I have two rules when it comes to answering the question “What I should I bring?”
a) I always bring dessert.
b) You always bring bread.
I used to answer “What should I bring?” with a cheery “Whatever you like!” The results were incongruous salads, mismatched wines, or nothing. A little direction goes a long way—-people know what to bring, and they also immediately have a job once they get to the house. They start slicing bread, you start pouring drinks, everyone starts chatting, everyone gets bread, and the requisite 15 awkward minutes at the beginning of a dinner party never happen. Put out some butter and cheese.
I always offer to bring dessert because everyone else brings booze, someone who doesn’t like to bake can happily bring bread, and it’s one less thing for the host to think about. People like it and it’s a fun conversation starter—-people want to talk about what you made, stuff they’ve made, what’s the recipe, etc. Before you know it, you’re in a conversation and you’re eating cookies. Win win.
Also people like dessert and no one has time to bake, and you might be one of those people who has no time to bake, but listen—-I’ve got you covered. These are three recipes I make over and over again. They’re easy, they’re super delicious, and they’re bonafide crowd pleasers. Try these out if you have limited time to make treats, and lots of time to collect compliments.
Chocolate Swirl M&M Cookies via Crepes of Wrath
Every time I eat these I get confused and think that I played soccer as a kid. It’s the powerful influence of other people’s memories—-wherever I bring these (or the Oreo filled version pictured below), people exclaim “They’re after school cookies!” and tell picturesque stories about the very popular playground mom who showed up with the best cookies after soccer practice. Basically, they’re kid cookies for grownups (or, you know, kids. Share.). It’s fun to eat candy or Oreos inside of a cookie as an adult, because you’re definitely not supposed to. They’re also melted butter recipes—-no forethought or room temperature dairy products required.
Blondies via Smitten Kitchen
Buttery, chewy cookie bars with caramelized edges and a crackley golden top—-and all you have to do is throw a couple things in a bowl, bake for 30 minutes and POOF! Magical treats. You can add anything to these—-two of my favorites are chocolate chips and candied ginger, or (in the late Fall/ early Winter) chocolate chips and fresh cranberries. You can also make my Too Many Blueberries Blondies, which are another riff on this same recipe and a nice way to pretend to be healthy.
These crunchy, chewy gems taste like almond butter toffee flecked with sweet bits of chocolate and dried currant. They’re also gluten-free. And they’re big; no matter how little dough you scoop, these really spread. Big cookies are ideal for parties—-like an abundant table or a fully stocked bar, people feel cared for when there’s a little more than usual. A little more cookie is a good place to start.
Don’t be fooled: Bread pudding is a proper meal. It’s hardly a dessert. It’s basically breakfast done right, especially with a looming long weekend. Here’s why you should make a pan of it, ASAP:
- It’s painfully easy to assemble but looks and tastes like something far more time consuming.
- It’s fairly virtuous, and seriously decadent.
- It will make your entire house smell like an autumnal dream.
- Seriously, you could serve this for brunch. You could even smush it into a muffin pan and make mini handheld bread puddings. (I’ve had these at Verve Coffee and they were not only delightfully portable, but perfect with coffee.)
- It gets better with age (Cold bread pudding eaten with your hands two days later? Snack time luxury. Don’t judge.)
- It’s infinitely customizable—-sub in whatever fruits, nuts, or spices that you like. Use a different kind of bread. Last night my friend Amy made this with French bread, apples, and cardamom and it was outrageously good.
It’s Labor Day weekend, kids. Get comfortable. Get lazy. Make treats. Show up at that last BBQ of the season with an old school comfort food dessert. Win the love of new friends and summer crushes. Don’t forget the ice cream.
Coconut Currant Sourdough Bread Pudding*
- 2 cups of 2% milk
- 6 cups sourdough bread cubes
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup dried large flake coconut
- 1/2 cup dried currants
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter and milk in a saucepan over medium heat until milk is hot and butter is melted. Combine eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in bread cubes, then stir in milk/ butter mixture. Stir in half of the coconut and currants. Pour into an ungreased pan, top with remaining currants and coconut. Bake for 40 minutes.
If all of the blogs and media I consume are correct, if the conversations and feelings I have are true, I stopped being me when I got engaged and just became Bride.
People react to Bride with trepidation and they can’t help it——we’ve all been raised on bridezillas and rom coms, who knows what inconsequential thing will make Bride fly into a fiery rage? No one calls for me any more, no one wants to know how my day is going, what I’m reading, my plans for the weekend. Everyone calls to talk to Bride—-about the guest list, who else can be added, if this reservation has been made, if that one has been canceled.
Bride is supposed to be detail oriented and eccentrically thin. Bride demands shiny nails and hair, from herself and all of her compatriots. Bride is good at shoe-shopping, appointment-making, bridesmaid-attire-caring. Bride is here to take your questions. Bride is blushing and beautiful and perfect, and I am not her and I don’t really want to be and it’s all making me miserable. Getting engaged didn’t make me a fundamentally different human. It made me happier at the prospect of hanging out with my favorite person forever; it didn’t make me better at scheduling or shopping.
I’m not blaming anyone. We chose to have a wedding. I just didn’t understand what that would entail, or how it would make me feel—-which is that I am profoundly disappointing and universally loathed.
If you are feeling tired and complicated, if everything feels like a hassle, if you want life to feel easy and fun, thrown together and celebratory, bake a cake. Hear me out.
Cake batter is pure glamour. Big aerated bread dough and chunky temperamental cookie dough is so demanding: whip and wait, knead and stir, don’t let the butter get to soft, don’t let it be too hard. Touch cake batter just right, and it’s easy to touch it just right, and it grows glossy. It’s patent leather shoes, a good freshly laminated library card, a brightly painted mouth.
I work the standup mixer’s silver hook through egg goop turned golden, frothy streams of melted butter, the thick fresh milk that comes in a glass bottle with a seal of solid cream fat on top. I move a fork through glinting sugar and all purpose flour. A shot of cold coffee and a whole cup of unsweetened cocoa powder. Vanilla poured with a heavy hand, the heady alcohol perfume rising from now vanilla tinged sugar and eggs. A sticky stream of raspberry syrup, purchased ages ago from a dusty German shop to spike clean German beers. Folding, swirling, occasional instructions to separate yolk from white, create trembling towers of bubbly egg white foam. Topple them with deliberate folds, lay waste to their delicate architecture with thick sunshiney egg yolk dough.
Brownies and bars are for Mondays and Tuesdays. No matter how fancy you make them—-the finest cocoa, the ripest berries, the saltiest caramel—they are weekday fare. Cookies get Christmas, but they’re the same. Pies and tarts require labor or forgery. Crisps are temperamental to their seasons.
Cakes are special. And, cakes are simple. They are birthdays and parties, they are the first thing I ever baked, with boxed mixes and canned frosting. Now they are three ingredients in a bowl, add an egg. Pour the milk. Here’s a cake. Here’s a celebration.
Here’s an odd little cake that I adore—-spicy, full of chocolate and giant chunks of candied ginger. It’s fudgey and vegan, it tastes decadent but is mostly applesauce and cocoa powder. Make it. Feel great. Eat it with someone who loves you for you, who never wants you to be a perfectionist zombie, who cuts through the nonsense in your head. Or eat it with someone who has ice cream, because this would be awesome a la mode.
Spiced Chocolate Cake with Candied Ginger*
- 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1/2 cup raw sugar
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
- 1/2 cup chopped candied ginger
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/4 cup all purpose white flour
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar, applesauce, vanilla extract, almond extract, and olive oil in one bowl. In a large bowl, sift flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add wet mixture to dry mixture; stir in ground ginger, candied ginger, and chocolate chips. Bake for 25 minutes. The center will be gooey and pudding-like. Wrap and refrigerate immediately for a fudgey texture. Because it’s vegan, you could also keep the pudding consistency, or bake for an extra 5 to 10 minutes for a firmer cake.
- Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Chips are pretty life changing—they aren’t vegan though, so only use them if you’re okay with a non-vegan cake.
- This is a very adaptable cake—-feel free to skip the almond extract, use another flour, or to sub in other delicious non-ginger things.
Our first apartment in San Francisco was the size of the living room we had on the East Coast, in the so-new-it-smelled-and-sparkled apartment weʼd left behind.
“Good riddance,” I thought, as I handwashed dishes, then our socks and underwear, in the sink in the living room. The heater bucked and sputtered; my boyfriend hovered beside it with a lighter, wincing. We slept on a fold out couch, and the spare sweaters and books we hadnʼt sold lived in boxes by our feet. It was crowded and freezing, moth-ball scented and mostly broken; it was heaven.
I missed people, but rarely missed things—-not the too-much-furniture that always made me vaguely claustrophobic and never really felt like mine no matter how long I lived beside it, slept on its surfaces and cooked nears its tabletops. The process of parting with my stuff to move across the country was invigorating—-be gone, outgrown college sweaters, kitchenware, and paperbacks.
But in our little room on top of a hill, there was one thing I missed thrice daily: a kitchen.
We had one couch, two amorous spiders (original tenants who refused to move, setting up shop by the heater near the couch to better access our sleeping flesh), a bathroom with privacy-obliterating rodeo doors. We had a refrigerator better suited for a college dorm, two burners, and a jumbo jar of Nutella that I ate with our one spoon. I was working from home, and trekking downhill for every coffee or lunch left me lithe and sleepy. I lived on Nutella, cold cereal, and afternoon coffees that I purchased on my long walks to early dinners.
How do I tell to you the truth? How do I make sure it’s not too romantic, selling all my things and sauntering around with a coffee in hand? Would it help to know that the Mission was so far away because I was constantly lost? And I sat in our little apartment that I was glad to have and did many things, but when I was alone I often cried a little, then napped, while listening to the same three songs by The Smiths too many times. It was romantic, being young and far away with a fresh new life. But real romance is edged with a kind of terror, at least for me, with my spoon in the Nutella jar, wishing I could plant my feet on the ground and cook a mess of spaghetti, or bake a pan of brownies. I don’t know why I didn’t think to just buy pots and pans while we lived there. I think all the boxes already felt like too much. So I ate my little cold cereal, put on my coat, and prepared to get lost on my way to dinner, again.
One day we bought a bag of cherry tomatoes. They were plump, multicolored with different shapes—-fat round purple tomatoes and little yellow gourd shaped tomatoes and tiny sweet orange ones that popped in your mouth. We bought balls of fresh mozzarella in their own juice and purple basil and dried rosemary. We bought a dark little bottle of olive oil and a lemon and a crusty loaf of bread.
I threw everything in a bowl except the bread. I tore the mozzarella and basil with my fingers. I sliced the lemon in half and squeezed its juice on top, then stirred it all with our one fork. Dan wasn’t sure he liked cherry tomatoes whole, and then he was sure. He was sure when we sat at the table and heaped the tomatoes and basil and mozzarella, showered in rosemary and lemon juice and drizzled with olive oil, on to bread and ate. With no thought or intention, only the seductive summer tomatoes at the grocery store and the vague hunger brewing in our stomachs, we’d created our first real meal in our new home.
Now when we have the good fortune to have tracked down one too many cherry tomatoes, I make this salad. It’s simple and dense and tastes like summer.
Cherry Tomato Supper Salad
Wash two cups of cherry tomatoes. Get the little bright ones and leave them whole. Combine with two cups raw arugula and one can of tuna packed in olive oil. Drizzle with the juice of one lemon and a little white wine vinegar. Toss. Finish the salad with flaky salt and black pepper to taste.
- I almost never eat canned tuna (or any tuna, really)—-apparently, I’m not alone in this. But, the few times a year that I eat it, I splurge and buy tuna packed in olive oil because it is infinitely more delicious and filling.
- Read Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. And More Home Cooking. Really. She’s the best.
Raspberries grow wild in suburban Baltimore. Brambles crop up behind apartment complexes, on the side of the highway. When I was a kid, my mom and I would scour Mt. Washington and Pikesville for hidden pockets of raspberries. Flossy and vivid, raspberries came home with us in giant tupperwares to meet their fate as failed jam. My mom tried. It was every summer’s wish, enough sweet seedy jam to last the year. Instead we ate the drippy remains of unjelled jam, now called raspberry syrup, on pancakes and waffles and ice cream until we never wanted to see another berry again.
Now I buy them at the grocery store in plastic cartons. When they’re warm and bright, the flesh a little loose but still intact, I eat them plain, rinsed in the carton and finished on the couch. This is a rare treat, confined to a berry-happy week in midsummer. Too often they’re nearly tasteless—-a single bright note of sour that must be smashed.
I top the berries with lemon juice, cinnamon, and wildflower honey. Then I mash them with the back of a spoon against the inside of the bowl until they resemble a cold compote. It’s a grownup raspberry sauce: tart and bright, never cloying, never mocking you with dashed jam dreams. It would be the start to a very good cocktail, or a fine topping for ice cream or cake. I’m only guessing though. I always eat it the same way: stirred into thin, plain yogurt and blanketed with raw sliced almonds.
The hospital was a crisp white and everyone was dizzyingly efficient. I was exhausted, bone weary after a two week losing battle against food poisoning, a battle that crossed countries and time zones and landed me in the ER in Chiang-Mai, Thailand. The visit and diagnosis were quick: I was sick, I would ideally get better, and a fistful of prescriptions was the answer. We kept traveling for another month. I slowly finished the plastic baggies of antibiotics and probiotics, washed them down with bottled water and crossed my fingers.
I kept getting sick. My hair started falling out in clumps. I was always tired. Ignoring my body was proving dangerous; even one superfluous snack or sip would knock me out. A rebellious peanut M&M binge had me in bed for two days. I ate slowly, tuned in to each bite, each hunger and need, in a way I had never been before.
When we got back to the US, all I wanted was this toast. I’d never eaten it before, never even considered it. But for the next month I started spooning warm sweet potato meat on top of a smear of avocado. I dotted the creamy, green and orange surface with sharp, salty feta, salt, and zaatar, and ate it every morning. I assumed this sudden food desire was like a pregnant woman’s craving, my body seeking some mysterious combination to replenish what it had lost. It’s timing and purpose made this toast magical. I associate it with autumn, home, and a kind of clean bright back to school feeling.
It’s also outrageously delicious and a little odd, the perfect brilliant technicolor end to a breakfast rut.
Magical Sweet Potato Avocado Toast
Top one slice of toast with a quarter of a very ripe avocado. I usually eat something nutty and whole grain—Ezekiel toast is nice here, or a sourdough with a good chewy crust. Add two tablespoons roasted sweet potato. Top with one crumbled tablespoon of feta, then salt and za’atar to taste.
- Flaky Maldon salt has been a kitchen game-changer. It can be a little pricey (in the $8.00- $10.00 range) but it makes everything more delicious and it lasts forever. I’ve added it to nearly everything I’ve eaten for at least six months and I still have a third of the box left.
- I roast a big sweet potato on Sunday and use it all week. To roast a sweet potato, preheat your oven to 375. Scrub the sweet potato thoroughly, lightly oil it, and poke holes all over the skin with a fork. Wrap it in foil and bake for one hour.
- Raw, sliced radishes are a nice addition to this toast—-they add some extra flavor and the crunch balances out the velvety sweet potato and avocado textures.
I haven’t been cooking. I haven’t been writing.
And when I’m not writing, the thought of writing becomes vaguely terrifying. The inner critic is at it’s worst. “You can’t, just don’t, and hey you use the word vaguely too much, you know that right?” Further proof. Say nothing. Do nothing. Buzz and stew.
And when I’m not cooking, I contemplate the weird layout of this apartment. I imagine a kitchen where people could come over and I could cook and there wouldn’t be this awkward separation that makes all parties feel like i’m serving them. Like they’re not doing enough, like I’m doing too much. I used to have a wide open kitchen where everyone could hover and chat and refill their drinks mere inches away from the cookie sheet where I slathered crusty bread in garlic butter. Recently I ate a crumbly cupcake from the basement of that apartment building. It tasted day-old but the top was stiff with sweet, salted frosting, something honey colored from the burnt sugar flavor family. There was a sign, “apartments for rent.” I never wanted anything less (“Really? Must you be so dramatic? It’s bad writing, that kind of drama.” Thanks critic.). But I do miss that kitchen.
This week I will write what I have to write. Tonight I will stir raw arugula into fresh pasta and watch it wilt and gleam. There isn’t much to say except that I haven’t been cooking and writing and I hope that when I start, everything and everyone will seem less annoying.
— MFK Fisher Subscribe via RSS.