[Blackberries in the field, Sebastopol, September 2009.]
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called. ~A.A. Milne
What I like best is to cook for other people. Actually, scratch that: I have certainly discovered the joys of cooking just pour moi, which is no less satisfying if in a different way. So I shouldn’t say I only like best to cook for other people; rather, let me amend to say that one
of the things I like best is to cook for other people who have certain dietary restrictions such as: are vegan, eat low-fat/low-cholesterol, can’t have X or are allergic to Z. It’s a bit of a challenge to come up with things that suit these requirements and yet are still healthful and delicious. It’s also a challenge I catch up quite happily.
Sometimes I think I started baking in earnest because of my dad. It’s not that I didn’t bake before — I remember kneading and braiding a form of challah bread with my mom and brother when we were small, among other things — but I didn’t think about it so much, if that makes sense. But when my dad went on a low-fat/low-cholesterol diet and gave up pretty much all that is decadent and holy and essential to baked goods (butter! whole milk! eggs!) I first felt sorry for him — though it was necessary for his better health; darn genes anyhow — and second decided I could provide him with sweet treats nonetheless.
I cracked open the old Fannie Farmer cookbook that still is a great resource (where else, for example, can you find a recipe for the Charleston benne seed cookies I’ve been wanting to make every since reading an Ellen Gilchrist short story in which they were mentioned; my ongoing fascination with the southern part of the United States means this is the year I’m finally going to make them ’round the holidays) for standards such as cinnamon coffee cake, blueberry muffins, or cheesecake. When I started down this winding road of bakery experimentation I wanted solid, tried-and-true recipes as my base — and they were (and are) certainly very tried-and-true and solid.
I won’t say that everything I attempted was a success (and it’s true, too, that I am overly critical of my own efforts, and wanted them to taste nearly as good as the original versions) but they weren’t bad. In fact, often they were so not bad they were pretty good. Usually my substitutions were simple: I swapped non-fat milk for whole, used egg white or egg beaters in place of the entire egg, learned to make a pie crust that was the perfect balance of olive oil to vegetable with not a speck of butter in sight (nowadays I think I actually prefer an oil crust). My dad, willing tester that he was, happily ate up everything I set in front of him regardless of how good (or bad?) it tasted (thanks, dad). As time passed I deviated from the recipes and even came up with some of my own, which opened up an entire world of possibility.
Over the years I’ve perfected a few standbys I oft repeat — my vegan chocolate cake is a requirement for vegans and non-vegans alike, as well as vegan gingersnaps, a lemon cake, many fruit sorbets, and angel food cakes laced with fruit or orange zest or just vanilla — and have come up with my own creations, mostly guided by what I think would sound ‘right’ together. This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of that early experimentation: that it pushed me to become a bit fearless in my baking (and later, cooking) and willing to take chances.
Mostly I just don’t want people to ever have to go without because of a health or dietary restriction. It’s really no big deal to make a little effort, anyhow, and I enjoy the process. Have I mentioned that to me food so often equates love? No?
[Just picked, September 2009.]
The last time I was home I helped make a lunch — my favorite chard-feta-pine nut pasta dish, along with a big salad with sauteed green beans. I volunteered to make dessert as well because it had been awhile since I’d made anything new (to whit: nectarine ice cream made without a machine that was actually quite creamy and delicious, caramel cake, blackberry-strawberry granita, a mini vegan plum crumble) and because I’d been itching to make use of the blackberries in the field.
That morning was hot and I slipped out of the house before noon to pick the few berries still remaining on the little bush at the edge of my parents’ property. I sipped my coffee and chatted with the neighbor’s cat and dug my toes into the dry grass. I wanted to make to make my dad a little something, you see, while the rest of us plowed through those decadent, buttery treats, and I knew fruit was the way to go.
Oh, was it.
I guess another thing I like best is picking fruit (or vegetables if I am so lucky and the neighbors so charitable) that I’ll use straight away in a dish or two. Elemental, yes, this gathering-up, but for a mostly city-bound girl such as myself it’s also a stolen pleasure and one in which I sadly don’t get to indulge very often unless I’m out of town. (One of my favorite desserts ever was one that came after picking wild berries in the woods last June after dinner, the dogs bounding all about and me more concerned with throwing sticks for them than filling my bucket.) But it reminds me of childhood every time get to I do it — when I was a kid my neighborhood friend and I would go blackberry-picking in late summer, returning to her house after to douse them with sugar and cream — and gardens and things I hope to have one day. It’s very true I’m a country girl at heart.
That sunny Sunday morning I picked and I picked over, eliminating the berries that were too wizened or not quite ripe and eeking out as many as I could. I shook off the ants and brought them inside where I cut up strawberries and mixed them with the blackberries and sugar and let it all sit for about 45 minutes. Then I added a bit of water and pureed the whole mess until smooth, stuck it in the freezer for a few hours, whipped it with a fork until it reached some granita-like semblance, and presented it with aplomb to my dad who tucked in with equal aplomb and appetite.
I also like to see that best.
Other things I like best include:
– Cool, foggy San Francisco mornings when everything is quiet and still
– (Conversely: hot, sunny mornings in the city when the birds are chirping madly away and it feels like the truest summer imaginable)
– The first cup of coffee (or, americano) of the day
– Real-mail letters
– New-to-me books and new books in general
– Rooibos tea, my enduring obsession
– Phone calls from Greece
– Good-night text messages
– Ongoing conversations about all and sundry
– Kayaking in Tomales Bay
– Long runs by Ocean Beach
– October, my favorite month, being just around the corner
– Cooking for a lunch party
– Walks by the Pacific with an old friend
Like the inimitable Pooh, I also think the moment just before is better than nearly anything (shall we call it anticipation? I don’t know if that’s quite the word, though it works well enough. But really it’s more like Christmas Eve, all shivery and on the cusp; or the moment before you kiss someone for the first time; or the second before the gun goes off when you’re running a race; or right before the guests arrive for a dinner party, the evening stretching ahead bare and possible; or the way the air feels on a crisp blue morning near the sea, breeze cool against your face and the beach deserted except for a few wayward dogs).
Early fall feels very just before — just before the time change, just before my birthday (ahem), just before the slip-slide rush up to the holidays, just before the rainy season, just before the new year, just before lots of things. It’s full of expectation and a bit of portent and fog and blue skies in equal measure.
It’s also, and for now, full of end-of-season fruit. And the best thing I can think of is to put it all to good use.
Would you agree?
Vegan Blackberry Crumble, for one or two
This is a loose recipe, one which reminds me very much of those old pioneer recipes in which the measurements are not hard and fast and the end quantity depends on how much ingredients you have on hand. So let’s say this is a base — it can be adapted any way you wish and to feed as many as you like. You may also substitute stone fruits, apples, pears, other berries, or or or …
2 cups blackberries
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbs. flour
3 Tbs. sugar
1/4 cup rolled oats
4 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. sugar
2 Tbs. sliced almonds, crumbled
1 tsp. baking soda
Lightly grease a mini loaf pan and preheat oven to 350 F.
In a bowl sprinkle the blackberries with the flour, sugar, and cinnamon and toss to combine. Pour into the pan.
Combine the remaining dry ingredients for the topping and stir well to combine. Pour in a little of the oil and with a fork whisk to combine. Add a little more oil, whisking, until the topping resembles a coarse meal. Dump on top of the berries.
Bake on a cookie sheet for about 20 minutes until the topping is crisp and the berries are bubbling.