A few weeks ago my Grandpa friended me on Facebook. I immediately texted my two sisters to verify that this was, in fact, Grandpa. They confirmed. And so, confused, I accepted his friend request and popped over to admire his page. It was, as you can imagine, quite bare. He’d accidentally noted that he was born in 1986 and his page boasted a small handful of friends, all quite elderly. I didn’t think much of it at that time until early last week when my mom called to let me know that now Grandpa, apparently, knew everything we were up to. I imagined him incorporating this new bit of technology into his morning routine of checking stocks, doing calisthenics and having breakfast with my Gram at their little table on the porch in Florida. And then a funny thing happened: Gramp started posting on my wall. The first time was on Valentine’s Day when he wished me a very happy day and hoped I was doing something fun for myself. I decided to write back on his wall, wishing him a nice afternoon and letting him know that I’d been pretty busy baking that week. Since then, we occasionally report on the weather and what we’re up to. Many of the cousins do the same thing, so Gramp’s wall is now peppered with cheerful family updates from near and far. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical — even scornful–of social media and the ways technology can sneak into our daily lives. We could all make a pretty lengthy list, I’m sure. But getting messages from your Grandpa that read, “I sit 85 and sunny here today” just isn’t one of them.
On Sunday night, like some of you I imagine, I set up camp in front of the Oscars (whoa, it felt long this year, no?). Sam made hummus, we roasted some veggies and I made a big salad. For much of the show, I was texting with my mom about a particular dress, speech, song, or how happy we were that Ben Affleck won. When I lived with my Mom for a brief spell in California, we got to watch these things together, but now that luxury has passed (and I’m not certain I realized what a luxury it was at the time). But texting with her on Oscar night made me feel just that much closer to her in California — in the same way I felt closer to Gramp knowing how the weather was looking on his side of things.
And then, Monday morning, I found Mr. Miller’s address! My old friend from high school, Lori B., sent me a message with it after reading my last blog post. She asked her parents and they tracked it down, so this week: technology wins! It’s helped me to send small, chatty notes to my Grandpa, 3000 miles away. It’s allowed me to banter about silly gossip with my mom, and get in touch with a very dear former teacher. And I’m thankful for that, although just as thankful to leave it all behind for a few days, too: As you’re reading this, I’m on a very long plane ride heading to what I only hope is a very sunny beach to spend time with my Dad and sister, Zoe and her boyfriend Steffan. It was a bit of a splurge in terms of time (12-hour flight each way for only 3 days of time off), but at the end of February when you live in Seattle, you make these kinds of decisions on a whim. Sun beckons. It truly does. So while I am very much looking forward to getting away from my day-to-day life for a few days, I’m also grateful to have had the chance to glimpse into a few other lives this week. The sunsets and cool drinks and my new straw hat will be nice — I’m sure of that. But I’m not sure that it can top last week, full of connecting with loved ones, reaching out to those I’ve lost touch with, and making a most fine batch of homemade Fig Newton’s. If every week could be so good, really.
Because the flight to the Carribean is quite long, I knew I would need a few snacks. Lucky for me, my friend Casey Barber recently sent me a copy of her new book, Classic Snacks Made From Scratch. I first met Casey at The Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Writers and we hit it off right away. At the time, Marge was still making pies and cookies at the San Francisco farmer’s markets, so Casey and I bonded over talk of homemade snacks, singing the praises of Valrhona oreo’s and strawberry pop-tarts. Since then, she’s done a lot of writing and recipe development for all of those snacks many of us may remember growing up with: Cheez-It’s, Homemade Nutter Butters, Fruit Roll-ups and so many more. While I’ve dog-eared quite a few recipes, I was immediately drawn to Casey’s Fig Newtons largely because they’re made with whole-wheat flour and the jammy fig filling sounded right up my alley. I made a few minor tweaks, using muscovado sugar instead of dark brown sugar (I just love its dark, fragrant stickiness and thought it’d be a perfect compliment to the earthiness of the figs). Other than that, I ended up cutting my Newtons a bit larger than Casey recommends and took a few shortcuts while putting them together. I sampled one before wrapping them up in parchment to take on the flight with me. They’re soft yet crumbly, not at all too sweet and are great for those on-the-way-out-the-door kind of mornings. I imagine they’ll take to long airplane trips quite well, too.
I have a hunch these would be really nice with oat flour as well, so next time I’ll try them with 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 cup of oat flour, and 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour and see where it gets us. I also have a hunch (that Sam’s confirmed) that the dough would be wonderful with a bit of orange zest, so I’ll sprinkle in some next time. Let me know if you make any adaptations you like.
Ever-so slightly adapted from Classic Snacks Made From Scratch
Make the dough: Sift the flours, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, muscovado sugar, and granulated sugar together for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture is fluffy and beige in color. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, mixing in between each addition. Add the dry ingredients gradually to make a soft, sticky dough (I was nervous the dough was too dry — my mixer was struggling — but it turned out perfectly, so if your mixer struggles, just let it continue on). Separate the dough into four pieces and form into flat disks. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Make the filling: While the dough is chilling, stir the figs, orange juice, sugar and ginger together in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the figs are soft and the liquid has a jammy consistency, about 35-45 minutes (I used the back of a wooden spoon to mush some of the figs down to help it reach that jamminess). Transfer the fig filling to a food processor and pulse until pureed but a little chunky. Cool to room temperature.
Putting them together: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. On a floured work surface, take one of the dough quadrants out of the refrigerator . Roll into an 8 x 10 -inch rectangle approximately 1/4-inch thick. Trim the edges evenly, using a pastry cutter or sharp knife.
Spread one quarter of the fig filling onto half of the dough rectangle. Fold the uncovered half over the filling to make a long, sandwich cookie. Slice the filled rectangle into four equal pieces and then cut each of those piece in half (should yield 8 cookies total). Transfer the cookies to the lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining three pieces of dough. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown. Cool on wire racks before serving. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to a week.
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.