We had our annual mulled wine party (or winter party) a few weeks ago, a favorite of mine largely because it’s after all the holiday craziness and Sam likes to do a lot of the food, so I get to sit back and relax a bit. On the day-of, I ended up going for a long run, helping Sam with his famous Cheez-Its, buying flowers and chocolate and taking a nap — not a bad way to spend a Saturday. But having friends over to the house wasn’t always this easy: when I first moved to Seattle, I found hosting parties really stressful. I didn’t yet know Sam’s friends well enough to call them my own and was always unsure of what to make, or who I’d hit it off with, or what to expect. I think there were far too many unknowns, and I’m not particularly great with unknowns. Thankfully, Sam’s friends are now my friends too and entertaining has become much more laid back. Now it’s all about having people over — just simply getting people out of their comfortable houses in the dead of January — and making a huge pot of mulled wine (Polish-style grzaniec, Sam would point out, not that “awful german stuff”) and eating snacks and catching up. Some of our friends bring kids, some leave them at home. Some friends bring snacks to share, others flowers, or an old college friend, or a new date. There aren’t many lofty expectations other than wine and conversation, and it always ends up being one of my favorite nights of the season.
It does seem that one of the keys to actually enjoying entertaining is a certain laissez-faire attitude. When I had parties in my San Francisco apartment years ago, I’d plan for a few days what I’d cook and bake, and spend at least a full day getting everything ready, making sure I had enough beverages and serving dishes and music and wine … and I realized that if I was honest with myself I felt about it much like I feel about long distance running: I don’t at all like doing it in the moment, but I love having done it. I wasn’t enjoying myself because I was always wondering if Friend A was uncomfortable sitting by herself in the corner, if the salad needed to be refilled, if the apartment was too hot, if the music was too whiney. It just wasn’t any fun.
When I’d visit Sam in Seattle when we were still dating, he’d have people over often which — initially — also stressed me out for the complete opposite reason: there was zero planning involved. We’d actually get into arguments when I’d attempt to plan the evening or ask too many questions; he’d always assure me it was casual and easy and it’d come together just fine. He’d start preparing food a few hours before everyone was to arrive which would cause me to pace and anxiously clean things that didn’t need cleaning. We once had an epic fight over cumin when our friends Sarah and Chris were slated to come over for dinner, and ended up having to cancel with them because we ultimately couldn’t get our act together (we now lovingly call that The Cumin Debacle). After instances like this, it became clear that our two styles were drastically different and we worried we’d never actually enjoy having people over together in a way that felt good for both of us.
Today: good news. We’ve come a long way. Because Sam genuinely enjoys preparing a lot of snacks and food, I step away from that a bit which makes me feel less stressed. And he now plans the evenings out more and preps things far in advance to make me feel more comfortable. We divvy up tasks and then just enjoy the day without feeling like we spent too much time fussing. And let me tell you: I actually enjoy parties now. Like really enjoy them. I don’t worry too much if we run out of cups or how people are getting along or faring; I don’t aim to make it something that it’s not. We just like to see more of our friends, make a few drinks and perhaps try out a new recipe or two. Or, in the case of the Mulled Wine Party a few weeks ago, stick with some old standbys like Sam’s homemade Cheez-Its.
Sam’s been making these Cheez-Its for as long as I’ve known him; they make an appearance at all of our neighborhood block parties, potlucks, and gatherings at our place. I believe he originally saw the recipe in Ready Made Magazine (RIP) and has since tweaked them over the years. I took further liberties with them here, using all whole grain flours, a pinch of garlic powder, and a healthy handful of poppy and caraway seeds. I’m here to report that they’re even more party-worthy than the originals, and I think we’ll be sticking to this version from now on.
In addition to these incredibly cheesy, buttery crackers — if you’re looking for a few other recipes that are guaranteed party favorites, here is the classic canon as we see it:
Casselberry Biscuits (we made these for the Mulled Wine Party, too)
Deviled Eggs with Basil Aioli and Capers from Molly’s blog
Spinach, Feta and Artichoke Dip from Food 52 (we made this on New Year’s Eve)
Rosemary Dijon Gougeres
Soft Hazelnut Chocolate Cookies
Blood Orange Gin Sparkler from Heidi’s blog
I hope you’re all faring your way through January, staying warm, perhaps having a few friends over or simply drinking hot chocolate or something boozy all on your own. With each passing day, I can sense that we’re getting a little more light, and I’m getting more and more excited about spring (although I know we have a ways to go). But just think of all the outdoor parties that await!
The combination of spelt and rye flours makes these crackers 100% whole grain, but you can also swap in some (or all) all-purpose flour if it’s what you have on hand. These are best the day they’re made, but if kept airtight at room temperature are perfectly fine for three days or so. For entertaining, we like to make the dough the day before and then roll and bake them off before the party.
Adapted from: Good Food Stories
Mix cheddar, butter, salt and garlic powder in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using hand beaters) and beat until soft and combined. Add the flours and 3 tablespoons poppy seeds and mix until dry and pebbly. Add water slowly until dough just starts to come together, then gently gather together and press into a round, chubby disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Divide the dough into two equal pieces, rolling each out into a thin rectangle (shoot for less than 1/8 – inch if you can). Trim away any ragged edges so you’re working with straight edges. Set trimmings aside. Lightly brush the dough with the milk and sprinkle tops with caraway seeds and remaining 1 tablespoon poppy seeds.
Using a fluted pastry wheel or knife, cut the dough into 1-inch squares and place on the baking sheets, leaving about 1/4-inch between each cracker (they don’t spread much at all). Use a fork to poke a few holes in the tops of each. Gather together any scraps and re-roll and cut as needed.
Bake for 12-13 minutes, or until slightly puffed on the tops and golden brown around the edges. At halfway through the bake time, rotate the baking pans to help with even baking. These crackers continue to firm up as they cool, so be careful not to overbake. Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
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?)