It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn’t been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other — ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that’s one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn’t it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner.
One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can’t pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn’t stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I’d ever tried — the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I’m so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich’s new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
If you’re familiar with Alice Medrich’s previous books, you know that she’s truly a dessert genius with meticulously-tested recipes that span from the very classic to the innovative. This book takes a different approach in that each recipe features what she calls “flavor flours,” wheat-free flours that contribute different rich flavors (as well as colors) to your favorite baked goods. There are flours I’ve worked with often like buckwheat (a favorite of mine on this site) or oat flour, and then there are those that are new to me like white rice or chestnut flour. I remember first reading Kim Boyce’s book, Good to the Grain, and feeling this sense of excitement as a new approach to baking and a whole range of ingredients opened up to me, and I feel similarly with Alice’s insistence that flavor should rule and that whole grain baking doesn’t need to be fussy or complex; most of these recipes are incredibly simple.
Choosing flours for their flavor is a new concept to many because flour is often seen as the agent that helps our bread to rise or our cookies to come together. Much like sugar is often just seen as a generic canvas to sweeten, flour is viewed as a reliable leavener — that’s it. But different whole grain and nut flours boast completely distinct flavors and these can be immensely exciting to experiment with. If we take this recipe in particular as an example: this bread features warm fall spices and darker flavors like pumpkin, so Alice opts to use buckwheat flour for its earthiness (she calls it an “almost woodsy note”). If you just swapped in all-purpose flour or a more mild whole grain flour here, the bread wouldn’t taste as complex; the flour itself is actually helping flavor this loaf. In addition to buckwheat flour, this loaf relies on white rice flour which I hadn’t worked with before and which I’ve fallen in love with. It has such a lightness to it, and a really mild flavor so it allows the more dominant flavors (here, pumpkin) of a recipe to really shine. It’s common for whole grain muffins and loaves to be a bit squatty — and in my experience, more so with gluten-free flours. But the crumb in this loaf is so light and delicate that I’d take squatty, tender and packed with flavor any day.
I’ve long been playing with whole grain flours in our kitchen, but this past year I’ve been getting really excited about the way that different natural sugars help infuse flavor into baked goods in much the same way, so I decided to use muscovado sugar here for its dark, almost damp sweetness, and I folded in a handful of dark chocolate chips at the end for an extra treat. This bread lasted all of two days in our house and thankfully Sam just left with a generous hunk to take with friends on a quick overnight trip to one of the islands. It’s a good one to share — to spread the delight.
Alice’s recipe is perfect as is, but I’ve been craving chocolate lately so I decided to fold in a few leftover dark chocolate chips we had in the cabinet, and I love the look of the top of this loaf sprinkled with colorful pepitas. It’s wonderful toasted with butter — morning, noon, or night.
Slightly adapted from: Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with parchment paper.
Combine the butter, sugar, and eggs in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment until lighter in color, about 2 minutes. Alternatively, use a handheld mixer and beat for 3-4 minutes.
Add the rice and buckwheat flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pumpkin puree and beat on low speed until smooth. Fold in the chocolate chips. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, and sprinkle the top with pepitas.
Bake the loaf for 45 -50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the loaf in the pan for at least 2 hours before unmolding and slicing. The cake keeps, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Let come to room temperature (or toast!) to serve.
Note: To make muffins, line 12 regular muffin cups and prepare batter (See above). Bake at 375 F for about 20 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.
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?)