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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
I'm leaving town on a red eye tonight to go to my little sister's bridal shower outside of Boston. I've got my scarf-that-doubles-as-a-blanket all packed and am debating buying one of those neck pillows at the airport. My mom booked a fancy hotel downtown, I bought a new tank top with a tropical palm tree situation gracing the front, and I plan to sleep past 7 am at least once. Hopefully twice. Usually before I leave town, I jot down ideas for Oliver's meals and lay things out for Sam. From what I've gathered from other parents and friends, it seems we all fall into funny, unspoken roles and while Sam almost always bathes Oliver, I plan and prep his meals. Sure, I'm quite capable of giving him a bath and Sam is quite capable of roasting his sweet potatoes, but this is just how things have landed for us. But tonight I'm walking out the door without jotting anything down. While I did stock up on berries and string cheese, I'm not leaving any notes and for the first time, not feeling terribly worried about how much Oliver eats, when he eats, even frankly if he eats. They're going to be just fine.
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.
When we first started planning our wedding, we didn't really know what we were doing. Sure we'd been to our friends' weddings but hadn't paid much attention to details like chair set-ups or music or stemware. So when we sat down to talk about what we wanted our day to look like, we had only one goal in mind: we wanted it to feel like us. Nothing forced. Nothing to appease someone else or for the sake of an uncertain tradition. Throwing a bouquet and the whole garter thing wouldn't feel like me so we ditched it. Stuffy venues and fussy catered meals wouldn't do. In the end, we were lucky to stumble upon an incredible working farm on Whidbey Island, had a big family-style Southern meal at a long table under the stars, and some real-deal cake. Not the dainty slices of fondant-draped jewels you often see in wedding magazines. We had big slices of coconut cake.
When you have an eight month old baby, making social plans can be hard. Especially in the evenings. When I was pregnant, I read Bringing up Bebe and one of the big premises of the book is how the French feel strongly that babies and children can fit into your lives and that you shouldn't have to change and alter everything to accommodate them. I remember reading the book and thinking: YES! Life will be just as it was, except we'll have a small baby in tow. Obviously a few things would likely be different, but I didn't want to change our routines, change the way we cooked or approached time off together, or see our friends any less. Well of course I'm the fool. Or at the very least, I'm not as French as I thought I was. Today, we very much schedule things around Oliver's nap schedule and bedtime, but thankfully we have a lot of other friends with kids who get it. Friends who make homemade cookies, own ice cream businesses, and have really great taste in music. Friends who host the kind of occasion that warrants homemade hot fudge sauce and eating dessert first.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
It's Friday morning and I've been up since 6 am. I may have had one of these rice krispy bars at that time and perhaps another on my way out the door three hours later. Basically I've successfully convinced myself that since they're made with brown crisped rice cereal and are sweetened with unrefined sugars that we're basically in breakfast territory here. But in reality, these are quite decadent: as if Rice Krispy treats weren't delightful enough on their own, this recipe takes them up a notch in all the right ways, adding bittersweet chocolate, almonds, toasted coconut, and a little sea salt. They're just the thing to close out this busy, whirlwind late spring week.
Last Saturday found us aimlessly driving around Seattle, coffees in hand with Oliver napping in the backseat. As do so many babies (or so I hear), Oliver loves a good car nap, and so we're pretty happy letting him take a good, looooong car nap. Saturday being something of a family day, we often end up driving somewhere deliberately or ... just driving, and as we found last weekend, it turns out that when you're just driving with nowhere in particular to go, sometimes you end up eating bad donuts while the car's still running in the Krispy Kreme parking lot before heading across the street to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at antiques you can't afford. You may also come across a fruit stand that's having a rager of a banana sale (4 pounds, all organic, for $1!) that you really can't pass up (but that you can afford). When we got home from our Great Adventure later in the afternoon, we really weren’t sure what to do with our haul. We gave a bunch to Sam's sister Christa, Sam kept another for himself, and then I posted a picture on Instagram asking you all about your favorite banana recipes. Within minutes, the comments and emails started pouring in, leaving us with a new quandary: where to begin? When I find myself confronted with this question in the kitchen (and in life in general), the answer, more often than not, is ice cream.
A few months ago, I spoke here about the meals I was planning to make before the baby arrived. I made beef carnitas and pulled pork, and cooked and froze lots of whole grains. I prepared a few different soups and froze a handful of brownies and blondies. Ziplock bags were neatly labeled and freezer shelves were organized by type of food. Clearly, I wasn't messing around. About that time, a friend emailed me and suggested we do a meal train and even offered to organize it. My initial thought was that we really didn't need it and could take care of feeding ourselves on our own (apparently, I'm not big on asking for help). The freezer was stocked and we had family visiting who would surely cook ... but the more I thought about it, I knew our friends would want to swing by and having a little structure would probably make them feel more comfortable. Taking the uncertainty out of it (What time should I bring food? Is now a good time? Should I text or call? What if I wake the baby?) turned out to be a good thing for everyone and before we knew it, we were getting little email notifications from friends who had signed up to bring us meals. Some indicated what they'd bring (quiche! lentils! "something delicious"!) and others left it as a surprise; some stayed for a cup of tea and others dropped a bag at the door. Regardless of the meal, the gesture felt overwhelming and I realized that we needed that almost as much as the roast chicken, soups, homemade pasta sauce, and pints of gelato. In the midst of the insular, exhausting and all-encompassing weeks of caring for a brand new baby and trying to care for ourselves, we needed to see our friends, some who had had kids and understood what we were going through and others who could relate to just generally feeling overwhelmed and not quite yourself. I was so glad we'd said yes to it all.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.