This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don’t get the opportunity to be a student much these days — usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
In reflecting on the conference and what I learned, one of the best parts about the whole thing was witnessing people so excited about their work and craft. Farmers talked about their grain-drying machinery with such excitement it was contagious (despite the fact I wouldn’t know a grain-drying apparatus apart from a hair dryer, in truth).
I met Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers and we chatted about Red Fife wheat, entrepreneurship and farmers markets. She led a great whole-grain baking class with cookbook author, writer and photographer Naomi Duguid. We huddled outside next to the wood-fired oven and made Montreal-style bagels, biscotti, pear cardamom skillet cake, and these little thumbprint cookies which Dawn sells at her farmers market booth back in Toronto.
In all of the conversations I had over the three days, the one topic that kept coming up is how to balance the work we love with the life we envision for ourselves. One of the key presenters was a farmer who lives in Upstate New York, Thor Oechsner, and has an innovative business model in that he mills his own flour and has a bakery on site where they sell goods to the public. It’s not often that you can stroll into a bakery and purchase a muffin made from the wheat grown right on site. When asked by an audience member, “what’s next?” he paused for a long time and said he’s trying to figure out how to scale down, actually. He’s gotten so good at scaling up and adding on the next big thing — over and over — that now he wants to figure out how to make more time to play his accordion and eat dinner with his partner at night. The feeling seemed to strike a chord with many of us, and reminded me of an article I read in the New York Times a few weeks back.
The piece was called “You Can’t Have it All But You Can Have Cake” by writer Delia Ephron, and it managed to connect the notion of “having it all” — that elusive and hotly-debated concept that has gotten so much press this year — with Ephron’s experience in New York City bakeries: “To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse. A total eclipse is when the moon is at its perigee, the earth is at its greatest distance from the sun, and when the sun is observed near zenith. I have no idea what that means. I got the description off a science Web site, but one thing is clear: it’s rare. This eclipse never lasts more than seven minutes and 31 seconds … Which is why I love bakeries. Peace descends the second I enter, the second I smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread, see apricot cookies with scalloped edges, chocolate dreams, cinnamon and raisin concoctions, flights of a baker’s imagination, and I know I am the luckiest person in the world. At that moment, in spite of statistical proof that this is not possible, I have it all.”
It’s notable because all of the talk around “having it all” tends to be focused on what is, often, our particularly American understanding of it: marriage, kids, the perfect work/life balance, interesting travel, local food. You get the picture. But here, Ephron talks about the smaller moments where we can feel the eclipse — where we can feel like we do have everything we need in that one moment. For Thor Oechsner, the farmer in Upstate New York, it sounds like this eclipse would happen in a quiet room with his accordion. For me, it happened sitting outside next to a warm oven amidst a layer of “Pacific Northwesty” fog with nowhere in particular to go.
And this morning when I baked up these cookies before Sam got up (and maybe again when we had two with our coffee) I had it again. It was a slow morning, despite the weekday-ness of it. When I laced up my boots for the first time this season and noticed that particularly Autumn gold of the sunlight falling into our yard, I had it yet again.
This cookie recipe is based on one that Dawn gave the group for Rye Poppyseed Thumbprint Cookies. I’ve been on a big buckwheat kick lately, so I used buckwheat flour instead of rye flour, thinking that the flavors of the buckwheat would compliment the very special apricot jam we’ve had sitting in our cupboard for awhile. I made them a few times, futzing with the flour measurement to get them just right, and made a few tweaks to the method to guarantee perfectly crumbly home-baked cookies. You could certainly play around with another whole-grain flour that you’re excited about — I can’t imagine a more forgiving recipe for such experimentation. You could also coat these in toasted sesame seeds instead of poppy seeds (next on my list) or even unsweetened coconut.
The thing I love about these cookies is they’re pretty legitimately rustic. You can envision them being made in simple kitchens one hundred years ago, with no more in the way of equipment than a bowl and a fork to cream the butter and sugar. There’s no fear of over-mixing, perfect incorporating, aeration — anything other than just making sure all the ingredients are in your bowl. And combined well. That’s my kind of baking. I can become overwhelmed with fancy French recipes that require much tending and perfect, precise temperatures and techniques (Or, my imprecise oven can become overwhelmed with these). But this kind of rustic whole-grain baking? This is where I feel most at home.
To learn more about Kneading Conference West, check out their website.
The event is annual, so maybe you’ll join us next year?
Keep in mind that these cookies are different from some other baking recipes in which you’re looking to cream the butter and the sugar for a number of minutes to introduce air into your dough. Here, you really just need to mash the sugar into the butter we
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a fork (or your hands). Add the egg yolks, vanilla extract, salt and flour. Mix well and knead together a few times with your hands to gather the crumbly pieces of the dough together.
Roll walnut-sized pieces of dough into a ball.
Whisk the egg whites until slightly foamy and place poppy seeds in a nice, shallow bowl.
Roll balls of dough in egg white and then in the poppy seeds. Set on baking sheet and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Make indent with your thumb and fill with 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of jam.
Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the dough has turned a golden brown — the cookies should feel soft and they will firm up as they cool. Cool on cookie sheet for 15 minutes. Enjoy warm. Or room temperature. In the morning — or in the evening. Store covered at room temperature.
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.