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Posts Tagged ‘baking’

One of the toughest things, so far, about quarantine is not being able to hang out with my friends.

I live alone, so I really rely on my friends in the neighborhood, my classes at the nearby yoga studio and my interactions with colleagues for human connection. We are doing the best we can – Zoom meetings and phone calls and virtual yoga (so much virtual yoga), but I miss just sitting in a friend’s living room, or inviting someone over for tea.

The other night, my friend Lauryn had a brilliant idea: a virtual baking date via FaceTime. We decided to start with Molly Wizenberg’s Scottish scones, about which I have raved here more times than I can count. They were on her blog a million years ago, then appeared in her first book, A Homemade Life – which, in addition to being gorgeous and funny and delicious, is one of the books that landed me my Shelf Awareness review gig. (I had to write a few sample reviews, and Marilyn, my editor, was already a Wizenberg fan – she asked me about Molly’s banana bread when she wrote me back to tell me I’d gotten the job.)

Anyway, I sent Lauryn the recipe and (for good measure) a photo of the ingredient list, and we gathered bags of flour and sugar and cartons of half-and-half and mixing bowls, and I propped up my phone inside the kitchen cabinet so it wouldn’t keep falling over. And we baked, with her husband and kids moving in and out of the frame, and me dashing to the cupboard to dig out the baking powder, and both of us struggling to scrape the zest (lemon for her, orange for me) off our respective graters.

We lost the connection a few times, and had to repeat ourselves more than once, but we caught up a bit, about the day and the weather and this weird new life we’re all living. And it helped. And the scones – need I say it? – were delicious. Mine (with dried cranberries and orange zest) are above; Lauryn’s (with lemon zest and crystallized ginger) are below.

Are you baking in these days, friends? (My friend Jess calls it “distractibaking,” and I suspect she’s not alone.) Do share, if you are. Be well.

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Hello, everyone. March is (nearly) over – I don’t think anyone expected this month to go the way it has. But here we are. Photo of the last stack of books I was able to pick up before my beloved Boston Public Library closed for a while. And here are the ones I’ve been reading:

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
It is impossible to overstate how much I love de los Santos’ work. I turned back to this novel for some deep soul comfort, just as everything was going sideways. It’s the story of Clare, who inherits a house right after she calls off her wedding, and Edith, who gave Clare the house. Lovely, luminous and wise, like all her books.

Every Reason We Shouldn’t, Sara Fujimura
Olivia Kennedy is the daughter of two Olympic champions, and she had medal dreams, too, until a disastrous performance. When speed skater Jonah Choi starts skating at her parents’ ice rink, Olivia is forced to deal with her fears (and she might also be falling in love). Sweet and funny – I especially loved Olivia’s friend Mack, aspiring roller derby queen.

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels, Hannah Ross
Cycling has long been a male-dominated sphere, but women have been riding for decades and they’re damn good at it. Ross charts the history of cycling and feminism, and calls for more representation in the industry and better bike-friendly infrastructure. (Yes please.) Well-written, informative and interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 9).

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, Camille Pagán
Libby Miller has always tried (relentlessly) to look on the bright side, since losing her mother to cancer at age 10. But then her marriage implodes in the same week she’s diagnosed with cancer herself. Libby escapes to Puerto Rico, where she tries to avoid (but eventually sorts out) her feelings about treatment and her future. Surprisingly light and funny for such serious subject matter.

The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee
Chinese-American Jo Kuan and her guardian, Old Gin, don’t quite fit on either side of Atlanta’s strict racial divide. When Jo loses her job as a milliner’s assistant, she becomes a maid and also starts writing a newspaper column (anonymously). I’ve enjoyed Lee’s previous books, Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, and I really liked this one: it draws together race, family, horse racing and feminism, with warmth and wit.

The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life, Samantha Seneviratne
I grabbed this at the BPL: mouthwatering recipes and brief essays about (among other things) navigating a divorce? Yes please. I liked the author’s voice and have marked a couple recipes to try during quarantine baking.

I’d Give Anything, Marisa de los Santos
At eighteen, Ginny Beale loves her life (in spite of her difficult mother): she has a brother she adores and fiercely loyal friends. But one terrible night changes everything. Nearly twenty years later, when Ginny’s marriage falls apart, she learns some new truths about that night, and about herself. Moving and lovely and well written, like all de los Santos’ books (see above). To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, Hope Jahren
I loved Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, which I read back in 2016. This slim book is a cogent, straightforward explanation of how population growth, technological advances and (hugely) increased consumption of energy and food have led us to the current climate crisis. It’s packed with data but highly readable. The diagnosis is daunting, but Jahren does offer some practical tips and reasons for hope.

Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief, Anna Meriano
Leo Logroño is finally learning some of the magic recipes that her family uses at their Texas bakery. But when her paternal abuelo shows up, telling her new things about her own magic, she’s not sure what to believe. And a new café in town just might mean trouble for her family. I like this sweet series, and this book was a fun conclusion.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident. I love them and it’s especially important to support independent bookstores right now. 

What are you reading?

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velocipede races book

May is a whirlwind when you work in higher ed (I say this every year). Here are the books I’ve been dipping into on my commutes, at lunch, before bed and whenever else I can:

The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear
1940: London is under siege as the Blitz takes hold, and an American broadcaster is found murdered in her flat. Two shadowy government agencies call Maisie Dobbs onto the case; she’s also volunteering as an ambulance driver and hoping to adopt Anna, a young evacuee. I am a longtime Maisie fan, and I loved this 15th (!) entry in the series. Solid writing, a well-done plot and so much British grit.

The Velocipede Races, Emily June Street
Emmeline longs to compete in bicycle races like her twin brother. But aristocratic women are forbidden to ride, much less race. When she’s forced into marriage to a rich man, she sees a chance to pursue her dreams secretly–but several surprises are in store. A friend snagged this novel for me at a cycling conference. Emmy is frustrating at times, but the plot is fun – especially if you love bikes.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane
I will read anything Macfarlane writes. He’s a brilliant nature writer who renders physical details beautifully, but sees under them, into the shape of things. This book – his latest and longest – is a sort of inversion of his previous work: an exploration of caves, crevices, burial grounds and other hidden places. I struggled with the subject matter a bit, but his adventures are fascinating. (I highly recommend his previous books: I particularly loved Landmarks.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, Anna Meriano
Leo (age 11), the youngest of five daughters, stumbles on a secret: all the women in her family are brujas (witches) whose magic comes out through their baking. Naturally, she’s dying to experiment, with sometimes disastrous results. A sweet, funny middle-grade story of family, baking and magic. Found at Trident.

In Another Time, Jillian Cantor
Max, a bookseller, and Hanna, a Jewish violinist, meet in Germany just as Hitler is coming to power. They fall in love, and then Hanna wakes up in a field in 1946 with a decade of her memory gone. She tries to build a new life, not knowing what has happened to Max. I’ve liked Cantor’s previous historical novels, but this one had a plot element that really didn’t work for me. I did love Hanna’s bond with her nephew, and appreciated her fraught but loving relationship with her sister.

The Beautiful Strangers, Camille Di Maio
“Find the beautiful stranger.” That’s what Kate Morgan’s granddad begs of her when she hops a train from San Francisco to San Diego, to work on the set of Some Like It Hot. Soon Kate discovers a mystery surrounding the Hotel del Coronado, including a ghost who shares her name. I love Coronado Island – I’ve stayed there several times – and this sweet love story evokes it perfectly.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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kitchen wall art curtains british flag

Here’s what I know about laundry, after a decade and a half or so: it’s one of the chores I don’t mind.

Make no mistake: sometimes it’s a pain, especially when I’m not eager to schlep a full hamper down three flights of stairs to the basement and back up again. I also know that it’s easier for me than for many people, thanks to my electric washer and dryer: I don’t have to spend hours scrubbing clothes, or days waiting for them to dry.

That being said, I love a warm, soft pile of clean laundry, heaped onto a bed so I can sort it and put it away. I love a full drawer of patterned cloth napkins, a neatly folded stack of clean sheets. I love emptying the laundry hampers after a trip or a harried week.

As Kathleen Norris has noted, laundry is “one of the very few tasks in life that offers instant results, and this is nothing to sneer at.” Laundry is also one of the ways I take care of myself and my husband, putting a part of our lives to rights, creating (some) order where there was previously chaos. And about once a week these days, you can find me combining laundry with a couple of other rituals: podcasts and scones.

I’m a slow listener to only a couple of podcasts. I love Krista Tippett’s wise, thoughtful, wide-ranging conversations with all sorts of folks on On Being, though I admit I don’t get to them all. And I never miss an episode of All the Books!, which features Liberty and a rotating cast of other women talking about the latest and greatest books they’re reading, or highlighting old favorites. There are frequent digressions to other topics, which is part of the fun, and I love hearing their warm, funny, generous voices in my ear as I putter around the kitchen, washing dishes and wiping counters and watering the thirsty geraniums.

The third part of this ritual is Molly’s scones, which I’ve been eating for breakfast nearly every day for a couple of years now. They’re hearty and delicious and not too sweet, and by now I know the recipe by heart and by hand.

I measure out the flour, whisk in baking powder and salt, grate in a few tablespoons of butter and stir in white sugar and dried cranberries. I can do all these things while I’m listening, and while the laundry spins downstairs. I pop them into the oven and then head downstairs to check on the dryer, or hang up sweaters or corral my husband’s socks. I come back up and pull out the cookie sheet, letting it cool on the counter. And I exhale.

It’s been a fast and full stretch around here lately: change, the only constant of the past few years, has been coming faster than I can keep up with. I’ve found myself scattered and frustrated, more often than I care to admit. But this ritual and a few others, when I can sink into them, help ground me.

As we head into summer – with more change ahead – you can (sometimes) find me in the kitchen, baking and folding and listening.

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book stack purple tulips

The latest library stack (above) came in the week before Commencement, which caused a tiny bit of panic over here. But I’m working through it. Here’s the latest roundup:

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
Jahren is a botanist who has built three successful labs, and this memoir tells the story of her career and her longtime bond with her lab partner, Bill. Gorgeous writing, wry humor, and wonderful insights on plants and people. (Also: packed with fascinating information but not didactic at all.) Recommended by Lindsey and by Ann at Books on the Nightstand.

Model Misfit, Holly Smale
Geeky teen model Harriet Manners finds herself spending the summer in Japan for a modeling gig, where everything promptly goes wrong. I like Harriet but couldn’t quite believe she was that clueless. Really fun supporting characters and a great setting, though.

Mother-Daughter Book Camp, Heather Vogel Frederick
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Frederick’s series about a group of teenage girls in Concord, Mass., who start a book club with their mothers. This final volume takes them to summer camp, where they’re working as counselors before heading to college (sniff). They start a book club with their campers to counter homesickness. Super sweet and funny. A great ending to the series.

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, Louise Miller
When pastry chef Olivia Rawlings sets her workplace on fire, she flees Boston for tiny Guthrie, Vermont, where her best friend helps her find a job baking at the Sugar Maple Inn. The owner is stern but the locals are kind – but Livvy, used to leaving and being left, isn’t sure she can settle down in Guthrie. A heartwarming debut novel with mouthwatering descriptions of pastry and really engaging characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
Kell is one of a dying breed: Antari, magicians who can slip through the doors between worlds. As he navigates between three different Londons (Red, Grey and White), he stumbles upon a dangerous talisman from the fabled Black London and meets Lila, a trenchant pickpocket who proves a worthy partner in crime. A gripping, fast-paced fantasy novel, but I was seriously creeped out by some of the magic. Recommended by Jaclyn and Leigh.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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daffodils blue pitcher plums

Every once in a while, I find it helpful to make a list of what is saving my life – from the small daily things to the big, soul-affirming stuff. As we make our way through April, here’s what’s saving my life these days:

  • Daily chitchat with the folks at Darwin’s, who provide spicy chai, delicious lunches and cookies, and excellent conversation about everything from pickles to music to childhood memories.
  • Tulips from my local florist, perched on the corner of my dining-room table. (Also, daffodils on my friend Amy’s table, above.)
  • Poetry from Veronica Patterson and Naomi Shihab Nye.
  • Running into people I know in Harvard Square and realizing all over again: this is my neighborhood.
  • The Sunday #FlowerReport on Twitter, hosted by my friend Alyssa. (Photos of gorgeous spring flowers from all over the place.)

early tulips public garden boston spring

  • Sarcastic asides from my co-workers. (Sometimes a little snark can save the day.)
  • Weekly phone calls with my mom, and reports on my three-year-old nephew’s T-ball games.
  • Frosted lemon cookies, flaky Scottish scones and whatever else I feel like baking.
  • Good books. (Recent favorites include Stir, The Enchanted April and Under a Painted Sky.)
  • Budding trees and blooming flowers – many of which I photograph for the #FlowerReport.

tulip magnolia buds blooms

  • The views from my sixth-floor office in Harvard Square.
  • Striped dresses and black leggings with my favorite green coat. Rinse and repeat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • A couple of blue-sky, open-window days.
  • Eating my lunch outside, when I can, preferably on the south porch of Mem Church.
  • Several much-needed catch-up sessions with friends: book club, lunch dates, cups of tea.
  • The dim glow of the over-the-stove light in my kitchen, which makes it look so cozy late at night.
  • Holding hands with my husband before we fall asleep.
  • Texts from my sister and a couple of dear friends.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d really like to know.

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katie baking apple crisp kitchen

I am usually a by-the-recipe kind of cook.

I learned to bake before I learned to cook, helping Mom mix up brownies or scooping chocolate chip cookie dough onto baking sheets in Neno’s (my grandmother’s) farmhouse kitchen. Baking often requires precise measurements, specific steps, double-checking the recipe to make sure you’ve done everything right. Too much flour, too little butter, and your cake will fall flat, or your cookies will remain gooey lumps.

There are a few discrete kitchen tasks I learned early on: chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, sprinkling brown sugar on a pink slab of ham. But for years, I checked and double-checked the recipe every time I made a dish. I lacked confidence in my own ability to improvise, faith in the muscle memory of my hands and arms.

During these years, I marveled at a few college girlfriends who could whip up a stir-fry or a soup – sometimes fairly complicated ones – without so much as glancing at a cookbook. (Especially in Oxford, this creativity was often born out of necessity, if we found ourselves low on grocery money or newly back from a weekend jaunt and forced to make a meal out of odds and ends in the cupboards.)

But after more than a decade in my own kitchen, I’ve become more confident, more sure. I still use recipes frequently, but by now, there are a slew of tasks and a few dishes my hands know by heart.

Rachel’s tomato soup, studded with garlic and butter and sprinkled with fresh basil (if I can find it). The creamy jalapeño soup passed on to us by my mom’s friend Connie. My version of guacamole, which is less recipe than assemblage: avocado, lemon juice, green tomatillo salsa, red tomato salsa. Chop, mash, mix, taste. Repeat the last two steps if necessary. I stop when the texture and the taste feel just right – but it’s a knowledge born of practice, not anything written down.

More recently, I’ve memorized Molly’s scones, making a batch almost weekly in my orange mixing bowl, dry ingredients whisked together before I fold in dried cranberries and stir in the liquid. I know exactly how they should look (dry-ish, but not falling apart). I’ve made them so many times that while I can see the printed text of the recipe in my mind, I don’t have to flip the book (A Homemade Life) open any more. Instead, I let my hands take over: whisk and measure, stir and fold. Knead and press and cut into eight wedges.

There’s a deep satisfaction in this simple knowledge, especially for me, since I spend my time (and make my living by) moving words and pixels around on a screen. Sometimes I hold a pen, which is more tactile, but it’s a different kind of productivity to take raw physical ingredients and transform them into something nourishing. It’s even better when I don’t have to fuss over measurements and spices, and can simply get on with the work of making dinner. (Or scones.) I like knowing that this knowledge is stored somewhere in my body, that my senses and sinews know things my conscious mind can only guess at.

What recipes do your hands know by heart?

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Every fall, when the apples appear by the bag at the grocery store (or when we go and pick our own), I reach for the same recipe: Ina Garten’s Apple and Pear Crisp. It has all the best attributes of a crisp recipe: fresh, tart fruit; a crumbly topping of butter, oats and brown sugar; dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg; zest and juice from both an orange and a lemon. (It tastes fine with one or the other, but including all four hits of citrus definitely makes a difference.)

apple tree close up fruit orchard

My friend Kara, who pointed me to this recipe, recently posted a photo of it in progress. As I looked at her blue mixing bowl, full of chopped fruit speckled with cinnamon, my mouth watered. And my mind went back to a cozy kitchen outside Fort Worth, Texas, on a frigid February night.

Earlier that day, I had hopped a plane from Abilene, sporting new fleece-lined boots and toting a smart red suitcase, headed to New York for a writing retreat. It was my first trip to New York, my first time flying solo in quite a while, and I was jazzed. But my excitement quickly turned to frustration and then deep disappointment when the “snowpocalypse” on the East Coast grounded all eastbound flights out of DFW. I wasn’t going anywhere that day.

I called Kara, with whom I had shared several college classes and a glorious semester abroad in Oxford, knowing she was living temporarily at her parents’ house after finishing graduate school. Kind soul that she is, she drove to the airport, loaded me and my suitcase into her car, then drove me back to her family’s house. After hugging me, her mom teasingly reminded me of the first night I spent there, when a late-night flat tire after a concert left several of us college girls stranded. Apparently I show up at their house when I am in trouble. But they always welcome me as though I were an expected, even an honored, guest.

It was Kara’s turn to cook dinner, so I went with her to the grocery store and then we donned aprons and got to work. We had shared a kitchen in Oxford, with nearly a dozen other girls, heating oatmeal and pasta and chopping vegetables for stir-fries, baking scones and cookies, drinking countless cups of tea. We also volunteered at our church once a week, cooking meals for a theology course they offered on Tuesday nights, spinning salad and singing hymns and teasing the church’s chef, Jules. It had been several years since all that chopping and cooking, but we fell easily into the rhythm of the kitchen again.

I don’t remember anything else we ate that night, but I remember this: chopping apples and pears on a wooden cutting board, lemon juice soaking into the creases and cuticles of my hands, stinging a little. I remember cinnamon and nutmeg coating the fruit as it glistened in the bottom of a deep baking dish. I remember zesting a lemon and an orange, mixing oats and brown sugar and butter together with my fingers, crumbling it on top of the fruit mixture, sliding the whole thing in the oven.

Later we sat at the long wooden kitchen table with Kara’s parents and her brothers, one of them newly arrived from Africa. I was nearly limp with exhaustion, but I remember smiles and laughter, and conversations about Kara’s new boyfriend in Costa Rica (whom she would later marry) and the newspaper her father runs, and my newlywed life in Abilene. I remember the warm smell of apples, pears and cinnamon, as we dug into our dessert. I felt beloved, embraced, like one of the family.

I haven’t seen Kara in a couple of years, though in a nice bit of irony, she moved back to Abilene right around the time I left for Boston. But every time I peel and chop apples, douse them with lemon juice and cover them crumble topping, I remember that dark, cold night warmed by love and cinnamon and the simple grace of hospitality.

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I admit I was a little reluctant for fall to come this year.

You see, we had such a long winter last year, and a cold wet spring – so I’ve been savoring every bit of sunshine, every warm day and golden sunset of summer and Indian summer. But fall is undoubtedly here in the Northeast – and I do love it, so I’m now entering into it with gusto.

The season's first apple, and my jaunty red accessories.

Besides, I’ve got quite a few falls to make up for. In my West Texas hometown, “fall” often lasts for about a week between the blistering heat of summer and the whip of winter winds across the plains. I’ve sweated through many a football game in a wool band uniform, wishing it were cooler – and then shivered my way through many a Christmas parade, my flute icy against my lips. So I’m soaking up every moment of crisp autumn air (and trying not to think about the coming winter – surely it can’t be as bad as last year?).

Here’s how I’m falling into fall:

1. Eating apples (and planning to go pick them very soon)
2. Savoring the very last batches of summer produce
3. Making and freezing pesto, while I still can
4. Planning local trips – up to N.H. to see the foliage; a return to New York to see Allison; a day trip out to the Boston Harbor Islands and another to Portland, Maine
5. Making pumpkin scones and pumpkin bread
6. Savoring the last of my summer teas and planning to stock up on fall/wintry ones
7. Eating lunch outside as often as possible (storing up sunshine)
8. Buying new leggings (a steal!)
9. Rediscovering my scarf collection
10. Lining up a little seasonal reading: Anne of Windy Poplars and some new fall releases by beloved authors
11. Urging far-away friends to come savor the New England fall with us
12. Enjoying seasonal flavors: pumpkin, cinnamon, apple cider, caramel, chai

How are you falling into fall this year?

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I’ve been doing a lot of baking lately. It’s partly a reaction to sitting all day at a computer, building and editing web pages, which are real but not tangible, and I can only rarely cross them off my list as “done.” This sitting and clicking also makes me restless – after being sedentary most of the day, I want to get home and stir something up, even if it’s only flour, sugar, butter and their fellow baking ingredients.

The other night, I wanted something sweet but not too sweet, so I turned to this recipe from my friend Ron Morgan, who co-directs the study abroad program in Oxford where I spent a blissful semester as a student and later a happy year as an employee. Ron occasionally whips up a batch of these for the students there, and they are pure, oaty heaven with a squeeze of honey, a dollop of jam or a pat of melty butter.

Fittingly, it was pouring rain the night I made these, and suddenly I was back in Ron and Janine’s aqua-walled living room, watching Ron bring in a cookie sheet of (slightly burnt) scones from the kitchen. And I was also downstairs in the basement kitchen, mixing these up for the five guys with whom I shared the floor, and for whom I loved to bake, as much and as often as I could.

Of course, I do much of my baking now for one boy – my very appreciative husband. Apparently I’d never made these for him before – but we both declared them winners, and so did the friends with whom we shared them.

Ron’s Oaty Scones (original source unknown)

Makes about 20 medium-sized scones

Dry Mix
7 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups oats (not quick-cooking oats)
1 1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup baking powder
1 TBS baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cream of tartar

Wet Ingredients
1/2 cup butter
8 oz plain yogurt or sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk

Combine 3 1/4 cups of dry mix (you won’t use it all) with wet ingredients, and stir until combined. Place 1″ (or so) balls of dough onto greased baking sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 16-18 minutes, until tops are golden brown.

Serve with butter, honey or jam. Enjoy!

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