You were hoping

Delancey arrived on my doorstep not long after Freddie was born. The timing was perfect.* For one thing, Delancey is a book. I read a lot in the first weeks after babies turn up here, so I need books. I also need food, and Delancey’s got that, too, to the tune of twenty recipes tucked between chapters. Knowing Molly Wizenberg (and trusting my friends around the internet), I’d bet that many of these recipes are success stories waiting to happen. I’ll have to get back to you on that though, since for now I am stuck on the brownies.

I cannot stop making them, and that is because they are perfect. Here is the part where you ask The Question, the one that’s hung in the air after every mention of brownies since the beginning of time, and I answer with the word that, admit it, you were hoping for: FUDGY. (No disrespect to the cakey crowd. Remember these?) Of course, we cannot stop there. We know we must be careful. Because it is often in the very name of “fudgy” that so many brownies go wrong.

We’ve all stomached them: gummy, squishy, smudgy, and wet, brownies that look as though they’ve gone for a sprint around the block in 100% humidity and collapsed onto your plate at the finish. I sometimes wonder whether the trouble isn’t in the question, since what I really want – more than “fudgy;” more than “cakey” – is a brownie that is good. And the truth is that if it is good, even the fudgiest brownie falls somewhere in between.

I think that when we say “fudgy,” what we really mean is “chewy,” like these brownies here today, rich and dense enough for your teeth to leave scrape marks when you bite in. We want something satisfying in the Chocolate, Now! department in a way that even the best cakey chocolate cakes are not. Molly’s brownies have very little flour, which explains their similarity to a spot-on flourless chocolate cake, but instead of soft and mousse-y inside, they’re the slightest bit spongy. (That’s the cakey bit talking.) The recipe makes just enough batter for a shallow pour, so the resulting slab of brownies is thin, easy to slice into neat squares. A big old brownie isn’t the most sought after summertime treat, what with the dessert files in our brains flipped open to berries, crumbles, and pies. But how about one of these, straight from the fridge – how I happen to like them best – perhaps with some of those berries? Yes? I thought so.

The recipe comes together in a flash, by the way. And I say that having only ever attempted it with the enthusiastic “help” of a certain two-and-a-half-year-old and an unconscious six-week-old tied to my chest. These brownies were that same two-and-a-half-year-old’s first in all her life, the effect of which being that she is now ruined for all future brownies.

She can thank me later.

*The pure punishment of reading a book detailing the production of Brandon Pettit’s pizza an entire continent away from said pizza, while nursing a baby every hour on the hour, notwithstanding.

Molly’s Brownies
Adapted from Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg

I suggest greasing your pan with butter instead of oil or cooking spray. The one time I used oil instead of butter, the flavor, however mild, was distracting. As I mentioned above, I like these best cold, straight from the fridge.

1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares. 


Just the thing

Five years ago, my friend Molly wrote a book. She wasn't “my friend Molly” back then, not yet; just the voice behind the blog I’d discovered right before that book came out. I was recovering at the time from all that crazy brain stuff, still a couple of surgeries away from a fully intact skull, and on medical leave from graduate school. I’d recently started my own blog, this one, because I needed a project, and because for reasons I couldn't yet explain, occupying myself with food and writing felt like just the thing.

I didn't read blogs of any kind before I got sick; I didn't know food blogs existed. This was 2009 already, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The whole thing was a revelation: people sharing food and stories on the internet, like one sprawling dinner party, tables and chairs for miles. I did a lot of clicking around and determined that blogs were primarily records. Of days, of recipes, of photographs. A blog was a place to get things down, a jewel box of sorts for collecting favorites, a hub for sharing and connecting with likeminded people. Then I found Molly’s site, Orangette, and learned that a blog could also be something else: a space you turn into something; a kind of studio where you could go to make art.

The subject of Molly’s art – her writing, photos, and recipes – was everyday life. From where I sat in early 2009, that was huge, since illness had put such a giant wedge between me and my own. I missed the big things plenty: studying, teaching, runs along the river. But more than any of that, I missed my everyday. I missed waking up early, comfortable in my bed and in my body, contemplating the leftovers in my fridge and a second life for them beneath fried eggs; I missed kneading challah dough on Friday afternoons, carrying a heavy stack of dishes and a fistful of silverware to the table, standing around in the kitchen with Eli at the end of the night scraping plates, rinsing glasses, wiping down counters.

It's clear to me now that starting a blog and filling it with food, making something of the bits of normal life that were slowly sprouting up again, was my way of registering these things, really seeing them, and believing in them once again. Of course it was! But back then I didn’t have a clue. In fact, I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps a bit weird, this writing about and photographing my everyday. Molly made it feel less weird (or made me feel less alone in the weird) not least because she showed me what it looked like to do it really, really well.

So I sent her an e-mail: a short piece of fan mail on the day her book came out. And Molly, because she is very lovely and also a little insane – it was her publication day!! – wrote me back right away. She started reading my site, which meant a lot, and somewhere along the line, through e-mails, phone calls, and in-person visits on her coast and mine, we became friends.

About three years ago, Molly and her husband Brandon and I spent a couple of days at a house on a lake outside of Seattle. I was pregnant with Mia at the time and getting started on my book proposal, and Molly had just sold her second book, Delancey, to her publisher. We talked a lot on that visit about the stories we tell, why they matter, if they matter, about the process of getting them down (owwwww!), and the preliminary nuggets – memories, scenes, ideas – that were driving our respective projects. We've kept these conversations going over the years, and it’s the highest praise I can think of when I say that reading Delancey, which came out last week, felt exactly like those conversations: Molly being her smart, funny, thoughtful self, figuring things out as she goes, discovering what’s what through the stories she tells. I could hear her putting things together bit by bit as I turned the pages which, when I'm reading, is my favorite thing to hear.

Delancey the book is named for Delancey the restaurant that Molly and Brandon opened almost five years ago. All of these photos, if you haven’t already guessed, are from our visits there. The book is about the collision of their marriage with that restaurant and what came of it, for better and for worse. (Spoiler alert: Mostly for better.) It’s about how the things we make, make us. It is also, I think, about discovering our stories as we live them, learning to understand them, and ourselves through them. Oh, and it’s about pizza, too, of course. (Did I mention, Delancey’s a pizza restaurant? And that Brandon’s pizza is THE BEST?!) By the end of the book I was ready to consume an entire Delancey pie. Preferably the crimini, like so:

Congratulations, Molly, and thank you, for so much inspiration.



World, meet Freddie.

She was born in a flash on Sunday, March 23, at 9:12 pm. (As in, from 6 cm dilated to a baby in the room in 12 minutes flat. TA DA!!!) She flopped around on my belly for a bit, sneezed twice, just as Mia did upon arrival two and a half years ago, then settled in for some milk, a cuddle, and a snooze. She weighed 6 lbs. 13 oz. and was 19 inches long.

We're all feeling great. Really, really great. And super proud of the girl we loved first.

You want to get to Freddie, you've gotta get through THIS:

Last Sunday, together with a living room full of family and friends, we gave Freddie her name: Frieda Rose Schleifer. She's named for my great-great aunt Frieda, also "Freddie" to the people who knew her best, who just weeks before she died in 2008 at the age of 97, was on the phone with Eli discussing Walter Isaacson's book on Benjamin Franklin, and David McCullough's 1776. Rose is for Aunt Frieda's mother, my great-great grandmother, a woman I'd heard about, but never met. In our tradition, you get a Jewish name too, so our Frieda Rose is also Frayda Nitzan. The Yiddish, Frayda, comes from the word "frayd," which means "joy." Nitzan is the Hebrew word for bud, fitting, we thought, for this child born on the cusp of spring.

At the gathering on Sunday, my father spoke about Freddie's namesakes, his great-aunt Frieda and his great-grandmother Rose. Eli's father spoke about the German, Norse, Hebrew, and Yiddish meanings behind the names we chose. Mia's wonderful, wonderful babysitter read a story to all of the kids about an elephant who dreamed of becoming a photographer. There were quiches, and granola bars, and banana chocolate muffins, fruit, and flowers, and balloons, per Mia's request. Mia also requested a ringing of the bells, these bells, that she passed out to her cousins and friends at the end of the afternoon.

The morning that Eli, Mia, and I brought Freddie home from the hospital, I checked Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, as I do every day. Each post begins with a poem, and that day's seemed to have our Frieda Rose, our joyful bud, all wrapped up in it. Cheers to you, Freddie, to these early spring days, to the pleasure of being exactly where we are, and the love that enables us to feel this way.

"A Prayer in Spring"
By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

(p.s. Third photo up. Dimple!!)


In it

Nope, nope, no baby yet. I’m 36 weeks along, though, so that will change very soon. (Mia came at 37.)

I want to talk a bit today about my book. I've been shy about doing so here; I know not everyone’s interested in the nuts and bolts, the nitty-gritties, THE PROCESS. But there’s some stuff I’d like to get down before a baby shows up and eats my brain. I hope you won’t mind. I’m just so in it right now. So deliciously embedded. There’s no way of knowing for sure how I’ll feel a few weeks from now, but I bet I’ll be glad for a reminder of this time.

Writing isn't something that comes easily to me. A lot of the time, I hate it. But in a sick, sick way, what I hate about it is also what I love. As my writing partner Katrina says, the hard parts are the figuring-out parts, the points in the writing where there is something important to learn and you get to do the work of learning it. The hard parts are what allow us to make writing that’s worth writing at all. And, hopefully, worth reading.

Earlier this year, I read a wonderful book called Good Prose by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd. It’s styled as a book on writing, with sections on point of view, structure, editing, things like that, but it’s also a portrait of Kidder and Todd’s working and personal relationship over the years. It’s moving and smart, and made me laugh out loud at least twice. I’ve been dipping back into it whenever I need a boost. Just yesterday I rediscovered this gem:

What you “know” isn't something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best conversations with a friend – as if you and the reader do the discovering together.

That feeling of discovery while I write is everything to me. It’s how I know the writing is going somewhere and, with enough revision, has a shot at being good. It’s also the only way I know to keep from dozing off and slipping into a boredom-induced coma as I write. Consciousness: very important for book writing.

When I first announced that I was writing a book, I said that it would be out at the end of 2014, as in, eight or nine months from right now. That was the plan. I’d write and test recipes for a year, spend a few months with my editor on revisions, and that would be that.

Things look otherwise now for a couple of reasons, the first and most obvious being this pregnancy, which took me doooown. I was sicker for longer than I was with Mia, and I had to put the project more or less on hold for a few months. But the main reason why the book has taken this long to write is because – wait for it – it has taken this long to write. It feels good to say that out loud because it’s been such a revelation for me (and to be fair, it wasn't even mine, but my agent’s and my editor’s, thankyouthankyouthankyou, you brilliant and generous people). I also want to say it because I know a lot of us here are in the same boat, making things out of words, or paint, or film, or food, and working hard to live up to our own ideas of what it means to do these things responsibly and well. It’s important, I’m convinced, to talk honestly about how we get where we’re going. I’m lucky enough to have artist friends near and far who have shared their own routes through. Thanks to them, I’ve never felt alone.

So let me tell you: That year I thought I’d spend writing? I spent it writing. (After I got the help I needed with Mia to make that happen, I should say, which turned out to be more help than I was able to admit for a while. Credit for this particular revelation – also not my own; why bother when I’m clearly surrounded by such smarties? – goes to Eli and a terrific series by Joanna Goddard on mothers who work from home in creative fields.) Anyway, I spent that year writing. Playing around, trying things one way, then another. I wrote mostly by hand, in no particular order, preferring instead to go in wherever I saw an opening, nail down the parts that felt most important, and let the narrative rise up to meet me.

What came out was a total mess. Some of the writing was terrible. Some of it was good, but had nothing to do with the story – whatever that was; it was getting harder and harder to see. I pieced things together into chunks and sent them off to my editor. I pieced other things together – once to the tune of 20,000 words – and sent them off to the cutting room floor. So it went for a year, I tell you. A YEAR. I like to think that I was a good sport about it for a while, but come last June, I reached a point where I thought, whoops. I made a mistake. I thought there was a story here, but you know what? There’s not. Pack it up, Fechtor. Move along. Nothing to see here. Forget about that book.

And then, slowly, things began to change. The story just opened right up. After so much doubt about what should be in and what should be out, so many starts, and restarts, and re-re-starts, the story was making itself known. One night in October when Eli and I were cleaning up the kitchen, I turned to him and said, without a trace of irony, “It’s like I’m inside the author’s mind now.” I guess in order to figure out what the story was, I first had to figure out what it wasn't.

In any case, my editor’s been with me all the way, and has kindly granted me an extension to get this job done right. I’m finishing up the manuscript now, and aiming to ship it off to her before this babe arrives sometime around April 1. If she stays put until then (the baby, not the editor), I think I’ll make it. If she shows up sooner, I’ll come close. Either way (take note, Jessica Kate Fechtor of the Future, TAAAAAKE NOTE), it will be okay. I will finish this book. It will come out next year, and honestly, that’s a-okay with me. One baby at a time, this way. It feels right.



Flutters and pokes

Since we last spoke, I've had my nose broken and smooshed back together again, spent a few days alone by a lake fattening up my manuscript, baked a mediocre chocolate cake (three times, just to be sure), read this book, and this one, and learned that the flutters and pokes rocking my belly as I type this are girl flutters and pokes. Mia thinks we should name her “Pizza.”

Pizza Schleifer. It has a nice ring.

So that’s what’s new on my end. That, and many thousands of words and a growing pile of recipes for the book. THE BOOK. A.k.a., the reason I’ve been scarce around here. There’s more to say about that – the book, not the scarceness – but the new year is almost upon us, and there’s still champagne and panforte to acquire. I don’t want to keep you.

I do, however, want to pass along a recipe, something for the next week or so when the merriment dies down and we go back to eating like the normal, monogastric bipeds we are. We’ll need something sweet and snack-ish while the cookies beat their retreat. Granola bars, say. These.

I wasn’t planning on sharing, since Molly posted about them only a year and a half ago, but they've become such a staple around here in the six weeks since I first made them that I feel compelled to deposit them in The Permanent Collection. Plus, I've played fast and loose enough with the ingredients to make an easy recipe even easier. That’s always something to write home about.

Off we go, then, into these final hours and the brand new ones that follow. Wishing you and yours the very best. See you in 2014.

(Vegan, if you want) Cherry Pecan Chocolate Granola Bars
Adapted from Orangette

This recipe produces a chewy bar, sweet enough that I’ve served them to lunch guests as dessert (and no one complained; in fact, they asked to take some home) and un-sweet enough that the words “nutritious breakfast” can reasonably apply. Aside from dialing back the sugar a bit, I’ve made one important change in the way that I deal with the oats. Instead of using a combination of finely ground oats and quick-cooking oats, I use quick-cooking oats and whole rolled oats. It saves me the step of hauling out the food processor and grinding the oats, and I prefer the heartier texture.

These bars are delicious with butter, but for vegan friends I’ve made them several times with coconut oil and they’re terrific that way, too. Feel free to swap it in.

1½ cups (143 grams) quick-cooking oats
½ cup (48 grams) rolled oats
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (110 grams) pecan halves
½ cup (25 grams) unsweetened coconut chips
½ cup (85 grams) bittersweet chocolate chips
¼ cup (40 grams) dried cherries
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (85 grams) peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter or coconut oil, melted
6 tablespoons (120 grams) honey
1 tablespoon water

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and line with parchment paper. You’ll want to cut the paper long enough to have some overhang on two of the sides. Lightly grease the paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, sugar, pecans, coconut, chocolate chips, cherries, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, vanilla extract, melted butter or coconut oil, honey, and water. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir well. Transfer to the prepared pan, cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap (to prevent the mixture from sticking to your fingers), and press firmly into the pan. Remove the plastic wrap and discard.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown. Don’t worry that the mixture feels soft; it will harden as it cools. Set the pan on a rack and let cool for 15 minutes, then run a sharp knife along the edges of the pan. Cool completely, still in the pan, then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Lift onto a cutting board, and cut into squares with a sharp knife.

Store in an airtight container between sheets of wax paper.


Little or big

Well. Now that that cat’s out of the bag, let’s get back to it, shall we? You may recall that once upon a time, approximately 26 months ago, I gave birth to a little lump of a thing bearing a strong resemblance to her father, yes, but even more so, to E.T. Despite this, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her – though I must have at least blinked, because one day in September, she woke up looking like this.

She tells knock-knock jokes now, made-up ones with questionable punch lines, and presses dough into tart pans. She’s into rocks, and band aids, and construction vehicles, and if you come for dinner, she’ll surprise you at the elevator and insist that you collapse in shock.

Mia bunked with us for part of the night last week, a rare occurrence nowadays. I woke up with a small cheek stacked on top of mine and an arm curled gently around my neck. She was stroking my hair, whispering the lyrics to Baa Baa Black Sheep. You know, the one about the master, the dame, and the little boy who lives “down the drain.” Yeah. I like her.

Anyway, this kid turned two on September 9. She requested waffles for the morning of her birthday, and for her party the following week, granola, eggs, and coconut. (She’s a breakfast girl! Yessss.) So I made this, and these, and a double recipe of Dorie Greenspan’s banana-coconut cake, enough for one layer cake spackled white with cream cheese frosting, and a couple dozen cupcakes, pink and purple, per the lady’s request.

“Both,” a word and concept Mia’s just recently nailed down, came in very handy that day.

And again last night, when I asked her if she’s little or big. “Both,” she said.


p.s. Big thanks to the talented M.E. Francis for the photos in this post.

p.p.s. Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange JUICE! Haaaahahahaah

Banana-Coconut Layer Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
Frosting from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen

Dorie Greenspan calls this cake “Lots-of-Ways Banana Cake” because of the recipe’s flexibility. I made it as written, below, but you can substitute granulated sugar for the brown sugar, and milk, buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt for the coconut milk, and all will be fine. Leave out the shredded coconut, if it’s not your thing. Leave in the rum, if it is your thing. (I skipped it because of the pregnancy thing and the tableful-of-toddlers thing, though that was probably overly cautious. There are only 2 tablespoons in the entire cake.)

The frosting recipe was enough to cover both the layer cake and 24 cupcakes, with a bit still to spare! If you’re making a single a layer cake or one batch of cupcakes, halve the frosting recipe.

For the cake:
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
About 4 very ripe bananas, mashed (enough for 1½ - 1¾ cups)
½ cup canned unsweetened coconut milk (careful not to use one of those coconut milk “drinks”)
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted

For the frosting:
3 8-ounce blocks cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Bake the cakes:
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9x2-inch round cake pans (or two standard-size cupcake pans).

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, then add the sugars and beat at medium speed for a couple of minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then the vanilla and the rum (if using.)

Turn the speed to low and add the bananas. (Don’t worry if the batter curdles.) Add the dry and liquid ingredients alternately, adding the flour mixture in 3 portions and the coconut milk in 2. (Begin and end with the dry.) Mix until everything is just incorporated, then fold in the coconut with a rubber spatula. Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans (or among the cupcake tins).

Bake 35-40 minutes for the cake pans, 25-30 minutes for cupcakes. The cakes are done when they are golden brown and start to pull away from the sides of their pans, and a tester inserted into their centers comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in their pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks and let cool to room temperature.

Make the frosting:
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using an electric mixer), cream together the butter and cream cheese. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the powdered sugar a little at a time and beat until smooth.

Spread the frosting on top and along the sides of one of the cake layers, stack the second layer on top, and finish the job. To frost cupcakes, load the frosting into a Ziploc bag, cut one of the corners, and pipe.

Yield: One frosted 9-inch round double layer cake or about 24 cupcakes.


Here we are

Eight years ago today, I married Eli Schleifer. I was 25 and in my first year of graduate school, and we’d just moved to Cambridge. The first snow of the season fell the night before the wedding, but by morning the temps had reached the mid-70s, so we moved the ceremony outdoors and set up the chuppah facing the ocean. There was French toast, and bluegrass, and baskets filled with pomegranates, and several ladybugs that found their way into my veil.

We weren't sure back then that we wanted to be parents. Then all of the sudden, we were very sure, but I got sick, and we didn't know if we could be. And now, here we are. Here we are! With one Mia, and one tiny human-in-the-making, whose flips and flutters I’m just beginning to feel. Yep. I’m pregnant. And so happy, finally, to share this news with you. (It was a loooong first trimester. Though, damn, powdered macaroni and cheese never tasted so good.) We’re due sometime around April 1.

I was much sicker for much longer with this pregnancy – hence the silence here – but I’m happy to report that things are better now. It’s 8:43pm and I am conscious! I’m cooking again, and writing. I’m even eating the occasional green vegetable. Goooooo, second trimester!

We celebrated an important birthday here in the months since I last wrote, and there was cake. Back soon to tell you about it.



When hunger strikes

I have always loved the idea of cold soups. Occasionally, I’ve even loved the soups themselves.

My grandmother made a beet borsht that I still think about all the time. She, and anyone brave enough to help her, would carry wide, shallow bowls from the kitchen, over several feet of pristine white carpeting, to the dining room table. (That we were seven grandchildren under the age of twelve around that table, and I don’t recall a single spill must mean that my memory is failing me.) We’d pass dishes of sour cream, chopped cucumber, and onions, and spoon what we wanted into our bowls. My grandfather would swirl in the cream and make his soup go pink. I liked to make a small island of sour cream in the center of my bowl, instead, and scrape away at it, spoonful by spoonful, so that the soup stayed deep purple, and the cream bright white.

Gazpacho and I have had some good times, too. When it’s not too thick, and the onions know their place, and the tomatoes are ripe, and the cucumbers sweet; with a heel of bread and a scrap of cheese, it’s my ideal summer lunch.

They tempt me, cold soups. They’re so good when they’re good. It’s too bad that, most often, they’re not: cold cucumber-yogurt soup, watery and weird, that makes you hunger for the very things you’re eating – cucumbers, yogurt – without satisfying that hunger at all; corn chowder and cream of green pea, their sweetness sucked away by the cold. And those awful fruit purees: a gritty slurry of strawberries and mint; a cantaloupe blended into a lumpy half-liquid and chilled not long enough. The likes of these have taught me to approach cold soups with caution, if at all.

This was my mindset when, while paging through Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, I came to a recipe called Grain, Herb, and Buttermilk Soup for Hot, Hot Days. Maybe it was the fact that I had all of the title ingredients on hand. Or that it happened to be a day that was indeed hot, hot. Or that all week I’d been pickling myself before bed in Deborah Madison’s warm and illuminating prose, and was thus inclined to follow her anywhere. Or that my friend, Sam, once mentioned that he drinks buttermilk by the glassful, which sounded strange at the time, but charming, and possibly fantastic. (And on second thought, not so strange. We eat another tart, cultured dairy product all the time. It’s called yogurt.) Whatever the reason, I didn’t blink. The next day this soup was lunch.

One of the things I like about this soup is that it’s “made-to-order,” as Madison puts it. You prepare a salad of grain, chopped herbs, lemon, and olive oil and stash it in the fridge. When hunger strikes, you scoop some of the dressed-up grains into a bowl and surround them with a moat of buttermilk. Then, you eat lunch. I know I’m not the only one who sweeps the kitchen for whatever looks good and needs eating – that last carrot, what’s left of the hummus, a slice of bread – throws it together on a plate, and calls it a meal. This soup is a premeditated version of exactly that.

It has so much going for it: chewy grains, creamy “broth,” herbs, citrus, fat. The oil beads up where it meets the buttermilk and gathers at the surface. It’s a beautiful soup, and a surprising one. That the grains and herbs remain separate from the liquid until the last moment keeps the flavors clean and bright. It is also a perfect picnic soup. You just pack the container of grains and a sealed quart of buttermilk – no worries about sloshes or spills – and assemble the soup on site.

A few words about buttermilk: I made this soup the first couple of times with my usual buttermilk by Organic Valley. It’s good, but like most supermarket brands, it isn’t truly buttermilk. It’s low-fat milk to which cultures have been added. Real buttermilk is the liquid that remains after cream has been churned into butter. Both versions are virtually fat-free (buttermilk is, by definition, the milk that’s left behind as the fat becomes butter) but the trace amounts of butter that remain in the churned stuff mean a richer flavor and creamier consistency. (Some buttermilks, I hear, actually contain tiny golden flecks of butter.) Earlier this week, I bought a bottle of Kate’s Real Buttermilk, and Eli set up a blind tasting for me in a couple of shot glasses. Friends, my mind was blown. Think of the difference between pancake syrup and real maple syrup. It’s like that. Needless to say, if you can get your hands on some churned buttermilk for this soup, do it.

p.s. While writing this post, I remembered a profile of Cruze Farm buttermilk and the “silver-tongued, buttermilk-drinking devil” Earl Cruze that ran back in 2009. (Cruze likens buttermilk to Viagra.) It’s a great read.

Farro, Herb, and Buttermilk Soup for Hot, Hot Days
Adapted from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Madison lists a number of possible grains for this soup: Kamut, spelt, farro, or einkorn. I make it with farro because it’s what I most often have around. As for the fresh herbs, I’ve been enjoying a mix of parsley, tarragon, and chives. Madison also suggests basil, parsley, lovage, salad burnet, and marjoram. Below are the total amounts you’ll need to serve 4-6 people. (Or one person, all week long.) My preferred measurements per individual serving are 1/3 cup farro salad to ½ cup buttermilk. Though I should say that I almost always go in for a second bowl.

1 quart buttermilk
1 cup farro
½ cup finely chopped mixed herbs
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons of olive oil or more, to taste
Salt and black pepper
More lemon juice and olive oil for finishing

Cook the farro according to your preferred method. (Here’s how I do it.) Drain any excess water from the grains, and while they’re still warm, toss with the herbs, lemon zest and juice, olive oil,, two big pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Stir, taste, and adjust seasoning, as necessary.

To serve, scoop 1/3 cup farro salad into each bowl and surround with ½ cup buttermilk. I like to finish each bowl with a light squeeze of lemon and a few additional drops of olive oil.


My jam is jam

July must be my month for learning new tricks in the kitchen. This year, it was waffles. Last year, jam.

I’d put off learning how to make jam for a long time, mostly because it seemed somehow out of reach. Once upon a time, I’d felt that way about bread baking, too, and actually, there may have been something similar going on. Both bread and jam are made from the simplest, sparest ingredients, and I think that’s where the intimidation factor comes in. That flour and water become bread, and fruit and sugar become jam – it’s a lot to get your head around. It seems unlikely, to say the least. Of course, it’s just science, but it feels like magic.

The last week of July happens to be my jam-iversary. It was July 25th, to be exact, when I first jammed: an intended apricot jam to which I added too much lemon zest and left on the heat for too long. No harm done; I called it Apricot Lemon Marmalade and every jar was scraped clean. One trip around the sun later, I’ve done a fair amount of jamming: nectarine jam, multiple batches of Luisa Weiss’s plum butter, then Seville orange marmalade last winter. I told you about the plum butter last fall, but the seasons kept slipping by before I had a chance to tell you about the others. I’m here today because I don’t want that to happen again. So. Apricots, friends. I’ve come full circle. Only this time, my jam is jam. Really good jam, too.

The recipe I used this year comes from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders. I am so inspired by this book. It’s lived mostly on the table over the last few weeks instead of its usual place on the shelf, and the other day while catching up on the phone with an old friend, I suddenly noticed that I’d been stroking it, like you would a small child, for who knows how long. It’s very beautiful – among the most beautiful books I own – but more than that, it is a brilliant and generous guide. Every time I open it, I learn something: the difference between jams, jellies, and marmalades; how to pick the right fruit for preserving; what the sugar, acid, and pectin, are actually doing there in that pot. There are a ton of recipes, then an entire section – over 50 pages! – about the fruits themselves with physical characteristics, flavor profiles, pectin contents, and best pairings for each fruit. It sounds like a lot of nitty-gritties, a lot of science, maybe too much information to take in.

And that’s what’s remarkable. It doesn’t feel that way at all. There is a lot to take in, but the way Saunders writes, she’s not instructing you as much as she is helping you hone your own instincts about what’s important and what’s not, how jam should look, and feel, and taste when it’s done. I’m grateful for that because, yes, jam making is a science, but it’s also very much an art. There’s an element of feel involved that can try one’s courage. This book makes me braver. Better still, it makes me make amazing jam.

I chose the plainest of the apricot recipes to start, one that’s just apricots, sugar, and lemon juice, infused with apricot kernels. (The kernels, in case you’re new to them, are the nut-like things housed within the apricots’ pits. They look like small, flat almonds, and smell like them, too, and are used to flavor amaretto cookies and liqueur.) This recipe is about apricots being apricots, apricots at their best. Sweet, tart, buttery, bold: I’ve already written multiple times on this site about the glory of apricots plus heat. This jam is that glory in its purest form. In her headnotes, Saunders calls the flavor “sumptuous,” and while I don’t think I’ve ever said that word out loud or in print, I think it’s exactly right.

One other thing I want to mention is Rachel Saunder’s canning technique. In the past, I’ve processed my jars in a giant pot of boiling water on my stovetop. It is my least favorite part of jam making. The pot is heavy; it crowds the stovetop, heats up the kitchen, and I’ve more than once splattered myself with boiling water while maneuvering jars in and out. Saunders has you sterilize and process your jars in a 250-degree oven, instead. The technique is simple: Place your jars and lids on a baking sheet (best to use one with a lip) and put them in the heated oven for at least 30 minutes. When your jam is ready, remove the jars from the oven, and fill. (Test first by pouring a spoonful of jam into one of the jars; if it boils, wait a minute before filling.) Once your jars are ready for processing, put them back into the oven for 15 minutes. That’s it. It’s easy, it’s fast, and I am never going back.

And listen, if you’d rather not process your jars at all, skip it. This recipe yields only five 1-pint jars (that’s 10 cups, total). The jam will keep in your fridge for at least a couple of weeks, so you can hold on to a jar or two for yourself, and give the rest away.

Enjoy this first weekend in August, friends. See you back here, soon.

Apricot Jam
Adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders

My first batch was with Blenheim apricots, as Saunders recommends, and the results were spectacular. This week, I used some apricots from our local farmers’ market, and while the flavor was different – a little less full, maybe – I was still thrilled with how it came out. The original recipe has you put half of the macerated fruit through a food mill for variation of texture in the finished jam. I skipped that step, but because this is a small batch that cooks quickly, I still had the occasional pleasant lump. Saunders suggests adding a split 1-inch piece of vanilla bean to the apricot kernels for a change. I tried it with my second batch, and honestly, the flavor was so subtle that I could barely detect it. I’ll either skip it the next time around, or try adding more.

Ripe apricots are very easy to prepare. You don’t even need a knife; just pull them apart with your fingers. Please note that the weight of the apricots, below, refers to pitted apricots. Buy an additional pound and a half or two to make sure you’ll have enough.

6 pounds pitted and halved apricots, 10 pits reserved
2½ pounds white can sugar
2½ ounces strained, freshly squeezed lemon juice

Prepare your fruit the night before: Take two large containers or pots with tight-fitting lids, and fill each one with 3 pounds of apricots, 1¼ pounds of sugar, and 1¼ ounces of lemon juice. Stir well. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the mixture, smoothing to minimize air bubbles. (The idea is to keep the fruit from browning as it macerates.) Snap a lid on each pot, and let macerate in the refrigerator overnight.

On jam day: Place five metal teaspoons on a small plate and put into the freezer. You’ll use the frozen spoons for foolproof jam testing later on.

Heat the oven to 250°F.

Wrap the apricot pits in a dish towel – an old one is best; it may snag or tear a bit – and tap with a hammer (I used a meat pounder, pictured above) until they crack. Remove the kernel from each pit and discard the shells. Coarsely chop the kernels, and place them in a fine-mesh stainless steel tea infuser with a firm latch. Put the vanilla bean in there, too, if using (see note, above) and set aside.

Transfer both containers of macerating apricots to your preserving pan. (The fruit will have shrunk considerably.) Be sure to scrape in all of the sugar. Submerge the tea infuser in the mixture.

Place five 1-liter jars (or the equivalent) and their lids onto a baking sheet, and put into the oven. Bring the fruit and sugar mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently with a large heatproof rubber spatula. Boil, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, and skim the foam from the top of the mixture with a large stainless steel spoon. Return the jam to a boil, then decrease the heat slightly and cook for 30-40 minutes, until the jam thickens. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula frequently and keep a close eye on the heat. You’ll want to turn the flame down gradually as the moisture cooks out of the jam. When you’re getting close – say, the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking – slowly stir the jam to keep it from scorching.

Now it’s time to test the jam for doneness: Transfer a glob of jam to one of your frozen teaspoons and put it back in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes. Feel the underside of the spoon; it should be neither warm nor cold. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly the jam runs. If it runs very slowly and has thickened to a gloppy consistency, it’s done. If it’s still watery, cook for another few minutes, and test again.

When your jam is done, remove the tea ball, and skim the remaining foam from the surface of the jam. Pour the jam into the sterilized jars, wipe the rims with a damp cloth to remove any spilled jam, cover with the lids, and screw the rings on just until they are snug. Put the filled jars back in the oven for 15 minutes, then place them 1-inch apart on a drying rack to set overnight at room temperature. They will seal as they cool. (If you have any that don’t, store in the refrigerator and eat within a few weeks.)

Yield: 5 1-pint jars


No ordinary waffle

I have an uncomfortable confession to make today, one that has put me on the receiving end of many gasps and furrowed brows of late: Until July 14th, 2013, I had never made a waffle.

Now, there happens to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this failing, namely, that until just a few short months ago, I’d never consumed a waffle worth replicating. In fact, I think I’d sort of given up on the whole waffle genre. The waffle, I decided, may be a fine enough vehicle for maple syrup or whipped cream –or, in the case of a waffle I once had on Aza Street in Jerusalem, a heavy slick of Nutella– but it’s not much of a thing on its own.

I think you can see where this is going.

These waffles, the ones pictured here, changed everything. I’m a waffle eater now. I’m a waffle maker now. I’ve even fallen in love with a waffle iron. I’m a woman transformed.

If you’re from around these parts, Cambridge, MA, or somewhere nearby, maybe you recognize where these photos were taken. It’s a fromagerie-charcuterie-grocery-bakery-wine shop called Formaggio Kitchen that, as luck would have it, is just a quarter of an hour walk from where I live. When Mia was brand new and each day was approximately 3,479 hours long, and I had not a clue what to do with her or myself, I’d tie her onto my chest and we’d walk. Very often, we’d end up at Formaggio.

It was the perfect destination. The space itself is a tight squeeze, with an overflowing cheese counter and rows of jams, olive oils, heirloom beans, nuts, and produce arranged in nooks rather than aisles. You’re always walking a little sideways in there, inching your back along a shelf lined with chocolates to check out the honeys, for example, so tiny Mia got a close look at everything. Meanwhile, I got to talk to living, breathing, fully-grown humans! About food! (I’ve learned so much from these folks over the years.) Mia would bobble her head at the pastas. I’d taste some cheese. She’d pull my hair. I’d order a tub of anchovies. She’d pass out on my chest. I’d buy a Florentine for the walk home. These were proper outings.

Now that Mia is somewhat less tiny, she demands her own square of cheese on a toothpick when we go. Even on this Sunday morning in April, when we were there not for cheese, but for waffles.

Behold, the fate of that cheese.

This was Mia’s first-ever waffle, and it may as well have been mine. It was no ordinary waffle, not even an ordinary Belgian waffle. These were gaufres de Liège. I had heard of the famed Liège waffle, but I’d never tried one. Have you? They start out as a rich, yeasted dough studded with pearl sugar. The crumb bakes up elastic and tender, like brioche, interrupted throughout by oozy sweet spots where the pearl sugar has melted. Any beads of sugar along the outside of the dough caramelize against the iron to form a crackly crust.

Alyssa, the bakery manager at Formaggio, had tasted gaufres de Liège for the first time when she was working at a crêperie after college, and this past winter, she decided to develop a recipe of her own. She did a bang-up job (you can read about her process, here) and in the spring, her waffles started showing up at Formaggio on select Sunday mornings. I was perfectly happy to trek over there for my fix, but a few weeks ago, I noticed there hadn’t been a waffle Sunday in a while. When I asked why, I was told that, for whatever reason, summer wasn't the season for waffles. People weren't snapping them up the way they had in cooler months. I do not know who these people are, these seasonal waffle eaters ruining it for the rest of us. They are not invited to waffles at my place, waffles at my place being a thing that happens, now that I’ve learned how to make them.

First, I had to buy a waffle iron, of course, a task that set me back a couple of weeks as I searched up and down for a model that anyone, anywhere was actually excited about. Even the best options out there are bulky single-purpose appliances that are, by all accounts, impossible to clean. Then, in the archives of Cook’s Illustrated, I found a review of the humble stovetop waffle iron. I liked the idea of something slender, easy to store, easy to clean (no electrical components, so you can drop it in the sink) and less expensive than many of the machines. I bought the one highest up on the Cook's Illustrated list, and friends, I love it.

This is going on a bit, so let’s skip ahead and I’ll say more about stovetop waffling, below, for anyone interested.

The waffles: I began with Alyssa’s painstakingly tested recipe and produced a truly excellent waffle. But I wanted a chewier, fluffier interior, a real contrast against the crisp, caramelized crust. So I did some research, got some first-rate guidance from my friend Andrew, a supremely talented baker and editor at Cook’s Illustrated, tweaked the ingredients, altered the procedure, and tried again. After three variations (all variations of awesome, you should know), I had my –and now your– waffle. I took it for one more spin last week, just to be sure. I am sure.

I don’t normally get my camera so close and personal with my plate of food, but when I broke open a waffle from my final batch, I just had to show you this crumb. (Click on the photo to see it bigger.) (Do it.)

Happy waffling.

Liège Waffles (Gaufres de Liège)
Adapted from Alyssa’s recipe at Formaggio Kitchen and a recipe from the Liège Waffle Recipe blog, with guidance from Andrew Janjigian

A few notes:

On waffle irons:  If you already own an electric waffle maker, then by all means, use it. Alyssa makes her waffles in a CuisinArt Belgian Waffle Maker, sets the heat to just below 3 (on a scale from 1 to 5), and cooks the waffles for about five minutes. If you’re in the market for a waffle maker, I highly recommend a stovetop model. I have this one, from Nordic Ware. It’s made of cast aluminum with a water-based silicone non-stick coating (not Teflon) on the inside. The top and bottom of the iron come apart for easy cleaning. My one complaint is that the outside scratches easily, but that’s aluminum for you. Of course, stovetop waffle making requires more of your attention than throwing dough into an appliance, but no more attention than frying an egg or flipping pancakes. It may take you a burnt or underdone waffle or two to get the hang of it, but soon you’ll have them just right.

In the recipe below, I’ve included instructions for cooking the waffles on a stovetop iron. I’ve found that the key to perfectly cooked waffles is keeping the heat at medium-low. Cast aluminum heats quickly and retains that heat well; anything hotter and the exterior will burn before the waffle has cooked through. Also, you want the bottom plate, the one against the stovetop, to be plenty hot when you add dough to the iron. Which means that when you remove the finished waffles from the iron, do not flip the iron over before beginning the next batch.

On weight versus volume: I’ve been baking more and more by weight instead of volume and I’m hooked. It’s easy, precise, and my results are super consistent. If you measure the flour in this recipe by volume (cups) instead of weight, be sure to stir up your flour, spoon the flour into your measuring cup, and sweep off the excess with the back of a straight-edged knife. If you use the scoop and sweep method instead, you’ll end up with too much flour.

On yeast: This recipe calls for instant dry yeast (IDY) rather than active dry yeast (ADY). Instant dry yeast is all I ever keep around. It’s easier to use because there’s no need to dissolve it in liquid; you just add it to your dry ingredients and you’re off. I once assumed that there must be some kind of additive involved to make instant yeast “instant,” and I didn’t like the idea of that. But nope, it’s just yeast. I asked my friend Andrew about the real difference between IDY and ADY, and he gave me the scoop: ADY is coated with a layer of dead yeast that must be dissolved in order for the yeast to activate. That’s why you have to proof it. The reason that you use about 30% less IDY than ADY in any given recipe is because IDY is all viable yeast (no dead yeast coating). There’s no difference in flavor between the two.

On the sugar: If you’re having trouble finding Belgian pearl sugar in stores, you can find it online here. Alyssa's recipe calls for ¾ cup pearl sugar, which is great for the caramelizing action on the outside of the waffles, but so sweet that my tongue ached when I was through. I cut the sugar to ½ cup, and while you end up with fewer candied bits in and around the waffles, the sweetness is pleasantly toned down.

2 cups (240 g) bread flour (see note, above)
1 teaspoon (3 g) instant dry yeast
¼ cup (60 g) whole milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (40 g) water
1 large egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (20 g) light brown sugar
¾ teaspoon (4.5 g) salt
8 tablespoons (113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon (15 g) honey
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla
½ - ¾ cup (100 g) pearl sugar (see note, above)

Whisk together the instant dry yeast and 2/3 cup (80 g) of the bread flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. In a separate bowl, mix the milk, water, and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the flour and yeast measure, stir to moisten the yeast, and sprinkle the remaining 1 1/3 cup (160 g) of bread flour on top. Do not mix in. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for 60-90 minutes, until the batter is bubbling up through the cover of flour.

Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until just combined. With the machine still on low, add the honey and vanilla, then the butter, 2 tablespoons (30 g) at a time. When the butter is fully incorporated, switch to the dough hook attachment. Mix for four minutes at medium-low speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Let the dough rest for 1 minute, then continue mixing until the dough stretches rather than breaks, and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it takes longer than 2-3 minutes (it did for me), let the dough rest again for 1 minute, then mix for another 2-3 minutes.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, mix the pearl sugar into the dough by hand. Separate the dough into 110 gram chunks (about 3 tablespoons per waffle), and shape each one into a ball. Place on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise for 90 minutes, until puffy.

If using a stovetop iron: When the dough is ready, heat your iron over a medium-low flame for 4 minutes, then flip it over and heat the other side for the same amount of time. Transfer the dough balls to your heated waffle iron (I’d start with just one, to get the hang of things), close the iron, and cook for 45 seconds. Flip the iron over and cook for four minutes. Your waffles should be done enough at this point so that they won’t stick to iron. Open the iron for a peek, and if the waffles are still looking pale, cook for an additional couple of minutes, until the crust is brown and the sugar on the surface has caramelized.

Transfer waffles to a rack and cool for several minutes before serving.

Makes 6 waffles.