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Because of the cookies

I have a confession to make. I haven’t finished writing the thank you notes for our wedding gifts. It has been nine months - nine months tomorrow - and though no one has been brave enough to confirm it, it is becoming quite clear that I am the worst bride ever. I wish someone had warned me about this when we got engaged. Maybe I would have held off on the wedding thing, or chosen a man who has legible handwriting. Instead, once all the fun stuff was over, the whole party part, I had 93 thank you notes to write. Ninety. Three. And as of today, I still have 18 more to go.

I am genuinely thankful - really, so thankful - but even gratitude has its limits. I would much rather gather all the people around one night, all the people we want to thank, and bake a big batch of cookies, make some lemonade, and climb up on a chair and thank them. That would be much better. We could even spike the lemonade with a healthy dose of vodka, so that they would understand that we were very, very grateful. Anyway, the pen I was using to write the notes ran out of ink today. Or, rather, it dried up. Because Brandon left it uncapped on the coffee table last night, after he helped me double-check the envelopes. I do still love him, but for a minute there, it was touch and go.

So I made an important decision. If we can’t throw a party to thank everyone, the least I can do, I figure, is eat cookies while I write thank you notes. With my dried-up pen.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had the dreamiest day. It was warm, almost hot, and I pushed all the windows up and opened the side door. It felt so good to be warm for the first time in months, and it made me feel a little sleepy, so I decided to sit on the couch for a while. I rounded up all the unread food magazines that have been lying around the house for the past few months - a couple next to my desk, one beside the bed, one still in its plastic sleeve by the mail slot, all dusty and ignored - and put them on the coffee table. And then I spent the afternoon sitting there, thumbing through them, flaaaaaap, flaaaaap, flaaaaaap. That was when I found the recipe for these sweet little buttermilk cookies.

Published in the January issue of Gourmet, this recipe was inspired by none other than Edna Lewis, by an essay in which she mentions serving buttermilk cookies with ice-cold lemonade. The editors at Gourmet, eager to find a recipe for said cookies, apparently combed through her books and came away empty-handed, so they decided to create one themselves.

The happy result is what you see above, cookies like oversized coat buttons, scented with lemon zest and glazed with buttermilk and sugar. They’re light and tender in the center and daintily crisp at the edges, simple but unspeakably delicious. They’re the type of cookie that grandmothers in fairy tales are supposed to make, the kind that look like nothing much but over time become legend. I am almost always a chocolate cookie person, but for these, I am willing to make an exception. I ate four of them after lunch today, and all I can say is thank goodness they’re small, if you know what I mean. With a plate of these by my side, I think I could come to feel good about pretty much anything, even the 18 thank you notes that remain. Miss Lewis seems like the kind of lady who always kept up with her correspondence, and between you and me, I’ll bet it was because of the cookies.

Buttermilk Cookies with Lemon Zest
Adapted from Gourmet, January 2008

I halved the recipe as it was printed in Gourmet, and it yielded plenty of cookies, so what I’ve typed below is my halved version. The only other major change I made was to increase the amount of lemon zest. A half batch should have had only ½ teaspoon of zest, but I used a whole teaspoon instead. I highly recommend it.

For the cookies:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the glaze:
¾ cup confectioners sugar, sifted
1 ½ Tbsp. well-shaken buttermilk
¼ tsp. vanilla extract

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, zest, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl, if you’re going to use a handheld mixer), beat the butter briefly, until creamy. Add the sugar, and beat until pale and fluffy. Add the egg, and beat well to mix. Add the vanilla, and beat briefly again. Mix in the flour mixture and the buttermilk in batches at low speed, beginning and ending with the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. The finished dough should be smooth and pale yellow.

Drop the dough by level tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 ½ inches between each cookie. (If you have a very small ice cream scoop, one with a capacity of about 1 tablespoon, it’s perfect for this job.) Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are puffed and their edges are golden, about 11 to 15 minutes per batch. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 1 minute; then transfer them to a wire rack.

To prepare the glaze, whisk together the sifted confectioners sugar, buttermilk, and vanilla. The mixture should be very smooth, with no lumps of sugar visible. Brush or spoon the glaze onto the warm cookies. (I wound up with leftover glaze, so don’t be surprised if you don’t use it all.) Allow cookies to sit on the rack until they are fully cooled and the glaze is set.

Note: These cookies are most tender and delicate on the day they’re made, but they’re not bad after a day or so. They just get more dense and chewy - a little different, that’s all. And for longer storage, they can be stashed in the freezer in an airtight container.

Yield: about 40 small cookies


That easy

It’s hard to know what to say about soup. I mean, it’s soup. It’s a liquid, sort of, but it’s eaten with a spoon. It’s not a steak, or chocolate, or fancy cheese, or an ice cream sundae. It’s what people eat when they’re sick or miserable or old, wearing dentures that clack like sad, weary castanets. Soup is a hard sell. But if I could, I would eat it every day. Sometimes, actually, I do. I never get tired of soup. I know that it’s April, and that it’s springtime and so on, and that we’re rapidly approaching the end of soup season, but I want to tell you about one in particular, the one I ate every day last week. Anyway, between you and me, I don’t really believe in soup season. It’s always soup season. Also, it SNOWED here this weekend. SNOWED.

Before I say anything else, I feel that I should warn you about the photograph that follows. It’s just my lunch, and it’s not scary, per se, but as soups go, it looks pretty intense. In fact, if I stare at it long enough, I start to worry that the Swamp Thing might surface at any second, leap out of the bowl, and come after me with the pointy end of that spoon.

Which, come to think of it, probably wouldn’t be that bad, because with him out of the bowl, I’d have all the soup to myself. And there are always more spoons in the drawer.

I am in love with this soup. So in love. I first got the idea for it last month, during our road trip to San Francisco, when we ate lunch at Zuni Café and happened to order something humbly described as a “spinach and green garlic soup.” I didn’t expect it to be anything special; it just sounded healthy and clean, like something you’d want to eat after being cooped up in a car for three days. And what the waiter set down seemed, by all appearances, to be just that. It was a bright, saturated shade of green - almost lime green, really - and it looked alarmingly like wheatgrass juice. But it smelled rich and velvety, so I dipped my spoon. It was mellow and sweetly vegetal, delicate and earthy, with a soft, musky whiff of garlic. It was delicious. It tasted, I thought, the way the color green would probably taste if you could soften it in butter, purée it with stock, and serve it in a bowl. It was gorgeous in all sorts of ways.

But then, of course, we had to come home, and San Francisco being some 800-odd miles away, I started to get a little desperate for that soup. I usually prefer to focus my desperation on things like chocolate, or cold beers on hot days, but this was getting rough. So I went out in search of green garlic. I’d never bought it before, to tell you the truth, and it required a little education. Green garlic, I learned, is just young garlic, the plant harvested in its shoot stage, before the bulbous root end swells into what we recognize as a head of garlic. Outside of farmers’ markets, it’s not easy to come by, and it’s only available for a little while, sometime between March and May. Green garlic shoots look like scallions or small leeks, but they taste like garlic at its most delicate and sweet. Sometimes their stalks are streaked with pink, which makes them look impossibly cute, as though they were shy and blushing. I saw some at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago, but they were 12 dollars per pound, so I waited. And then I waited some more. And then I spotted a few small, slender bunches on one of the tables at the farmers’ market. And most notably, they were only two dollars each. So I snatched up three bunches, and then I made soup.

I’m not usually good at recreating dishes that I’ve eaten somewhere else, but this time, I had a good feeling about it. I mean, I had spinach, green garlic, butter, and stock: all I had to do, I figured, was get out of the way and let them do what they do. So I did. I sliced and stirred, and lo and behold, there was the soup. It’s almost never that easy, but I swear, it was. So, to celebrate, I ate it for four days straight. And then I made a second batch. And so long as the season stays definitively soupy, and probably even if it doesn’t, I think there’ll be a third one too.

Spinach and Green Garlic Soup

The green garlic shoots I’ve been using are fairly small and slim, like scallions, and they’ve been wonderfully mild and sweet. If yours are larger, they might be a bit more pungent, but their flavor should mellow nicely with cooking. And if you can’t find green garlic, I’ll bet you could get a similar flavor with some regular garlic - much less, though - and some chopped leek.

Also, if you’re looking for a decent store-bought vegetable stock, you might try this one. I make my own stock when I can, but sometimes, you know, eh. So this is a handy thing to have in the pantry. Its ingredients are all natural and non-weird, and unlike a lot of other store-bought vegetable stocks, it doesn’t contain tomato, which can taste too strong for preparations like this.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ to ¾ lb. green garlic, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 qt. vegetable or mild chicken broth
8 to 10 oz. baby spinach leaves
1 Tbsp. crème fraîche

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the green garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is soft and translucent. Also, as the garlic cooks, you should notice that its scent changes from raw and sharp to sweeter and more mellow; that’s what you’re after. When the garlic is ready, add the stock, raise the heat a bit, and bring it to a boil. Then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and continue to cook for about 15 minutes. Add the spinach, and immediately turn off the stove. Let it sit for 5 minutes – not too long, or the spinach will lose its color – and then, working in batches, purée the mixture in a blender. (Remember never to fill the blender more than a quarter or a third full, because the hot liquid will expand when you turn on the motor.) The soup should be a rich shade of green and very smooth.

Return the soup to the pot, and place it over low heat to rewarm gently. Add 1 Tbsp. crème fraîche and another pinch or two of salt. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Serve warm or hot, with a drizzle of olive oil or a dollop of crème fraîche, if you like.

Yield: 4 servings


A long slog

Well. I wanted to bring you a real winner of a recipe today. I mean, I guess that’s what I always want, but this time, I really thought it was going to work. For a couple of months now, I’ve had my eye on a salad from the beautiful book Moro East, a Libyan-style salad of pasta, Greek yogurt, garlic, cilantro, and warm spices, topped with pine nuts toasted in brown butter. Doesn’t that sound great? I couldn’t get it out of my head. And so one day last week, I made it, and though I wanted, lord knows, to love it, I didn’t. The warm spices were too warm, and the whole thing needed a swift kick of lemon juice. Then I tried this salad, which had the distinct advantage of being very, very pretty, but likewise, it wasn’t worth writing home (or to you) about. Meh.

Other than that, we’ve been eating a lot of artichokes lately, and I did manage to get myself around waaaaay too many (excellent, excellent) brownies at our friend John’s the other night. But I didn’t make them, and I didn’t take a picture, so I could hardly tell you about them today. I’m sorry. Also, I dropped gooey crumbs of them all over John’s kitchen floor when I thought no one else was looking and sneaked an extra sliver, and for that, I am even sorrier. I am hardly worthy of human company sometimes. I should be banished to someplace dark and uncomfortable. With the leftover brownies. Because they were my accomplices, obviously.

So I have no recipe today, and I apologize. But I have been meaning for a while now to write a bit about my book - a little update of sorts - and it seems to me that today is as good a time as any? It’s been a while since I wrote about it, and I didn’t mean to let so much time go by. I tend to feel a little shy about the book, I guess, and even though it is now written and on its way, it still feels fragile somehow, and sort of unreal. But a lot has changed since I last mentioned it here, and I want to tell you about it. Because whether you know it or not, you - your comments and encouragement and belief - are what made me think I could write a book in the first place. I hope you know that.

The first thing to say, I think, is that the book now has a title. It’s called A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. When I first started to work on it, I intended to write a cookbook, but what came out was more like a memoir, a collection of “food stories” and recipes. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, since that’s how I think of this site, but still, it did. In part, it’s a book about my father, who - both in the way he lived and in the way he died - taught me about the importance of cooking and eating together. And it’s a book about my mother, who is, hands down, my favorite person to hole up with in the kitchen. [Sorry, Brandon. She was here before you were.] And it’s about Brandon, of course. And in a way, it’s also about all of you, because you’ve been at my table, or perched on my kitchen counter, or standing with me at the stove, for almost four years now. That’s a long time.

The book is now listed on Amazon.com, which, when I first found it, made my eyes pop out of my head. (It’s not yet available for pre-order, but when it is, I will let you know.) Those of you who like to read fine print may note that the release date is set for March 1, 2009, which, I know, is not what I’d told you before. The book was originally scheduled to be released this fall, but for a number of reasons - including the presidential election and the serious havoc that comes with it - we have decided to move it to March. At first, that felt like a long way away, and I was a little sad. But then I decided that this book feels like a spring baby; it didn’t want to be born in the winter. So it’s alright. But I want to thank you for your patience. I’m learning that a book is a long slog of a project, no matter how you look at it, and I’m so happy that we can pass the time together. Whew.

Last but not least, many of you have written or left comments here to ask about art for the book, about whether or not it will have photographs and whether or not they will be mine. I’ve been working for the past few months on that very issue, and it’s tricky. I love photography as much as the next guy, of course, and I always like to see an image of a dish before I start to make it. But because this book isn’t a straight-up cookbook, I wanted to give some sense of the scenes and people that comprise it, and for that, I decided that illustrations might be better. And so, with fingers tightly crossed, I approached one of my favorite illustrators, Camilla Engman. And, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, she said yes. She was a dream to work with, full of ideas and sweet, quirky ways to interpret my stories into images. And I am honored, tickled, and totally over the moon to see her drawings beside my words. Goodnight.

Thank you for listening, or reading, or whatever it is that we do here. It’s much more fun to share this stuff, it turns out, than to keep it all to myself. And next week, I promise you’ll get a recipe. Promise.


The way a cloud would

Traveling is really, really great. I mean, I know that’s not exactly newsworthy, but bear with me for a minute. I guess what I mean is that, especially since I started working at home, where I spend lots of long hours in concentration and quiet, every time I go away, I feel thirsty somehow - like an old, crusty sponge, waiting to soak up something, anything, a new sight or smell or taste. And it feels so good to drink it all in, the way you’d do with a glass of water, in one enormous gulp, on a humid day. All that drinking in and soaking up, all that traveling, so good.

But then, after a while, coming home is kind of great too, in its own way. At first it feels like a sort of letdown, familiar but uncomfortable, like seeing an old photo of yourself and wondering why, oh why, you ever wore your hair like that. But then you start to notice the nice things. You notice that you actually like your little house, putty-colored living room carpet and all, much better than you thought you did before you left. You notice that dinner tastes better when you eat it from your own plates. And when you turn on the mixer on the kitchen counter, it shakes a little and makes this raspy, metallic whirr-whirrr sound, and somehow, though the same noise used to make you worry that the whole thing was going to explode into dust and shrapnel, now it sounds cheerful, workmanlike, even reassuring.

So I guess what I mean is that traveling is great, because of how it makes you feel about home.

Anyway. The only trouble with coming home is that Seattle doesn’t have Tartine, and San Francisco does. Which means that San Francisco gets to have rochers whenever it wants, and Seattle doesn’t. This is, in some dictionaries, the definition of trouble. Entire revolutions have been started because of shortages in bread - and that, people, was only bread. It’s scary, really, to think of what a lack of cocoa nib meringues might lead to. That’s why I got out the mixer.

Ever since I got Tartine, the bakery’s cookbook, I’ve been itching to make the rochers. Essentially, they’re just meringue cookies, plain and simple, with either toasted almonds or cocoa nibs stirred into the batter. They’re crisp on the outside, shaped like small, snowy boulders, but inside, they’re light and soft and chewy, like a good marshmallow. They’re very simple, like I said, but they’re also very special, and no matter how many we buy, there are never quite enough. Brandon and I shared the last of our stash on the ride home last Wednesday night, somewhere just outside of Portland, on I-5 North. It was sad. Even sadder was finding a lonely crumb of it wedged into the folds of the passenger seat a couple days later. So I decided, finally, to make some.

I’ve heard mixed things about the Tartine cookbook, but I was unafraid. I whipped up the meringue base, folded in a good dose of nibs - the book calls for almonds, but I winged it - and put them in the oven. They came out okay, if a little brown. (The directions called for the oven to be set to 350 degrees, higher than I’d ever heard of for meringues.) But when I bit into one, it just wasn’t right. It was heavy and dense, and it tasted wrong. It tasted brown, for lack of a better word. Brandon ate a couple of them, or maybe three, because when the man is desperate, he doesn’t give up easily. But the rest eventually went the way of the trash can, and I went out for a pint of cookies ’n cream to cover up my disappointment. (Also, I love cookies ’n cream.)

And then I tried again. I could have gone back to the Tartine recipe and tried it at a lower temperature, but I don’t know; I was sort of holding a grudge. I get this way sometimes. I thought, too, about trying the meringue cookie recipe in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated, but I couldn’t tell if it would be right either. So I pulled out this recipe, which I’ve used before to make a lovely meringue for pavlovas, and I decided to work from there. I scaled it back a bit - I didn’t need that many - and added some nibs, and after a pass through the oven, they looked very, very pretty. Brandon ate one. Then I ate one. They were more delicate and fragile than their prototype, but they were delicious. They were crisp on the outside, just as I wanted, and the inside yielded the way a cloud would, or a down pillow, if clouds and down pillows were edible. It was light and marshmallowy, and it melted the second it hit the tongue. It was a little different from Tartine’s, but in some ways, I liked it even better. So we shared another. And then it was decided: these were keepers.

At this point, I should tell you that as I was typing the previous paragraph, Brandon (who is sitting on the couch across the room, watching Flight of the Conchords, and was not in any way prompted) said, “I keep thinking about those cocoa nib things. They are SOOOOO good.” So there you go.

Now, all that said, I should warn you that these aren’t really cookies. You could eat them like cookies, yes, and we certainly did, and I even commented to Brandon that they would be very good with hot tea or coffee. But be warned: they will crumble all over your shirt. On the upside, this means that if you don’t brush the crumbs off, and if you walk around like that all day, you’ll have a readily available snack whenever you want it. On the downside, it means that they’re probably better suited to being eaten with a fork. Eaten, say, as cocoa nib pavlovas, with whipped cream and a spoonful of briefly cooked berries. Which isn’t really a downside at all.

Cocoa Nib Pavlovas
Adapted from this recipe by Shuna Fish Lydon

For room temperature egg whites, take the eggs out of the fridge the night before you need them, or put them in a bowl of warm water for about 10 minutes. And as for the nibs, be sure to buy roasted ones. Raw nibs can taste very, very bitter – not what you want here, to say the least. Brand-wise, I like Scharffen Berger.

I kind of like the thought of these with only whipped cream, but if you want to make a quick berry sauce, it’s easy: just put some fresh or frozen berries in a saucepan. Then cook them briefly to your desired consistency, adding sugar to taste and mashing the fruit lightly, if you like. Cool to room temperature before using.

Lastly, note that the instructions below yield fairly small, dainty pavlovas. If you’d like them to be larger, dollop the meringue onto the baking sheet in larger mounds, about 6 to 10 in all. Total baking time will be 40 minutes to 1 hour.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup egg whites (from 3 to 4 large eggs), preferably at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
½ cup cocoa nibs (see above)

To serve:
Unsweetened whipped cream
Berry sauce, preferably strawberry or raspberry (optional; see above)

Set oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 275° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Pour the vanilla into a small cup. Whisk the cornstarch into the sugar in a small bowl.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt, starting on low and increasing the speed incrementally to medium. Beat until the mixture holds soft peaks and the egg white bubbles are very small and uniform, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Increase the speed to medium-high, and gradually, slowly, add the sugar and cornstarch. Continue to beat until glossy, stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted, about 4 minutes. The mixture should be very thick. In the final moments of beating, add the vanilla. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand, and quickly, gently, fold in the cocoa nibs.

Immediately spoon the meringue by heaping tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. I find that it’s easiest to do this with two tablespoons – the kind you eat with, not the measuring kind. Scoop up a good dollop of the meringue on one spoon; then use the second spoon to nudge the meringue out of the first spoon and onto the pan. You should be able to fit about 10 or 11, nicely spaced, on each sheet pan. With the back of a spoon, make an indentation in the middle of each mound.

Place the baking sheets in the oven. Reduce the temperature to 250° F. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating and switching the baking sheets halfway through, until the meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside, and white – or, at most, pale gold around the edges. If, when you open the oven to rotate them, they appear to be cracking or taking on too much color, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees.

When the meringues are ready, remove them from the oven and cool on the pan on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes, or until completely cool.

Serve dolloped with whipped cream and, if you like, berry sauce. Or they’re perfectly good plain, as a delicate cookie of sorts.

Note: Pavlovas should keep in a tightly sealed container, or individually wrapped, at room temperature for up to a week, provided that the room is not humid. But I like them best on the first day.

Yield: 20-22 small pavlovas, serving 8 to 12