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My Friend Raible and Peanut Butter and Jam Scones

September 21, 2012

Peanut Butter and Jelly Scones

If you’ve stopped by for a light read, stop here. But before you go, do consider scrolling down for my peanut butter and jam scone recipe. They’re guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone who’s ever wished they could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.

This is my third attempt at storytelling here this week. Each time I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, my words ring hollow. Instead of spinning tales for you about the three giant raccoons that are calling our yard “home” or my current obsession with Indian cooking videos on YouTube, all I can think about is my friend Chris.

It’s ironic really, because before Sunday morning, it had been weeks since Chris had entered my thoughts. Chris, or “Raible” as I always called him, and I were college friends. We were close, not in a boyfriend girlfriend kind of way, more like brother and sister. I did my best to help Raible understand what went on in the minds of college women, and he made sure I never took myself too seriously. Raible made me laugh, always, at the world, at myself. He was crass, irreverent, and politically incorrect in all the best possible ways. He was wicked smart, pragmatic to the point of being annoying, and stubborn. He was loyal. He was generous. And underneath all his bravado beat a very big heart.

After college Raible became a U.S. Marine while I went on to grad school. We stayed in touch, though over the years the time between our calls and visits got longer and longer. Still, ours was a friendship that endured. I’ve witnessed countless friendships gently fade to black over time like a candle that self-extinguishes when it runs out of wax. But with Chris, no matter how much time had passed, we managed to pick up right where we left off–somewhere between a tasteless joke about what I was wearing and why Franco Harris was the greatest Pittsburgh Steeler of all time.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher “Otis” Raible, 40, leader of Marine Attack Squadron 211 was killed in Afghanistan by Taliban forces on Saturday morning.

My heart aches knowing that Raible is no longer a part of this crazy world. So all week I’ve been doing what I do best when my heart hurts: I bake and cook non-stop, I put too many miles on my running shoes, and I let myself linger in Greg’s arms when he hugs me goodbye each morning.

If you stayed until the end, thank you. I can feel my heart lifting, if not for the medicine of sharing, but for the sound of Raible’s voice saying, “Come on Babs, cut that shit out.”

Peanut Butter and Jelly Scones

Peanut Butter and Jam Scones

The idea for these scones has been rattling around in my head ever since I tried Heidi Swanson’s Raspberry Mega Scones. Baking them slab-style and filling them with jam make these scones moister than their kin. Try them with your favorite jam or jelly, or skip the jam and fill them with dark chocolate morsels instead.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons milk or cream, plus more for finishing
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 – 2/3 cup jam or jelly (or chocolate chips)
1 tablespoon coarse sugar (turbinado or demerara)
2 tablespoons crushed peanuts

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture looks sandy. Mix the peanut butter in with your hands until large clumps form. Add the milk and yogurt. You want a soft but not sticky dough. Add more milk a tablespoon at a time if the mixture is too dry.
  3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured Silpat or sheet of parchment paper and pat it into an 11×9-inch rectangle, about 1/2-inch thick. Spread the jam over the dough. Fold one long side of the dough toward the center, then fold the opposite side over that to form 3 layers, as if you’re folding a business letter. Press lightly on the top of the dough to seal it. To discourage the dough from breaking as you lift it, fold the Silpat in and then peel it back to separate it from the dough. (Thanks for the tip Heidi!) Slide onto a baking sheet.
  4. Brush the top with milk or cream and generously sprinkle with sugar and peanuts.
  5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the scone is firm to touch and dark golden on the bottom. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack. Slice into squares to serve.

Makes 1 slab scone or about 10 individual scones.

Not a peanut butter fan? Try these Cherry Cream Scones instead.

My First Date and Italian Fall Fruit Conserve

September 14, 2012

Côgnà Italian Fall Fruit and Nut Compote

I had my first date when I was a kid except I didn’t know I was eating a date. It was mashed together with marshmallows, coconut, and graham cracker crumbs in my mom’s no-bake coconut date balls–my least favorite of her cookies. When I was old enough to help mom with Christmas cookies, I got a behind-the-scenes look at the making of those date balls. I had no idea what a date was, where it came from, or what it looked like before it was all squeezed together in a cookie. When I asked mom for the dates, she handed me a sticky brown clump wrapped in plastic. “This is a date?” I asked as I accepted the hand-off.

“No, those are dates,” she said, emphasizing the “s” that turned “date” into a plural noun. I unwrapped the log and pinched off a taste lured by the color reminiscent of chocolate. The date goo was sweet with an unfamiliar bitterness. It wasn’t horrible, but I didn’t sneak a second taste. Enough said.

In my 20s, long after I’d learned that mom’s date log was made up of dozens of chopped dates, I discovered Medjool dates in the produce aisle at the grocery store. They were huge, nearly the size of an apricot. Sandwiched between avocados and lemons, the glossy brown skins of those dates coupled with my insatiable curiosity about food made them impossible to resist. I pulled one from the bag and bit into it before I left the parking lot. Ouch! Lesson one: dates have pits. Lesson two: Medjool dates taste like candy. It was sweet and rich with a mouthfeel that reminded me of soft fudge. It was love at first bite.

A decade later Greg returned home from a business trip to Dubai with a large box of chocolates for me. The ornate gold box was tied with yards of purple silk ribbon that promised these were no ordinary chocolates. Indeed, they weren’t chocolates at all, but rather a selection of glossy, unblemished dates. Each delicate confection was nestled in its own golden chamber within the box. Some were filled with almonds. Others had their pits replaced with slices of candied orange or ginger. They felt like a marshmallow between my fingers. And they tasted like caramel, only better. For a month, those dates consumed my thoughts. I tried desperately to ration them, dreading the day when I would see the bottom of the empty box.

Another decade passes. Now I’m forty-one, standing in a fruit market in the heart of Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani community, waiting for a store employee to return with news about their fig supply. For two years I’ve been waiting to play with a recipe for an Italian fruit and nut jam known as Côgnà. With lots of juicy pears from Greg’s grandma’s tree waiting at home, all I needed were a few pints of figs.

I wait eagerly in front of the empty shelf with the sign, “fresh figs, $1.99 a pint.” It’s Sunday afternoon and the market is bustling with women in brilliant saris. I move about trying to stay out of the way and instead bump into an old man standing in front of a bin heaping with golden fruits the size of giant grapes, but oblong in shape. Many of the fruits are still attached to willowy brown branches. I excuse myself and begin to move away as the man says, “Ah, you are here for the dates too.” I look again at the bin with the unrecognizable fruits. The man’s words were heavily accented, but I was certain he said “dates.”

I point at the bin, “Those are dates?”

“Oh yes, fresh dates,” he answers, his “r” trilling across his tongue.

I step up to the bin and the man follows me closely unaware that his requirements for personal space are about half of mine. The urge to move passes quickly; I’m spellbound as he continues talking about the fruit with such passion, not unlike the way I blather on about a fresh garden tomato. I reach for a bunch of the dates intuitively picking the ones that look the firmest and brightest yellow in color. But my intuition knows nothing of these dates. The man takes them from my hand and gently lays them back with the lot. “You don’t want those dates. They’re not ripe yet.”

Instead, with his brown, wrinkled hand he reaches for the soft, dark amber dates, the very dates I would have taken for rotten, and holds them in front of me. “These! These dates will taste like honey, so, so sweet I tell you.”

I grab a bag and together the man and I fill it with soft, slightly squishy amber dates. We finish filling the bag just as the store employee returns with six pints of black mission figs. I gush “thank yous” to both men and hurry off to pay for my things. Once outside, I stand in the sunshine and pull a date from the bag. The pit comes out with a gentle squeeze. I take a bite and close my eyes: my first fresh date. The old man’s words replay in my head, “so, so sweet I tell you.” It tastes like honey just as he promised. I pop the second half into my mouth and head for home.

Côgnà (Italian Fall Fruit Conserve)

This recipe was inspired by chef Peter Pastan’s recipe in Food and Wine Magazine, October 2008. Côgnà (pronounced Cōō-gna) is a Piedmontese conserve traditionally made with red wine must and fall fruits and nuts, typically hazelnuts and/or walnuts. This bold compote has a sweetness somewhere between a jam and a chutney. It’s right at home on a cheese plate, and a perfect partner for braised and roasted meats.

Ingredients

    1 750ml bottle young, fruity red wine (Beaujolais or Zinfandel)
    1 pound fresh figs, stemmed and halved
    6 pears (or a mix of pears and apples)
    juice of one lemon
    1 cup granulated sugar
    2 tablespoons orange rind, diced (or Orange Peel Preserves)
    1 bay leaf
    1 cinnamon stick
    5 whole cloves
    1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and roughly chopped

Preparation

  1. Combine all the ingredients except for the hazelnuts in a large bowl. Refrigerate and let macerate for an hour.
  2. Pour the contents of the bowl into a large, non-reactive pan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until very thick and reduced, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
  3. Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Stir in the hazelnuts and simmer for 5 minutes longer.
  4. Process the conserve immediately using your method of choice. If you’re a canning novice, The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource: Processing Jams and Jellies. Or skip the canning step and refrigerate your Côgnà for up to three months.

Makes 4 cups.

Not up to the task of making Côgnà, try Fig Preserves instead.

A Long Weekend and a Pesto Tomato Tart

September 4, 2012

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

It’s been a long, hot summer. The temperatures are still climbing towards ninety each day, yet there are signs that fall is waiting just around the corner. Our drought-stricken grass is peppered with cottonwood leaves from our hundred-plus-year-old tree—a bittersweet harbinger. I love fall: the flavors of sage and roasted squash, the warm, brilliant tones of the falling leaves, and the break it offers after endless weeks of watering, weeding, and tending the gardens. Yet I know that before the last mum blooms, Old Man Winter will be coming for me. This fear fills me with a premature sense of nostalgia that smacks of desperation for all things summer—breakfasts under the trees, long evening walks, tandem bike rides, warm peaches, and the freshest tomatoes just a few steps from our back door. The nearly leafless, skeletal remains of our tomato vines, looking too frail to carry the last few paltry looking Brandywines and Green Zebras, feed my desperation.

This was the soundtrack playing in my head as Labor Day Weekend—a “long” weekend—approached. How then to make the most of what always feels like the last weekend of summer? My idle time of the week prior was spent fantasizing about the leisurely weekend Greg and I would while away together. There were notions of decidedly uncharacteristic spontaneity—maybe we’d go see a movie. When was the last time we saw a movie in a theater? We’d go for a long run, winding through our favorite city parks. The house would be alive again with music, Greg plinking away at the piano, while I sat on the deck with my guitar. The dream grew even as I deadheaded the basil plants that were screaming to be turned into pesto and Greg pulled out the honey extractor. I debated our movie and theater options despite the pepper plants that had fallen over under the weight of their unusually bountiful crop. Pickling peppers wasn’t part of my long weekend fantasy.

As for Greg’s weekend plans, well, let’s just say our to-do lists didn’t exactly mesh together. Greg likes to end a weekend, any weekend, with a feeling that he has accomplished something and those somethings usually don’t include movies and long breakfasts on the deck drawn out over a Times crossword puzzle.

By Monday afternoon of “Labor” Day we’d extracted a record-setting three gallons of honey from our hive, stocked the freezer with ten, quart bags of cheese-less pesto, and added fifteen jars of pickled peppers to our basement larder. Long runs? Zero. The Dark Knight Rises or The Possession? Neither. It was finally time to celebrate the long weekend beginning with lunch under the maple tree. I pulled a sheet of puff pastry from the refrigerator while Greg went to check on the bees. My flip flops smacked as I walked across the kitchen to fetch the tomatoes for the tart. Unfortunately, not all of our honey made it into the jars, but I fought back the urge to run for the mop and bucket. The floor could wait. An unhurried lunch in the yard on a summer day couldn’t, not this time. My tart and wine lunch was the only part of my dream sequence that had a chance of crossing over into the reality of our weekend.

“What are you up to?” Greg asked when returned to the kitchen.

“I’m making a tomato tart,” I answered while I rolled out the dough.

“Now?” He asked, glancing at the clock. It was almost one. “We could just have some yogurt and the last of the chocolate granola instead.”

Yogurt and granola are regular weekend staples, our go-to lunch move when we’re pressed for time on our regular hurried and harried weekends. I started slicing tomatoes without acknowledging his offer. Greg’s to-do list was far from complete and sitting under a maple tree with a tomato tart and a glass of wine wasn’t on it, but something in my voice or on my face kept him from resisting. An hour later golden flakes of puff pastry were sprinkled across the table under the tree and Greg was fast asleep in his chair. I ran back to the house for the crossword puzzle and slid into my seat without waking my prince. The weekend had arrived at last.

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

Ingredients

    1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for finishing
    1 large clove garlic, minced
    1/3 cup breadcrumbs
    1/4 cup pesto
    3-4 medium tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
    6 ounces Taleggio cheese, cut into 1/4-inch slices
    sea salt
    2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. On a Silpat or piece of parchment paper, roll the pastry sheet into a 10 by 14-inch rectangle. Use a sharp knife to score a 3/4-inch-wide border around the pastry rectangle. Prick the dough with a fork inside the score line and refrigerate until ready to use.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and breadcrumbs and stir occasionally over moderate heat until the crumbs are golden brown and toasted. Let cool at room temperature.
  4. To assemble the tart, sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the pastry dough inside the score line and dot them with teaspoons of pesto. Lay the tomatoes on top. Follow with the Taleggio cheese slices. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt.
  5. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the edges of the tart are golden and the cheese is bubbly. Sprinkle with the fresh thyme leaves and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 2 as a main course, or 6 as a starter.

More reasons to love tomato tarts: Green Tomato Tart and Cherry Tomato Fennel Tart With Balsamic Crust

Conscious Crumbs and Sesame Peanut Cucumber Salad

August 24, 2012

Thai inspired sesame peanut cucumber salad

When I quit my big girl job in 2008, my resignation didn’t feel like the climactic point that it turned out to be. I told everyone it was just a break. And I meant it. I had every intention of returning to the corporate world with a job that filled me with a stronger sense of purpose, but I wasn’t in a rush. Corporate America would always be there. So I put my shiny MBA on a shelf and with my husband Greg’s support and wild enthusiasm, I started working on the book that had been rattling around in my head for twenty years.

I immediately discovered the perks of working from home. Topping my list was cooking—anytime, anything my heart desired. The kitchen had always been my place to unwind from the tangles of the day. As a business traveler, I’d often return home from a trip, leave my unpacked bags at the bottom of the stairs and head straight to the kitchen, anxious to try the latest Saveur Magazine recipes that I’d devoured on the plane. Unfortunately, the perks became distractions and finding the discipline needed for the sedentary lifestyle of a writer was challenging.

I kept writing. (The first draft of my book is complete, and I’m slowly muscling my way through a second draft.) And I kept experimenting in the kitchen, sharing many of my recipes and stories here with you. Family, then friends, then mere acquaintances began asking me for advice and hands-on lessons—bread making, canning, pizza, pies. It was humbling, because I didn’t consider myself to be an expert in the kitchen.

One day I was teaching a friend how to make bread. She was wrist deep in sticky dough and beaming with satisfaction and pride. It was as though I could watch her love for cooking and her kitchen confidence growing together in lock step with every turn of the dough. In that moment, I understood what I love most about cooking—sharing. Whether it’s cooking for someone, showing them how they can do it themselves, or blogging here, helping people find joy in food and their own kitchens fills me up in a way that fancy job titles and fat paychecks never could.

So four years after I jumped ship, it was time for another big change and a paycheck. And this time I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In July Conscious Crumbs became more than just my Twitter handle–it’s now the name of my business, offering in-home cooking lessons, kitchen organization workshops, and personal chef services. Getting paid for doing what I love feels foreign, but the fulfillment counterbalances the awkwardness.

I still don’t think of myself as an expert–there’s so much more that I’m eager to learn and continue sharing here with you.

As for the cucumber salad, it’s the first dish I prepared after I officially launched my business. It’s laced with the tiniest bit of honey, but the memory of this salad will always be a sweet one for me.

Thai Inspired Sesame Peanut Cucumber Salad with Radishes

Sesame Peanut Cucumber Salad

It’s hard to beat an ice cold cucumber salad on a hot day. Unfortunately, they can be find very one dimensional at times. This light but flavor-rich salad was inspired by Deborah Madison’s recipe for Cucumber Salad with Chile and Peanuts from her book Local Flavors. It’s a bit fussier than your standard cucumber salad, but well worth the extra five minutes it will take you to mince some ginger and zest your lime.

Ingredients

    1 large cucumber, thinly sliced
    1 large or a few small radishes, cut into matchsticks
    1 fresh hot red chile pepper, diced (Remove the seeds for a milder salad.)
    1 clove garlic, finely minced
    1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated or finely minced
    zest and juice of 1 lime
    1 tablespoon rice vinegar
    1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
    2 teaspoons sesame oil
    1 teaspoon honey
    1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
    2 tablespoons salted and roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
    Fresh Thai basil, mint, or cilantro or a combination of them, chopped

Preparation

  1. Place the cucumber slices, radishes, and chile pepper in a large bowl, toss to mix.
  2. In a small bowl whisk together the garlic, ginger, lime zest and juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, and honey. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the cucumbers and toss until thoroughly mixed. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to deepen.
  3. Before serving add the sesame seeds, peanuts, and herbs and toss again.

Serves 2-3.

Arugula Salad with Pistachios and Orange inspired by Skye GyngellHere’s another nutty summery salad that I love: Arugula, Pistachio and Orange Blossom Salad

My Friend Julia and Thai Basil Watermelon Margaritas

August 16, 2012

Thai Basil Watermelon Margaritas

Dear Julia,

I never had an imaginary friend as a kid. I waited until I was in my thirties, then I found you.

Oh the stories we could tell; the secrets we’ve shared. You’ve never looked over my shoulder as many cooks claim. You’re always there by my side more like a sister than an instructor, goading me to flip my omelet with confidence, “swirl, swirl, flip.” You can be fanatical at times about technique, but our time together is seldom focused on the importance of peeling tomatoes. Instead with that signature warbling voice you encourage me to maintain my “what-the-hell attitude.”

You’ve seen me at my worst and inspired me to be my best. Remember when I made those tart cherry streusel muffins and they stuck to the pans in spite of the generous amount of butter I used to grease the pan? If not for you I might have thrown a pity party for myself and dumped the whole lot into the trash, but you were there encouraging me,

“Of course I made many boo-boos. At first this broke my heart, but then I came to understand that learning how to fix one’s mistakes, or live with them, was an important part of becoming a cook.”

So I carved each one out of the pan with a big spoon, placed it in a bowl next to a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream and drizzled the whole mess with some fresh spun cherry compote. “Bon appétit!” I declared as I presented our guests with their bowls of “Tart Cherry Crumble a la Mode.” My breakfast plans for the following morning were shot, but that night we enjoyed one of the best desserts of the summer.

Or how about that beautiful blueberry cake that I proudly shared with my husband’s family before we were married only to discover that what looked so lovely and golden on the outside was in fact soggy in the middle? I was tripping all over myself apologizing for the undercooked, imperfect fruits of my labor, even though the edges of the cake were not only edible but delicious, when you whispered,

“I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make…Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile…then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile.”

I grit my teeth more than most people know, because I’m not ready to stop experimenting in the kitchen we share. And you always remind me when we’re alone together, cooking at the beautiful stove that I named after you,

“Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

Last night, in honor of your 100th birthday, I considered making sole meuniere or boeuf bourguignon. Instead, I settled on a refreshing batch of watermelon margaritas. I could hear you whispering in my ear as I slid the fussy little watermelon balls onto the small wooden skewers,

“It’s so beautifully arranged…you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”

Yes, my fingers were all over those watermelon balls, but I was trying a new recipe and having fun.

Cheers Julia!
Thai Basil Watermelon Margaritas

P.S. Thank you for pulling me together last week when I sliced my thumb on the mandolin. It’s healing slowly, but I remain fearless in the kitchen. See you soon!

Thai Basil Watermelon Margaritas

Ingredients

    1 cup of 1-inch watermelon chunks or balls (optional)
    1 cup watermelon puree (about 3 cups of watermelon)
    4 ounces tequila
    1 ounce triple sec or Cointreau
    1 ½ ounces Thai Basil Syrup (recipe below) or simple syrup
    juice of one lime, plus a few lime wedges to garnish
    2 teaspoons sugar
    2 teaspoons coarse sea salt

THAI BASIL SYRUP

    ½ cup water
    ½ cup sugar
    1 cup Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few small sprigs to finish

Preparation

  1. Place the watermelon chunks on a plate and freeze them. Reserve a few in the refrigerator if you plan to use them as a garnish.
  2. For the syrup, combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. When the syrup begins to boil remove it from the heat and stir in the basil leaves. Cover and allow the syrup to steep for at least an hour. When you’re ready to make your cocktails, strain the syrup and discard the leaves.
  3. In a small pitcher, stir together the watermelon puree, tequila, triple sec, basil syrup, and lime juice.
  4. Combine the sugar and salt on a small plate or saucer. Wipe the rim of each glass with a wedge of fresh lime, and dip it into the salt-sugar mixture to coat.
  5. Fill the glasses with frozen watermelon chunks or ice or a combination of the two and pour the margarita mixture over the top. Garnish with fresh watermelon, lime wedges, and fresh Thai basil sprigs.

Makes 2 cocktails.

Tears and Bloodshed and Blueberry Pecan Bread

August 8, 2012

Blueberry Pecan Bread

There’s a light breeze blowing this morning. The humidity is low, and it’s cool enough to enjoy a cup of coffee on the deck while I write, which is to say that it’s an all too rare, comfortable summer morning. I’m hunkered down to share a story with you about blueberry bread. It’s a recipe I found in my mom’s recipe box, but one I can’t ever remember her making. Turns out, it’s a delicious bread and it’s perfect with my coffee. I’m thinking about mom, wishing I could ask her where the recipe came from. I’ll never know how she feels about my replacing the vegetable shortening with butter and the sour cream with yogurt. My thoughts are interrupted by a nearby chickadee: fee-beee, fee-beee. The black-capped male bird is perched on a cottonwood branch somewhere above me.

Fee-beee. Fee-beee.

I feel a little like whistling too. Our sweltering summer has offered few mornings as lovely as this one. I scan the branches searching for the bird that’s serenading me and think about my blessings.

Fee-beee. Fee-beee.

I head to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee, my pace slow and leisurely. I’m in no hurry for this morning to end. The chickadee is still singing when I return to my chair and a cardinal has joined his band: purdy, purdy, purdy. I open my notebook to a new page and add this blank slate–this fresh start always filled with possibility–to my list of blessings. Before I can mar the whiteness I remember the golden zucchini sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be sliced and roasted for yet another Pan Bagnat. This summer all baking and roasting must be done early before the inevitable heat of the day sets in, but I’m reluctant to move from this spot. Thinking of my promise to Greg that I’d make our favorite sandwich for tonight’s picnic dinner gets me moving. We’re spending the evening at Ravinia, our local outdoor music venue. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a starry night, the man I love, good food, and a special occasion bottle of wine–yes, it’s going to be a good day indeed.

Steam is rising from my coffee as I push the chair back from the table. I’ll have the zucchini slices in the oven in short order before my coffee even has a chance to cool. In the kitchen, I’m whistling my own summer song as I slice the bright yellow squash on my mandolin. The squash makes a rhythmic melody too as it glides along the steel.

Whoosh. Whoosh.

And then, in an instant, in a whoosh, my soundtrack comes to an abrupt end. My hand slips off the squash and my thumb slides along the steel. I pull my hand away, too late. I race for the paper towels. It’s bad. I know this before I can muster the courage to look at it. I’m sweating all over. I peek at my thumb; the chunky tip is still attached like a flap though a big sliver of my nail is gone. I’m firing the f-word over and over again so rapidly that it’s hard to tell where the word starts or ends. It’s difficult to tell how bad the cut is–there’s so much damn blood. And now I’m crying, hard, because it really f#$@ing hurts. I want my mommy in the worst way, a feeling I seldom own. In the midst of it all I’m back to thinking about mom. When was the last time I really ached for her?

Greg is at the office. If he were here he’d be a nice consolation prize, but only after I endured a condescending lecture on the finer points of using the mandolin. A lecture isn’t what I need. Then again, I don’t know what I need. Stitches maybe? Should I call Greg? What if I pass out? Who would know?

I manage to pull myself together even as I’m still sobbing. No, Greg can’t help me from his office and hearing my voice thick with tears would only cause him to panic. My heartbeat is pounding in the tip of my thumb. It’s so intense I’m reminded of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and I hold my thumb to my ear. It’s silent. I pull the towel away to see if the bleeding has stopped. Nope. Damn. How can such a tiny digit give up so much blood? The “urgent care” clinic up the street will be an all morning affair, because no one on staff there ever moves at a pace that might suggest urgency. Scratch that.

The bleeding continues but I’ve finally stopped crying. I’m surprised by how cathartic it felt to cry that hard. When was the last time I had a good cry? Hmmm. I wrap a clean paper towel around my thumb, secure it with masking tape and squeeze my hand into a rubber glove. The kitchen is quiet as I pick up what remains of my pretty squash and slowly guide it down the mandolin with my shaking hand. It moves so slowly across the blade that it doesn’t make a sound. No whoosh. No whistling. I finish slicing without maiming myself and thoroughly wash the squash slices. Olive oil. Salt. There, done.

I trade my makeshift Band-aid for the real thing and at last return to the deck. My coffee is cold. The chickadee is gone. And so is the cardinal. My head is heavy from crying. I pick up my pen and face the blank page. It alone is unchanged, and it’s waiting for me.

Blueberry Pecan Bread

Ingredients

    1 1/2 cups pecans, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
    1 1/2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
    3 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose)
    1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
    4 teaspoons baking powder
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
    1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
    3/4 cup milk
    2 eggs

Equipment

1 large loaf pan (9 by 5-inch) or 4 mini loaf pans (5-3/4 by 3-1/4-inch)

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat the inside of the loaf pan(s) with cooking spray. Evenly sprinkle a 1/2 cup of pecans over the bottom of the pan.
  2. Gently toss together the blueberries with 1/4 cup flour.
  3. Combine the remaining flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
  4. Whisk together melted butter, yogurt, milk, and eggs. Add yogurt mixture to flour mixture. Stir until just combined. Don’t over mix. Add the remaining pecans and blueberries. Spread batter into prepared pan.
  5. Bake for 75-90 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. (Adjust the baking time if you are using smaller loaf pans.)
  6. Let pan cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
  7. Remove warm bread from the pan and allow to cool completely before slicing.

Makes 1 large loaf or 4 small loaves.



Oatmeal Fig Bread Try my other favorite quick bread: Oatmeal Fig Bread

Dog Days and Rosemary Lemon Icebox Cookies

July 25, 2012

Rosemary Lemon Icebox Cookies

It’s been a long, hot summer and it’s only July. But as anyone who’s been plagued with temperatures that sound like numbers on the FM radio dial can attest, “hot” doesn’t do it justice.

Sweltering? Torrid? Oppressive? It’s the kind of heat that makes you snap, “stop touching me!” when your beloved caresses your thigh, your sweaty–not “glistening”–thigh.

I’m not one for talking about the weather. I like to dig a little deeper than “nice day,eh?” even in casual conversations. But when record-setting temperatures hit the three digit mark for days at a time, and are accompanied by muggy air so hot and thick it weighs heavy on my lungs, causing me to wince with every inhalation, well, it’s hard to talk about anything but the weather.

In the 1800s these “dog days” of summer were popularly believed to be an evil time:

“The Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.” (John Brady, Clavis Calendaria, 1813)

Sour wine and no air-conditioning? Evil times indeed.

Maybe a heat-induced “phrensy” is to blame for my recent kitchen antics. Why else would I fire up the oven on one of these dog days? Before you begin to speculate on my mental state, you should know that it was for a good cause–cookies, buttery and crisp, sweet but ever so savory, and brightened by a generous amount of fresh lemon zest. They’re the kind of cookies that catch you by surprise, like the naughty librarian, all buttoned up and plain Jane on the plate, but layered with flavors that unfold rather than burst. These rosemary lemon cookies are perfect on their own, but on a sweltering dog day of summer it’s hard to resist a vanilla ice cream sidecar.

Rosemary Lemon Icebox Cookies

Adapted from Martha’s recipe for Icebox Butter Cookies in Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.

Ingredients

    1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
    3/4 cup powdered sugar
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 large egg
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
    zest of one lemon
    1/3-1/2 cup granulated or raw sugar for rolling the edges (optional)

Preparation

  1. In the bowl of a mixer, combine the butter, powdered sugar, and salt. Beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat to combine. Scrape down the bowl. Add the flour, rosemary, and lemon zest and mix on low just until the flour is completely incorporated.
  2. Remove the dough from the bowl. Working on parchment or waxed paper, form the dough into 2 logs about 1 1/2-inches in diameter, wrap, and chill until firm or overnight. (The dough also freezes well for up to two months.)
  3. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
  4. Roll dough logs in remaining sugar, coating them evenly, and slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place about 1-inch apart on prepared baking sheets.
  5. Bake until golden brown on the bottoms, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 4-5 dozen.



Now that you’ve got the oven on, whip up a batch of Chocolate Chip Cookies too.

Writing and Whole Wheat Cherry Cream Scones

July 17, 2012

Nothing paralyzes my writing muscle faster than reading, or rereading, a book about writing written by an accomplished, highly regarded writer. For months at a time I’ll go on believing that my writing is improving. Heck, sometimes, I can even lull myself into liking something I’ve written. Sometimes. Then I’ll pick up my worn copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and the dream fades. If I’m feeling particularly masochistic afterwards, I’ll reread something I wrote a year ago. Ouch. And then the paralysis sets in. Fortunately it doesn’t last long, because I also believe, like Zinsser and most writers, that the only way to improve my craft is to write.

Ira Glass of PRI’s This American Life said it best:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste . . . But there’s a gap that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good. It has ambition to be good. But it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. They knew it fell short . . . It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. Everybody goes through that. And if you are going through it right now, or if you are just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will catch up and close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions . . . And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met . . . It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through that.

I keep a copy of Glass’s quote in my journal, in my Big Black Notebook, next to my computer, and on my phone.

And I keep writing.

Whole Wheat Cherry Cream Scones

Adapted from Martha’s recipe for Currant Scones in Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.

Let’s face it, good scones are hard to find. Pleasingly crisp on the outside with a soft crumb on the inside, these slightly sweet treats make the perfect mate for your morning coffee or afternoon tea. Yes, they’re loaded with butter and cream, which puts them in the special occasion category, but they’re worth an extra mile on the treadmill. Martha recommends freezing the scones before baking them. I’ve made them with and without the freezing step and can’t tell the difference.

Ingredients

    4 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose if you prefer), plus more for dusting
    2 tablespoons granulated sugar
    2 tablespoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
    1 1/3 cups dried tart cherries
    2 – 2 1/4 cups heavy cream
    1/4 cup milk or cream, for finishing
    2 tablespoons coarse sugar (turbinado or demerara)

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or a Silpat.
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until coarse crumbs form. Make a well in the center. Pour two cups of cream into the flour and bring the dough together with your hands. Add more cream a tablespoon at a time if the mixture is too dry. You want a soft but not sticky dough.
  3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and pat it into an 11×7-inch rectangle, about 1-inch thick. Using a sharp knife cut the dough into 16 equal-sized triangles and place them on the prepared baking sheets. Brush the tops with the 1/4 cup of milk or cream and generously sprinkle with sugar.
  4. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned on tops and dark golden on the bottoms. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to a wire rack.

Makes 16.



More scones and slightly sweet biscuits: Whole Wheat Walnut Biscuits, Pumpkin Scones, and Hazelnut Brown Sugar Biscuits