I’ve been thinking about how to start this entry for a number of weeks. “I’m back?” Not exactly. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “I’m here.” Today marks the first anniversary of events that have radically changed my life over the last year, resulted in my learning so much about myself, and question what my future might be. I have had to be vulnerable, ask for help, be less available to others, and accept (at least for the time being) a new sense of self. Had I known last year that February 5th is International Nutella Day, my whole year might have turned out to be radically different! Perhaps, on February 5, 2010, I would have been so focused on which Nutella recipe I was going to make, that nothing else would have mattered. It makes me smile to imagine that possibility. So rather than reflect on what this anniversary means to me, I have been focused on Nutella. For the first time in 30 years or so, I did not write in my birthday journal and I have not put my experiences of the last year down on paper, despite many people encouraging me to do so. Today is no exception. I want to write about food memory, Nutella, running with music, and the way that baking has remained such an important part of my life.

I remember the first time I tasted Nutella. I was in France, traveling at age 14 with my 9th grade French class, and staying in French college dorms during Spring break. We ate many, many horrific foods: rabbit pate sandwiches (the rabbit came out of a tin can), cafeteria coq au vin, and crème renversee that was more rubbery than you can imagine. However, we also had chocolat chaud, café au lait (my first experience drinking coffee and enjoying it out of a bowl), incredible omelettes and croissants, and most importantly, French bread and Nutella. We were allowed, actually encouraged, to eat chocolate at breakfast time. I don’t think my life has been the same since then. Ice cream for breakfast? Why not? Oatmeal cookies first thing in the morning? Sounds pretty healthy to me! If the French can eat chocolate before noon, I see no reason to limit myself in any way. I came back to my small town in Wisconsin…a changed girl. I stopped shaving my legs, I embraced all things French, and I took every opportunity to look for Nutella in small specialty food markets that had brie, French wines, and Pffffft sodas. I imagined that these loves brought me closer to being French, which I longed to become.

Over the last year, I have taken to making fresh crepes most mornings for myself and my daughters and filling them with Nutella. Each morning I will go upstairs into my daughter Cameron’s room, and whisper, “Honey, your crepe and hot cocoa are ready.” She sleepwalks downstairs, silently eats her crepe and downs her cocoa and begins her early day at school with either Latin or playing the viola in her quartet. She admits that what was once a “special day treat” is the necessity that pulls her into action each morning. How will she survive in college without her mom to make these crepes she wonders. Luckily we have a few years to figure out those details.  So, in honor of International Nutella Day, we had crepes with Nutella (what else?), I made David Lebovitz’s peanut butter cookies and added Nutella (1/4 cup) to the dough (they will be baked tomorrow), and I located a recipe for Nutella cupcakes that I will make tomorrow as well. More details on these efforts to come. 

One of my favorite ways to use Nutella is in the middle of cappuccino muffins. When I was pregnant with Cameron, I could not start out a day without cappuccino muffins with white chocolate. I made them several times a week, ate them daily, and whenever I make them now it transports me back to my pregnancy and the excitement and fear I felt as I was expecting my first child. It is no surprise that Cameron and Isabel love these muffins as much as I do. Isabel has chosen them as her official birthday breakfast muffin that we savor every year. Last year, I began changing the recipe and putting Nutella in the center of the muffins rather than white chocolate chips.

I have found that it is not only food that has the power to transport me to my past. While Nutella brings me to France (and Europe in general), I have started another habit this year that has the ability to give me small pleasures I never imagined. I have begun running with my iPod.  While this may seem like such a mundane activity not in anyway newsworthy, you have to know something about me to understand what this means. I am a very opinionated person. While in my work, I have a great deal of room for people to be whoever they might be, in my “real” life, I admit I have strong ideas of what is right and wrong. Running with music was always “wrong.” In my world, running was a way to be mindful, to clear my mind, and to just be. Now, as I set my iPod to shuffle, I am completely delighted as my machine chooses what I need to listen to at any particular moment. For some reason, my iPod chooses the Beach Boys every time I have to push myself up a particularly hard hill, and delights me with “Fly Me to the Moon” when I most need to hear it, or provides me an opportunity to smile as Mott the Hoople sings, “All the Young Dudes,” the most popular song at the first concert my parents knowingly allowed me to attend as a teen. Baking, music, and running are the parts of my life that allow me an occasional smile, something that I am more grateful for than anyone can possibly know. Happy International Nutella Day!

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I’m Back

March 10, 2010

It has been more than a month since I have posted anything on my blog. I have been baking very little, having been sick for the last 5 or 6 weeks. I can honestly say I have not in any way been myself and I hope I am on my way back. I have, on occasion, been following the recipes and posts of other TWD and SMS bakers and have enjoyed imagining what the baking has been like. I must also confess that the main thing I have been baking over the last 6 weeks has been Dorie’s Sable variation that she wrote about in her blog after having visited Bretagne, I believe. Made with salted butter, cut up heath bars. and rolled in sugar, they have been one of the foods I have craved most during my convalescence. I have dough in my refrigerator right now, ready to be sliced when I complete this entry. If you haven’t tried them….well, I can’t recommend them highly enough. Really perfection.

So, with those cookies serving as the backdrop for the last weeks, I can say I was slightly disappointed with my performance with the thumbprints that were today’s TWD recipe. I had been thinking for some time how I wanted to make these. I finally settled on making them in mini-muffin pans to avoid spreading. I also wanted the jam to be well cooked, so I filled the cookies prior to baking rather than after. I think the mini-muffin thing would have been a great idea if I had buttered the pan. Since my pans are non-stick, I didn’t think it was needed, and I was wrong. I also thought the cookies were too nutty for my taste. I do think that using almond meal, rather than ground hazelnuts might have been better. Anyway, a reasonable first effort after many weeks and I look forward to more baking in the future. As LW says, “Bake on.”

It’s All About the Cookies!

December 22, 2009

Around Thanksgiving, when I saw that an upcoming TWD recipe would be pecan pie…I was thrilled. I  had thought that I would bake a pecan pie in November for our family celebration and would be ahead of the game when December 22nd rolled around. As it turned out, my family was adamant that I had to bake an apple pie and a pumpkin pie and I didn’t have the time or zip to add a third pie to the menu. So, that left me this week with the dilemma of baking a pie or not taking part in this week’s baking. Since I have felt as if I have been on the sidelines of TWD baking I really wanted to participate, but the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is really dedicated to…baking cookies. Up until today, I have made 23 kinds of cookies and I have several more to go before I pack them  up and give them to neighbors and friends as gifts on Christmas Eve. I didn’t see how a pecan pie was going to fit into my tight baking schedule. Then, I figured it out…Make the pie into cookies. One of my grandmother’s favorite cookies was a small pecan tart that she called “tea-time tassies.” I decided to take Dorie’s recipe and adapt it for Christmas cookie giving. I used a tassie dough from Tish Boyle’s cookie book (I wish I had used my grandmother’s cream cheese dough instead) and then made 1/3 of Dorie’s filling recipe for my tarts. The results were incredible. I loved the addition of coffee, cinnamon, and chocolate to the traditional cookie. With the small addition of the cream cheese dough, I think these will be part of my future Christmas cookie repertoire.

While I love experiencing aspects of life for the first time, I often find myself wanting to re-live joy-filled moments from the past. I will often seek out walks along the water to remind me of the joy I felt walking along the coast on the Isle of Skye and will re-tell the story of baby Isabel calling her sister “Do-Do” as a way to keep that moment close to my heart. I find that food will serve a similar purpose. I love cheese. While going to my favorite cheese store, I am searching not just for a good Cheddar or Beaufort, but an opportunity to reminisce about past trips to England or France.

This week, after making Dorie’s Sable, I found myself taking a wonderful trip down memory lane. Many years ago as I was discovering all things French, I happened upon a lovely little bakery in my town…Napoleon’s. This bakery had incredible croissants, shortbread (Sable), and Buche de Noel. I would go there as often as possible, and inevitably buy the sable, thick hunks of buttery shortbread enrobed in crunchy sugar. I have been on the hunt for a recipe that would bring me back to those days of eating Napoleon’s sables…days in graduate school, beginning to bake for myself, and dreams of future travels to France. This week, after making Dorie’s sables, I was able to finally connect with those memories. I LOVE these cookies. Whenever I want to remind myself of what it was like to be 25, I will bake a batch of Dorie’s cookies, smile about my life then, and smile more as I think of all I have now. Thank-you, Dorie!

Eat What YOU Bake.

August 2, 2009

I read a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine today by Michael Pollan. In it, he discusses, among many other things, Julia Child, how she influenced American Culture and cooking patterns, and how current culinary food shows reinforce the American love of eating rather than the love of cooking. He notes that the amount of time spent cooking, more than any other factor, is correlated with patterns of obesity. In short, the more time we spend really cooking and eating the food we cook, the less likely it is that we will be obese. The article ends with the following quote from Harry Balzer, food marketing researcher: “You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want—just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” Hmmm! I’m guessing that would cut out many high-fat unhealthy items from our diets.

 I have been spending much of the day thinking about this article and my absolute love of cooking and baking. Many of the people I know are shocked to learn the kinds of things I might create from scratch. Gnocchi…why make it from scratch when you can buy it frozen from the store? Ice cream…who takes the time (see previous post…not much time is needed) to make it at home? Cakes…why make them if they do not come from a mix or better yet purchased from the local bakery? Even bringing some of the Baked brownies to a work potluck , the first inquiry I encountered was, “Did you really make these yourself?”  The question was asked as if I had just completed some unimaginable task such as building my house with my own hands or walking cross-country!

 Anyway, I guess some of the issues Pollan discussed are what has brought me to Sweet Melissa Sundays and Tuesdays With Dorie. I love to bake things from scratch and I love the idea of developing some kind of connections with other folks who I believe share something with me…a love of learning, baking and sharing those loves with others.

 Thanks, Sweet Melissa bakers for welcoming me into your group. I thought this week’s recipe, the Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies, was an ideal start. I have to admit, I approached the recipe with some skepticism. For several hours before starting, I thought of changes I could make to the recipe..add chocolate chips or chopped Butterfinger bars? Add vanilla (I have never seen a peanut butter cookie recipe without vanilla)? But…since it was the first week in the group (and I want to really belong), I thought I would stay true to the original recipe and I was glad that I did. While  I only ended up with 15 cookies (unlike Melissa’s promise of 24), and the cookies (albeit larger) took 16 minutes, not 10, I was extremely pleased with the results. My uniform creations looked much like a cookie you might encounter in a bakery and the chewiness was exactly what Melissa promised. Eat them, but only if you bake them yourself!

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Sorry! I can't seem to rotate this photo correctly...but you get the idea!