide the dough into balls the size of 3 tablespoons and shape each into a round ball. Place the balls on 1 or 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing each out about 3/4-inch. Press down gently to flatten cookies slightly. I found that they don’t spread much at all, so the shape they are going into the oven will be similar to the shape they are coming out — I did press them down quite a bit to guarantee a flat cookie. Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes (mine took 15), or until the top firms up the center is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 minutes and transfer to a wire rack. While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin, smooth icing forms. Pour 1 tablespoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie. Finish each with a pinch of candied peel placed at the center of each cookie. Store in an airtight container for a day or two.
Healthy Comfort Food
Thai Carrot, Coconut and Cauliflower Soup
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.
Cheesy Quinoa Cauliflower Bake
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.
Stuffed Shells with Fennel and Radicchio
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.
Smoky Butternut Squash and Three Bean Chili
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.
To Talk Porridge
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?)
MEGAN!! A month?! I am so inspired and impressed by you. You are doing it! You are most definitely good at your work which seems to be filled with great passion and joy. Love this post! And so excited to hear about your time in Bow. Such a sweet little town, right?!
Congratulations on your progress and for really seizing the bull by the horns and getting things done. I'm not writing a book, but a dissertation, and, given the difficulties I've had with this process (I've now been working on it for about 2 years; although different genres, your six months put me to shame!), I can't help but be impressed *and* inspired by your words. Good luck with your revisions; I've really been enjoying your recent posts about the writing process.
And these cookies look divine! I recently baked from "Jerusalem" as well; although these cookies caught my eye, I ultimately went with the Tahini Cookies since the recipe was a little less involved. These are next on my list, unless I decide to try the Chocolate Krantz cake.
Thanks so much for your sweet comment, Katy. My mom is writing a dissertation and is struggling a bit herself. You know what I think? They shouldn't give ya'll 7 years to finish it! So much time has passed for her that it becomes hard to remember your coursework, you lose focus etc. So don't be too hard on yourself! I bet the Tahini Cookies were great...these guys really are pretty simple although there are a few ingredients you may have to hunt down. Good luck with the writing + the cookies, m
Wow, what a milestone! I can't believe how quickly this process has been. I too feel similar about work because as a freelancer & as someone who has their own business, the work must get done & you have to be proud of the work you're doing. And as for those cookies, I'll be making them soon - I love spice cookies and these look like beauts.
I'm just going to say this again: love hearing the behind the scenes of cookbook-writing! The way you are able to process what you're in the midst of, well enough to write thoughts like these, well, it amazes me. Also, PS, the photos! The one of the golden trees kills me. I want to be in that photograph. Also, PPS, Jerusalem! I am so looking forward to getting my hands on that book.
Denise | Chez Danisse
Gosh, those cookies look amazing. Way to go with what seems to me a very challenging timeline. And cheers to time in the kitchen with an inspiring recipe, good music, and your own special thoughts.
I think being good at work, at whatever you set your mind to do, opens so many doors and a million opportunities. So even if you can't fly a small plane, you have much to be proud of -- including a book! I can't wait to see it. And these cookies look DELICIOUS!
Yay for making progress on the book, friend! I cannot wait to see the culmination of your months of work. Speaking of work, I think it's quite a fine thing to be proud of...being good at your work! xoxo
I couldn't help but think while reading your comment: Yay for making another human! Book schmook ... you guys are having a baby :) Thank you, friend. Look forward to hopefully seeing you in December. xx
Megan, I love the way you write because you are a great storyteller and capture such ordinary emotions, making them seem extraordinary.
Very kind words, Lori. Thank you so much. I'm glad you're (still) enjoying the blog. Hope all is well there, m
So excited for you (and us). Can't wait for your book!
Thanks, Mary! xx
I have been writing books for ten years and the process gets no easier. I know what I am doing now but the actual writing is still tough and so much self-discpline is required. You must be relieved to be so close to the end. Good luck.
Laura @ Potpourri
What a great career you have had! Teacher, food blogger and cook book author. Such an encouraging post. Thanks :)
Job well done, Megan! Well, almost done, but so close, so close... here's to a comfy finish, my friend.
Until then, yes, the Jerusalem cookbook is a gem, is it not? I myself have eyes on the several bulgar salads, those gorgeous turkey zucchini meatballs, and that butternut tahini spread, oh my! And that hummus with pine nuts. And yes, that semolina cake. And... oh, my. Not enough room in the belly!
Thanks for the cookies,
dervla @ The Curator
congrats on almost finishing the book, Meg! It's a huge accomplishment, and as an editor on the other side of things, I can only imagine how you'll feel when it's all done. I can't wait for your book!
dervla @ The Curator
oh and PS: love Jersusalem ... can't wait to get my hands on that one too.
I miss the changing colors of a fall in the NW, but I don't miss the perpetual gray sky.
I can't believe you did it in 6 months. So crazy and impressive. You are so right, you learn how to do something at the end. You find a rhythm just at the point where that rhythm is not exactly needed any longer. The journey changes now. It doesn't get easier, just different. I'll be thinking of you and please know I am always here as your friend if you need anything. I haven't mastered anything, but I have sure as hell felt all the emotions. Good luck with the last finishing touches. I can't wait :)
Tiffany the Dietitian
Beautiful pictures! And these cookies look oh-so-delicious.
I remember our brunch at that cute little place in Seattle next to the farmers' market (the name escapes me) when you told me how little time you had to create this book. But you said it with your Megan-smile, and your Megan-confidence, and it was clear you would power through and get it done. And you have.
I also think there should be a support group for partners of cookbook authors. I laughed when I read about you mumbling about recipes in bed. I (and my husband) can relate only too well.
The finish line awaits. Break that rope, lady. It'll feel good.
The way you describe these cookies makes me want to dive into a plate of them right now! Congratulations on the task before you of writing a cookbook. I love your writing style and look forward to seeing the finished product.
Great work on your book! The cookies sound amazing too.