Plotting, together

Earlier this month, Eli and I shook the sawdust from our hair, packed our bags, and flew west, destination: Seattle. Eli’s back there for work every few months, but this visit was my first time joining him in two years. Two years. I don’t how I stayed away that long.

I’m telling you, friends: Seattle has some kind of hold over me. Over both of us. That this city is all wrapped up in our story – or perhaps our story is all wrapped up in it – has something to do with it, I’m sure. Eli moved to Seattle for a job right out of college, just a few weeks after we realized in an instant that we wanted to do our lives together, and half toppled, half sailed from the solid ground of our friendship into something new. My post-graduation plan was to study abroad for a year (turned out to be two), and before I left, I flew out to Seattle for a visit. I remember Eli insisting that I get myself a window seat on the left side of the airplane so that I could see Mount Rainier when we flew by. This was very, very important to him. I promised that I would, and once we crossed the Mississippi, I barely peeled my eyes from the window. I was afraid I’d miss it. “How will I know when I see it?” I had asked. “You’ll just know,” he assured me. He was right. I saw it, and I knew. It was beautiful. Too beautiful to be real, and too beautiful not to be, at once terrifying and reassuring in its hugeness, all mine and the whole world’s.

Those were two heady weeks. Eli made his mom’s tuna casserole for dinner on my first night there and we mapped out our visit over steaming bowls. We wandered from Eli’s apartment in Capitol Hill down to Pike Place Market and ate Beecher’s grilled cheese sandwiches by the sound. We climbed to the top of the water tower in Volunteer Park, then snacked on chocolate covered cherries in the grass. One chilly morning, we drove to Queen Anne for breakfast at the Five Spot. My dad had given me a fully manual film camera for graduation, and I shot my first rolls, timid and terrible, on that trip.

Towards the end of my stay, we hiked up along the White Chuck River and spent a few days camping near Glacier Peak. I awoke in our tent on the first morning to find Eli looking at me. “I’m thinking about the ring that I want to make for you,” he said, “and it’s beautiful.” I just noticed that I’ve used the word “beautiful” three times in as many paragraphs, but it’s the truth: It was beautiful. All of it. (Plus, this last “beautiful” was Eli talking, not me, so I get that one for free.)

I was so glad for that visit. This way, I could picture Eli in his space, doing his Eli things, when I was scratching off phone cards half a world away. When I thought of Eli, I thought of Seattle, and vice versa. And when, in 2004, I bought a one-way ticket back to the U.S. of A., it was not only Eli, but Seattle that welcomed me home.

I’ve often felt as though Seattle were in on some kind of secret back then, a secret about who we were, who we would become, and this life that would be ours. Seattle is the city where Eli learned how to climb mountains, how to build big, beautiful (!) things out of wood, and where I ran my first 5K. It’s where we started plotting, together, the rest of our lives. It’s also where I lived, for the first time ever, in an apartment all my own, where I first really started to bake and to cook. There in my green- and yellow-tiled kitchen, I began to think about food in ways that surprised me, excited me, made me feel more like me.

I loved living alone. That’s what I had planned on telling you about when I sat down to write this morning. I thought I’d write about that apartment, the kitchen table that I bought for twenty-five dollars from a woman whose husband had made it in college, and the first meals that I hosted there; about the ends of those meals, when everyone would leave, and I’d be there with the crumpled napkins and the spoon-scraped plates feeling so full; about the man who would sometimes sleep on the stoop of my building, and how it made me feel sad and sorry to see him, a little bit afraid, too, and annoyed with myself that I was afraid. But then I started telling you about other things, and since by now you’re probably hungry (I am!), I’ll wrap it up. Suffice it to say that I discovered something important that year in that apartment, namely, that from inside of me, and me alone, I could spin this thing called home.

I also discovered cream of asparagus soup. I didn’t grow up with “cream of” soups. I knew they existed, of course, but we were more a chicken or vegetable soup family. Cream of soups seemed somehow out of reach. They felt luxurious – a little too luxurious. Not the kind of thing that regular old people should be making in their regular old homes. What I didn’t know then is that cream of soups are among the simplest, most straightforward soups out there. Typically, all you need is a couple of pounds of a single vegetable, an onion and some fat to cook it in, stock, and a pour of heavy cream. The recipe for a pot of most other soups could swallow that ingredient list whole. This probably isn’t news to any of you, but it was to twenty-four year old me, the me who had never puréed a soup before and had to borrow Eli’s blender for the task. I remember puréeing that first batch, late on a Thursday night, for a dinner that I was hosting the following evening. I was so pleased with the result and, frankly, with myself for making it, that when I finally climbed into bed, I couldn’t sleep. My early twenties were obviously full of excitement.

Today is an odd day to be writing about soup, sitting as I am with my hair pulled up, the window pushed open, and the fan spinning overhead. But if recent weather patterns are any indication – from 50 degrees to 85 in a single week’s time – soup weather may once again be upon us without so much as a moment’s notice. I am nothing if not prepared.

I’m now seven springs out from the first time I made this cream of asparagus soup and, while I’m no longer losing sleep over it, I’m still convinced that it’s special. Seven springs worth of dinner guests seem to think so, too. Even before they tell me so, I know by the way they fall silent after the first bite and slow down. It’s that kind of soup. I hope you’ll try it.

p.s. – The photos that you see here (except for the old Five Spot shot and the ones of the soup on my red table) are from our recent trip to Seattle. You’re looking at two restaurants, Delancey and Sitka & Spruce. Both should be at the very top of your list the next time you’re in Seattle.

Cream of Asparagus Soup
Adapted from Gourmet, March 2001

Fresh-squeezed lemon juice adds a nice bright spot to this soup. The original recipe calls for just ¼ teaspoon for the entire pot, but I like to add more than that – a teaspoon, at least. Another option is to go with the minimal amount, and then serve the soup with individual lemon wedges so that people can up the citrus factor if they wish. If you’re going to make this soup ahead, which I recommend, add the last tablespoon of butter and the lemon juice after reheating, just before serving. I have had success making this soup dairy-free, using olive oil in place of the butter and soy milk in place of the cream. Without the butter and the cream it’s a different animal, but there’s still something to it. Something good.

2 pounds asparagus stalks, their tough bottoms snapped or sliced off
1 large yellow onion
3 Tbsps. unsalted butter
5-6 cups vegetable broth
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh lemon juice, to taste (see note, above)
Sea salt and black pepper

Coarsely chop the onion.

Cut the tips from 8 asparagus stalks and reserve for garnish. (If that feels too fussy, you’re welcome to skip the garnish.) Cut the stalks and all of the remaining asparagus into ½-inch pieces.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy pot over medium-low heat until it just begins to foam. Add the asparagus pieces, a few grinds of sea salt and black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the 5 cups of vegetable broth and simmer, covered, until the asparagus is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

While the soup simmers, briefly steam or boil the reserved asparagus tips. If you like them firm, like I do, cook for only about 2 minutes, tops. Drain and set aside.

Purée the soup in batches in a stand blender, or use an immersion blender to purée it in the pot. If you go the stand blender route, you might want to wait for the soup to cool slightly. Be very careful when blending hot liquids; fill the blender only one half to three quarters of the way full with each batch. Return the puréed soup to the pot, stir in the cream, then add more broth, if necessary, to thin the soup. Taste, and season with salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of butter. (I admit, sometimes I’m a butter wimp and I leave out this final tablespoon. The soup is plenty rich without it.)

Add the lemon juice just before serving and garnish each bowl with two asparagus tips.

Serves 4.


Page 251

Your attention, please, for a very important announcement: Molly Wizenberg. A Homemade Life. Page 251.

If you’re checking in here early enough this morning, you now know what you’re having for Sunday brunch. It’s called custard-filled corn bread, it is the oddest, most wonderful thing, and it looks like this:

To those of you who have a copy of Molly’s book on your shelves: That is all. You’re dismissed. Go on, now, into the kitchen! The rest of us will be along soon.

I arrived at this custard-filled corn bread en route to something else entirely, namely, baked oatmeal. Or, I should say, a vision of baked oatmeal – what it might be in the best of all possible worlds – that jolted me awake precisely two weeks, two days ago at 3:33am. I had never eaten baked oatmeal before, let alone prepared it, so in all likelihood, my expectations were wildly unfair, and perhaps even borderline delusional. I wanted something like a bowl of creamy oats, turned custardy in the oven, but only in places, oats that swelled and seethed – and partially set up? – beneath a crisp, nut-studded top layer. I’m not sure if oats even do that. Some people have imaginary friends. I, apparently, have imaginary breakfasts.

A couple of days later, I did it. I baked oatmeal. It was just okay. The specimen did, at least, have the crunchy outer crust I was after, but that’s about it. It wasn’t creamy enough. It certainly wasn’t custardy. I must have been fixating on this last part when I was discussing all of this with Molly, because after batting around a few potential tweaks and changes for my next attempt, she mentioned her custard-filled corn bread.

Custard-filled corn bread is also called spider cake, Molly told me. That sounded kind of creepy to me, so I decided to do some digging. I looked up “spider cake” in the Oxford English Dictionary to find that a spider cake (“spider-cake”) is a word of U.S. origin meaning “a cake cooked in a spider pan.” The entry offers up a line from the 1869 book, We Girls: a home story, by American writer Adeline Dutton Train Whitney. The quotation sounded so promising that I tracked it down in the book itself. I think you’ll understand why I can’t help sharing it with you in context:

Barbara got up some of her special cookery in these days. Not her very finest, out of Miss Leslie; she said that was too much like the fox and the crane, when Lucilla asked for the receipts. It wasn’t fair to give a taste of things that we ourselves could only have for very best, and send people home to wish for them. But she made some of her “griddles trimmed with lace,” as only Barbara’s griddles were trimmed; the brown lightness running out at the edges into crisp filigree. And another time it was the flaky spider-cake, turned just as it blushed golden-tawny over the coals; and then it was breakfast potato, beaten almost frothy with one white-of-egg, a pretty good bit of butter, a few spoonfuls of top-of-the-milk, and seasoned plentifully with salt, and delicately with pepper, - the oven doing the rest, and turning it into a snowy soufflé.

Barbara said we had none of us a specialty; she knew better; only hers was a very womanly and old-fashioned, not to say kitcheny one; and would be quite at a discount when the grand co-operative kitchens should come into play; for who cares to put one’s genius into the universal and indiscriminate mouth, or make potato-soufflés to be carried half a mile to the table? (Pages 79 and 80 of the 1871 edition.)

M. F. K. Fisher, eat your heart out!

But back to our custard-filled corn bread, “a cake cooked in a spider pan,” which, according to another dictionary entry, is “a kind of frying-pan having legs and a long handle.” You can read about the history of the spider pan over here, or just click here for a picture of the thing, if you’d like. Whew. This spider cake business is quite the rabbit hole. I’d better get on with it. How about one more photo to fortify ourselves?

Our custard-filled corn bread, or spider cake, the one you’ll be eating in an hour or so, begins as a very loose, milky batter. I’ve poured pancakes from batter thicker than this. But fret not! That’s how it’s supposed to be. The magic – and it really does feel like magic – begins just before baking, when you transfer the batter to its warmed and buttered pan, measure out a cup of heavy cream, and pour it into the very center of the thing. I had envisioned the cream drifting out like a sheet over the batter, but instead, it disappears straightaway through a tiny belly button of a sinkhole. In the oven, the cream spreads and separates into a layer of silky custard just beneath the cake-like surface. And beneath that is corn bread. A moist, coarse-grained cornbread that is perfect in every way. It’s bread! It’s custard! It’s cake! It’s a little like cream of wheat, too, said Eli, after moaning Molly’s name in a way that some people might consider entirely inappropriate. (“Some people” have obviously never tasted Molly’s custard-filled corn bread.)

I haven’t made it yet to the perfect baked oatmeal, but as far as I’m concerned, this recipe is to baked oatmeal what Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon are to a cross-country drive from point A to point B. Custard-filled corn bread is a glorious detour, indeed. I’ve always preferred the scenic route.

Custard-Filled Corn Bread
Adapted from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

Molly’s corn bread is inspired by a recipe from Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book. If you read Molly’s blog, Orangette, you already know that Ms. Wizenberg and Ms. Cunningham make quite the team. The one change that I would make to this recipe the next time around is to add more salt. I might even go so far as to double it. I plan on baking this corn bread again next Sunday for some out-of-town guests (Martha and Rich, if you’re reading this, brace yourselves!), so I’ll up the salt then and report back. For now, I’ve kept it at half-a-teaspoon, as printed. UPDATE: I have upped the salt in this recipe to 3/4 teaspoon. This corn bread is best enjoyed warm, preferably with maple syrup à la Molly’s husband, Brandon, a man who counts grades of syrup instead of sheep before drifting off to sleep.

3 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ c. yellow cornmeal, preferably medium ground
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
3 Tbsps. sugar
¾ tsp. salt
2 c. whole milk (not low fat or nonfat)
1½ Tbsps. distilled vinegar
1 c. heavy cream
Pure maple syrup, for serving. (And perhaps some roasted rhubarb, too, my plan for next weekend.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan (I used the latter), and put it into the oven to warm while you mix together the batter.

Melt the butter according to your preferred method. I like to do it on the stovetop over a gentle flame; Molly suggests melting it in the microwave (carefully, on medium power, so it doesn’t splatter) or in a heatproof bowl placed in the preheated oven.

Transfer the melted butter to a large mixing bowl. While it cools, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside.

Whisk the eggs into the slightly cooled butter. Add the sugar, salt, milk, and vinegar, and whisk well. Then, while continuing to whisk, add the flour mixture. Whisk until the batter is quite smooth.

Remove the heated pan from the oven, and pour in the batter. Slowly pour the cream into the center of the batter. Do not stir. Carefully place the pan into the oven – don’t jostle it – and bake until golden brown on top, 50 minutes to 1 hour. I let the just-baked bread rest for 10-15 minutes so that the custard would have a chance to set up a little. Serve warm.

Molly notes that covered with plastic wrap, the bread will keep at room temperature for one day, and in the fridge for three. Brandon suggests reheating the leftovers in the toaster oven. Something about crispy edges. Good man.

Serves 6-8.


Back in the saddle

I’d like to tell you that I’ve been breaking in our new kitchen over this last month, but more accurately, it’s been breaking me in. Our refrigerator door, for one, is clearly out to get me. I’ll think that I’ve pushed it shut and turn my back, only to hear a faint rattle of jars and feel it thwack against my shoulder blades. Eli says the floor is slanted. That, or it’s personal. Also, I broke a plate. I’ve never done that before. I simply deposited it into the sink, and not with any particular enthusiasm or great show of force. I just put it down. One second, I had a plate in my hand; the next, I had only half of it.

As for the cooking, it’s been, well, erratic. I feel as if I’m training a wild horse. Just when I think I’m securely in the saddle – I did okay with those potatoes – I’m unseated by a spectacularly ho-hum coconut chiffon cake. Or worse. A few weeks back, I unpacked an old spatula that I should have tossed out a long time ago and proceeded to stir a pot of soup with it. A pot of beautiful, almost-done, intended-for-guests-that-night soup. The spatula melted. I poured out the soup. Then, later that day, back in the saddle. A triumph in trifle! A masterpiece in macaroons! Proof positive:


I forgot to snap a shot of the trifle, which really is too bad. It was so pretty. Also not pictured, though not at all too bad: an herbed loaf of bread that lived out its final days on our counter, struck down by the overdose of thyme that I inflicted upon it; a pasta salad so inexplicably, irreversibly bland that I nearly fell asleep eating it; and a batch of ricotta, strained with a new (and never again) brand of cheesecloth that frayed and sloughed off tiny bits of string, like dandruff, into the curds.

It’s been a rough ride. The dust is settling, though, and the kitchen – the whole apartment, really – is feeling tamer, like it’s ours. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get our first whiffs of normal life here in this new place, and all I can say is breathe it in, people! It sure beats paint fumes. With this normal life has come normal lunch, the surest sign that our new home is, in fact, home. Normal lunch is what happens when I’m doing my normal thing: working like a normal person at my normal desk. It commences every afternoon with a faint tickle of hunger that scoops me up, drops me on my feet, and points me toward the kitchen. Normal lunch is almost always unscripted. I’ll bump around without a recipe or a plan, stick my head into the fridge, and scan the shelves until my eyes land on, say, a wedge of Parmesan. I’ll slice off a bite, close the refrigerator door (all the way!), and pass the time it takes to chew and swallow by considering what I might want to eat “for real,” that is, for lunch. Before long, it will hit me that the very cheese in my mouth surely fits the bill, that if this cheese isn’t “real,” then I don’t know what is, and standing there with one hand still pressed against the closed refrigerator door (one can never be too careful), I’ll think about the fact that Parmesan doesn’t get much billing as a by-the-hunk kind of cheese.

I seem to have slid into the future tense a few sentences back, which may have led you to believe that I’m talking about some hypothetical normal lunch, a potential normal lunch that hasn’t yet occurred. But it has. It did, just a couple of weeks ago. I stood there by the fridge and wondered why we, all of us, do not engage more often in high volume Parmesan consumption. Why a stolen bite of Parmesan from the fridge feels, in some small way, transgressive. Why we so rarely find ourselves with a wedge of Parmesan in one hand without a grater in the other. These are the things I think about on my lunch break. So much for normal.

For the record, I couldn’t come up with a single answer to these questions. (Can you?) On the other hand, the distinct pleasures of biting into a hunk of Parmesan are many. Parmesan cheese has texture, a lovely, nubby texture; it cracks and crumbles as you chew, which is fun, and has an out-loud flavor just itching to be heard in full voice – all features that are muted or lost when we grate it to smithereens. So. I hereby propose a campaign: PARMESAN BY THE HUNK! Who’s with me? The salad that I composed that day for lunch – strawberries, avocado, and Parmesan drizzled with balsamic vinegar and oil – is the perfect kickoff. The cheese in this salad is, admittedly, more ribbon than hunk, but that’s okay. It’s a start. If you wield your vegetable peeler with feeling, digging deeply into the wedge with each stroke, you’ll get ribbons that are more hunky than frilly, in any case. That’s what I do. Or, forget the peeler and use a sharp knife, instead. Either way, you’ll have a bang-up lunch.

EMBRACE THE HUNK! (Oooo, normal lunch just got interesting.)


Strawberry and Avocado Salad with Shaved Parmesan

5-6 strawberries, washed, dried, hulled, and quartered
½ an avocado, diced
Several generous shavings (or slices, or hunks) of Parmesan
1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Arrange the quartered strawberries and diced avocado on a plate. Drizzle with the oil and vinegar, top with a grind or two of black pepper, and crown with the Parmesan shavings.

Serves 1.