a letter to my mom on my first Mother’s Day

Dear Mom,
I never thought that my first Mother’s Day would be so bittersweet. As I look my beautiful daughter in her curious, wide eyes, and truly feel for the first time what it’s like to love so much, I look around for you to share it with, but you’re not here. 

I miss you. I miss your love. I miss your hugs. I miss your German accent. I miss your innocent smile (the one you gave even when you were up to something mischievous). Addie has the same smile. She has a lot of you in her. 

The other night I dreamed that you were still with us. We were having a party at your house and you said that all you had to do was “push the toxins out of my body and then I was cured.” I wish it were that easy. I wish it happened that way. But boy did you give cancer a good fight. Always with a smile. Always with everything you had. Always with your face on. Because why go to chemo without your face on, decked out in a stylish hat and Tiffany jewels. You are such a classy lady, I can only hope I’ll be half as classy as you are some day. 

I wish you could have had more time with Addie. That’s my biggest regret. She’s amazing. Her laugh is infectious and her smile can light up a room. Kind of like you. You would love her. And I know she would have loved you in all your Oma glory. As I write this, I am sitting in the park with Addie sleeping in her stroller on a sunny San Francisco day, crying that you’re not here with us. I cry a lot these days. I’m often struck by waves of emptiness, a feeling I have never experienced before in this way. It’s different than missing you. Because if it was just missing you, I would know I could see you again one day. But I know I can’t. I’ll only see you in pictures and in my mind. And that will have to suffice. 

So many beautiful Mother’s Day photos and sentiments on Facebook. You loved Facebook. You were hilarious at Facebook. There will never be anyone like you on Facebook ever again, that is for sure. You could bring people joy even on Facebook. You were one of a kind. I know your bedroom has shoeboxes full of cards I gave you through the years. One day I might be able to bring myself to go through them. Not yet. But I did find this watercolor painting I gave you when I was really young. It was in a pile of bills and documents I was going through after you died. It was in a box near the couch where you left everything as if you had just gotten up to go get groceries. I don’t think you knew you would never come back to that couch. I don’t think you knew you would never come back home to Dad. I don’t think you knew you would never be able to hug us again. I didn’t either. You left us too soon. Before I could even say goodbye to you in person. Knowing you, you probably did that on purpose. You probably didn’t want me to see you without your face on. But what you probably didn’t realize is that I will always see what is behind that stunning face. Your heart, your soul, your tenacity, your strength, your courage, your strong will, and your endless love.

I love you, too.

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a letter to my mom on my birthday

Dear Mom,

I can’t imagine missing you more than I do today. As much as today is all about me, it’s really all about us. On this day 42 years ago when you pushed me out breech (without any pain medication!), everything changed — obviously for me, but I know it did for you, too.

Now that I’m a mom, everything has changed again. I see things with a new light and perspective, yet I’m only just beginning to understand how hard this journey is. I’ve only just begun to see how much you give of yourself when you have a child — and how much you gave of yourself for me. I’ve been crying for the past two days. I know that’s OK, I know that I’ll be grieving for a long, long time, but this birthday has been harder than I ever could have imagined it would be. When Addie saw me crying yesterday, she gave me the biggest smile. She then attempted to give me a hug, but ended up falling over midway and then fell asleep in that pose. Classic Addie. I wish you could have had more time with her. There is A LOT of you in her. She’s bubbly, energetic, strong-willed, chatty, and hilarious. She cracks herself up and has the most infectious giggle. She can brighten someone’s day with just a smile. There is a lot of you in her.

It’s been hard getting the mail recently, seeing all the birthday cards and knowing I’ll never receive one from you again. I loved your cards. And even more, I loved the chocolate cakes you mailed to me in college on my birthday, beautifully wrapped and tied with Tiffany ribbon. Enough for me to share with all my roommates, you would say. And boy did they love those cakes, too. You’ve made a lot of people smile in your life.

I’ve been seeing a grief counselor to help me work through losing you, and today she reminded me that if there were ever a day that was all about the connection that you and I had, it would be today. She’s very perceptive and has already observed that we had a very special connection. As she put it, the perfect balance between mother and daughter and friends. And she reminded me how rare that is. I cherish our relationship so much, especially the fact that we talked almost every day. I know that was rare. I loved that I could call you anytime and you could always tell by the sound of my voice what was going on. It was really hard not to be able to call you on the day I had Addie — the happiest day of my life, but so bittersweet because you were in the hospital and not doing well. If there ever was a day I needed you, Mom, it was on the day I birthed my daughter. It wasn’t an easy birth, and was quite scary at times, but the euphoria that followed was like nothing I have ever felt before. That first cry, that first cuddle. Nothing compares to holding your baby on your chest for the first time. I know you know that, but boy how I wanted to share that joy with you. I’m still heartbroken that I couldn’t, and that it would be days before we talked, when you still couldn’t really process what had happened. I will be forever grateful that you were able to make it to our wedding and see Andrew and I start our life together. But I will be forever saddened that you weren’t with me when Addie came into this world, that I couldn’t hold your hand or hear your voice tell me that everything would be OK.

I never told you that I lost a pregnancy before Addie. You were dealing with a lot at the time and I decided that you should focus on your health and healing, not mine. But I will always remember the look on your face when we told you I was pregnant, on Dad’s birthday with a card for “Opa” and the sonogram inside. I could feel your joy that day, and again on the day we called you from the car to tell you that you it was a girl. (And who could forget your countless phone calls and texts from that day forward trying to get her name out of us.) But that’s who you were, and I couldn’t imagine life any other way.

Thank you for raising me with so much love and confidence, for everything you sacrificed to provide for me, for all of yourself that you’ve given to me. Thank you for letting me spread my wings to explore the world, and coming to visit me everywhere I landed. Thank you for trusting me to make my own decisions and pave my own path, and for holding my hand along the way. I would not be where I am today, or be the person that I am, if it weren’t for you — and your never-ending love. I love you and I miss you.

sunday morning muffins

carrot muffins

good-for-you cinnamon-apple-carrot-raisin muffins

I love a good muffin. But for all the years I have been baking, I rarely find one that is up to snuff. I have high standards, yes, but I firmly believe that any food eaten for breakfast should not only be insanely satisfying and satiating, but also make you want to pop out of bed and devour it. A tall stack of blueberry pancakes — check. Perfectly fried eggs and crispy bacon on homemade sourdough bread — check. But muffins, to me, have never reached a level worthy of co-mingling with their other breakfast cousins. Until now.

Part of my job as a cookbook editor requires me to read a lot of other cookbooks. (My dear husband is so patient with the unyielding piles that seem to sprout up all over our living room and kitchen on a daily basis.) When I’m in the office, the floor around my desk is a veritable moat of cookbooks from the Williams Sonoma archives, simultaneously bringing me endless excitement and protection from the real world that lies on the other side. Last week when I began working on the next American Girl cookbook, I dug out The Essentials of Baking from the archives. What a gem. Not only is it insanely interesting to me to read about what people baked years ago, but also how they wrote about it. (In my next life, I want to be a food historian. Or maybe in this life, who knows.) The photos, the descriptions, the headnotes about why you should bake a particular recipe are all fascinating. And then I stumbled on the muffin chapter. Among a smattering of interesting recipes, I was intrigued by the carrot-apple-nut muffins, so I decided that this weekend I would give them a go.

Success! There are two huge reasons why I love these muffins. One: there is only 2/3 cup of brown sugar in them as a sweetener (for non-bakers, that is not a lot at all). Two: the recipe contains both whole-wheat flour and wheat bran, without sacrificing taste or texture. (Next time I make them, I’m going to increase the amounts of whole-wheat flour and wheat bran slightly, and reduce the amount of all-purpose flour and see what happens.) With only 1/4 cup of melted butter, the majority of the moisture comes from the fruit and yogurt (or sour cream). The cinnamon-sugar sprinkling on top gives them just the right amount of crunch — I also threw some chia seeds into the batter for good measure, and a little extra crunch. These muffins would be great for kids — both for eating and also helping in the kitchen. My new game plan: make a batch of these on Sunday mornings and pack them for breakfast all week 🙂

Sunday Morning Muffins

(adapted from The Essentials of Baking by Williams Sonoma)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup oat or wheat bran
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons chia seeds
2/3 cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cup whole-milk yogurt or sour cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups peeled, grated tart apple, such as Granny Smith (about 1 large)
1 1/4 cups peeled, grated carrot (about 2 medium)
3/4 cup raisins (or other dried fruit like cherries or cranberries)
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 400F. Butter 18 standard muffin-pan cups or line them with paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, bran, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, chia seeds, and brown sugar.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs on low speed until blended, then beat in the yogurt (or sour cream) and melted butter. Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until combined. Add the apple, carrot, and raisins and mix just until evenly distributed. Do not overmix or the muffins will become tough.

Use an ice-cream scoop to divide the batter evenly into the prepared muffin pans, filling each about 3/4 full. Top with the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for about 2 minutes, then turn the muffins out onto the rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 1 month.

Makes about 18 muffins

Hungry for breakfast? There are more than 40 delicious recipes for breakfast that even kids can make in the American Girl Breakfast & Brunch Cookbook I edited 😉

that day SJP liked my chicken

Some days I find myself going along in a bit of a daze, going through the motions of the day and night while thinking about the details of each task but never looking up, not noticing or thinking about the bigger picture. Then something comes along and wakes me up from my fog. That happened the day Sarah Jessica Parker liked my skillet roast chicken.

This happened, of course, in our virtual world, but one that so closely intertwines with our reality some days that they seem to blur. It all started when my husband and I had friends over one Saturday night for dinner and I was craving roast chicken but bored with the way I always make it. So I turned to the Interwebs for inspiration and found Mark Bittman’s recipe for skillet roast chicken. Those who know me—and more likely, those who have just met me—know about my obsession with my cast-iron skillet. “You can toast bread in it! You can char veggies in it! You can make perfect pizza in it!” Apparently, you can also roast a whole chicken in it. Brilliant. So I stuffed a Meyer lemon in the chicken’s cavity (this is California, after all) along with a few cloves of peeled garlic, covered it with olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh herb sprigs, and a few thin slices of Meyer lemon, heated my skillet for about 20 minutes at 500F degrees, threw my prepared chicken onto the piping-hot skillet and basta! Straight to the oven it went to cook to a dark golden and crispy brown. I let it rest for 15 minutes (side note: my chef friend Andy in London lets his chicken rest for an hour, and since then I became a huge believer that red meat is not the only meat that benefits from resting time, when the juices that are stirred up during cooking can be reabsorbed back into the meat), then hacked into it with kitchen sheers, and it was perfect. Crispy skin, juicy meat, and bright and flavorful all around.

The next day, I took to Instagram to post said chicken. Later than most “look what I’m doing at this very moment!” posts on the ‘Gram, but sometimes that happens. (Just because I cooked it yesterday doesn’t make it any less delicious or shareable, in my humble opinion at least.) I can often be found rambling on about having a hashtag strategy or using hashtags and other tagging elements of Instagram to build and grow a brand on social media—to my clients, to friends, to anyone who will listen—but this time I actually remembered my own advice and tagged Mark Bittman in my post. A few days later when I was waiting to board a flight from Seattle to San Francisco, Instagram told me that not only had Mark Bittman liked my post, but he had also commented, “Just beautiful.” I admittedly became a little short of breath. Pathetic maybe, but genuinely excited definitely.  I smiled the entire flight. But, it gets better.

A few days later, when I was casually minding my Instagram business, it told me that Mark had re-grammed my chicken! (Mom – that means he copied the picture on my account and put it on his account, too.) He has more than 52,000 followers, so his declaration of “So beautiful! Rg @whatisinmypurse” was monumental for my little Instagram account that count. Some new people found me, a lot of people saw my chicken, and I felt (for the first time in a very, very long time) successful. Silly, maybe. Getting exciting over an acclaimed photo of a chicken on an app is perhaps a bit trite, but as a recovering corporate executive turned aspiring food stylist, cookbook editor, and food writer, it was a big deal. That’s when one of the biggest differences between my old life and new life became more clear—the measurement of success is completely different. It was much more objective in my old life. In a corporation, when you are running teams and running projects, the proof is in the numbers: Profit and loss, year-over-year increases, revenue growth percentages, etc. etc. In a creative field like the one I’m in now, the proof is in the pudding, quite literally. Does it look good? Does it taste good? Are the directions clear? Is the photo inspiring? So comparing the two, or more commonly, trying to apply objective KPIs to a subjective medium is quite near impossible. But that’s what I was doing! That was the world I came from and that was the world I knew. It slowly started to sink in that I might actually know what I’m doing in this new life. But, it gets better.

Mark Bittman skillet roast chicken

the Mark Bittman re-gram

A few days later, something sparked me to check on Mark’s post, mostly (let’s be honest) to see how many people had liked it. And then there it was: “liked by sarahjessicaparker” and below that, her comment, “Want now!” I almost fell over. (OK, I actually did fall over.) I have admired Sarah Jessica Parker since Girls Just Want to Have Fun came out, and then became a huge fan of hers from the beginning of the Sex and the City days–and still am. And then, she liked my chicken. I told a few people whom I thought would appreciate this cycle of events, and received a battery of congratulatory hoorays and cheers and awesome kudos from friends. But it took a little bit of time to really sink in. Through whatever webs in the social sphere that connected my chicken to SJP, the fact is that it happened, she saw it, she liked it, and she said so. Granted, she might have scanned the caption quickly and not realized that Mark didn’t cook this exact chicken. Who knows. What matters to me is that I cooked a chicken that made her take pause, piqued her interest, and lead her to take action. So I can finally say to myself, I cooked an f—ing awesome-looking chicken. I cook a lot of other awesome-looking (and tasting) dishes, but I rarely give myself credit for it. My husband can attest to this first hand. (As an aside, his response to SJP’s comment is perhaps the sweetest part of this whole story.) I should have been saying this to myself all along. But sometimes it takes someone without any bias, who is completely removed from the situation, to turn on the light bulb. It snapped me out of my fog.

Mark Bittman Skillet Roast Chicken

SJP’s comment (and my husband’s adorable response)

So where do I go from here? For starters, I’ll be cooking chickens in my cast-iron skillet moving forward. And I will continue to sing its praises to anyone who will listen. (The latest innocent victims were a lovely couple we met at a wedding in NJ a few weeks ago.) And I will try to remind myself that I’m good at what I’m doing, and even if there are no daily, weekly, or monthly reports that tell me so, I can tell myself so. Why am I sharing this story with the rest of the world? Because I suspect that there are many of us who don’t give ourselves enough credit, who feel badly saying we are good at something, who feel that it’s obnoxious to cheerlead for yourself because society or specific people in our lives have made us feel that way. Or we’ve made ourselves feel that way. Whatever the reason, I’m promising myself to give myself more credit for my achievements and celebrate my successes. In fact, I might do just that tonight with a big piece of cake—and a skillet roast chicken.

 

Skillet Roast Chicken
Adapted from Mark Bittman

1 whole chicken (about 3 to 4 pounds)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 lemons (preferably Meyer)
5 cloves garlic, peeled
About 6 sprigs fresh thyme (or other hearty herb, such as rosemary or oregano)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put a large cast-iron skillet on a low rack in the oven and heat the oven to 500F degrees.

Prick one lemon with a fork or paring knife all over. Place it in the cavity of the chicken, along with the garlic cloves and 3 herb sprigs. Cut the other lemon into slices about ¼-inch thick, and set aside. Rub the chicken all over with the oil and sprinkle it generously with salt and pepper.

When the oven and skillet are hot (about 20 minutes), carefully put the chicken on the skillet, breast side up. Place the lemon slices and remaining herb sprigs on top of the chicken.

Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 350F degrees. Continue to roast until the chicken is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh reads 155 to 165 degrees, about an hour total depending on your oven. Occasionally use a large spoon to spoon the drippings over the chicken during cooking (this will make the skin even crispier).

Remove the skillet from the oven and tip the pan to let the juices flow from the chicken’s cavity into the pan. Spoon the juices over the top of the chicken. Transfer the chicken to a platter, cover with foil, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Carve and serve.

(I like to serve this chicken with oven-roasted new potatoes and a big seasonal salad.)

even Julia Child had bad days

baking a cake in my San Francisco kitchen

baking a cake in my San Francisco kitchen

Not that long ago, I was sitting on a freezing cold, overcrowded, and downright chaotic flight from San Francisco to New York, devouring the last chapter of As Always, Julia – The Letters of Julia Child & Avis Devoto. It had been brilliant and warm and funny all along, but in these last few pages I was reminded that even Julia Child had bad days. She had just received a rejection letter from Houghton Mifflin, who had given her a whopping $250 advance along with a promise to publish her cookbook a few years prior, only to say to her in November 1959 that they would not. What a blow. So at this point in her life, after spending many, many years in many, many countries pouring her blood, sweat, and tears (quite literally) into the cookbook manuscript, she is left to find Plan B.

Coincidentally, I’m also looking for my Plan B.

I know that money isn’t everything. In fact, my west coast hippy dippy trippy yogini self is the first to say that being happy is WAY more important than having money. But I think all of that goes out the window when it is hard to afford to live in the city that is inspiring that perspective. I knew this road would not be easy. I’ve said it to myself (and to everyone else) many times. I didn’t expect, however, that when I tried to find full-time work that it would be so hard. I keep a folder of the rejection letters: “You’re a bit overqualified for this role.” (A bit?) “We can’t afford someone at your level.” (You never even asked me about salary!) “We’ve decided to pursue other candidates. Please visit our career site often to review the latest opportunities within ‘Our House’!” (Seriously?)  “She didn’t think you were strong enough to handle the strong personalities in Milwaukee.” (Umm, I’m pretty sure Martha Stewart has a stronger personality than everyone in Milwaukee. But, OK.) It’s become so ridiculous that it’s actually hilarious. At least I have to laugh or I might cry, again. Then a recruiter for Google calls (yes, that Google), and you think things might just turn around after all. But they don’t because he goes MIA. Then a recruiter for Apple calls and you think things might just turn around after all. But they don’t because she goes MIA. Then the same recruiter for Google calls again, and guess what? Yup, MIA again.

When I left corporate life two years ago, I needed a break. I needed a creative reboot. I needed to figure out what I should do next. I think we’ve all been there. But I quickly realized that I was unique in the fact that I actually took the break I needed. When I started writing about my adventures, I encountered a lot of positive encouragement—from friends and total strangers alike—that helped propel me on my journey. For quite awhile. There were bumps along the way, of course, and periods of uncertainty and fear, but I thought eventually things would even out and I’d convince myself (yet again) that I was on the right path. But recently I was on the set of a photo shoot for a pharma ad as the assistant food stylist, and I got to talking with one of the women who worked for the client. I gave her the 15-second version of my last two years and her immediate reaction was an energetic, “Good for you!” But I had to bite my tongue to keep from responding with, “But was it really? Or am I just a naïve idiot who thinks you can do what you love in life and still make a living?” Many days I feel as if I have taken myself so far out of “the game” that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back. Although the irony is that I’ve learned more in the past two years about so many things on so many levels than I had in countless years before that.

When I met with a recruiter in San Francisco a few months ago and asked her what she recommended for my search, her immediate response was, “Move back to New York. Work for a company that appreciates your ability to wear many hats and all of your talents.” So maybe that was the answer. At least it was AN answer. I have been trying to find a job in NY ever since, and after three different recruiting firms and a dozen personal referrals and online job applications later, I am still nowhere.

Avis writes reassuringly to Julia during her time of uncertainty, “Well, all I know is this—nothing you ever learn is really wasted, and will sometime be used. You have come nearer to mastering a good many aspects of cooking than anyone except a handful of great chefs, and some day it will pay off. I know it will. You will just have to go on working, and teaching, and getting around, and spreading the gospel until it does…Just have to keep trying, and slugging away, is all.” Those words were so uncannily applicable to my life right now I couldn’t help but sit up and take notice. Avis had many ideas for Julia—which publishers might want to publish her manuscript and actually understand that it is a masterpiece; whom she knows that can give honest feedback about it and help it get published; how she will approach Mr. X or Ms. Y about it and when, etc. etc. So I glanced around the plane looking at strangers for answers, but all I found was a man in the window seat with an abnormally high tolerance for red wine and another man who did not realize that the armrest is for sharing. So here I am, wondering through my words what steps to take next for my Plan B.

Avis also wisely predicts Julia’s forthcoming dismay and summarizes her solutions by saying, “All this really means, I think we shouldn’t panic, but sit back and take a good look around and decide what’s to be done before going off half-cocked. But we must roll with the punches, and see what is to be done next.” Yes, the punches. The ones that seem to hit you directly in the stomach, leaving you winded and confused and wondering why. But if Julia can get punched in the gut and get back up on her feet, maybe I can, too. Maybe putting all of this out into the universe will help me see more clearly around what is to be done next. Maybe all I have learned will not be wasted. Maybe I’ll meet someone who will appreciate my ability to wear many hats. Who knows. In the meantime, I’ll just try to roll with the punches. But if you know anyone who is hiring… 😉

the real story of Charlie Brown & Lucy

On October 31st, 2015 in Queens, the Kansas City Royals and a red-hot Ben Zobrist overcame an early 2-0 deficit and, bolstered by a three-run eighth inning, snatched Game 4 of the World Series in dramatic fashion from the seemingly sure grasp of the vaunted New York Mets. Meanwhile, far across the country in San Francisco, an unassuming Charlie Brown — dutifully toting his trademark football — walked into a Halloween party, heaped Chex Mix onto his plate, and sat down for some uninspired conversation with his tech-bro friends.

Shortly thereafter, a nervous Charlie found himself seated — admittedly somewhat anachronically — next to a beautiful, confident flapper plucked straight from the Roaring Twenties, replete with the most authentic of props: an iPad through which the unfolding theatre of Game 4 held her rapt gaze. Shyly, Charlie inquired as to the nature of her fandom and learned that she was a lifelong Mets devotee. In a moment of uncharacteristic cleverness, Charlie feigned baseball illiteracy (“Why did he hit that ball backwards?”) and quickly found her to be a patient, surprisingly knowledgeable instructor. Charlie’s farce came to an abrupt end, however, when his long-time friend — that night a fanny pack-wearing, map-wielding European tourist — seated nearby announced in moderate disgust, “I can’t listen to this anymore; he played professional baseball.” Luckily, Charlie hadn’t pushed his luck too far, and the pretty flapper’s amusement led to conversation about yoga (she was an impressively avid yogi; he hadn’t touched his toes in years) and the East Coast (she was a loyal native of both New York City and New Jersey; he had spent three years of a past career driving to every corner of the Mid-Atlantic).

Three months later, Alexis, Andrew, and Flat Stanley found themselves atop a double-decker, open-top San Francisco tour bus, and a smattering of increasingly promising Stanley-facilitated dates ensued. Following the end of Stan’s brief but successful tenure as matchmaker, A&A’s relationship deepened as their travels expanded far beyond local tour buses to include San Juan Bautista, Chicago, the Twin Cities, New Jersey (thrice), Maine, London, Paris, Shropshire, Madrid, and Northern Ireland. He fell in love with her kindness, generosity, intelligence, confidence, loving spirit, grammatical precision, and out-of-bounds culinary proficiency; she, with his caring soul, youthful spirit, loving personality, baseball booty, and kindness from his core. 

Flat Stanley

A&A’s first date with Flat Stanley

As 2017 dawned, Andrew’s eagerness to pop the question reached a fever pitch, so he began enlisting the help of several amazing, generous people: Alexis’s mom Irmgard, for ring-design reconnaissance; Alexis’s friend Ivy, for proposal brainstorming and planning; and Elianna and Rachel, the brilliant directors of the children’s cooking nonprofit Bay Leaf Kitchen (Alexis sits on Bay Leaf’s board and volunteers extensively with its programs), for, well, pretty much everything else. As the plan came together, the cast grew to include Alexis and Andrew’s mutual friend (and Andrew’s colleague) Rayla; the aforementioned lost tourist (“James” by day), also a skilled guitarist and vocalist and Andrew’s eventual best man; Andrew’s dear friend Sam, who, in a stroke of great timing, happened to be in town from Seattle; Rachel’s boyfriend Adam, an accomplished photographer and videographer; and, most importantly, a group of remarkable and inspiring junior chefs.

A Bay Leaf fundraiser was scheduled for Sunday, February 19th, so with characteristic logistical wizardry, Rachel shrewdly set the big date for Saturday the 18th and earlier that week asked Alexis to stop by the kitchen (Bay Leaf’s weekend classes are held at the San Francisco restaurant Fine & Rare, which is closed on weekends and generously donates its kitchen and seating area to the nonprofit) to help with some last-minute fundraiser preparation — and in fact, there was a ton of work left to do, so maybe Andrew could come help, too? An unsuspecting Alexis — never one to pass up an opportunity to connect with the amazing Bay Leaf kids — agreed, and Andrew even successfully managed to feign mildly begrudging agreement with said allocation of the couple’s Saturday evening. Of course, Andrew was quick to remind Alexis that he wasn’t available that afternoon because he “had to help James assemble furniture for his new apartment.” With that final alibi in place, the stage was set.

At 5:30 p.m., the couple made the 30-minute walk from their Pacific Heights apartment to Fine & Rare’s Golden Gate Avenue location, just east of Van Ness, as Andrew did his best to corral what felt like uncontrollable nerves. They eventually entered the empty restaurant — with only a brief but knowing welcome from Rachel, who unlocked the door — to find a candlelit table set for two. Little did Alexis know that hiding in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting Andrew’s signal, was a group of eager junior chefs ready to serve the newly engaged couple a spectacular and romantic five-course dinner.

But first, of course, Andrew had to get to the big question. After his six-minute speech to Alexis (rehearsed twice a day in the shower for the previous month), he pulled out a stack of cards, each prompting its author to complete the sentence “Andrew should ask Alexis to marry him because she…” In the stack were cards completed by many of Alexis’s family and friends, by several of Andrew’s friends and colleagues, and by each of the junior chefs present for the proposal — providing the perfect transition to the question itself. When luckiest-guy-alive Andrew got the “yes” he had spent months hoping for, the hidden crowd — junior chefs, Elianna, Rachel, Adam, Rayla, and Sam — finally emerged for a giant, teary-eyed group hug.

AA engagement tears

she said “yes!”

Then, dinner: one amazing junior-chef course after another, each proudly announced and professionally served by its young creators; Rayla, hilariously clad in full waitress garb, elegantly serving champagne and wine; and James, with a perfectly timed arrival midway through the meal, guitar in hand, serenading the happy couple with Springsteen and Van Morrison. It was a perfect evening, a collaboration of love and the collective effort of countless awesome, generous people — and the perfect beginning to a lifetime of happiness.

On to Maine!

[Written by Andrew Bennett]

sourdough 101

sourdough bread

A crusty loaf of sourdough bread, fresh from the oven

When I worked at Martha Stewart, life was all about 101s. Chicken 101, spring cleaning 101, container gardening 101 — there was a robust guide to the basics of any endeavor you could imagine. So in the spirit of the good ole days, here is my 101 guide to making sourdough bread.

Step 1 — Starting with a Starter

sourdough starter

A happy sourdough starter, full of life and bubbles

It all starts with a starter. A combination of flour, water, salt and yeast from the air (natural yeast) makes this bubbly, active, smelly, wonderful mixture that you use some of for each loaf of bread. [Many types of bread use dry active yeast packets that are activated by warm water (or warm milk) and a wee bit of sugar.] In my option, the best description of a natural starter is in the Tartine Bread book:

“Developing a starter begins with making a culture. A culture is created when flour and water are combined, and the microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on the baker’s hands — begin to ferment spontaneously. After fermentation begins, the baker ‘feeds’ the culture regularly to ‘train’ it into a lively and predictable starter.”

To make a starter, make a 50/50 mixture of bread flour (which is higher in gluten than all-purpose flour) and whole-wheat flour. Take a small deli container, fill it halfway with warm water (imagine tea that is drinkable in temperature) and add a handful of the flour mixture. Mix with your hands until all the flour is incorporated and you have a batter that feels like a thick milkshake. Then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, put it in a cool spot, and let it hang out for 2-3 days. Check it after 2-3 days to see if any bubbles have started to form. If they haven’t, let it rest for another day or two. When it starts to form bubbles and to smell like stinky cheese, it’s ready.

*Important note: Where you live makes a big difference! I live in San Francisco, which is said to be the ideal climate for sourdough because the temperature is never too hot or too cold, and there is always some humidity in the air from the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The more you play with dough, especially sourdough, the more you will become familiar with how climate affects every aspect of the process — especially the starter. So don’t worry if your starter isn’t active right away, and don’t freak out if it’s very bubbly after only a few days. Be patient! Let the starter do its thing and take as much time as it needs to get going. Making bread is very much a science, but it also requires a good gut instinct and attention to the environmental factors around you.

Step 2 — Feeding Your Starter

Feed it daily! Use equal parts water and flour (to start, use half bread flour and half whole-wheat flour) and add it to the starter, and mix with your hands. For daily feedings when I’m not making bread soon, I usually use about 75 grams of water and 75g of flour. Use a food scale to measure. Then just let it be and try to keep it warm. On the next day, dump a lot of it out (about 3/4 of it) and then feed it again, with equal parts flour and water. If you can, try to feed it at the same time every day (for example, every morning when you’re eating breakfast or every night when you’re cooking dinner).  This will help you remember to feed it and help it get on a schedule. Think of it like a baby. The starter has yeast and bacteria, so you want to keep the yeast winning over the bacteria. The more you dump out from the previous day, the less bacteria that stays around. You can alternate feedings of the 50/50 flour mix and just bread flour. Essentially, whole-wheat flour will activate it more than white flour, so if you’re not making bread anytime soon, it doesn’t need a lot of whole wheat. When it’s a happy starter, it will be stretchy, bubbly, and full of holes. When it’s an unhappy starter, it will be liquidy, flat, have very few bubbles, and will start to smell sour. If it starts to get unhappy, just dump even more of it out for its next feeding. 

Step 3 — Making Dough

sourdough dough

Sourdough dough, resting before it is shaped

After a few days of feeding it, you can start making bread. But no worries if you don’t want to make it right away! Just keep feeding the starter daily and it will be ready for you whenever you are ready for it. 

When you’re ready to make dough, you’ll want to give it TWO feedings the day before you make the dough. One in the morning and one at night.  They can be bigger feedings than usual (about 150g each flour mixture and water). On the morning you’re going to make dough, you want to do another big feeding. Then let it sit for about 3 hours and you’re ready to start. The starter needs to be super active when you make the dough.

First, read my primer on making dough — it’s a shorter summary of the description in the Tartine Bread book, and a recap of what I learned as an apprentice at Tartine

Here’s the basic recipe I’ve been working off of. I’d suggest that you start with this recipe and then once you get comfortable with it, you can start varying the flours (and the water, as needed).

BASIC SOURDOUGH RECIPE

  • 300g whole-wheat flour (30%)
  • 700g bread flour (70%)
  • 250g starter (25%)
  • 700g water (70%)
  • 25g salt (2.5%)

Put the flours, starter, and almost all of the water (about 650g) together in a big bowl and mix them by hand. Make sure every bit of flour is incorporated. It will be sticky! Let it rest in the bowl covered with a kitchen towel for 20 minutes. This is called autolyse. Then add the salt, the rest of the water, and up to another 50g of water depending on the dough. It should be a wet dough, so keep adding water and massaging it in until it just can’t take anymore. A lot of factors will affect this — how humid it is outside, how warm or cold the temp is, etc. So you just need to go with your gut and add water until it has had enough. 

I included percentages — these are called bakers percentages. Bakers use a 100% scale to create recipes like this. The percentage of water is important, it’s called the hydration percentage. [Tartine uses a very wet dough, and Chad goes into this in detail in the Tartine Bread book. Most people are scared of wet doughs but it’s one of the reasons why their bread is so great.] The flours are also based on percentages. Once you’re ready to vary them, you just need to make sure that they always add up to 100%. 

Once you make the dough, you’ll fold it every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Then let it rest for 1 hour. Then shape it, put it into a bowl or basket lined with a kitchen towel, and let it rest for another hour before putting it into the fridge to continue rising overnight. Specific instructions and photos are all in my primer.

Step 4 — Baking the Dough

Once again, all of the details are in my blog post about making dough. The key is to make sure your oven is hot enough, and baking the dough in a cast-iron covered pot (aka Dutch oven) is essential. You could bake sourdough without it, but it will be very difficult to get the same results. You’ll need to fill a spray bottle with water and spritz the inside of the oven every few minutes in the first part of baking to simulate the steam that you would have gotten from the pot.

When your buns come out of the oven, it will be very tempting to eat them right away — but try to resist! It’s very hard to cut fresh, hot bread so if you can wait even an hour, you’ll enjoy a sturdier piece.

A few tools that will come in handy:

  1. A digital food scale
  2. A large bowl (for making the dough) and two medium-sized bowls (for proofing the shaped dough); or you can be fancy and buy the proofing baskets that professional bakers use
  3. A bowl scraper
  4. A dough scraper
  5. A bread lame (for scoring the dough)
  6. A cast-iron covered pot — these range from high end (and pricey) to every day (and affordable). If you’re going for the Rolls Royce of Dutch ovens, buy a 5 1/2-quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven. If you’re just starting out and want a good quality model that’s a bit more budget friendly, the Lodge Cast Iron Combo Cooker will definitely do the trick.

sourdough crumb

Showing off my sourdough crumb

Happy baking!