“La vie est dur…

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

“La vie est dure sans confiture. Elle est meillure avec du beurre.”

French Proverb

Gal Pals and Banana Peels

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In this new city, I’ve seen some strange things. An abandoned la-Z-boy laying upside down on a sandbar down by the river. A plaid-shirted man with graying shoulder-length hair, combed down over his face, doing laps around the downtown skyscrapers as if in a daze. A sky filled with crows cawing and swooping and reminding me of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, “The Birds.” Where is this strange new place where men walk about blinded by their own hair? Where people will occasionally dump a piece of furniture, not on the curb, but on the bank of the river? Where birds on the wing plot their attack on these strange and unsuspecting civilians? I’ve taken to calling this place “Odd-Chester,” though you might know it as Rochester, Minnesota. Or “Med City,” home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

And…my home now, too. I’m living the dream: writing full-time and (important distinction here)—getting paid to do it.

I moved to Rochester during the second to last week of August, and, in the mayhem of transition, I’ve neglected my baking blog. Oh, I’ve been eating my fair share of baked goods, but blogging about them? Not so much. I had half a mind to blog about the blueberry cheesecake bread that a coworker kindly bought and left in the office café for ravenous colleagues to manhandle, but my plans were foiled by…laziness and sticky blueberry-cream-cheese fingers.

This weekend, however—this lovely autumn weekend—I baked my first batch of cookies in my teensy-weensy little oven. This hallmark moment absolutely begged to be blogged about. Let me recount: It all began yesterday, a sickeningly gorgeous Saturday morning, complete with pooling sunshine, chirping birds, and tumbling orange leaves… …Which I chose to block out by pulling the blinds.

I did like the way the sun streamed into the kitchen though. I’d intended to just read my novel and drink a pot of coffee, but instead, I thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be nice to have fresh baked cookies when my friends show up? Because—oh yes—my two good gal pals, Ash and Jill, were making solo drives, each of them, from Plymouth and Iowa City, respectively, to see little old me and play catch-up.

What to bake, I wondered. I glanced around the kitchen, which takes all of 2 seconds. (My kitchen is quite small—the perfect size for a single gal to occupy.) My eyes fell upon…bananas. And, Medjool dates (one of the great loves in my life). I happen to know a recipe for banana-date cookies. They’re quite cake-like, which makes them seem more like muffin tops or pseudo-scones rather than cookies. But what they lack in traditional cookie look and feel, they more than make up for in flavor. Mashed over-ripe bananas, diced sweet-sweet dates, cinnamon, and brown sugar…

I set to work baking for the first time in my apartment. Bare feet on hardwood floor. Sweatpants. Crisp fall air crawling under open window. Cloud of cinnamon. Sound of eggs cracking, metallic beaters buzzing and clicking against the glass bowl. It’s so satisfying to begin the morning with a project—and furthermore—to fill the air with intoxicating aroma. I’ve been thinking more about how I operate, what fulfills me: How my inner machine ticks and turns and clicks and clacks. The mechanics of how I function, making me wonder how all my little decisions and innate inklings have led me here: standing in a kitchen in South Eastern Minnesota mashing bananas and settling into a new writing job. At work, the editorial team took the Strength Finder Test.

It’s an online test that, after you’ve answered a half hour’s worth of questions, identifies your top five strengths. It’s pretty cool, actually, and is intended to help us better understand one another while learning to work together more effectively. At the moment though, it’s mostly just provoking ego-happy self analysis. These kinds of tests always have this effect on me—this turning-inward effect.

“I am infinitely strange to myself,” John Fowles said…

My top strength, according to Strength Finder is called “input.” Basically, this means that I’m a scavenger, a collector, a ravenous devourer of facts, foods, peoples, ideas, places. It’s an appetite to absorb. A greed for information. I know with every wheel and cog of my internal clockwork that this diagnosis is true. But, I wonder, how is it a strength?

I ponder this as I sketch my banana-date cookies in my journal: It’s fascinating, actually, how every single one of us—given Situation X—will respond in an individuated, hyper-nuanced way. Depending on the challenge, strengths or weaknesses will rise to the surface.

I’ve sometimes thought that I could do anything I set my mind to—and while this is arguably true for most of us, I think—there are certain things my mind latches onto easier than others. Put a box of odds and ends from Ax Man in my lap and I’ll have a ball photographing these disparate parts. But hand me something that’s broken—say my point and shoot camera, while we’re on the subject of photography—and I’ll become stressed and frustrated. My limbs turn to lead. I’m not interested in fixing this puzzle; I don’t have a strategic mind.

I’m all input, I’m happy to say. And on Saturday, I was ready to in-put some banana-date cookies in-to my stomach. They turned out beautifully, by the way. Chewy and fluffy—similar to the pumpkin-walnut cookies that Ash gave me a sample of a couple weeks ago. I was glad that I’d be able to reciprocate the gesture with my little B&Ds: I spent the entire morning baking and lounging, listening to some new CDs I’d checked out at the Rochester Public Library. (I love M83‘s album “Saturdays=Youth.”) My gals showed up around noon, unloading grocery bags and sleeping accoutrement into a cookie-scented apartment.

I won’t delve into all the details of the girl talk, the boy talk, the grad school buzz, the work and internship chatter… But, I will say that my lady friends sure know how to cook! I wish I had photographed the apple-pear-pecan-cheddar salad Ash made upon arrival for lunch! I was able to capture the vegetable tart that Jill made for a late-night feast: Being able to bounce ideas, to voice the curling question marks inside my head, and to tease apart these bigger puzzles…what are my strengths…does it make sense that I’m here…am I making the most of my 20s…am I on the right track, headed in the right direction?

Talking with the friends who know you best is good for settling some of those incessant quandaries.

I wished aloud that Ash and Jill lived one floor up or down from me and that we could cook and visit every weekend like this. I guess our seeing one another is just something we’ve got to capitalize on whenever our busy schedules align (rare). Cooking delicious things, sharing stories, and reminding each other of unique talents, skills, strengths, jokes, …and recipes. Great first baking experience in this new chapter/kitchen.(This is an autumnal photo of us holding pumpkins; Ash is holding a miniature potato.)

Miscellany of Thoughts, Travels, and Tastes

August 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’m the kind of gal who has always loved to build the walls high, tuck the blankets in tight, and triple-check to make sure I’ve got everything on the list before I leave home. I’ve been thinking about security lately. I thought about it when I packed my suitcase to travel out west a couple of weeks ago. I’ve thought about it as I ponder job opportunities in the writing world. And my metaphor-seeking mind has prompted thoughts of security as I sandwich fragile veggie burgers between sturdy onion buns or soft vanilla ice cream between two chunky chocolate cookies.

It’s been a while since I last wrote in this blog, so I’m going to let my cup runneth over with photos taken this past month. There will be many images of assorted baked goods, as well as a few photos of Seattle and San Fransisco, where I explored for a good week in July. The image below, by the way, is all I have to remember the chocolate croissant and coffee I had at Café de la Presse in San Fransisco.

Going on that trip to the west coast was a break from the variety of security I’m used to at home right now. Something I’ve kept from readers who don’t know me: I live with my parents. That brand of security is one most of us 20-somethings would rather not have; am I right? There’s not much risk in that kind of lifestyle. I am spared from having to make big decisions; I get to float along with the rhythm of the day-in-day-out. So a leap into the explorations of two unknown cities was something I’d been looking forward to, big time. And to travel alone? To some degree, it’s like being a pioneer.

I escaped the tropical summer Minnesota’s been having (90-degree weather, 100-degree heat index, daily) and flew to Seattle where a gray froth of clouds covered the coffee-colored city, keeping it nice and cool. I explored lots of neighborhoods and made a point to seek out excellent coffee and baked goods (naturally). The photo above shows a cup o’ joe at my favorite coffeehouse, Caffe Vita. The photo below: the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever tasted. From De Laurenti, an Italian grocery store/deli/café/wine bar in the Pike Place Market.

I gotta figure out how they do it. Gooey chocolate chunks in the palm of the cookie and crispy-crunchy edges.

Seattle was a great city. A foodie’s paradise. There wasn’t enough time to visit all the restaurants and bakeries I found. I had to surrender and promise I’d return with a wad of cash reserved for tasting the city’s delicious treats.

Fortunately, I was afforded enough time to get to know a distant family member on my mom’s side who moved to Seattle from Minnesota years ago. Excellent conversation over a couple of dinners and one bit of advice that has stayed with me: Decision-making can be a paralyzing business. Sometimes it’s best to simply choose knowing that mistakes will happen, but fixing life’s faulty bike gears is always possible, and usually necessary, in order to discern where happiness and satisfaction lie.

Then, just like that, I was on a flight to San Fransisco.

Another city filled with incredible food and steep hills.

I found many, many cupcake shops:

And in the Italian quarter I found stellar pizza (which totally hit the spot after late-night dancing):

My favorite pastries came from Tartine, where a friend of a friend works as a baker. After four days of exploring, dining, and running along the marina, I spent my final hours in San Fransisco eating Tartine pastries in Dolores Park. Incredible amounts of butter and sugar. We feasted on morning buns (made with croissant dough, rolled in thick granules of cinnamon and sugar, then glazed with orange), ham and cheese croissant sandwiches, and assorted cookies.

That croissant sandwich and that morning bun? Somehow I need to finagle the recipes from my friends.

Going on that trip was a nice little break from the security of Home.

Now, I’m a total homebody—no one loves staying in with Thai takeout, a fresh batch of cookies, and a good movie more than I do. But a little buckle in the belt to shake things up makes that security more soft and comfortable to curl back up inside of.

It was nice to have some friends over to feast on veggie burgers, for instance. Just staying in with quinoa-black-bean-sweet-potato patties, fruity red wines, cold beers, Tater Tots, and special sauce? It ought to happen every weekend.

Oh! And I made ice cream sandwiches! Double chocolate chip cookies sandwiching French vanilla ice cream:

I guess this brings everyone almost up to speed on what’s happened in my life up ’til now (at least on what I’ve been eating and where). Basically life has been airplanes, cookies, and veggie burgers, I guess. I suppose I can wrap up my circuitous musings on security: I accepted a full-time job last week to write at a magazine an hour and a half south of the Twin Cities. All I can think is that this will bring exciting changes: a new sense of independence and self-sufficiency, security, and—of course—fodder for more bakery scribbling and ambiguous reflections on life.

I’m going to end with some images of the crêpes and zucchini-lemon-ricotta galettes I baked for book club at the end of last month. Here’s hoping your final month of summer is secured with delicious food and good company.

(Crêpes baked with prosciutto, fig jam, and blue cheese)

(And zucchini-lemon-ricotta galettes)

Setting The Bar High

July 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

I was sharing a bottle of prosecco with a friend of mine this week, and over the delicate glasses of bubbles she told me about a time in her life when she was searching for real “quality.” This search coincided with our first meeting, actually. I was working as a barista at a Starbucks and she would come in late in the evenings for her usual venti latté. That latté was consistently the same, and she loved it: hot, freshly steamed whole milk with just the right ratio of espresso, milk, and froth—prepared the same way every time. Now I don’t think everyone would agree that Starbucks is the textbook example of what the word “quality”ought to mean, but I do think my friend was on to something when she consciously embarked on a quest to find these items of quality, and, upon finding/identifying those things, revered them. Loved them. Devoured and indulged in them. In that spirit, I went on a little quest of my own. I didn’t go far—I decided to pay a visit to two local cafés I love for different reasons. One, The Bikery is a café that’s near and dear to me because I worked there last summer, riding my bike through morning mist at 5:45 in order to roast and sell coffee to the neighborhood. I know the pastries to be exceptional—and nothing compares to eating chocolate croissant bread pudding still warm from the oven with one’s fingers. I don’t know if that’s quality, but it’s something. I absolutely love their kalamata bread, which appears in a purpley-colored boule with slivers of olives in the soft bread only certain days of the week. The Bikery’s all-star quality bakery item is their Belgian chocolate brownie: It’s dense, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate, more like fudge than cake. I love that it’s so chewy and cocoa-buttery. I mean, if I didn’t have teeth, I could still easily enjoy this brownie. I don’t know if that’s a good selling point: “You don’t even have to use your teeth!” Anyway, when I took home the morsel yesterday, I was not disappointed. Quality. Quality brownie.

After catching up with The Bikery folk and admiring their new interior decorating, I moseyed across the street to the Chilkoot Café, the newest kid on the block. I recently wrote a review about the place for Heavy Table. Since I hadn’t yet had much of a chance to taste the contents of their bakery case, I figured I’d bag a couple of things and taste through ’em. Here’s what I walked out the door with: A Blondie. A cinnamon bun (made with flakey-buttery croissant dough). And an oatmeal raisin cookie (classic).

I brought everything home, cut them into bite-size pieces, and shared the desserts with the fam. The resulting family favorite, in case you’re interested, was the cinnamon roll. I think it came in neck and neck with the Belgian brownie, actually. Whaddaya know, turns out we all like the bakery items with the most butter in them. The oatmeal raisin cookie was good, but I was hoping for more chew. More raisin. Maybe some walnuts? Less fluff and more density. I’m such a butter-lover. And as for the blondie? Of course it was delicious—though not the typical blondie I’ve had before with gobs of cream cheese. Again: more of a cakey consistency. Lighter. More subtle flavors happening—not so in-your-face extreme dessert. I think I could eat a whole blondie and not get a belly ache. Whereas, every time I’ve eaten a brownie from The Bikery (more than once, I’ll tell you), an evil, whining monster has produced itself in my stomach. In keeping with the “quality” theme, I guess I’m trying to be more of a critic in the world of pastry and bakery. Mind you, it’s very difficult for me because I love eating these foods so much. Discrimination, I’ve come to realize though, is nice to develop. It’s hard for me to do—assign things an order—because that was definitely not how I was raised. In a Minnesotan household with one of the world’s sweetest, most generous, big-hearted mothers, we never picked first prize, second prize, third. The family consensus was always: “They’re all good.” Thus saving us the burden of defending a choice or heaven-forbid, hurting someone’s feelings. (i.e. Rachel drew a lovely picture of a mouse. Kelli drew a very fine giraffe. Who’s better at drawing? Impossible to say! Both good! Ice cream and cake for everyone!)

Well, that’s all fine, but at some point after you grow up and stop taping your Crayola drawings to the wall, you have to differentiate. Knowing preference and know why you prefer one brownie over another blondie—that’s the thing. Oftentimes, this is where quality comes into the picture. It’s a great open-ended word that can mean you sense that this thing—this brownie, let’s say—has been thought about, has been experimented with, has some history, some weight behind it. Some serious butter content, all right? When we can discern what the “brownies” in our lives are, when we can taste something that’s paramount in its own category, that’s when we ought to sink our talons in. Indulge. Stock up. Savor.

I’ve got some Belgian-brownie-quality friends. I’ve got some Belgian-brownie-quality books on my shelves and music in my iTunes library. I’m learning to pick out what’s quality for me, and I’m a lucky gal—it hasn’t been too hard to come by.

Falling Into Donut Holes

June 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Lately my excursions behind the wheel have led me onto unfamiliar roads. Roads that empty me out into parts of the city I never expected to be. Neighborhoods that were always islands in my mind, totally separate from the rest of the city’s arteries, suddenly merged into the whole pulsing thing. It has been blowing my mind. What do you mean if I stay on Como Avenue I get spit out on the East Bank by St. Anthony on Main? And how did I get here—to a park I’ve never been to behind the Science Museum along the river, barges floating by and the city turned around 180 degrees? I’ve been trying to digest it. The shock has shaken me. What I thought were islands were actually peninsulas. Where I once saw dead ends, I see tunnels. (This, by the way, was taken the day I suddenly found myself exploring Nicollet Island. The photo below as well.) Coincidentally, my recent amazement with isles and new passageways sort of relates to my most recently celebrated baked-good holiday: National Donut Day. (Does that seem forced? I don’t know. A donut is kind of like a tunnel. It’s got a hole in the middle of its deepfried sweed bread. And the hole—that’s kind of like a separate island. A bobbing buoy far from the rest of the jelly-filled mainland. ….Right?) Well, whether or not my metaphors are well received, I’m always glad to announce successfully celebrated food holidays. The first Friday in June has been National Donut Day since 1938 when the Salvation Army initiated the holiday to honor the women who served donuts to soldiers in WWI.

All I know is that I never need much of an excuse to buy something covered in frosting or sprinkles.Or even plain and dunked in coffee, as I’ve illustrated below. I wanted to get donuts from the much-anticipated Donut Cooperative.

However, they’re not yet open. I did the next best thing and bought a box at Cub Foods. (Actually, that may be far from the “next best thing.” I imagine the Donut Cooperative will be incredible.) But what can I say—I finished work at the restaurant and swung by the nearest donut oasis to stock up.

With a tall glass of milk, donuts are one of the most satisfying afternoon snacks I can think of. Yeah, they’re all right in the morning. Though I prefer something über-healthy these days since I started running more. Check this action out: Wait—-zoom in to what’s in the bowl… I recommend starting the day with yogurt and fruit and granola, then after you’ve put in a few hours of work, whatever that work may be, reward yourself with a donut. I’ve been falling into holes lately. The sweet, sprinkled centers of donuts, and more importantly, the holes in my mind’s map of the city. And in so doing, I pull a pencil from behind my ear and quickly connect the streets, fill in the grid, make the connection.

There is the dawning, which I love. The “Ah-ha!” moment. The “Ohhhhh…” settles over you like a warm mist. New perspectives, new information. Old neurons binding new pathways in your brain. And people, too. The “Ohhh, I never knew that about you” dawning. The “What?” staccato over wine and bruschetta. The “How could I have not seen that?” question that sighs as it’s being asked. All city islands dissolving. Filling in holes you didn’t even know existed.

Learning New Words & Roads

May 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

I, like most of my friends, tend to devour books and podcasts just about as quickly as I consume my favorite foods. As if it was scarce, I hungrily—greedily—listen to Radio Lab and The Splendid Table. Scour the library for new covers. Download new music and wear my headphones around town, scanning windows and newspaper headlines—constantly looking to sponge up some new bit of information. Nothing feels like enough. I wake up and listen to the Writer’s Almanac. I read my Gabrielle Hamilton memoir. I memorize grape varietals in France. I listen to Rural Alberta Advantage, and bop out the door in search of more stimulation for my eyes and ears. Oh, and taste buds.

Having run out of paper, I’m making my drawings these days on paper towels. Bleeding through the tissue, my Sharpie outlined the shapes of the delicious morsels I tasted at a bakery I’ve never visited before: Patisserie 46.

As I wiggled my way back into this Minneapolis neighborhood, I realized I’d been there before. Two or three years ago, I ate at Café Ena on Valentine’s Day, which is just kitty-corner to Patisserie 46. Now the little 4-cornered block looks much different. Feels different, too.

I arrived early so that I’d have time to study the pastry case (I’ve done this enough where I know I need to factor in at least 5-7 minutes of decision-weighing time). I pined and crooned over all the little darlings in the case as I waited for my friend to show up. You can see the little pastries on the bottom shelf—just gorgeous little sculptures made of butter, sugar, and chocolate. As my eyes climbed the shelves, the baked goods became more and more familiar. Chocolate chip cookies and macaroons. Croissants and scones. Beyond the case there were baskets of baguettes and gigantic boules of thick, crusty breads dusted with flour. I was beside myself with joy. You cannot imagine.

Within the first 2 minutes, I knew I needed to have a chocolate chip cookie. The three people in front of me all ordered this item. “It’s crunchy and chewy,” the woman behind the counter said, eyebrows raised. Wow. Sign me up. Just then, my friend arrived and we set to work selecting a good sampler platter of sweets. As my friend, John would say, “This does not suck.” I ordered my chocolate chip cookie and a “chocolate bouchon,” which was like a little cupcake-brownie with candied oranges and bits of soft chocolate inside. As Usher would say, “Yeeeaaah, man.” or “Oh, oh, oh, oh—oh my gosh.” (I went to an Usher and Akon concert this weekend; it’s still fresh in my mind.) And my friend ordered our joint favorite item: The Patisserie 46 Brownie. She also ordered an almond financier. New word learned: financier, which in the world of baked goods, refers to a little spongy cake made with almond flour, crushed almonds, and/or almond flavoring. They’re supposed to be called “financiers” because they’re about the size of a little bar of gold. Either that, or because they were once popular in the financial district of Paris. New words acquired, new roads discovered. My friend and I exchanged bites of the sweet morsels between us and swapped stories and recent news in our lives. It was hard to concentrate with that brownie just hanging out. When we’d licked the plate clean, it was easier to communicate.

Newness. Ch-ch-changes. It can be something you devour like an almond financier. But unlike the light texture of that cake, new changes in life can be as dense as a fudge-filled brownie.

I’m trying to sort through some varying textures. The ones I’m looking most forward to are airy as chocolate mousse. While I’m digesting life’s flaky croissants and modest coffee cakes, I’ll likely be making my way back to Patisserie 46 to try the rest of the bakery case’s contents.

Gushing About Family and Brunch

May 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Sunday morning. The neighbors were burning wood chips again. The air smelled like a lazy campfire. The temperatures were comfortable when I stepped out on the porch with a cup of coffee, so I put on a skirt for a change. Buds on the trees, electric with chlorophyll. Sun dodging clouds. I packed groceries for Mother’s Day brunch in Chuck’s backseat and drove over to my folks’ place to start bakin’ and cookin’. My sister, Rachel, and I had been swapping recipes all week trying to figure out what to make to properly celebrate and honor Mom. We settled on individual egg bakes (in ramekins with applewood smoked bacon and spinach), roasted savory sweet potatoes (served with a dijon mustard dipping sauce), fresh fruit, Vietnamese-cinnamon blueberry muffins (my absolute favorite cinnamon), and mimosas (of course). I arrived with my recipes in hand and set to work. Everyone was still waking up as I washed my berries and whisked the melted butter and brown sugar. The coffee pot started sputtering, the paper was retrieved, and soon everyone filtered into the kitchen. Trading stories about the weekend, cutting fruit, frying bacon, and peeling potatoes. I love this.

And—I love this: The last few times I’ve gone into Penzeys I’ve beelined-it straight to the cinnamon section. This is my favorite one: Vietnamese. It’s incredibly sweet. And strong! It’s almost as if someone made a dry reduction of the cinnamon and dusted the powder into this little container. I was so excited to bake with it. Up until this morning, I’d been sprinkling it in my soy milk and coffee. Today, it met some very plump blueberries—and was transformed into these: Being in the kitchen with my family is like enjoying a warm loaf of bread, or being tucked into a duck-feather comforter. Warm, cozy, comfortable. Rachel: on the floor with Frannie, the dog, calling her “Silverback” and asking her questions about how she feels to be a dog; and does she know she’s a beautiful dog? Britney: snapping photos of Rachel and the dogs, sipping her coffee and cream. Mom: cuddling Willow, the other family dog, then helping slice pineapple and melon. Dad: reading the mail, drinking black coffee, and laughing along with the rest of the females he shares this house with.

At one point, I saw my parents hug and set back to watch their daughters in the kitchen. Cooking. Getting along. They seemed happy and proud.

It’s not always this way with our family, and us girls weren’t always so helpful in the kitchen, but this morning—it was just one of those mornings. My family and I, we built this: these jokes, this closeness—and even this meal: Mother’s Day brunches have gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years. No more store-bought rolls. No more sloppy pancakes. Now, it’s the best silverware and plates. Recipes from Bon Appetit and sparking wine. It’s like our bonds as a family: between mom and dad, parents and daughters, and between sisters. It’s only become more and more rich over the years.

My pride and joy this Mother’s Day brunch was the egg bake: Hey—it came from the oven, just like those fancy cinnamon muffins.

What’s not to love?