Whole Grain Baking
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.
I moved to Seattle last February so this January business is all new to me. I remember pulling into the city in the U-Haul we lovingly named Hugh on a sunny February afternoon. We were eager with anticipation and hope, schlepping everything into the house in tee-shirts with a few strong helpers and occasional mild cursing. Seattle really made a showing that day. I'm gathering that wasn't exactly typical, although I really do appreciate the gesture. This year the winter mornings have not been warm enough to encourage tee-shirts. They've been quiet, extremely cold but -- lately -- startlingly sunny. That bright light, despite the layer of ice on my car, has helped get me to yoga when I'd much rather stay inside nursing a cup of coffee. It's been enough to inspire me to send letters to old friends, organize all of my tax documents, make some pretty great oatmeal and take long winter walks with Sam. I'm not letting myself have the space or the moment or the luxury to miss those warm summer days that now seem like a distant memory. I know they'll come back (they will, right?). For now, there's just putting one foot in front of the other, getting my work done, and sneaking out in that light whenever it decides to make a showing.
The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn't feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices - Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar's on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
Spice Cookies from the new cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I'm writing this on a train around 6 p.m. about an hour North of New York City. To my right is the Hudson River and to my left, one Sam catching up on a few emails. The sun is making its way down ever so slowly and my black ballet flats are more than ready to trade in carpeted train hallways for city streets and firm ground. This is our fourth day on the train. We left Seattle clutching a week's worth of clothes, enough work to keep us busy on the train, a few novels, a bottle of wine, a cocktail in a flask (thank you, Brandon), rye in another flask (thank you, Sam), a few cameras, and these crackers. Final destination: Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. With a quick stop-over to visit my sister Zoe and her boyfriend Stefan in the West Village, eat meatballs, and check out a few bookstores.
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.
Time moves differently in the summer. I swear this to be true. It was one of the crueler jokes bestowed upon me when I began teaching: you put all of your energy and every dream of a chunk of freedom into this magical thing, summer vacation, and it'd be over before you could blink. I'm feeling a little of that as I sit here now with just a few days of July left, writing to you on a foggy Friday afternoon with a messy kitchen, a broken washing machine, and an empty refrigerator. Don't get me wrong: it's been a good day. We shared a messy biscuit sandwich for lunch from a new spot downtown and lingered over coffee longer than usual before starting the work day. A good week, really. But time has been moving quickly and I'm sure you notice that, too.
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.
I'm writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom's lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I've made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That's basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we've arrived happily to the land of lingering.
It's all I can do not to just drop everything and turn this into a gardening blog. Maybe a gardening blog with cookies, and cocktails? I jest. But in all seriousness, thank you all so much for your generous comments and advice about planting and gardening. I wish I had you in my back pocket at all times, but you've given me a lot to work with and much inspiration. In fact, today's recipe is made with fresh herbs from the backyard! It's been unusually warm in Seattle this week, so everything's growing like crazy and quite thirsty. I learned a valuable lesson: if you take off on the ferry to Vashon Island on a very sunny day to visit a most lovely couple in their new home, eat the best quinoa you may have ever tasted, and forget to water your plants, you will come home to sad basil. This is, apparently, a fact. I'm learning slowly. Also a fact: playing hookie on an island is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I've been thinking a lot about creativity lately and how to make more space for it in the constant to-do lists of my (I assume our) daily lives. I often feel guilty if I take moments to focus on a non-work related project, but I read something recently that led me to believe taking time out of our day to chop some herbs, knead some dough, and wait for it to rise might just be what we all need more of.
I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70's in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam's been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
In our family, Christmas cookies come about in one of two ways: we either make them or folks drop them by the house. I'm sure something similar happens with you, too. And there are the tins of cookies that you're thrilled to receive and look forward to for weeks and others that you stow away until the day comes when you don't feel all that guilty throwing them out. Growing up, a woman my dad used to work with would send her eponymous Denise's Pieces each year. They're a pretty standard chocolate-covered toffee but they're soft and buttery and hide-from-your-sisters good. Two years ago, Denise offered to drive over from Sacramento to give us a tutorial and teach us how to make the toffee on our own. Yes! Best day ever! At the end of the day, Rachael, Zoe and I learned we were pretty awful at making toffee. We also learned Denise's caveat: once she shows you how to make the toffee, "you're set free." Free, we asked? That's right: you no longer get a tin of toffee in the mail. No! Worst day ever!
I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there's a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter -- about what's in the book and about what's so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I'm always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.
It's undeniably September, but I'm going to refrain from writing that kind of a post. On evening runs, it's getting darker just a touch earlier and, like clock-work, summer is kicking into swing full-force in the Bay Area. We're good for Indian summers and we're also known for forgetting they happen each and every year. We all walk around shocked that it's hot in September when it's always hot in September. So while I'm excited for all that fall brings, let's look back at summer for just a second and then talk about cake, shall we?
There are some things you don't question or plan for. They're the things that just happen, that unfold throughout the day or week or month. The things we don't always document or discuss because they don't really seem important enough, but that -- all the same -- so often bring us together in one way or another. Patterns or obsessions or phases. Late-night online shoe shopping. Permission to nap at odd hours. Spontaneous cell-phone photo exchanges. Maybe you can relate. Maybe lately you've been doing something similar. As you do. As we do.
So apparently it's June. And maybe you're in a part of the country that's been having more summery, balmy weather than we have had here in the Bay Area. Maybe you've already been grilling and have bought yourself a new pair of flip-flops. Because I know it's happening out there. I've been eyeing some sweet J. Crew sandals myself and am thinking about swimsuits, soft-serve ice cream and canoes over the 4th of July weekend. But right here, right now at my little school-house desk, I haven't been seeing too, too much of that.
I got an email from a reader last week that made me think. And then smile. She mentioned how she liked my blog because it was about food while simultaneously being nothing about food. The more I thought about it, the more I realized she's probably right. If you really just wanted a quick granola recipe, there are many other places you'd probably go first. But here we are. And it's late on Tuesday night and it kind of feels like fall rather than summer and my sixteen year old dog is snoring at my feet. I've made a fresh batch of granola for the morning, there's a giant mosquito buzzing around my desk that I can't seem to catch, I'm drinking lime fizzy water from a straw and wishing my sister a happy first day of work tomorrow. So, yeah. I like talking to you about baking and salads and homemade ice cream. But I also liked talking to you about books and yoga and how amazing afternoon naps are. About movies and wacky seasons and travels. And hopes and family and pretty dishes. All that. Hopefully you're down. I'm guessing since you're still reading this paragraph, maybe you are.
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.
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.
TEsting to see if this works and maybe it will and maybe it wont'.
I recently got The September Issue from Netflix--the documentary about Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. It was fascinating on many levels but the thing that struck me the most was how unhappy she seemed. We all know how immensely driven and talented she is, but when she spoke of what her other siblings do for a living and what they think of her work, her eyes would gloss over and she'd become distant. When she spoke of her own work at the magazine, Anna mentioned that it often made her angry and agitated--that she'd know when to throw in the towel when she started getting angrier and angrier throughout the day. I don't know about you, but I may just settle for quiet, small-scale contentment rather than feeling that way day in and day out. So then I was running yesterday, and I started to think about a quote from the film Alice and Wonderland. In short, Alice hesitates to help the Mad Hatter in his resistance against the Red Queen. The Mad Hatter is disappointed, noting "You used to be much more muchier...you've lost your muchness." I smiled during this scene and continue to think about it. What does this even mean? What is this muchness? A state, a passion, a spark, a sense of wonder or confidence or fearlessness or comfort with the hear and now. I don't know. Now perhaps the larger question at hand is what does all of this have to do with Vogue and with blackberry cornmeal muffins for breakfast?
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.