Mary Oliver is a wise woman. I'd love to have tea with her someday. Or take a really long walk. Apparently she loves birds and I could pretend that I really loved birds for that one afternoon (I hate birds). But in all seriousness, she's one fine poet and has given me great perspective on living life to the fullest and coming to terms with death. I came across one of her poems last week and have been rereading it almost daily ever since. It's a good one. I want to share it with you and then we're going to talk light, fluffy cupcakes and salted caramel. Deal?
Last week was a whirlwind of flour, sugar, cool fall evenings, early morning drives to the industrial part of the city and some new baking friends. I enrolled in a one-week intensive baking course through San Francisco Baking Institute in methods and ingredient functionality. It was fascinating to learn the science behind what I do and love (the "why's and "how's" lurking behind recipes and formulas). I haven't done the whole commute thing in a long, long time so after a few days of really bad morning radio I gathered up a new play list. And you know what I've found about this particular playlist? Not only is it fabulous for weaving in and out of traffic on Highway 101, it's also great for shaking your booty while you're making butterscotch pudding.
As you're reading this, I'm probably in my little Volkswagon driving five hours North to visit Jean. Remember Jean? She's my dear friend who, exactly one year ago, was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street in Brooklyn. I remember what I was wearing and doing and feeling the second I heard the news. I'll never forget that sleepless night--looking back, I know I was completely in shock and the realization would only slowly sink in. Still today, every single time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge I think of Jean. I'm not really sure why except maybe because of how much she loved the city and how she wanted to move here someday, have a family and settle down.
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:
Today we've got cookies and sisters on our hands. You may remember me talking about Zoe, my youngest sister, and the weekend she graduated. But I'm not sure that I've talked a whole lot about Rachael. She's the middle sister in our family and loves to cook and eat as much as I do (see proof below). Actually, she's a far better cook than I am. She's one of those intuitive kitchen people who just wings it without a recipe. Confidently. And it all turns out just fine. There's another area where Rachael and I differ in the kitchen: she's a planner, menu-writer, and list maker. Now, don't get me wrong: I love a good list. But I'm not the kind of person who maps out what I'll prepare and eat for the week, makes a shopping list, and lets that list dictate what I buy at the grocery store.
I picked up the most recent issue of Time Magazine to find Jonathan Franzen on the cover. I'm a big fan of Franzen and think what he does in depicting ordinary folks living ordinary lives is nothing short of genius. If you're looking for intricate plots and ax murderers, you won't find them with Franzen. But you will find average couples sitting around the breakfast table all out of milk, listening to lawnmowers in the distance and wondering why it is they got married in the first place. The good stuff. The real stuff. So while the article made me interested to read his new book Freedom, I was most struck by the way in which Franzen works--his process, his routine, his desk.
In a recent post, I mentioned that I'd just gone up to my family's Tahoe cabin for a few days with my dad. I mentioned ice cream and lounging by the lake. What I didn't mention is the grand renovation that's taken place this past year making our humble, rather tiny cabin into something a bit less humble and much less tiny. When I really think about it, our Tahoe cabin is the one stable house in my life. My folks are divorced and live in different houses than the one I grew up in, and if you've been around the blog for any period of time, you know I'm a serial mover. So the Tahoe cabin is it. It's where I've been coming at least twice a year since I was two years old. Same little town, same street. During the renovation this year, my dad just kept saying how I wouldn't believe it--how much different it was. I'd overheard conversations about reclaimed barnwood and tile, about a courtyard breezeway and flat screen TV's. So when I drove up, I'll be honest: I expected to be a little sad. I braced myself to put on a big happy face for my dad and thought of all the ways I could tell him how great it was. I figured I'd miss our funky little cabin and all its quirks. After a record breaking personal best of 3 hours and 15 minutes, I pulled up, parked, and saw a totally new house. The funny thing? I wasn't at all sad or nostalgic or disappointed. Don't get me wrong: it was different. But it was great, too. The sleeping loft was still there, the windows looking out onto the lake were still the center of the house, and the stools at the kitchen counter--all there. It just got a face life. A fancy face lift.
So my blog's birthday came and went. I was never the type of person to bake my blog a cake (although I think it's awesome that some of you do) but I have to say, I was surprised when I realized the other day that it's been just over a year since I started. How'd that happen? Birthdays are cool for a few reasons. First and most importantly, cake. Second, cards and family and friends and a check from your grandma. If you're a member of my family and you happen to be home at the time, you get to wear the beat up, pink glittery birthday crown. That thing's been around the block. Let me tell you. But the other cool think I notice as I get older is the element of reflection when birthdays roll around--thinking about the past year and how you want the next year to pan out. I began A Sweet Spoonful never having published a piece of writing but always wanting to. I started it late one night on a complete whim figuring at least it was one place where I'd see my work in print. Now, one year later, I'd call myself a writer. I started out with small local publications, peeing my pants with each acceptance letter and now you can occasionally find me in national rags and, if you flew Frontier this winter, you saw me in your trusty in-flight magazine. I talked about fried chicken and grits and all my friends who read it had a good chuckle.
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.
Summer. Barbecues, road trips, flip-flops, rope swings, a new swimsuit, homemade popsicles or rides with the windows down and feet out the window. Reading outside. Doing just about everything outside. Gardening. Sprinklers. The list could go on. Lately I’ve been thinking about the time when summer actually felt like an eternity. Remember that? The days right before you or your friends had a car and you came up with impossibly creative ways to pass the time--perhaps feeling bored and tortured, not realizing how you’d look back on those listless, empty afternoons with nostalgia and longing. During those summer days, the above list would look quite different: making chocolate chip cookie dough and eating it straight out of the bowl. On the roof. In our underwear. Or walking downtown barefoot with my best friend Kristin to buy fried rice from the one and only decent Chinese restaurant in our small town. We'd wear cut-offs and put on lots of fruity lip gloss and hope to be noticed. We’d spend hours making mix tapes and sneak bottles of Zima and clove cigarettes into the garage for a smashing afternoon of pure daydreaming. The Cure. The Flaming Lips. Sublime. Tori Amos. Kristin and I would sneak out at night and traipse around the park with boys much too old for us. Those were the days. How little we knew and how much we thought we knew. But such is adolescence. I don't really miss that. The one thing I do miss is the cadence of the days, the way they literally folded into one another into a beautiful, long swath of months we called summer.
So here's what a day off looks like--a day off nearing the second half of June where I try to squeeze in way too many things because I know I won't have another leisurely day in awhile. Is that what you do on your days off? Oy. There was a double espresso with almond milk, my favorite yoga class, and plenty of ball with Noel: There were also drop biscuits to make. Whole wheat drop biscuits from Good to the Grain to be more specific. There were also strawberries to wash and slice. My sister's boyfriend flew in tonight from Philly and I wanted to make dessert but didn't have much time. Solution: drop biscuits with strawberries and cream.
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.
For those of you who follow me on twitter, you've probably gathered that I'm a huge Kim Boyce fan--I really haven't been this excited and inspired by a cookbook in a long time. Perhaps ever. I had the opportunity to meet Kim last week at Omnivore Books and hear her take on the different whole grain flours she uses in Good to the Grain and how each affects the flavor and texture of her recipes. If you want a more detailed review of her book, I wrote a short piece for Bay Area Bites last week, so feel free to read more there.
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.
It strikes me as very odd that I've never written about ice cream here. This is because it's my very favorite food of all time. I won't admit how frequently I eat ice cream each week--hopefully family members will practice restraint with their comments on this particular post. But really, ice cream makes me very happy. Growing up, Bon Boniere was our little local ice cream shop downtown. Sometimes when I'd get home from school, my mom would promise that if I was lucky, maybe my dad would feel like going out for a cone later. Then the obsessing would begin: M & M or Bubblegum? It was like my mantra as the Brady Bunch wrapped up and dinner time grew near. I'd hear my dad pull up the driveway and know that I should give him a few minutes to put down his briefcase before I bombarded him with the all-important question of the evening: can we go?
My friend Autumn recently pointed out an article in The New York Times all about living alone. Not like me in my city apartment, but like folks who choose to be fiercely independent and move somewhere isolated where they can truly be away from it all. The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, profiles three individuals (all men, interestingly enough) and discusses their compulsion to live in isolation. One man describes a feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself: "you don’t have to answer to anybody.” There's also a feeling of self-sufficiency. Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. A 27-year-old British man spent the last year living in a hut he built in Sweden as a way of being environmentally responsible. Regardless of the justification (and I suppose there doesn't really need to be one) "Embracing the Life of Solitude" made me really think about what it means to deliberately choose to be by yourself.
It's been a long weekend. Not long like 'yay, it's a holiday' long. More like 'hours piling onto hours piling onto more hours' long. I'm pretty firm about this remaining a food blog, so I won't bore you with the details of what's been going on in my life. But let's just say I'm cooking more for one now than for two. Moving has a way of highlighting problems rather than solving them. So after twelve years of comfort, stability, laughs, road trips, cups of coffee, holidays, birthdays together, apartments spanning the country--I'll be spending a bit more time alone. I've actually written this paragraph many times trying to just come out and say it. So there it is. And I've had enough sleepless nights, tears, and a rather lousy appetite because of it. So hell. Today it was time to bake a cake.
I started writing this post numerous times, trying to figure out how to just come out and say it. I skirted around the issue. I sugar-coated it. But here, I'll just come out with it: I stole this cookbook. No really, I full-on stole it. And it's fabulous. Now let me explain: This fall, I was an intern at a local weekly paper here in San Francisco. It started out strong with assignments, bad coffee, and seminars touching on San Francisco history and politics. I was engaged. I envisioned a future with me traipsing about the city covering local food and culture. I wouldn't make much money, but I'd be happy. And well-fed. But in a very short time, the support faded and I found myself at a dark, windowless desk trying to look busy and not sulk that nothing I ever wrote seemed to make it to the right person's desk. The scheduling of the internship was such that I couldn't accept a full-time job anywhere, and I was the oldest intern by a solid ten years. I kept telling myself it could go somewhere. Who knows? In the meantime, I got to know Twitter. I did a little online shopping. I taught myself photo editing techniques, and learned a little hmtl code. I even wrote letters to relatives I hadn't seen in way too long. The high point of each day was checking the mail. I spent way more time on the task than my fellow interns, making piles for the appropriate editors and studying the upcoming events and book releases to see what might be worth checking out. And then, there were the days when publishers and PR folks would send books, cd's, free tickets and the like. So now you can see where this is going. On a particularly dreary and stormy afternoon, my editor received a recipe compilation from the editors at Food & Wine entitled, Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes. In it, the they'd gone through the most exciting cookbooks from 2009 and pulled their favorite dishes. Ah hah. It must be mine. I looked around and slid it into my welcoming messenger bag. I know, I know--stealing's never good. Even if you are a jaded, overqualified intern. And after a mere few hours, my conscience started to get the best of me. So I left a note. It went a little something like this. Dear ______ (overworked editor): You got a cookbook in the mail today and I'm borrowing it for research purposes. Let me know if you ever need it back. Thanks, Megan (intern in the back left corner). There. Phew. Now it wasn't technically stealing. And guess what? The editor that rarely published my pieces also never checks her mail. Imagine that. Three months later, that note's probably still sitting there. Lucky for us because now I can share these cookies with you.
I'll keep this short and sweet because, let's be honest, we've all got things to attend to. Somehow I woke up this morning staring December 21st in the face and none too pleased about it. We always talk about how we can't believe it's already such and such holiday/season/milestone, but this year it's really true. I blinked and it was almost over. So hopefully you have things a little more under control than I do at the moment. I got an exciting temporary writing job so I've been hunkering down in my pj's writing online copy while trying to check things off my holiday list: wrapping, card-writing, packing up boxes (YES, we found a place and I can't wait to tell you all about it). At my yoga class a few days ago, the instructor was talking about what a magical time of year it is and she started going on and on about our dynamic energy fields. I'll admit it, I tuned out in the midst of my downward dog. But something she said resonated with me: across so many cultures and religions, at this particular moment in the year, millions of people are celebrating their holidays and beliefs. When that many people start devoting their energy towards something good-- looking inward and celebrating with family and friends--it does something to the energy around all of us. It may be a little out there for you. In some ways, it's a little out there for me. But there's always that moment when I feel Christmas come on, that little tugging inside that reminds you what magic and belief feel like--and that's what I think she was alluding to. So here's to hoping you get everything done on your list in the coming days. But even more importantly, here's to hoping you find some light and that you can step into the playfulness, anticipation, and awe of the season...if only for a few moments. Now let's get right to business with three simple words: Eggnog Popcorn Balls. I came across this recipe on Chow.com recently and couldn't wait to try it.
Thanksgiving came and went in a flash. It's always so odd how we think and plan and make lists and have dreams about rolling out pie dough...and then it's all old news. I hope your day was relaxing and wonderful. Wasn't the long weekend incredible? I took a photography class on Saturday, and we meandered around the Mission shooting murals, rusty cars, and cafes. I don't often get the chance (or take the chance) to really slow down and notice the stray dandelions growing in the sidewalk cracks or the way a bike is leaned precariously against a red garage door. I noticed these things on Saturday. I came home knowing all about histograms, setting a custom white balance, and organizing photos in Lightroom. But more than that, I had an opportunity to spend the whole day slowing down and exploring alleys, graffiti, and community gardens. I went home feeling nourished. We all focus so much on nourishing or feeding our bodies during Thanksgiving--but it's important to think about what nourishes and keeps the rest of you going, too. What excites you, inspires you, makes you want to wake up in the early hours of the morning and hit "go?" Lately for me, it's my photography, stunning books like A Year of Mornings, the way the afternoon light shines into my bedroom and how my dog Maddie knows exactly where to find it, knit hats, blogs like this and this and this, drops of eggnog in my coffee, routine, linen napkins.
Although it's one of my favorites, I haven't had a piece of pumpkin pie yet this fall. Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did have a few bites of a piece from Mission Pie but that doesn't really count. I seem to have a tendency to over-do it with pumpkin pie and get a little tired of it before Thanksgiving. So I wait, thinking of other ways to use pumpkin. I was leafing through my recipe binder the other night and stumbled across this recipe for Pumpkin Semolina Cake. Semolina flour is available in most supermarkets, so you shouldn't have much trouble finding it. It's often used to make homemade pasta and pizza dough because it has a higher gluten percentage, making pasta stretch easily rather than breaking apart. While Italians use it for pastas, it's traditionally used in Greece, North Africa and the Middle East to make crumbly baked goods. Because of the high egg content in this recipe, the cake is almost pudding-like with a large, moist crumb (thanks to the semolina flour). I'd never baked a cake in a water bath before, although I'd heard of people doing so with cheesecakes. It turns out, it's a common practice with delicate foods and egg-based desserts (of which this is one) because it allows them to cook at a lower, even temperature. This cake is best served warm with a dollop of homemade whipped cream. And I think it's especially nice served with cinnamon or mint tea. It should tide me over until Thanksgiving when I'll savor my first real piece of pumpkin pie. However, I loved this cake so much that--dare I say--it could even be a nice substitute.
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.
As many of you know, Linnea and I currently live at my mom's house. It's a long story that involves my mom going back to graduate school, the family dogs, her eventually moving home, and me losing my job. It's very temporary and while I never envisioned being thirty and living at home--really, it's wonderful. I've gotten to spend so much time with my mom: sitting at the counter watching her cook; obeying her nonsensical driveway parking rules; talking about books, celebrities, Obama's charm. But Linnea and I have set a date that January 1 we'll be moving out. It's time. I can't wait to live right in the city, where you can get a piece of pizza after 9 p.m. (you can't get anything after 9 p.m. in Marin) and walk out your door in the morning to grab a cup of coffee and hop on the bus. I miss the constant buzz of a city, the way the sun glints off the buildings, and the proximity of your neighbors. That being said, Linnea, my mom and I all had a lovely (albeit quiet) suburban Halloween. We baked, we drank, we ordered a pizza, we drank some more, we carved pumpkins, and we handed out mini candy bars to the --drumroll, please-- one trick-or-treater who dropped by. I had big plans for my pumpkin this year. I was going to carve a cupcake on the front, and it was going to be epic. Well suffice it to say, my vision fell flat (pumpkin below is mine, the two below that are my mom's and Linnea's). Blame it on failing high school geometry or that second glass of wine, but it really ended up looking like a pumpkin with the entire front carved out. Oh well. At least one thing turned out just as planned: Rose Levy Beranbaum's English Gingerbread Cake.
It's raining, it's before 8:00 a.m., and I'm eating cookies for breakfast. But these aren't just any cookies: they're made without egg, so they're almost more like pumpkin drop biscuits. They're amazing with hot coffee and the latest episode of Dexter. I got back from Jean's memorial last night and have given myself this day to hunker down a little, do some laundry, nap, hang out with the dogs, read, watch movies...whatever. Since my folks moved to the Bay Area when I left for college, I don't go back to my hometown for holidays--or for much, really. So going back to Eureka is always odd. Sometimes I feel nostalgic walking around the quaint downtown, getting a bagel at Los Bagels, or going to the park. But this trip was, obviously, a different one filled with days that seemed to go on forever, family friends I haven't seen in fifteen years, and new friends from Boston that Jean loved dearly (and I can see why). So it was mentally exhausting for many reasons. And today I'm just laying low. I do have a few people coming over to potentially purchase my Vespa (cross your fingers!), but other than that, this could be a stay-in-your-pj's kind of day. And these are the perfect laying low cookies.
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.
I was peer-pressured into baking. I can't say that it's ever happened before. But recently, Jamie at Life's a Feast and Deeba at Passionate About Baking encouraged me to join them and a few other food bloggers to a "Mac Challenge": making macarons and sharing our results with each other while fielding questions via twitter. Jamie came up with the idea as it was the one thing she had shied away from for so long (macarons are notoriously difficult to make perfectly, with their long sought after "feet" on the bottom and delicate, chewy shells). I, too, tend to shy away from extremely fussy desserts. But I love the sweet, pastel-colored confections and thought I'd join in and try my hand at it. (Friday): When I got the recipe that many of the ladies were starting with first, it was in grams and I don't have a kitchen scale ("Dear Santa..."). So I found David Leibovitz's lovely recipe for chocolate macarons using volume instead and set out for greatness. My meringue looked perfect and glossy.
Our bocce team is no longer in last place. I think we're second to last-- but still, let's celebrate the small victories. Chocolate seems to help. We definitely play a little better. I noticed this when I made Katherine Hepburn's brownies a few weeks back--so last week, I decided to test Amanda Hesser's recipe for her mom's Chocolate Dump-it Cake (found in Cooking for Mr. Latte), a birthday staple in the Hesser household. I was intrigued because you make the cake all in one saucepan and I hadn't tried sour cream frosting before. Hesser claims, "For the icing, you melt Nestlé's semisweet-chocolate chips and swirl them together with sour cream. It sounds as if it's straight from the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but it tastes as if it's straight from Payard. Everyone loves it." She wasn't kidding--the icing was remarkable. It's substantial (unlike occasionally whimpy buttercream), smooth, and has a creamy chocolate depth.
For people who love brownies, these are legendary. There are a few different recipes floating around claiming to be the definitive one and there are different stories about how the brownies came to be. The one most commonly held to be true is that Liz Smith of Better Homes and Gardens went to interview Ms. Hepburn for their August 1975 issue--these are the brownies she was served. Whichever story or version you subscribe to, the reason I love Katherine Hepburn's recipe (and brownie philosophy in general) is because she believes in using very little flour. A belief I share. If you are a "cakey," thick brownie person, these may not be for you. But if you like thinner, chewier, denser brownies--keep reading. These are super easy-you make them in the saucepan itself, so very few dishes. I made a small change: the original recipe calls for 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate and they yield a really nice, mild brownie. I make mine with 3 oz. chocolate which notches up the dense, rich flavor.