Whole Grain Baking
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We turned on the light in the baby's room last night and left it on until we went to bed. I'd initially turned it on to hang a watercolor before dinner and had forgotten all about it. An hour or so later, I yelled up the stairs to Sam that the light was still on but he already knew. He didn't want to turn it off. When you're almost a week past your due date, it's nice to sense a little light in there. Everyone says to enjoy it. To relish this time between the two of you. To catch up on books and movies and make foods you love. And we did this for awhile. But there is this inbetween-ness that won't vacate the premises, a sense that we're still firmly in one familiar world (answering work emails and raking leaves) while staring at the hospital bag that's been packed for weeks and the empty carseat that lays waiting -- signs of the next, not-so-familiar world. And yet, we are trying to enjoy it all. I go on long walks and sometimes Sam will join or I'll meet up with a girlfriend. We've been preparing food for each other, seeing a few movies out, making fires, eating donuts and reading. We are ready, now more than ever. But Sprout seems to be letting us know that it's not yet quite time yet.
I am officially on maternity leave and it feels stranger than I'd imagined. I thought it'd be all about catching up on novels, leisurely baking and maybe sewing a little something for Sprout. Going on lots of walks with friends and out to lunch. The reality is that most people are working during the week and can't just sneak away for lunch dates, and sitting around the house aimlessly reading seems to make me antsy. Instead, I find myself deciding that certain tasks have immense and immediate purpose (when they never seemed to before): repotting our house plants, researching new insurance plans, and planning a new product line for Marge for 2016. In the midst of all of this though, I've found some time to catch up on Netflix movies (any recommendations?), went out to Lebanese food with Sam, and finally made it to a cafe on Capital Hill I've been wanting to try for quite some time. It's gotten a bit chilly in Seattle this week so I've been making lots of cider and chai in the afternoons for an energy boost, and there certainly doesn't seem to be a shortage of soup-making or baking -- which brings me to these not-too-sweet, protein-packed blondies that I've taken quite a liking to.
I've come to the conclusion that for a rather detail-oriented person like myself, the last weeks of pregnancy can feel like preparing for the apocalypse. I'm trying to fight this feeling with everything I have and remind myself that after the baby is born, grocery stores will still be open, we'll have family visiting, and friends will drop by -- but still, I've been cooking up a storm and straightening up the house as if the baby will really care. In recommending recipes to me in emails and in your comments on my last post, many of you mentioned not forgetting breakfast or something sweet, and I realized amidst the carne asada and beef stew, it'd be nice to have a small treat, too. As I scanned the archives of the blog, I realized that brownies are a bit underrepresented here, and this batch of super fudgy crackly-top, salt-sprinkled beauties is just the thing to remedy that.