Good morning, friends. It's been awhile. Like many of you, I feel like I'm finally exhaling after many months (years?) and it seemed like a good time to celebrate with a very simple fall dessert for all you pie lovers out there who are too tired to make homemade pie crust this year. You're forgiven: 2020 has been a beast.
Looks like we're going for quality, not quantity when it comes to ye ol' blog this summer. Of course I know you all understand: to say this has been an unusual season is certainly an understatement. And ironically, while our summer plans have largely been focused around our backyard, it still feels like the season has whizzed right on by somehow.
There have been moments – many of them, if I'm to be honest – when I sit down to write a blog post and am not entirely sure how to begin or what to say. This current moment we find ourselves in is, of course, one of those times. In Washington state today, many businesses are closed to honor a day of silent protest. I'm up here at my desk still working, tying up loose ends before we leave for a family road trip this weekend – sitting here trying to decide what to tell you about cake. Do you need to hear about cake today? Do you need to hear about it from me? We're full of questions right now about how to share, what to share, and when to share it. And on this rainy Friday as I'm hustling to get laundry done and figure out how to keep the kids occupied in the car for two days, we're finding a lot of solace in little slices of this strawberry cake. So I'm sharing it today, thinking you might, too.
Everyone keeps saying that now is the time to journal, so we can remember what was happening -- and how we passed each day -- during this crazy time. And I keep meaning to and then each day comes to a close and, well, it just seems like one more thing to do. But I find myself constantly making lists in my head of what I'd say, beginning with the interesting waves of realization, panic and acceptance that have struck our household over the past month. The slow down at work, Sam caring for both kids, getting scrappy with nightly meals, worrying about money, not sleeping nearly enough. It feels strange to talk about upsides to any of this, but one has arisen: having more time (and the inclination) to bake for others again. For neighbors or friends, or simply my own kids. I buy bananas now for the sole purpose of making two loaves of banana bread (one for us, one to give away), Sam's made homemade olive bread and pita, and Oliver's one home school wish this week is to bake a cake. While we're now out of yeast, we've got plenty of flour, so this weekend I tinkered with a new cookie recipe that I think you'll like: these have brown butter, a little cardamom and rely heavily on brown sugar for chewiness and flavor.
I had a moment last week when I looked around at Sam and I racing to get Oliver a second glass of milk while simultaneously making lunch for the next day, running his bath and washing one of Frankie's bottles and thought: what have we done? We'd hardly talked to one another since we got home and we both had an agenda the second Oliver was asleep: Sam to catch up on unfinished work, me to do some yoga and shower before bed. Two passing ships. To say that life looked different years ago when we met is an understatement: obviously we didn't have kids then, we both were self employed and hustling to make a dream work. Today there's less of that constant hustle as we both make moves to settle in and work for other companies with actual health care and steady pay checks. Imagine!
This is the third week I've been back at work, and it's finally starting to feel normal enough. Of course I miss my days with Frances terribly, and the shuffle of dropping Oliver off at preschool, joining the morning commute to get to the office, and then turning around and doing it all over again on the way home took some adjustment. Sometimes I spend almost three hours a day in the car, and am not always a happy camper walking in the door, met with the question of dinner, the task of packing lunch for the next day, filling the bath and so on. One morning at breakfast last week, Oliver and I were talking about our upcoming day: he asks me what I'll do at work and then we talk about the weather and what he's excited about. Typically his list involves wearing his astronaut helmet on the drive to school and helping me water the flowers when he gets home. As he was rattling on, I got up to make more tea and noticed it'd started to rain. I was dreading the drive into work, and my mind started spinning thinking about all the things I could do if I didn't have such a long commute (exercise! bake! meditate! play with Frances!) Then I heard Ollie's little voice from the table, "Mom I think the sun will come through the clouds today for me and for you, too."
I officially have one more month of maternity leave left. A big part of me is excited to go back to the office and be around other adults -- to wear real clothes and eat lunch in relative peace. The other part of me is, of course, worried I'll be sad to leave Frances and the reliable and awfully sweet domestic routine we've established together: Walking the neighborhood looking at spring flowers and early morning chai and mat time. This past month Frances has become more wakeful and alert; she spends more time playing in her little chair and even laughed for the first time! But this increased wakefulness has also meant much less snoozing time and more fussing, which can often make for a pretty long day. I remember while I was home with Oliver a few years ago feeling a heightened sense of anxiety with each tough moment, as if the current state of things would be a permanent part of our reality. Baby doesn't stop crying from 5 - 6pm? Clearly you'll never have a quiet dinner again. Baby's now waking up three times each night. You''ll likely never sleep again. Of course now we have the perspective to know that Oliver is pretty decent evening company and sleeps through the night just fine -- most kids do, eventually. If one thing's a guarantee about parenthood, it's that nothing remains the same.
Almost two months into maternity leave and Frances and I are finding a groove. I feed her in the morning before anyone else is up and we head downstairs where she sits in her funny little seat on the kitchen floor while I make tea and figure out what to lay out for Oliver's breakfast. The rest of the day fluctuates between me wearing her in a carrier while she naps, taking walks around the neighborhood or playing during the brief window she's awake. After dinner when I think back on what we did during the day, it's hard to name specifics -- yet somehow time ticks on all the same. Knowing that Frances is our last baby has helped me accept this dramatic slow down in pace more readily than I ever could with Oliver. That and the perspective that the pace picks up quickly enough and these slower days will be gone in a blink.
Well here we are: what will presumably be the last post of 2018. Any second we'll start seeing all the "Top 9" posts on Instagram along with friend's musings as they look back on 2018 and look forward to what they hope to accomplish next year. As with all social media, I can't help but think that a tiny bit of this is performance or posturing for others, no? We have a few clear goals or intentions for the year ahead and then maybe we throw in a few that just sound good -- even to ourselves -- although we may know deep down we're not going to run a triathlon or take up watercolor painting. It could happen though, right?
Oliver turned three a few weeks ago, and we had a birthday party for him at the local children's museum with his closest friends. That morning we ate satsumas for breakfast as he helped me make the chocolate frosting for his cupcakes and put the sprinkles on each one. I told myself not to worry about the mess; three year olds aren't known for neatness in the kitchen (or anywhere). As with most kid birthday parties, it was exhausting and I barely had time to chat with any of the parents or even take many photos. You get home too overwhelmed to think about dinner and wonder why you went to the trouble in the first place. But then, of course, Oliver had a great time and was talking about it for days, and that's really all that matters. We settled into the birthday weekend with a special lunch and O's first haircut, and I baked up some of these Pecan Pie thumbprint cookies to test out for the holidays. They're basically pecan pie in cookie form; what's not to love?
We went over to my friend Julie's house for dinner a few weeks back - one of those early Friday night gatherings because we all have kids and they start to unravel at a certain point come the end of a busy week. Julie made saucy meatballs and garlic bread, we brought a big Italian salad, and while the boys played after dinner we all cozied up on the couch while Julie sliced generous pieces of gingerbread ... from my book! Sam kept asking with amazement, "this is your recipe, Megan?!" Even I hardly recognized it: Julie had the genius inspiration to add a layer of maple frosting and a sprinkle of flaky salt to the top, elevating it from a whole grain breakfast we've eaten many times (mmhm, Sam) to a really special dessert.
We all blasted through the front door a few hours ago, feet dirty and a bit exhausted from a full day of blueberry picking -- something that's become a bit of a family tradition in late July ever since Oliver was born. We have photos out in the field with O in the baby carrier, chubby legs swaying in the breeze while I obsessively applied sunscreen every ten minutes. Last year found Oliver and his friend Lewis traipsing through the rows of berries together in the late morning hours, eating more than we ended up taking home. This year's photos tell a different story: Oliver and I in a big open field used for overflow parking, he sitting on his little potty, me singing songs and chatting away, the sun beating down on the two of us. We're deep in the thick of potty training, so as it turned out, Sam and Oliver's Aunt Christa did the brunt of the picking today. But Oliver and I had some good talks while staying hydrated, people watching, and eating Sour Cream and Onion Kettle chips. Not a bad way to spend a morning. And really, it's never about how many berries we bring home because neither of these years have proven to be particularly bountiful, but it just never feels like high summer until we get out there and start filling our buckets, however slowly.
I've been spending some time organizing photos lately, trying to actually print a few to frame for the house, and purge others from my phone. We took so many while in Hawaii: great ones of epic beaches and outdoor picnics, moments that you'd expect would feel important and memorable. But in thinking back, it's neither of these things that stand out for me. Instead, the night I'll remember most is when we pulled up to a beachside restaurant we'd been excited to try for dinner and were told that the wait was 60-80 minutes. With a toddler that's basically a lifetime, so my immediate reaction was a firm No. But Sam pointed to this big grassy field right next to the beach with lawn games and string lights, and in his never-failing positivity, promised the time would fly by.
I first realized spring was truly here the moment I stepped on an airplane with Oliver a few weeks ago headed to see my mom in Vermont. Some of you may know that it's decidedly not spring in Vermont. But in Seattle we'd had a good sunny stretch and our daffodils were in full bloom; Sam mowed the lawn for the first time in months and the smell of fresh cut grass greeted us each time we walked down to the garage to get into the car. The season is slowly yet surely changing.
There are certain foods that, even if quite marginal, are still kind of good. Pizza is one. I certainly appreciate and prefer really good pizza - but when the craving for hot, melty cheese strikes, I'll take bad pizza over no pizza any day. Brownies fall in this camp, too. Muffins, on the other hand, can't claim this category and I don't often write about muffins here only because they are so often overly-sweet and not all that interesting. But I'm also always up for a challenge and creating a great updated classic that's simple to make and packed with whole grain nutrition and flavor (savory, please!): Game on.
A few days ago I went shopping for running shoes for the first time since Oliver was born. I used to run marathons in my early thirties and would look for pretty specific things in a shoe, but these days I knew I'd use them for occasional runs, walks and bike rides, so training shoes, per se? Not as critical. I miss my serious running days, but my priorities (and my body) are a little different now, and I've grown ok with that. So there you have it: on a mild afternoon in early March, I strolled into a local running store and strolled out twenty minutes later with not one but three pairs of new running shoes, along with an anger I couldn't squelch.
I'm late to the game on meditating. Like really, really late but I'm doing it now and because we live in a weird, modern world I have an app that sends me a little reminder each day in case I forget. It also keeps track of my consecutive days of meditation which I find strangely motivating (it's not lost on me this. is. not. the. point but for some reason seeing all my days in a row feels like a new achievement, which I suppose is how I'm wired). I don't have enough days amassed to make any grand statement on the benefits of meditation, but I will say that it helps me just sit and be where I am, which is something I don't often find easy. I have a busy mind that likes to be many places at any given time, so meditating has helped me reign it in, for at least a few minutes.
I stood in line at the post office for well over an hour last week and Sam got his turn yesterday. We're not even procrastinating this year, but the season sure has a way of sneaking up -- full force -- on us all at some point, doesn't it? Many evenings over the past few weeks, I've been teaching holiday cooking classes at The Pantry, and because of this I knew my own baking may end up taking the backseat, so I did a little advance planning and made and froze dough ahead of time so things would feel less harried right. about. now. Because soft, fragrant cocoa-kissed gingerbread cookies should be the fun part -- waiting at the post office? That's another story.
While self care seems of paramount importance this time of year, I've come to loathe the term. It's just ... everywhere. Don't get me wrong, I can really get down with frequent yoga, baths, candles, and afternoon chocolate bars just because, but any time a phrase or sentiment catches on so quickly and fiercely in popular culture, I tend to withdraw. Between the daily awfulness on the news, the increased urgency around everyday errands because The Holidays Are Coming, and impending shipping deadlines, I often feel like I'm ricocheting from task to task rather than taking things in or appreciating them. And of course, this is the time of year to take things in and appreciate them, to show gratitude and thanks, to give thoughtfully and receive graciously. All of that? It's feeling like a lot right now.
Writing a food blog can be a funny thing because you often feel inclined to share The Very Best ____, The Real Top Banana. But some things don't necessarily warrant a superlative. They fall into a separate although no less worthy space. So today I'm here to tell you that these are not the best biscuits I've ever had. Sometimes it's nice to have a few recipes in your back pocket that everyone likes, that require no fancy equipment (not even a rolling pin), are simple, easily dressed up, and even holiday-worthy. In this increasingly busy, harried season we're dipping our toes into, I'm telling you: a trusty whole grain biscuit and velvety sweet potato butter beats the endless search to find The Very Best any day of the week.
While I'm never one to rush things this time of year, in staring at my little desk calendar this morning, it's become clear that Thanksgiving is on the horizon. This year, we're hosting Sam's family again for what will be the second time, and I'm not going to lie: I don't feel any more organized or together after Round 1. Last year there was a lot of turkey talk and I panicked (in hindsight, irrationally so), admitted I had no clue what I was doing, and delegated the bird to Sam who really waited until the eleventh hour (i.e. Wednesday) to buy the turkey and we ended up having a roulade situation instead of a traditional roasted bird, which was all fine and good. I made pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes. I recall making a chicory salad but no one seems to remember it, so it clearly didn't make that big of an impression. Sam's sister Christa brought her famous stuffed mushrooms and his nephew, Kevin, brought wine. People were happy, so I was happy.
But it does seem that, regardless if you've been hosting for two years or twenty, there's this constant impetus to regroup and reimagine and somehow do it all better each year. And on one hand, I get that: all the food magazines come, each claiming to have the end all and be all in revamped stuffing or the newest trick to mashed potatoes and it's all ... a little exhausting, isn't it? What I crave isn't so much the newest, edgiest stuffing but more the gold standards that we pull out every year. Our family's classics. We don't have those yet, but we're working on it. If it were up to Sam, this simple fruit crisp would be a candidate for sure, and if you're someone who trembles at the thought of homemade pie, this is a stellar way to make life a little simpler this year.
Here we are: a rare, quiet afternoon with blocks strewn all over the living room floor, leftover coconut rice and cucumber salad for lunch, and the front yard strewn with fall leaves. I'm behind on business bookkeeping and was going to try to borrow a neighbor's lawnmower to mow our back grass, but instead thought I'd sit down and share a recipe with you, which I've been working away at slowly instead of rushing urgently, feeling like you all MUST HAVE CAKE in your life this very minute. I mean, don't get me wrong: this cake is a MUST HAVE CAKE kind of cake, but after listening to an episode of Death, Sex and Money with Ellyn Burstyn talking about the importance of having "should-less days," I've taken more time than usual with this one, giving myself a little more grace with all the niggling "shoulds" that prevail.
I've had this recipe in the hopper for a few weeks, thinking I'd stagger it out and share it with you in a bit as we're traveling to see family back East. But yesterday on the drive back from the Adirondacks to my mom's house in Vermont, we saw a handful of crimson leaves and signs for cider donuts and I thought: Now Is The Time. I hope you still have some fresh corn where you are and some late summer berries because this incredibly simple late summer fruit crisp is the best thing I've baked this season. Let's talk about it.
In the first days after coming home from the hospital with Oliver, we got a few care packages from friends and neighbors. One was a box from my friend Anne in San Francisco with a handful of sweet little baby things and a batch of homemade breakfast cookies. They reminded me of the recipe from my cookbook and, because I was up at all odd hours of the day and night, they fueled me equally well at 3am and 3pm. The other box was from one of our neighbors: homemade chocolate chip cookies. In truth, they weren't even great cookies and normally I may not have even eaten them, but I cried with happiness every afternoon when I reached for one -- they were keeping us going.
I sat down to write this Mother's Day post a few weeks ago, and was so looking forward to sharing these strawberry muffins with you. I'd planned to write a simple enough post on motherhood, a dispatch of sorts, 18 months in. But as the days ticked on and I stared at my screen, I found myself constantly hedging and apologizing and acknowledging how hard this thing is for so many: to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, to find a community as a new mom, to continue feeling like yourself, or some semblance of the self you remember, to be the kind of mom you always thought you'd be, to be ok -- periodically -- with letting the kind of mom you'd always wanted to be ... go. So today I'm sharing a bit of a messier glimpse into things over here and please know that you have my full permission to just scroll down to the bottom of this post if you just want to make yourself some damn muffins and get on with your weekend. I get it. They're good muffins.
Depending on where you live, spring is or is not showing her face. She sure does seem to be a big tease this year, doesn't she? I remember late February last year walking around the UW campus admiring the cherry blossoms, and this year they're finally drooping and draping across streets and we're creeping our way through April. I've been on the hunt for local rhubarb and tender asparagus and it seems they're taking their sweet time, too. So in the meantime, thankfully, we've always got chocolate.
This past week I've been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We've been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies -- and while I've loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we'd pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn't realized that it was also my grandma Marge's thing). Zeke, my mom's former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80's. Sam's mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we've started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn't -- it seems that part isn't as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There's such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
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.
This cake came about around 8:30 a.m. this past Monday, a window of time in which many things seem to get done as it's when Oliver goes down for his first nap. Sam had made a legendary fried rice with lots of mushrooms and fish sauce for dinner the night before, so I was snacking on leftovers with a cup of coffee and racing around the kitchen trying to finish measuring and whisking before Oliver woke. The goal was to bake something sweet (but not too sweet) to take with me to work the next day, and I knew of just the thing. In no time, the oven was preheating, I was on my second cup of coffee, licking the spoon, and patting myself on the back for pulling together homemade cake batter in under twenty minutes -- all while silently deeming Sam the fried rice master of the universe. Or at least, our house.
I might've spent the better part of the past two weeks trying to get these pumpkin muffins right. Before Oliver was born it would've been the better part of a single morning, with a good cup of coffee in hand. Uninterrupted time at home -- the kind of time I need to weigh ingredients, take recipe notes and photograph ingredients -- is pretty scarce these days. I often cook and bake in the evenings to prep for future meals, but obviously for the blog I like to snap a few photos to show you and that's pretty hard to do at 10 pm. The upside is that I tested these muffins a few times to get them just right and did lots of futzing and experimenting with ingredients. In my mind, they're the perfect pumpkin muffin: not too sweet, whole grain, fragrant and warmly-spiced.