Pies & Tarts
I was talking to Sam the other night about summer, about how everyone seems to look forward to it all year long – almost a remnant of childhood when you lived for the seemingly eternal vacation from school. But as an adult – and this is an unpopular opinion, I realize – I'm not sold. I'm just sweatier in my office everyday (we live in an old Victorian and don't have AC) and there's sort of this pervasive frenetic energy to do all the things before – gasp – the season ends. So we don't have any bucket lists this summer other than trying not to feel frenetic. We've been sampling our fair share of ice cream cones, explored some new hiking trails, and dabbled in our garden – the kale and romaine have come and gone but the cherry tomatoes are on the horizon and the pride I feel when looking them up and down is ... not insignificant.
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.
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.
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.
I've been thinking a lot about work lately, mainly because both Sam and I are beginning to fall behind with our own work and trying to figure out how to Balance It All with a baby and a family and a mortgage and dreams of cabining in distant sunny valleys. Ha! I have a few wonderful employees so while I was away on maternity leave, everything at Marge functioned just fine, leading me to start asking some bigger questions of myself: where should I put my energies and time? How can I get to a point where I feel like I'm doing work that really helps others and makes a difference? What's next for me? Many of us spend such large chunks of our days, weeks, and months at work that it makes sense to question some of these things. Are we doing good? Do we feel good? Are we being challenged, stimulated, excited? Right now, Sam and I are balancing childcare on our own: he spends two days of the work week with Oliver and I the other three. So the stakes feel higher for both of us; when I wake up and it's my workday, it feels like the clock is ticking and it's more important than ever to make it really count.
It's been a uniformly gray and rainy week in Seattle, and I'd planned on making a big pot of salmon chowder to have for the weekend, but then the new issue of Bon Appetit landed on my doorstep with that inviting "Pies for Dinner" cover, and I started to think about how long it's been since I made my very favorite recipe from my cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. I'm often asked at book events which recipe I love most, and it's a tough one to answer because I have favorites for different moods or occasions, but I'd say that this savory tart is right up there. The cornmeal millet crust is one of my party tricks; when we need a quick brunch recipe, this is what I pull out of my back pocket because it's so simple and delicious. This is a no-roll, no fuss crust with a slightly sandy, crumbly texture thanks to the cornmeal, and a delightful crunch from the millet. In the past, I've used the crust and custard recipe as the base for any number of fillings: on The Kitchn last year, I did a version with greens and gruyere, and I teach cooking classes that often include a version heavy on local mushrooms and shallot. So if you are not keen on salmon or have some vegetables you're looking to use up this week, feel free to fold in whatever is inspiring you right now. Sometimes at this point in winter that can be hard, so hopefully this recipe may help a little.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
Last week Sam and I were supposed to head to Olympic National Park to stay in an old lakeside cabin for a few nights. Lake Crescent, to be exact: a crystal clear spot complete with a rickety traditional lodge, canoes, hiking trails and hot springs. We'd planned the trip months before and were both so looking forward to some much needed downtime, but because of the government shutdown all of the National Parks were affected so we received a call the morning we were to head out of town that we should stay home. Sam was still in bed at the time; I'd been up early packing and laying out sweaters and novels and getting big thermoses of coffee ready. As I began putting away the sweaters and novels and setting the thermoses of coffee aside, I became more and more disappointed. I crawled back into bed and broke the news to Sam. Not surprisingly, he exclaimed with a smile, "where should we go instead?!" This is a 'roll with the punches' gene that I do not have. A few hours later we were in the car headed to Portland, where we had two memorable meals, a handful of great cocktails, a number of good neighborhood strolls and one very fine piece of pie.
Yesterday I looked up and realized we're into the last half of July. Already. And I had one of those inevitable panics where I feel like we haven't been hiking enough, we haven't done any camping or road-tripping or picnicking. Sam and I used to devote Sunday mornings to visiting one of our favorite bakeries and reading the paper -- and then moseying into Ballard to shop at the farmers market. But now that I bake all day on Sundays for Marge, that tradition has slipped by the wayside. And I feel the same thing happening with the season this year. While I honestly wouldn't want to be anywhere other than Seattle, our summer can feel pretty short (it really doesn't get going until the beginning of July). And on those gray, dark February days, I want to make sure I've gotten in some good hiking, camping and picnicking. This whole grain skillet crisp is a good place to start: while we didn't take it out picnicking, I did take it out into the backyard and had a very generous slice right out of the skillet. Slowly. At 9:30 p.m. when it was still light out. So really, when you consider those moments, July could be worse.
I always thought I'd be a teacher when I grew up. Like the dutiful first child that I tend to be, I went to school to be a teacher. I continued on to graduate school. I taught college freshman in Boston and moved on to teach high school freshman back in California. My mom was a teacher and I'd grown up spending time in her classroom (ahh, the hours of Oregon Trail!), hearing tales of her students, and witnessing her late-night grading sessions. It seemed so seamlessly that, all of a sudden, I had a classroom and tales of my own. Until I didn't. The teaching climate in California was (and still is) a tough one and finding solid work became impossible. People often ask if I miss teaching. I miss my students a great deal and I miss the act of teaching -- the challenge of thinking through how to present a piece of information or a structured lesson so that a classroom full of different kinds of learners could really "get it." I realized last week that, while I've been out of the academic classroom for a few years now, in many ways, I'm still doing the very same thing. Food writing and recipe development has, at its core, the act of learning and teaching. There are new kitchen skills to master and dishes to try; there are ways we take what we learn and make it our own based on tastes, ability level or preference; there are then ways we pass them on to others. Saturday night that process came to be in the form of a very fine roast chicken and a grapefruit chess pie.
This time of year always comes quietly. I call these weeks "bridge weeks": it's warm during the day and tomatoes and corn are still at the markets, but the light is a touch more golden and it's chilly enough in the mornings and evenings to grab your closest sweater. While fall is my favorite season, I find myself going inward a bit in September, wanting to experience the change of seasons without the Internet or TV forcing it upon me, or Starbucks announcing what seasonal drink I'd likely crave at any given time. We're fickle people, aren't we? One week eating stone fruits and discussing the dog days of summer and the next diving head-on into pumpkin breads and cookies. This is why I don't read many food blogs at the very beginning of fall because I'm not quite ready to jump right into pumpkin breads and cookies. Here at our house, there are still tomatoes to slice, warm walks to take, and backyard picnic table with my name on it.
We left for vacation on the day after I went grocery shopping in a wool sweater. June was definitively not summer here. According to everyone I talk to, it never is. And truthfully we were both just trucking along throughout the whole month, we had little time to complain or wish for something more. We had planned a mini camping trip all the way into ... our backyard, but had to cancel due to chilly rain. But the second we returned to Seattle, you could sense something changed. People in the airport were tee-shirted, Brandon drove us home with the windows slightly cracked, and the next morning big, bright sun shone through the curtains in our bedroom. Summer in Seattle has arrived--and we have fruit pies, galettes, a booming garden, iced tea, and salads for dinner to show for it.
Most of the recipes I feature on the site are things I've bookmarked and planned out -- I don't often just whip something up on a whim, take a photo, and blog about it. Until this week. Don't get me wrong. I had a recipe planned for you (and it'll appear next week instead. And it's quite wonderful). But this week has brought about some bumps in the road and unexpected surprises. If you could call them that.
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.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.
I'm not at all a New Years person. I was trying to think about a memorable New Years that I've had and I actually can't recall a one. Oh wait, I take that back. I do remember one New Years in college that involved a bathtub and a really bad taxi ride. But that's another story altogether. I'm also not the kind of person who has any desire to get all anxious about making plans, really good plans, better plans than any year before. It just seems like a lot of work. I had a boss once who would ride her bike up this great peak in Boulder, CO and spend the day alone. Just hanging and thinking and setting intentions for the year ahead. This is much more my style than expensive prix fixe meals or hotel parties. So while I didn't ride up any major peaks today, I did bake a pie. A simple lemon pie -- so simple, in fact, that the Shakers used to make this very same recipe well over a hundred years ago. It's bright in citrus flavor with a rich, buttery crust that will make you smile. You do want to use Meyer lemons if you can get your hands on them. They're not at all bitter and make for a truly magical pie. You deserve no less on New Years Day.
Last week at my favorite yoga class, the instructor started talking about the concept of Remembering Forward. It'd been a long tough class and my mind was wandering over to latte land, but as I half listened, the concept grabbed me. It goes something like this: Imagine one year from today. So it'd be November 17, 2011. Now imagine one area in your life that you want to work on or make a change in. This could be your relationship, a friendship, work. Anything. Think about one specific change that you'd like to see happen in that area, and then you turn to a friend or your partner and you play the 'Remembering Forward' game. You're now in November 2011 and that change you wanted to see happen? It did. Your dialogue with your friend or partner makes it come alive. For example, when I was listening to the instructor talk about the concept I started running through what mine would look like:
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one:
Do you ever play the 'if only' game with yourself? It goes something like this: "if only I had a Mini Cooper, I'd be happy" or "if only I'd studied harder, I would've gotten into a better college" or "If only I had a bigger apartment, everything would be fine." Of course you do. We all do. My 'if only' game is kind of more like a neurosis and an obsession rather than a fun hypothetical consideration. The earliest I remember it showing its ugly face? 5th grade. All of my friends brought those packaged pies from the grocery store -- the ones filled with bright yellow lemon filling, gooey chocolate pudding, or glowing fake cherry. My mom packed me carrots, hard boiled eggs, and healthy sandwiches. I was convinced my life would be better if I had pies in my lunch. I'd be happier, certainly. I remember eying those pies on a daily basis and wondering what the hell was wrong with my family. If only.
We had a bit of a heat wave in the Bay Area this past weekend. Saturday, in particular. There's nothing like coming off of a long flight from China and having your typically foggy city greet you with blazes. I mean really, there was no easing into summer. But it's no problem. I've gotten my cotton skirts out of storage and plan on wearing them all summer long. That and flip-flops and high ponytails. There will be iced coffee in the mornings and lots of leg-dangling in my mom's pool. What is a problem, however, is even thinking about turning on the oven to bake during the summer. But I've found a solution. Its name is slump. Do you know slumps? If not, you should. I'll introduce you.
When I graduated from college, I didn’t want to go to all the ceremonies. I felt above it all. Don’t get me wrong--I was glad that I'd finished, but I went to a school the size of my entire hometown, and felt I’d just be lost in the crowd during graduation. But my mom talked to me about the importance of ceremony in your life—milestones deserve their moment. And she’s right. Ceremony and a little pomp and circumstance sort of force you to reflect on your accomplishments. Otherwise, something as big as a college graduation or a wedding would be just another day that, eventually, you wouldn’t remember apart from the rest. You need finality, you need reflection, and you need to share and celebrate accomplishments with others.
I have a confession. I'm reading Twilight. It's ironic in a lot of ways. When I was teaching, my students were always dying to get me to read it. Nah, too busy kids. Translation: SO below me. But I've been sneaking around, reading it deliberately face down in public places and keeping it on the DL when talking to friends. I know it's silly. I shouldn't be ashamed. But for someone who has an advanced degree in English literature and is generally a little snobby about their reading material... it's a new thing for me. And you know what? It's amazing. I can't remember the last time I read something for no other purpose than to escape. Obviously I read for information or for a nice story/plot, but more often than not, I read to admire the craft of an author. So as I'm still struggling to find a full-time job and getting a little more antsy with each passing day, I've also decided to try and be gentle with myself. It's cool. Watch Mad Men in the middle of the day. Why not? Someday (hopefully soon) I'll look back on this day and marvel that I had the time to do such a thing. And in that vein, I've decided to loosen up the reading reigns and have at a little trash. Why not? Got something better to do? So I'm unstoppable now. As any Twilight reader will tell you, these books are rather addicting. No they're not written well...at all. But there's something appealing about Stephanie Meyer's quick prose and the way she taps into your long-lost high school psyche. Yesterday I wanted to whip up a little snack to go with my daily dose of vamp-lit. And I knew exactly what it would be: I bought this sweet little apple pie mold at Williams Sonoma and had been waiting for just the right time to make these individual pockets. It turns out they're the perfect companion to shameful afternoon reading.
This dessert came to be for a few reasons. One: it's the first day of fall and this seems like the perfect bridge-into-autumn dessert, using late summer berries and incorporating Bosc pears from the farmers market. Two: I've been awfully into rustic, free-form desserts lately. Recently, Linnea was up in Sonoma--ambling around the square with her mom--and brought home a book called Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson. Both are from Portland, OR and Julie owns a little small-batch bakery there by the name of Baker and Spice. She started out selling her tarts and crumbles at the farmers market...and business grew. I can see why. There's just something nice about unfussy desserts with a reliable crust that showcase beautiful, seasonal fruit. The ingredients are simple: mainly butter, sugar, buttermilk, eggs, and fruit. And the method almost seems intuitive, as if you're keying into something that people have been doing the same way for years and years.