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A Study in Contrasts and Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

March 30, 2013

Savory Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

The first seventeen years of my life were spent in a dilapidated, bar-on-every-corner, mill town in Western Pennsylvania. Insulated. That’s the best word to describe the childhood I spent in a single stop light town of fewer than five thousand people. We didn’t get out much. There was the almost annual birthday trip to the now defunct Sea World in Ohio that only took place if mom was in the right kind of mood to make the two hour journey. I remember exactly two vacations both of which were to Niagara Falls, Canada. The town’s smallness and the fact that everyone knew everyone else didn’t comfort me in the way that it did some. It was suffocating. There were no secrets. When officer Divens showed up at your house to investigate a “domestic disturbance” reported by the neighbor that complained every time your ball went in her yard, you could bet the news had spread from the corner store on the east side to the sub shop on the west side by breakfast the following day.

City living, the likes of which I only gleaned from watching too much TV, represented all the glamour and vibrancy I’d never known but craved. On long walks delivering newspapers I’d fantasize about riding alongside Ponch as a California Highway Patrol officer, hair blowing from underneath my helmet, mirrored glasses that screamed the kind of cool I was desperate to be, and the tall buildings whizzing by in my wake. Or maybe I’d join Cagney and Lacey on a gritty crime scene investigation in the heart of Manhattan. Their kind of who-done-its were a lot more interesting than investigating who threw the beer bottle at whom. Someday.

Eventually, I made my way to a big city—Chicago—where I’ve remained for over a decade and a half. My first years as an urban dweller were everything I’d longed for so long ago on my paper route, the towering buildings, the energetic pace, the diversity, and maybe best of all, the anonymity. There was something strangely comforting about losing myself in a bustling sea of nameless faces every morning on my way to work. Through the sharp lens of hindsight, I now understand that losing myself is exactly what I was hoping to do when I moved to the city.

Lots of growing up and a decade later I started craving a life in a different kind of big place. I wanted wide open spaces, a rolling landscape, and a meaningful connection to the earth. In 2010, I left Chicago and Greg behind for an opportunity to experience a rural existence. I spent six weeks working as a cheese making apprentice and awkward farmhand at Longview Farm in Washington County, New York. Greg was sure I couldn’t handle being away from the city, but there, living in the midst of strangers—strangers that would become dear friends—I’d never felt more at home. At Longview, then, and every time I’ve visited since, there is an immediate sense of belonging. Labels are irrelevant. I’m not defined or judged by my ability to have children, my relationships, or my career choices. There is an urgent rhythm to life on a dairy farm that cannot be controlled or denied. Animals must be cared for, and milk is impatiently waiting to become cheese. Everything else is secondary.

Tending to these incessant demands is hard work as our bleary eyed farmer friends Liza and Dave can attest, but there is an intrinsic simplicity that is intoxicating for me and Greg too. You don’t have to search for a quiet place to meditate there. You just put on your muddy boots and walk among the clucking hens. Or hike through the woods to the cadence of snow crunching under foot. Or slip on your running shoes instead and head west until the gravel road ends.

I return to Longview Farm with Greg in tow as often as our schedules allow, which is never enough. Reconnecting with Liza and Dave, their land, and their entourage of goats and fowl is like pushing a reset button on our lives. This year marked our first ever spring visit and our first visit during kidding season. Goats are curious animals and baby goats all the more so, probably because nearly everything is new to them and their data on the evil in the world is limited. That unconditional trust is refreshing and shockingly unfamiliar. My hot pink and yellow rain boots with their big buckles and my purple coat of many zippers made me the equivalent of a 5’-3” goat toy, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. The little goats, a black one here, an oatmeal one there, would jump on their hind legs and chew on the zipper pulls of my jacket, as their front legs left muddy hoof prints up and down my jeans. Later that night by the fire, my cheeks throbbed—from smiling.

curious baby goats at Longview Farm

curious baby goats at Longview Farm

Happiness at Longview is a baby goat nuzzling my calf; an unadorned, tender, juicy chicken raised just a few yards from where it was roasted; and evenings by the fire with our friends, Greg to my right with a warm cat nestled in his lap. We trade stories and even share viewpoints on controversial subjects without offense. And sometimes we just sit in a comfortable silence that’s punctuated with the occasional snap of a burning log.

Will this life be ours one day? With each visit, we return home recharged and eager for a farm to call our own. In the meantime, I vow to find that same peace in my life, the life I’m currently committed to for the other 360 days of the year, but it’s a struggle. The earthy smell of the fermenting hay and the undulating vistas that made those long country runs feel too short, are replaced with stoplights and impatient drivers. We find happiness in Chicago too; it just requires more effort. Peace and quiet is harder to come by here. Spending casual time with friends and family must be scheduled weeks, even months in advance. Sitters must be hired. And if we’re going out for dinner, a reservation is often required.

We returned from our most recent visit to Longview farm two weeks ago. Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about the simple joy those little goats brought me. I considered the contrast of life at Longview and life in Chicago as I meticulously cut out these cookies. They’re an uncomplicated shortbread that on the farm I would have simply scored with a dull paring knife and sprinkled lightly and quickly with salt. While they baked I’d have had just enough time to gather eggs from the barn. But in Chicago, I’m called to explore what’s possible with these simple cookies, to dress them up a bit, and to make them the darling of the savory cocktail cookie assortment I was preparing for a client’s party.

I started with a dusting of sea salt. Then I added pale blonde sesame seeds, imagining their satisfying crunch in contrast to the tender, crumbly cookie. Maybe my life doesn’t have to be either or at this point, I thought. I can divide my time between wide open spaces while still finding joy in this pulsating city now perched on the edge of spring. And with that I added the black sesame seeds to my now decidedly fancy shortbread and put them in the oven.

Sesame Sea Salt Shortbread

Adapted from Mary Cech’s Savory Baking.

Ingredients

    1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold
    1 egg
    2 egg yolks
    2 teaspoons water
    1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
    2 tablespoons sesame seeds, black, white, or a mix

Preparation

  1. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until coarse crumbs form.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and water. Reserve one tablespoon of the egg mixture for brushing.
  3. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the egg yolk mixture. Bring the dough together with your hands. Press it into a 1-inch thick disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the coarse sea salt and sesame seeds.
  6. Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into any shapes you desire. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch apart. Brush the tops with the reserved egg mixture. Sprinkle with the sea salt and sesame seeds.
  7. Bake until lightly golden on the bottoms, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container.

Winning the Lottery and Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Cherries

March 13, 2013

whole wheat tart cherry soda bread

Pay off the mortgage.
Buy a farm in Vermont.
Invest in finding a cure for Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Do more to end world hunger.
Buy a motorcycle and invent a riding suit made from the same material used to make “the little black box” on airplanes.
Pay Chip Foose of Overhaulin’ fame to turn our ’87 Ram Charger (a.k.a. Big Blue) into a living room on wheels.
Pay off my nieces’s mortgages.

That’s a smattering of the things Greg and I plan to do when we win the lottery. How we’ll spend our winnings is a topic of frequent debate on long runs, longer car rides, and romantic dinners for two when we pay someone else to do the cooking. The lists are never the same though paying off the mortgage and restoring Big Blue make it on every one. Sometimes we give a lot of our winnings to our families. Other times we give it to strangers. Sometimes the farm in Vermont is a ranch in Montana instead.

Squandering millions of dollars that we don’t have is a fun way for us to pass the time. Ironically, we talk about winning more frequently than we actually play the lottery. (Yes, I know, “you have to play to win.”) We’re not big gamblers, just big dreamers, and this dreaming out loud helps us align and calibrate our values and our goals, especially the big ones. When it comes right down to it, we’re pretty content with what we have, right here, right now, which is a good thing because Greg read that our chance of being killed (or killing someone else) on our drive to the store to purchase our Mega Millions ticket is nearly six times greater than the chance that we will win the jackpot.

What if instead of winning the lottery (or dying a horrible death on your way to buy your ticket), you woke up to find $10,000 and a note relieving you of all obligations for the next seven days? The kids will be taken care of. So will your mother-in-law. All your professional duties have been temporarily suspended without affecting your pay and vacation day allotment. What then?

To my surprise, when it comes to spending fictitious money, it’s easier to spend millions of dollars than it is to spend what amounts to our annual property taxes. Harder still is deciding what to do with the days. Time seldom, if ever, factors into our lottery talks though there is an unspoken assumption that the living will be easy. Of course tending to our thousand acre Montana ranch while we’re curing cancer is likely to present some time management challenges. This must be what is meant by “high class problems.” But we’re not talking about the rest of your life. It’s just next week.

Should I stay or go? If I make it a “staycation”, I could use the money to buy lottery tickets (I’d walk to the store to purchase them.), and pass the days with Under the Tuscan Sun and Master and Commander on repeat.

Or I could sign up for the Regional French Desserts course at the French Pastry Institute, and spend my evenings enjoying over the top dinners in Chicago: Moto, El Ideas, Goosefoot, Schwa, North Pond, Black Bird, Gibsons. Whatever money is left will go the blind Latin guitarist that frequently serenades me at a redline stop in the Loop.

Maybe instead of blowing it all at once, I should consider gifts that keep on giving. I can get an eighty-pound wheel of Parmesan delivered to my front door for $1,250. A wheel of my favorite Pleasant Ridge Reserve is $220. Then I’ll need some wine to drink with my cheese. A few cases of Pride Mountain cabernet and Elyse Le Corbeau should do the trick. This option also leaves plenty of time for working through my mountain of “must read” books.

It’s more likely that I’ll hit the road leaving little to show for the money when the seven days are over. Tooling and drooling around Old Madrid, breaking up the day with stops for sherry and creamy croquettes would be hard to beat. Replenishing my vitamin D and sipping mai tais on the shores of Maui would be almost as lovely.

I considered taking Greg on my adventures, but he’s got a different agenda in mind: he plans to spend the $10,000 to hire someone to finish the interior trim while he’s hiking the Wind River Range, alone. Well, at least we can agree on the big stuff.

How would you spend $10,000 dollars and seven unfettered days?

Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Tart Cherries

I go on a soda bread binge at least once a year. And why not? It’s fast. It’s versatile. It goes with butter. It goes with cheese. And it’s perfect for breakfast with a generous slathering of peanut butter. This isn’t the sweet variety soda bread found across the U.S. that is anything but Irish. (Traditional, “authentic” Irish Soda bread is made using just four ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt.) If you prefer the sweet variety, you might enjoy this one at SmittenKitchen.com.

Ingredients

    4 cups white whole wheat flour, plus a few teaspoons for dusting
    2 tablespoons millet (optional)
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt
    1 cup dried tart cherries
    1 2/3 cups plain yogurt
    1/4 cup milk or water
    2 tablespoons honey
    1 egg

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a baking sheet or dish with olive oil and lightly dust it with flour, or line it with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flour, millet if using, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the cherries.
  3. In a separate bowl whisk together the yogurt, milk or water, honey, and egg.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry. Mix until the dough is too stiff to stir. Use your hands to bring it together in the bowl. Add additional milk or water one teaspoon at a time if it’s too dry. You want a stiff, slightly tacky ball.
  5. Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and shape into a round loaf. (Don’t over-knead the dough. Too much kneading will produce a tough bread.).
  6. Transfer the loaf to the prepared baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make deep slashes across the top of the loaf, 4-6 cuts about half way through.
  7. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will sound hollow.


Rosemary_Rum_Raisin_Soda_BreadOr how about a boozy soda bread? Try this Rosemary Rum Raisin version.

Pushing Buttons and Pan de Higo (Spanish Fig Loaf)

March 2, 2013

Spanish Fig Loaf Pan de Higo

This Spanish fig treat, known as pan de higo, pushes a lot of my buttons–the good buttons, not the ones our moms or bosses push that send us into immediate bouts of self loathing. For me, pan de higo is all about rainbows and unicorns.

First it smacks my nostalgia button. With one bite I’m instantly transported to a cozy tapas joint nestled in the cobbled streets of Old Madrid. Then, as it softens in my mouth, my I Love Anything Figgy button lights up. The sweetness of the rich figs drapes across my tongue, while the spices cause it to gently quiver.

You’ve got a Fast and Easy button too; I know you do. You can make pan de higo in less than thirty minutes. Pop the ingredients into a food processor, give it a few twirls, add a splash of brandy, then mash it into any shape you like–voilà.

If it’s tightly wrapped and stored in a cool place, it will keep for weeks. Stow it away for an unexpected guest or offer it to your favorite hostess in lieu of a bottle of your go-to wine. I don’t have to tell you what that does to my Make Ahead button. Then, get ready for your Feel Like a Kitchen Rock Star button, also known as the Domestic Goddess button to start buzzing like crazy. Any time I can peek behind the curtain in Oz and learn how to successfully replicate something that I love that’s expensive to buy and/or hard to find, I feel, well, like a rock star.

Push a few buttons and make a batch. Eat one soon. Keep one for later. Share a few with your friends. Let your kitchen rock star shine, and remember, it’s less about being a kitchen rock star and more about feeling like one.

Spanish Fig Loaf Pan de Higo

Pan de Higo (Spanish Fig Loaf)

Pan de higo, which in English translates to “loaf” or “bread of figs”, is a traditional Spanish way of preserving figs for the winter months. (For the curious, this blog entry illustrates how it’s made in Spain.) Slather a substantial cracker like a Carr’s Wheat Cracker with a creamy blue cheese or chèvre, top it with a slice of pan de higo, and if you dare, drizzle it with honey. Then pour yourself a glass of something festive and bubbly, because moments like these don’t come around often.

Ingredients

    1 pound dried figs, stems removed
    ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon anise seeds
    1 tablespoon honey
    1 – 3 tablespoons brandy, as needed to bring the mix together
    ½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and skins removed (or blanched almonds)

Preparation

  1. In a food processor, chop the figs by pulsing 10 or 12 times.
  2. Add spices, honey, and 1 tablespoon of brandy. Process until a smooth paste forms, adding more brandy if necessary.
  3. Add the toasted nuts and pulse until they are are coarsely chopped.
  4. Choose your mold. You can make one large loaf or several small ones. Line your mold with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Spoon the fig mixture into the mold, pressing down hard. Secure the parchment or plastic, so the loaf won’t dry out. Place a heavy weight on top to compact the loaf–a cast-iron pot, jars of jam, a brick, a dumbbell—whatever you can find.
  5. Let the weighted loaf stand in a cool, dry place for 2-3 days before serving, so the flavors have time to meld together.

Groundhog Day Part 2 and Smoky Sriracha Almonds

February 13, 2013

Roasted Almonds with Smoked Paprika and Sriracha Sauce

Last night at dinner Greg asked me what I planned to share here at Bob Vivant in my next blog post.

“Those smoky almonds that you fell hard for this weekend,” I answered, hoping my tone masked the “duh” that I was thinking.

“No, I mean what story are you planning to tell?”

“Oh, I’m feeling called to write about our trip to Punxsutawney,” I replied. The notion of a call to write needs no explanation for Greg, but I could tell from his face that the subject surprised him.

“Didn’t you already write about our trip?” he asked.

“Yes, but that was the before. This will be the after.”

“But that was almost two weeks ago,” he said. “Most people, even if they cared in the first place, have already forgotten about Groundhog Day.”

Greg was right. Most people don’t take the whole weather-predicting groundhog business as seriously as I do. The poor folks in the East who are still digging out from the weekend’s snow storm probably aren’t thinking much about Phil and his promise for an early spring, and if they are, it’s doubtful that they are thinking pleasant thoughts.

Ten days after our first-ever hike to Gobbler’s Knob, the magic of our trip lingers in a surprising, though pleasing way, like the smell of a good curry that wafts out the door to greet you three days after you served it for dinner. Rising at 4AM to stand in the bitter cold with thousands of strangers, many of whom are decked out in hand-stitched brown wool hats made to look like groundhogs, isn’t what most people would call a desirable equation for finding magic.

Now consider this, you’re standing so close to a brilliant fireworks display that it feels like the exploding colors are raining down on you. Then as the fireworks end you watch the sky lighten with the rising sun. The estimated crowd of 30,000 people begin chanting, “Phil, Phil, Phil.” And a few tipsy onlookers scream, “show us the hog.” This enthusiasm is infectious. You’re no longer a bystander; you’re a part of this pulsating, merry mob. After an eight-hour drive from Chicago and four hours of restless sleep at a Motel 8, there I was on Gobbler’s Knob, my own voice ringing out in the joyful cacophony. Would Phil, the World’s only prognosticating groundhog, see his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter? If he didn’t see his shadow, everyone who’d gathered at the Knob in their groundhog finery would be promised an early spring, something that in 127 Groundhog Days had only happened fifteen times.

There’s a big stage with a stump in the center where Phil will soon make his appearance. People on the stage are singing and dancing, some of it’s good, some of it’s not great, but it’s all entertaining and more entertainment than I’m used to at 6:30AM. At last, it’s time for Phil to make his prediction. At nearly half-past seven Punxsutawney Phil, “the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators,” saw no shadow and declared an early Spring. The crowd erupted in deafening cheers. The sea of people I’d so recently considered strangers, now felt like friends. They hugged each other tight while bouncing in circles as though their team had just won the Superbowl. I turned to see my own groundhog-hat-wearing husband jumping up and down, spouting, “early spring, early spring.” In a word, it was unforgettable.

If you go to Punxsutawney next year that is what you will likely find, shadow or no shadow. I began to realize that the devoted crowd that had hiked to Gobbler’s Knob that morning, enduring a sub-zero wind chill factor weren’t tied to the outcome; they were tied to the tradition. Then I thought about the man who wrote the movie Groundhog Day, Danny Rubin, who was an honoree at the Groundhog Banquet we attended on the previous night along with four hundred other guests. Some people believe that writing can’t change the world, but I’m convinced that it can change, or in the case of Punxsutawney, save a town.

As a kid growing up in another small Pennsylvania town a hundred miles west of Punxsutawney, I’d huddle in bed listening to the live coverage of Phil’s annual prediction. We never drove to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day or any day for that matter. My parents weren’t the traveling sorts. But if we had, we wouldn’t have found a crowd of 30,000 people, or even 3,000. In the 80s Punxsutawney was a mere shadow of the thriving coal-producing town it had been in the early 20th century. As the steel industry in Pittsburgh collapsed, so too did the economies of small towns, like Punxsutawney, that relied so heavily on that industry.

With the 1993 release of the movie Groundhog Day the town of Punxsutawney was thrust into the spotlight even though the movie was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois. Today the town’s economy is largely driven by the Groundhog Day tourism that Rubin’s movie has helped fuel for twenty years and counting. It’s estimated that local businesses generate more than half of their annual revenue during Groundhog Day festivities. (We did our part, returning to Chicago with two groundhog hats, a cookie cutter, a surprisingly tasteful t-shirt, and countless other impulse buys all bearing Phil’s image.)

Would the tradition have survived if not for the movie? Probably. Would the town of Punxsutawney have survived? Maybe, but we’ll never really know, because today the movie that helped save a tradition and a town has become a part of that tradition. If you would like to experience the magic for yourself, make the trek to Gobbler’s Knob next year. You may also want to bring along these sriracha almonds to snack on while watching the morning fireworks and waiting for Phil.

Smoky Sriracha Almonds

Ingredients

    1 tablespoon butter
    1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
    1 1/2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika
    2 teaspoons sriracha sauce
    2 cups whole, raw, unsalted almonds

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Melt butter in a large skillet. Add salt, paprika, and sriracha sauce. Sauté for one minute, until fragrant. Add almonds, stir until they’re shiny. Pour almonds onto a large baking sheet.
  3. Bake for 7 minutes. Gently shake pan to redistribute the nuts. Return almonds to oven and bake for five more minutes.
  4. Let cool completely on the pan. Store in an airtight container.

Punxsutawney Phil and Peanut Butter Breakfast Cookies

January 31, 2013

Gluten Free Peanut Butter Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies

Here’s where we’re at:

At 4 a.m. tomorrow the alarm clock that sits a foot away from Greg’s head will go off. It will be too early for NPR’s Early Edition, so we’ll wake to an unfamiliar, monotone voice speaking on a sleep-inducing topic like basket weaving in Nova Scotia. I’ll beg for a snooze even though I know we outlawed snoozes a couple of months ago after hearing Dr. Oz say that hitting the snooze bar will shave years off your life. Greg will reach for the light that sits just inches away from the unrelenting squawk box thus crushing my fantasy of going back to sleep. I’ll pull the warm covers off my warm body and slither out of bed in defeat, but there will be no whining. This was my idea.

By the time the sun comes up tomorrow we’ll be just six hours away from our destination: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. That’s right, we’re heading east to meet the world’s most famous prognosticating groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, on his most auspicious day, February 2nd otherwise known as Groundhog Day. But wait, there’s more, only I don’t have time to tell you right now, because I have to pack.

Since we’ll be on the road long before it’s time for breakfast, I’m packing lots of snacks. I’ll nosh on one of these hearty breakfast cookies just as we hit South Bend, Indiana and down another as we cross the Pennsylvania state line. I’ll save the rest; maybe groundhogs like peanut butter oatmeal cookies too.

Peanut Butter Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies

This recipe is hard to ruin, because these aren’t cookies that need to be pretty; they just need to taste good. If you go overboard on the mix-ins and your dough is very dense, give your cookies an extra press with the palm of your hand before you scoot them into the oven.

Ingredients

    1 1/4 cups regular oats
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    3/4 cup peanut butter (or almond butter)
    1 egg
    1/4 cup applesauce (or your favorite pureed fruit)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/4 cup honey
    1/4 cup almond meal
    2 tablespoons millet (or toasted sesame seeds)
    1/4 cup sunflower seeds
    3/4 cup dried fruit (I used a combination of raisins and tart cherries.)
    1 cup crisp rice cereal

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper of Silpats.
  2. In a food processor, pulse 1 cup of the oats several times until it’s reduced to coarse crumbs. Stir in the salt and baking soda.
  3. In a large bowl stir together the peanut butter, egg, applesauce, vanilla, and honey until smooth. Add the 1/4 cup of whole oats, the processed oat mixture, and remaining ingredients.
  4. Drop cookies by heaping tablespoonfuls onto baking sheets, about two tablespoons of dough per cookie. Flatten them into 1/2-inch thick rounds with your palm, the back of a spoon, or the bottom of a glass.
  5. Bake for 12-14 minutes until the tops are lightly browned and the cookies spring back when you poke them. Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 18 cookies.

Nutrition summary: calories: 138, total fat: 6.5g, carbohydrates: 16.3g, sugar: 7.9g, fiber: 1.8g, protein: 3.8g

Our Little Table and Blueberry Baked Oatmeal

January 24, 2013

Baked Oatmeal with Blueberries and Almonds

For the three coldest seasons of the year, we enjoy of our meals, both breakfast and dinner, inside at a wooden table tucked into the backmost corner of our hundred-year-old house. The thick edges of the round table are smooth from the care we took refinishing it by hand, together. Our chairs—his with the arms, mine without—are comfy enough for lingering if there’s time: a Sunday morning crossword puzzle, Greg’s famous waffles so light and crisp, a warm jug of Pennsylvania maple syrup, coffee for me, and kombucha tea for my waffle maker. Or the less predictable, occasional dinner where the conversation with the man I’ve spent fourteen years with is surprisingly and satisfyingly endless.

A hot-water radiator hiding just below the table top keeps our feet warm and toasty. Above the table a large window overlooks the now barren yard. With our waffles we watch the woodpeckers that come for the suet Greg feeds them each winter. At night the silhouette of our giant cottonwood tree is cast against the indigo sky. It towers above our house, like a sentry keeping watch over us while we sup on a wild mushroom risotto and single serving salads—his with extra nuts and blue cheese, mine with extra greens and salt.

The table is built for two; so small that I could easily reach across the table for Greg’s hand in the way I might if we were at a restaurant. Our chairs—his facing south, mine facing north—are close enough that he could feed me a forkful of something delicious in the way he might if we were at a restaurant. But I never reach for him. And he never brings his fork to my mouth, not here. We act as though we’re confined to these spaces with the candle in the center of the table serving as our demarcation line. Still, it’s a warm, happy space where dreams are hatched, plans are made, and all life’s easy puzzles are solved. Perhaps that’s why I never noticed the line. Or maybe it just settled into the space so gradually it went undetected.

While the line may have formed with subtly, it was lifted swiftly and without ceremony on an ordinary Tuesday morning by a small dish of golden baked oatmeal. In fact, this milestone oatmeal, my first-ever baked oatmeal (inspired by a recipe at Brown Eyed Baker), was placed in the middle of our table in the exact spot where the candle had been just the night before. I get it. This doesn’t sound extraordinary, because, well, because we’re talking about oatmeal, and maybe because putting a hot dish on the table isn’t such an uncommon thing to do. Except that it is uncommon around here.

When we first moved in together, before the table for two, before I could tell a woodpecker from a starling, before…we ate in the dining room. I had yet to master the fine art of cooking for two. At dinner time I’d lug giant casserole dishes brimming with my spin on my mom’s recipes to the big table. Even when we were satiated, the chicken and biscuits sitting just inches from our empty dinner plates seemed to beckon, “Just one more spoonful.” Well, the spoonfuls added up faster than the miles we put on our running shoes, so for the last decade we’ve taken to divvying up our dinners and plating them in the kitchen, no seconds.

(Unless it’s pizza night!)

On that Tuesday morning my oatmeal emerged from the oven perfectly golden and lovely, the top punctuated with bright red cranberries that had burst while it baked. I wanted Greg to see it before the surface was marred. Besides, what harm could come? My days of meals fit for an army were long over; the recipe for this gem had been adapted and scaled down to two hearty servings. And so I carried it to our little table.

Greg was puzzled when he took his south-facing seat, his bowl empty and a casserole staring back at him.

“It’s baked oatmeal,” I offered.

“What’s in it?” he asked with his eyes fixed solidly on the oatmeal.

This is a little dance we do when I make something that Greg doesn’t recognize. He acts suspicious as though I’m pulling something over on him. In turn, I fuel his paranoia with sarcastic retorts, “Well, I started with a cup of hemlock.”

“And then I added a handful of cranberries, some toasted walnuts, and a pinch of cinnamon.”

He scoffed then scooped some oatmeal from the dish and into his bowl marking his trail with a juicy cranberry that “jumped off” the spoon. It was a small scoop to start, but I already knew he’d be back for more. I filled my bowl and the usual morning chatter started. In short order, he was spooning the rest of his portion into his bowl, carefully scraping the spoon along the side to catch a few stubborn walnuts that were clinging there. As it turned out, Greg loves baked oatmeal, especially the recipe I finally arrived at below. More important, the dish, or rather the sharing of that dish, brought an intimacy to our little table that we hadn’t even noticed was missing.

That night when I reached for our his and hers salad bowls, I remembered our baked oatmeal and pulled out a pretty white serving bowl instead—big enough for a salad meant to be shared at our little table.

Baked Oatmeal with Blueberries and Almonds

Baked Oatmeal with Blueberries and Almonds

If you like to tinker with a recipe, this one is for you. Make it once using the ingredient ratios that follow so you have a baseline. Then let the tinkering begin: peaches and pecans, raisins and walnuts, dried cherries and fresh apple, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg. Go! Like your oatmeal on the dry side? Cut back on the milk. Or soup it up with an extra splash. Almond milk is our go-to milk around here. Whole milk and soy milk work too. If you enjoy your oatmeal on the creamy side, treat yourself to whole milk. Many baked oatmeal recipes include melted butter. The ones I tried were all delicious, but the flavor and texture differences didn’t warrant the added saturated fat and calories.

Ingredients

    3/4 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
    1 egg
    1 cup of your favorite milk
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    2 tablespoons maple syrup
    1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    3/4 cup rolled oats
    1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Sprinkle the blueberries over the bottom of a small (3-4 cup capacity) baking dish or non-stick loaf pan. (I reserve a few blueberries and sprinkle them over the top before it goes into the oven.)
  3. In a medium bowl whisk together the egg, milk, vanilla extract, maple syrup, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the oats, baking powder, and almonds and pour the mixture over the blueberries. Use the spoon to evenly distribute the oats and nuts. If you have a few blueberries left, scatter them over the top.
  4. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden and the blueberries are near bursting. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 hearty servings.

Resistance and Fig and Feta Tartlets

January 15, 2013

Fig Feta Tartlets with Walnuts

Why are you here?

Do you know?

And by “here”, I don’t mean this blog, your computer, or your kitchen. I mean Here in this world.

Currently, my income is generated from cooking lessons, which most recently entailed teaching teenagers how to make French desserts. It was fun, a lot of fun—their eyes lit up with every lick of their spoons, their faces awestruck as they watched the egg whites get foamy and swell in the bowl until glossy peaks formed. It was magical for me, if not for them. I love to cook, and I’m blessed that I can share that love with others. But it’s not why I’m here.

I am Here to write, a fact that took me three and a half decades to discover and some extra time to accept. In seventh grade I graduated from passing notes in class about Dave Hoover to capturing my fears and dreams in a bound, unruled notebook covered in pink satin. Strong math skills partnered with an unquenchable desire to please my mom and an immature notion of success led me to structural engineering. But I never stopped writing. Journal entries became poems, essays, stories. I imagined sharing them with someone someday, but I never did. After all, writing was just my hobby.

In my mid-thirties–somewhere between losing my mom and almost losing my husband–I came to understand that my constant craving to put pen to paper was much more than a hobby. It’s why I’m Here. I was born a writer. I will die a writer.

Feeling called to do something, however, even when you feel it with such an intensity that you cry at the thought of not being able to do it, isn’t enough. There is another force at work, a force that Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art, calls resistance. Resistance plagues us all whether or not you consider yourself to be a writer or an artist of any kind. Anyone who started this New Year with a 21-day detox or a raw food cleanse understands resistance. Pressfield identified the activities that most commonly elicit resistance:

1. The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.
2. The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.
3. Any diet or health regimen.
4. Any program of spiritual advancement.
5. Any activity whose aim is the acquisition of chiseled abdominals.
6. Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.
7. Education of every kind.
8. Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves.
9. The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others.
10. Any act that entails commitment of the heart—the decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship.
11. The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.

I battle resistance each and every day. The battle is lost when I find myself in the closet I share with Greg organizing his stuff, because my side has already been purged and reorganized, and purged and reorganized again. If not the closet, resistance lures me into the kitchen to practice making macarons for a party, or to the basement where I can spend a satisfying hour rearranging my burgeoning pantry of jams and pickles. Resistance leads me anywhere but the place my heart knows that I need to be: at my notebook or computer, channeling my muse and working on my book, the same book though with arguable differences that aren’t worth noting here, that I’ve been working on for three years now.

At night I set my intentions for the next day—“I will write!”, promising myself that tomorrow will be different. My grasp on optimism tightens while I’m running or practicing yoga. And then resistance takes over, and I’m elbow-deep in bread dough. To be fair, the distractions aren’t always of my own making. A sudden urge to organize the recipes ripped from the pages of Saveur, or to whip up a batch of savory tartlets can be overshadowed by a hard drive crash or a thick stack of near-due bills. Such urgency, real or contrived, keeps me from doing what’s most important, what I’m Here to do. At the end of those days, I’m angry and deeply ashamed by the ease with which I can break a commitment to myself.

I’ve tried a number of techniques to instill discipline.

“Schedule your priorities rather than prioritize your schedule.”

“Don’t consider what you want to accomplish for the day (or year). Consider instead what will disappoint you at the day’s end if left undone.”

But deep in battle I’ll argue that if I can just get everything crossed off the list, I’ll be free of the “shoulds” and all the background noise that keeps me from my higher calling, and then I can focus on my book. Even though I know that background noise is really just life. It will always be there, if not hiding in a stack of bills, then waiting for me with a flat tire.

This year I made a new commitment to myself, one that I vow to keep: I’m going to accept the background noise and work in its midst. No more excuses. I treat my book like a job. I go to work every day, not just when the closets are clean. I work out, muscle through my emails, develop a gluten-free menu for a new client and send out a few cooking party proposals for the job that pays the bills. Then my real work begins.

Fig and Feta Tartlets

Think of these tartlet shells as a blank canvas for your favorite fillings. Replace the feta with fresh goat cheese or a creamy Gorgonzola, if you prefer. Or substitute a slice of brie for the cheese filling and top it with apricot jam and hazelnuts.

Ingredients

    24 wonton wrappers, 2 1/2 inches square or round
    olive oil for brushing
    2 ounces feta cheese
    2 ounces cream cheese
    1 tablespoon honey
    1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon sea salt
    1/2 cup fig preserves
    1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
    Orange zest (optional)

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Press the wrappers into a non-stick mini muffin and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until light brown. Remove the tart shells from the muffin tin and set aside to cool.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the feta cheese, cream cheese, honey, heavy cream, black pepper, and sea salt. Mix with a fork until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
  4. Spoon a generous teaspoon of the cheese mixture into each wonton shell. Top with a teaspoon of the fig preserves. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts.
  5. Place the tartlets on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes until warmed through. Sprinkle with orange zest if using. Serve immediately.

Makes 24 tartlets.

The End of the World and Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread

December 20, 2012

Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread

After our workout this morning Greg suggested that I weigh myself “just to know where you’re at going into the holidays.”

What?

A weigh-in could squash my “ho ho ho” in one fell swoop. I avoid the scale especially in the cold months when it’s easy to hide extra padding under a woolly sweater. Still, I agreed. In spite of a strong foreboding feeling, I couldn’t make an intelligent argument for why it was a bad idea.

“Okay, you look,” I said as I stepped onto the cold metal scale with my bare feet. “If it’s above my magic number, don’t tell me what it is.” I looked at Greg. He dropped his eyes to the number on the scale.

“I mean it. Don’t tell me if it’s bad.” He looked up from the scale in silence.

“Well?” I asked.

“You said not to tell you.”

“So it’s above the magic number?”

Damn eggnog.

“You’re probably just backed up,” he said.

Yes, those are the words of consolation he chose.

“Well, how far above the magic number is it?” I prodded.

“I thought you said you didn’t want to know.”

“I know what I said, but now I know that it’s bad. You might as well finish me off.”

“You’re a pound over your number,” he conceded.

Pizza. Tiramisu. Pesto cream sauce. Triple cream brie. Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread.

I stomped off to the bathroom before Greg could offer his usual advice, “You could always cut out the wine.” I stared at my reflection in the mirror. And just then, something magical happened, something unprecedented and completely unexpected: I didn’t care what the scale had to say, not today. People out east were burying their first graders and teachers. Still more were homeless in the wake of superstorm Sandy. My face was hot with shame that quickly gave way to an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Five minutes later I was crunching away on my favorite holiday cookie of 2012, Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread–breakfast.

If the World ends tomorrow as the Mayans predicted, I’m taking a few extra pounds with me, but no regrets. And if the Mayans got it wrong, as I’m wont to believe, have a very merry Christmas!

Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread

My sister introduced me to these addictive little buggers a couple years ago. I fell hard when the salt crunched between my teeth. They’re a variation of Martha Stewart’s recipe for Holiday Shortbread. Make a double batch: one for sharing and another to keep all for yourself.

Ingredients

    1 cup unsalted butter, softened
    3/4 cup powdered sugar
    2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for finishing
    3/4 cup mini chocolate morsels

Preparation

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together butter and sugar until smooth. Add the flour and salt and mix on low speed until the dough comes together. Mix in the chocolate morsels.
  2. Form dough into 1 1/2-inch-thick round or square logs. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze until firm, about 30 minutes (or up to 1 month).
  3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
  4. Cut dough into 1/4-inch-thick slices and place on prepared sheet pans. Sprinkle lightly with coarse sea salt. Bake until cookies are light golden brown on the bottoms, 15 to 18 minutes. Let cookies cool 5 minutes on sheets. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 4 dozen.