that kind of something

vanilla spice cookies

As you know, I’m not exactly the type of person to miss winter. But can I tell you something? When these vanilla spice cookies bake, even in the middle of May, filling the kitchen with a fragrance sweet and filled with nostalgia, I’d swear I was walking around a Christmas market where they sell fresh-roasted cinnamon pecans wrapped in paper cones, the kind you take in your gloved hands, the air visible in front of you as you breathe in and out, your face flushed pink.

It’s like that time last winter when my friend Becky and I drove out to Geneva, on, I swear, what must have been the coldest night ever, on the hunt for homemade candy canes and cups of hot chocolate. After we walked up and down a street of bundled carolers and holiday decorations, our skin cracking and our noses running, what we found instead were frozen toes and fingers, even after returning to the car; a few photos of us, in the dark, standing near twinkling lights; and my first taste of a chestnut, which, in all honestly, smells a hundred times better than it tastes: hot and bland. I don’t often feel nostalgic for nights like those, so it would take something pretty special to make me remember all the good parts: the smell of fresh popcorn from the white tent in front of one of the shops, the gleaming red and gold globes hanging from a tree, the group of musicians who played, hands exposed, as if they couldn’t even feel the freeze.

Let me tell you: these cookies are that something.

Read More

the most of it

avocados

I was given some very good advice recently, and whether relating to your current friends, your living situation, your job, your finances or something else, it applies: take what you have right now and learn everything you can from it.

It’s maybe not a very new idea, but its impact is undeniable, even with something simple, like, say, an avocado.

A few weeks ago, I can’t remember if it was on that day we lost all power at work or another afternoon, while Alicia and I were talking, we said something about avocados and how we’d grown to love them over time. I hated the idea of an avocado when I was little—much like the idea of tomatoes and onions and certain types of cheese—but finally at some point I’d had guacamole with tortilla chips and then later, some avocado on a sandwich and eventually in some type of sushi, and I was sold. And that same day we talked about avocados, Alicia came home to one, completely by surprise, and so I declared it great providence or, at least, a sign that I should buy some, too.

I purchased three. There was no rhyme or reason behind the number; I don’t even think there was a special sale going on. I took them, threw them in a plastic bag and into my cart and skirted through the produce section.

Read More

This is the good stuff.

crumb of lemon yogurt cake

I don’t know where you sit today, but I hope your view is as nice as mine, where the air smells sweet and the sun is high. Charcoal grills send smoke through my windows, green grass surrounds blooming tulips and daffodils, restaurants open their walls so we can dine al fresco as the sun sets.

I’ve realized as much as I hate Chicago winter, I love it for this: what else could make me so aware of the beauty of Chicago spring? And as spring turns to summer and summer to fall, I will keep enjoying the beauty of seasons, the joy of watching change unfold around you, irrespective of you and what you want. It’s nice to be a part of that.

I guess what I’m saying is that these almost-summer afternoons are the good stuff, what we’ve been waiting for, so maybe you’ll understand why it’s hard to resist all they tempt me towards? Things like a sunny weekend game at Wrigley Field, hours antiquing in northern Illinois, long walks on tree-lined streets of ivy-colored brick buildings.

lemon yogurt cake, close

Last week, I met a three-year-old girl with an easy smile, while we walked down creaky steps in a vintage building near a Metra station, surrounded by trees with blossoms as big as my hands. Saturday, after lunching at one my favorite places with an old blogging friend, I strolled along Clark to Broadway, passing bakeries and restaurants and adorable little shops. And this week, after work each day, I’ll come home with no plans but to be outside, watching the tomato plants grow and ready for the sky to turn orange and crimson before I pillow my head.

Also last week, because I wasn’t done with Oikos Greek yogurt yet, I made this cake.

Read More

for on the way

yogurt parfait

While Mom and I were walking out of the restaurant Sunday afternoon, arm in arm, our bellies full with sauer braten, bread dumplings and chicken schnitzel, she spotted a lilac bush in someone’s yard, and we talked about the corsages Grandma used to make with them on Mother’s Day each year.

Grandma used to say she had seasonal depression, meaning every winter she’d want to tuck away in the house, lethargic, doing little but cooking and baking, especially at Christmas—I think I get this from her—but come spring, she’d be the happy lady mowing her front lawn, planting geraniums along the front and big tomato bushes in back, hanging laundry to dry on the clothesline that ran from the back brick to the detached garage.

oikos greek yogurt

These mornings, when I wake up and hear pounding rain on the windows and see the grass deep, deep green, I think of how happy this would’ve made her, how happy it makes me. When I come home, the world bathed in sunlight, with fresh flowers popping up in yards and along open fields, there’s so much I want to do: take Bailey out, go for a quick run, stroll to the grocery store that’s a mile away instead of getting in the car to drive. Some nights, I don’t even care if I eat dinner, except for something quick I grab on my way somewhere. Like the other night, after I’d thrown in laundry, the windows open around me, and gone outside for a while, letting Bailey pull me wherever he wanted, I came back in, and instead of making dinner, I put together this quick parfait, made of Greek yogurt, chopped fruit, walnuts and honey.

Read More

the cake that was gray

frosting coconut cake

Over lunch on Mother’s Day, my brother happened to mention a coconut cake recipe he’d seen online, and I responded exactly as you’d expect: by whipping out my cell phone—newly with Internet, which, by the way, in itself is a huge change for me, and you know how I do with change, so congratulate me on that—and trying to find it.

The cake was beautiful: a pristine, white, regal-looking thing, step atop a cake stand and topped with toasted, shredded coconut. It was the reason that, a few hours later, I beelined straight for the baking aisle’s coconut extract and grabbed this.

What I purchased—coconut flavor—wasn’t exactly extract, but it was the next closest thing, and the bottle said something about its being good for baking. So maybe that substitution explains the problem I wound up with later, when, making the frosting, I found butter + sugar + milk + coconut flavor = icing the color of gray. As in, the same shade as gravestones or, decaying flesh.

icing

The cake tasted all right, albeit dry. It was the frosting that was the real problem—slightly grainy and never thick enough, changing textures while I covered the cake, from fluffy to very thin and not that far from soupy. It did taste like coconut, though, which I considered a small victory, but the color! The color! I didn’t have the heart to throw it away immediately, but I’ll let you guess where I’m headed as soon as I finish this post, barring, of course, any refrigerator miracle overnight. (Fingers crossed.)

the cake that was gray

Anyway, it got me thinking. In the kitchen, I know what failure feels like. I have done it—done it to death, you could say, embracing it with cupcakes and artichokes and an awful soup I still haven’t had the heart to tell you about—and I’ve always lived to see the next mornings.

Read More

testament enough

fork-tender BBQ chicken

I recently received a review copy of America’s Best BBQ, which was published by the same people behind Falling Cloudberries, one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I’ve ever seen. (Seriously, I don’t know who the graphic designers are at Andrew McMeel, but their work is so good, it’s honestly enough by itself to warrant buying these books, if just for flipping value.)

america's best BBQ cookbook

In the case of this barbecue book, cookbook might not be the best term to describe it. While filled with recipes, it’s also part guide, part travelogue, part window into the barbecue belt of America (i.e., from North Carolina to Texas, with a few other states thrown in). There are a lot (a lot!) of gorgeous, glossy photos, along with stories and commentary by Ardie A. Davis and Chef Paul Kirk, the authors and researchers behind this compilation. These men love barbecue. They make it, the taste it, they travel around the country deciding what’s good enough to tell the rest of us about.

If I had one complaint, it’d be that a lot of the recipes, at least for main dishes, require special ingredients particular to the restaurants they came from: Ed’s Pepper Vinegar Sauce from The Pit in Raleigh, North Carolina, to make a barbecued hog; Curtis’ Southern Style Bar-B-Q Sauce from Curtis’s BBQ in Vermont to make its loaded pork-stuffed potato. I had to dig a little to find a barbecue recipe I could make in my own kitchen: the Apple City BBQ Sauce that, ironically, comes from my own home state, one not especially known for that sort of thing.

BBQ sauce

Read More

the change that comes

potatoes and spoon

I am at a place right now where I am standing still in life.

Everywhere around me, people are rushing for things—new places and careers, new relationships, new life, even—and I am watching them.

I want to go forward, to take a step, join them, but instead I stare at my feet, unmoving and, if I’m honest, afraid.

slicing potatoes

Most days, I want a blueprint: a very, very specific outline of steps to take, with guarantees and/or backup plans, if possible. So I talk to people who been in similar situations, and they tell me what they did, whether they got their first apartment at 17 or had to work their way through college or stayed at their first job for five years.

But no matter how similar life stories are, they aren’t the same. Following your choices won’t guarantee that I follow your life. Your future can’t be mine.

sliced potatoes

And I don’t really want it to be. Not when I’m honest. In fact, I don’t really want advice, either. I think I just want someone to listen and nod and say, you know, what’s supposed to happen will happen. Because I believe that.

Meanwhile, I take easy change where I can find it, and, at least for me, that means the kind that happens in the kitchen, routinely, every day.

assembling

Read More