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.
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.