We have now officially entered High Baking Season, and can balm ourselves in butter and sugar. We can surround ourselves with our favorite cookbooks, and tune out the crazy. That’s my new personal strategy, anyway. And just in time for its implementation, I received Sarah Kieffer’s new cookbook, The Vanilla Bean Baking Book. Which is perfect, because it’s packed with enough crave-worthy recipes to keep me avoiding American reality until February, at least. Excellent!
WELL, HELLO! Here we are, another October all over again. Can you believe it? It’s been a busy couple of seasons around here–some TV and video projects, contributing for The Splendid Table (hi, dream job), and developing book #4. Oh, and that not-so-small detail of mothering a a third-grader (!) and a finally potty-trained (!!!) 3 1/2-year-old whose personality is basically Male Sybil on Steroids. There’s a lot to take in. I’m sure a lot of you feel me. In fact, can we all just go somewhere? Like a retreat in Big Sur where we all have our own private, sparkling clean bedrooms and bathrooms and we just breathe deep all day, and then convene in the evening over a case of wine and our favorite new cookbooks? Excellent. I’m bringing that one, up top, and seeing if the author wants to come with us.
DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH THAT CAKE IT’S FOR COMPANY I MEAN IT.
Does that remind anyone else of childhood?
Whether it was made from scratch, a boxed Entemann’s, or something more stepped-up, like say a coffee cake from the local bakery, I think most of us knew to approach a cake on the countertop with caution. Because clearly it was something special, right? And like getting one of those flouride treatments as a kid and being told you couldn’t eat for 30 minutes, nothing makes you want to eat something more than being told you can’t. Counter cakes are magical that way. The pull of a counter cake on a kid is vortex-like.
Pssst. You guys. Come here. Like, closer; I don’t want to jinx anything. Because I think we’ve done it–I think we’ve finally gotten over the hump. Which is to say that winter might just be gone for good, and we’re really, actually reveling in spring. At least, I hope we are, if not for my own sanity then for the life of the poor magnolia tree that bloomed in my neighbor’s yard during the last week of March and then shivered to death during a two-day snowfall four days later. I was braced for a harsh winter this year, but I had forgotten all about the super charming Sybil quality of midwestern spring. But like I said–fingers crossed, here–I think we’re in the clear. And now, if we get another blizzard the first week of May, you know who to blame.
Ten days ago, I began wearing a FitBit. The Fitbit actually came to me as a birthday gift from my husband, who, after 13 years of marriage, has proven that he’s finally cracked the code when it comes to giving me gifts. The morning of my birthday, he surprised me with the world’s finest cheese Danish, and then gave me the FitBit. It was a winning, albeit ironic combination. Then again, I’ve always been a been ironic when it comes to food and fitness–I like to fit into my pants, but I bake (and taste) as part of my job. Dichotomy!
For a long time the balance came naturally; living in California helps one stay active and crave produce, as it gleams with color in the front of every market, all year round. But I’ve found that living in the Midwest kind of deletes those gimmes in terms of keeping fit, and that combating the Midwestern 15 is a very real thing. (For me, the Midwestern 15 is a lot like the Freshman 15, except now it threatens me with various combinations of wine, cheese, bread, and desserts, instead of Bud Ice Light, McDonald’s at 2:00 a.m., and an unlimited selection of cold cereals in the cafeteria. So guess I’ve evolved?)
Oh, hello! It’s me! Back from the depths of a nonstop cycle of winter colds and flus and ear infections, and could someone please remind me why we moved to a different region of the country with a whole new host of germs? At any rate, things are looking up now. I’ve broken free from the homestead and am writing to you from an airplane en route to New York City, where I’m seated next to a perfectly lovely psychologist who is married to a mathematician, and besides the fact that it makes me feel like my fifth grade teacher was totally right, that I really wasn’t applying myself to the best of my ability, I am quite happy here in this metal tube in the sky, which I”m sure is full of all kinds of unspeakable germs, but that is neither here nor there.
I don’t know if it’s just me or Big Brother monitoring my whereabouts and Googling habits or what, but it seems to me that pączki is having a moment. From completely irresistible stories of adorable church ladies organizing long-standing fundraisers (hello, an annual Pączki Dance?!), to local news coverage, to trend-obsessed food websites shouting out where to get a fix, I can’t seem to get away from having my cravings encouraged. For the unfamiliar, pączki (pronounced “POONCH-key”, among other variations, but that’s more or less the idea) is a sort of glorified doughnut, a fried golden orb stuffed with any manner of delicious sweet fillings, from jam to thick whipped cream to custards and fresh fruit (rose hip jam or stewed prunes are the real tradition, but I think I’llll…maybe pick something else).
Right now, in the days approaching Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Eat All the Things Before Lent Day, pączki are all over the Midwest, thanks to a wonderfully rich Polish immigrant influence throughout much of the area, and a general love of eating completely ridiculous things that have absolutely nothing to do with kale in order to get through the winter doldrums. I’ve been revisiting and researching the baking history of the Midwest since settling back here, and one thing is clear: whatever it is, if it’s yeasted, and especially yeasted and then fried, you won’t find a better version of it outside this region.
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