The Best Things I Ate in Greece

My last name is Greek. Whenever I tell someone this, they usually tilt their head slightly, squint their eyes, and ask, “So…you’re Greek?”

The answer is no—more likely the product of a long colonial history. But even so, my first ever trip to Greece last month somehow felt like a homecoming. Maybe it was the idea of being in a place my name wouldn’t be strange, foreign, or stuttered out (as it often is.) Maybe it was the joy of reuniting with some of my oldest friends in celebration: of new jobs, starting school, finishing school, new loves, old loves, and our undying love of food and drink. Maybe it was the genuine hospitality we encountered, unexpectedly, gratefully, at every turn. More than any other place I’ve traveled to, Greece felt the most like home.

We couldn't be more thankful for our gracious hosts. Homer, our Airbnb host in Athens, was quick to provide a detailed list of places to eat and drink after my friend Kaartikaiy and I settled into his charming apartment (with citrus trees in the backyard!) Having done approximately zero research about Athens before arrival, Kaartikaiy and I spent our first day strolling around this dreamy, gritty city from one recommendation to another in a jet-lagged haze. The next day, we met our friends Jackie, Josie, and Sara at the airport and flew to Chania, Crete, where Nikos and Maria greeted us in their beautiful Airbnb home with fresh fruit, pound cake, welcome shots of rakomelo (honey liquor), and a handmade city guide that kept us happy and full throughout the week. Passing through Athens on the way home, I revisited Homer’s list, practically feeling like a local as I settled in for one last frappe on a rooftop cafe.

These are some of my favorite spots from the trip—unsurprisingly, all food-related—thanks in large part to the knowledge and hospitality of Homer, Nikos, Maria, and all of the other warm and wonderful people we met throughout our time in Greece:

ATHENS

Before I left, friends had warned me to enter Athens with low expectations following the economic downturn. Don't let its rougher sides dissuade you. This city is breathtaking.

A for Athens - Miaouli 2
The Acropolis is an obvious must-see to any visitor to Athens. Likewise, a rooftop view of the Acropolis is a must-do. It’s hard to imagine that view gets much better than at A for Athens. A tiny elevator in an unassuming hotel lobby takes you far above the tourist crowds in Monastiraki Square and opens up into a bar with fun cocktails and a stunning city view. Kaartikaiy and I arrived about an hour before sunset and snagged one of the best (non-reserved) tables.

ErgonMitropoleos 26
This fancy little restaurant and gourmet store reminded me of many other little fancy restaurants and gourmet stores here in Brooklyn. But this one was home to one of the best lentil salads I’ve ever tried, speckled with charred octopus and sun-dried tomatoes. I'll have to try recreating it one day.

O KostasPentelis 5
I am now convinced that the secret to delicious souvlaki is fresh ingredients and a healthy sprinkling of sea salt at the end. The souvlaki is on the small side (with a price to match) so get two, or stick to one and spend the rest of your day eating your way through the city.

Vryssaki - Vrisakiou 17
I didn’t study abroad while in college, but the romanticized version of it I’ve built up in my head involves reading on the rooftop of an artsy local cafe. This place may as well have been plucked straight from my imagination. The frothy cappuccino freddo I had here was the best of the trip, with a charming balcony to match.

WESTERN CRETE

Crete seemed like a random vacation destination, even to us, after having fantasized about whitewashed houses in Santorini and Mykonos for years. But a number of our friends recommended we visit, and the draw of its unique beaches and nature was undeniable, even if we didn't get to enjoy it fully in the rain. (We ate instead.)

ChrisostomosDefkalionos ke Ikarou, Chania
I may be biased as the owner of this restaurant and I share a name (his first name, my last.) But of the many complimentary carbs our group was gifted throughout the trip, these were some of the best. The fresh wood-oven baked bread was actual heaven and I ate approximately 75% of the two giant plates of loukoumades (fried dough puffs drizzled with honey) even though there were five of us at the table.

Bougatsa IordanisApokoronou 24, Chania
In Crete, I learned that I’m a big fan of Greek desserts and pastries, as many of them involve some combination of fried dough, honey or sugar, and a mild or savory cheese. Open since 1924, this is apparently the place for bougatsa—a flaky pastry stuffed with mizithra (cheese) and optionally sprinkled with sugar—in Chania. It reminds me a lot of Filipino ensaymada, similarly sweet and cheesy and good enough to get seconds (and thirds) after finishing the first.

Cretan traditional cooking class with Balos Travel - Metochi Farmhouse, Kissamos
Rainy days in Crete left us seeking alternatives to the beach trips and hikes we had planned. Sara had called a bunch of cooking classes around Chania in hopes that one would accommodate us at the last minute. Thankfully, the lovely Eleni from Balos Travel was able to move the group scheduled for the day, so we joined her and her mother at their beautiful family farmhouse after driving up to see Balos Bay. The rain eventually cleared, just in time for us to explore the farm, enjoy some freshly tapped 20-year-old wine, and start preparing our meal under a vine-tangled pergola with the sun poking through. You’ll have to visit Eleni to find out what we made!

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Dounias - Drakona
You know you’re in good company when it’s yet another rainy day and your friends agree to go with you to a mountainside restaurant on a single road without much context beyond “I saw it in a YouTube video from this famous London chef one time.” The first indication this place was going to be good were the pots over an open fire outside, working away in the rain. Then there was the incredibly cute puppy that came out of its hiding place to greet us upon arrival. Then, inside, a chubby baby rolling around on the floor (the chef’s.) Then, the six courses the chef usually serves up (his choice) including an incredibly tasty cauliflower stew (cauliflower with xinohontros, or cracked wheat.) Then, the chef asked us if we were still hungry and of course, we said yes, so he came out with a plate of tender lamb ribs. And then a plate of shell-on snails swimming in wine. And then a plate of “fruit” which turned out to be braised liver. And then TWO more veggie dishes and dessert. At this point we started to fear for our wallets, having inadvertently eaten a twelve-course meal. But by some miracle, the bill came out to 10 Euro each, leading me to only one possible conclusion: Dounias is magic. Don’t ask questions, just go.

I'd say the same about Greece. If you've been dreaming about visiting for as long as I had, just go!

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The Lunch Bunch + Mushroom Farro Soup

I started a new job this month. The night before my first day, I stared down at my blank calendar, the week ahead filled only with possibility and uncertainty. Even though I was ready to start something new, but I couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of dread about one thing: What was I going to make for lunch all week?

After all, I had spent the last eight months making lunch just once a week—but getting to eat a different homemade lunch every day at work.

That, my friends, was the genius of the Lunch Bunch.

My friends Becca and Helen (of “Brunch for the Distressed” fame) emailed me last spring to propose an office lunch exchange inspired by a Food52 profile on a similar group at The Bronx Defenders. The concept was simple: Each one of us would be assigned a day to make lunch for everyone in the group. And all the meals would have to be vegetarian.

I was skeptical. I worried about the commitment. At the time, it seemed like a lot of pressure to cook every week, let alone for other people! And I’d have to make vegetarian food? But after a summer of dancing around the idea, we invited our friend Jess to the group and decided to give it a trial run for just one week.

Eight months later, we were still going strong. Jess unfortunately had to drop out early on, but we gained Amanda, who invited herself to the group via Instagram post. (We're glad she did.) In time, we figured out our own organizational systems, including a shared calendar, weekly reminders to sign up to cook, a recipe Pinterest board, and an entertaining group text (in which we are literally trying to figure out what a “spotted dick” is, as I type this.) All of this coordination might sound complicated, but it really did simplify my cooking schedule to make lunch just once a week. Sure, it helped that all of us already enjoyed cooking, and none of us were particularly picky eaters. But most importantly, we developed a "golden rule" of sorts: Lunch Bunch means never having to say you’re sorry. If one of us overcooked something, forgot food at home, or had a last-minute reason not to bring in lunch (see: illness, the 2016 election, 2016 election-induced illness), it was totally fine. No apologies needed. Knowing this was freeing in so many ways, especially for me as an admittedly self-critical, Type A personality in the kitchen (and, okay, sometimes out of it too) and an occasionally over-apologetic Canadian woman.

And the food? Well, that was the best part, of course. Waiting for that email to find out what was on the menu became the highlight of my day. I was spoiled with homemade dumplings, enchiladas, galettes, "meatball" subs, and just about every combination of sweet potatoes and tahini imaginable. I tried recipes from from families and childhood and home, like recipe-less vegetarian chili, "hot dish," and the mushroom soup shared below. I learned how incredibly vibrant and varied vegetarian cooking could be. Not only did I stretch myself by cooking vegetarian, but I became more adventurous, dabbling in everything from Egyptian ful to Korean bibimbap (both pictured above.) Not every meal had to be so elaborate, but I knew I would never make such fancy meals if I was cooking just for myself—so I indulged in complicated recipes. And I'm a much better cook now because of it.

I know I just said that the food was the best part of it all, but if you’ll allow me to be a mushy feminist for just one second, the actual best thing about Lunch Bunch was getting closer with this group of incredible women. It’s been my long-held belief that food is community, and sure enough, cooking for one another and sharing meals deepened our friendships (though the group text certainly helped.) Amanda has even fed Lunch Bunch leftovers to her baby! That's real love. I’ll always be grateful for these ladies.

It’s now been three weeks since I started my new job. So far, I’m getting by without the Lunch Bunch—and I’m glad to hear they’re carrying on without me! I’ve taken a lot of lessons about cooking and meal planning with me into my new, Lunch Bunch-less existence, and I hope to share them with you, along with the tried-and-true recipes I’ve come to love—starting with this soup Becca grew up with. I made it on the second day of my job, which oddly turned out to be a snow day, and it fed me throughout the week. The soup is textbook comfort food—and a comforting reminder that I can still take a little bit of Lunch Bunch with me wherever I go.

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Mushroom Farro Soup
(Adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook’s Mushroom-Barley Soup, via Becca’s mom, via Becca)
Yields 5-6 servings

This soup is so simple and inexpensive to make, but the broth it yields is deep and earthy—almost like an “au jus." No flavor or richness is lost even though it’s vegetarian and dairy-free.

Ingredients
6 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup farro
3-4 Tbsps. tamari (or soy sauce)
3-4 Tbsps. dry sherry (I found it at a wine store)
2-3 Tbsps. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping cup onions, chopped
1 pound fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan for grating over soup (if desired)
Crusty bread for serving

  1. In a large soup pot, cook the farro in 1.5 cups of stock until tender (mine took about 30 minutes.)
  2. Off heat, Stir in the remaining stock, tamari/soy sauce, and sherry.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and onions and sauté until the onions are soft and just translucent.
  4. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until the mushrooms are tender.
  5. Add the mushroom and onion mixture to the stock. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Bring back up to heat until simmering. Cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings as needed.
  7. Serve with crusty bread. I thought it was just fine without the parm, but live your life the way you want to.

Recipe: Deb Perelman's Mushroom Bourguignon

For a second there, I thought we had escaped winter’s clutches and I wouldn’t get to write about my backlog of cold-weather ready recipes. Unfortunately for all of us, it’s freeze-your-face-off cold in New York today, and the only acceptable course of action is to stay inside and make this mushroom bourguignon—a vegetarian take on the French classic.

My past attempts at beef bourguignon have not been so successful, likely because I keep trying to find ways to speed up the process when it’s really meant to be a slow dish. Lesson learned: Never trust a “quick” beef bourguignon recipe, unless you’re into tough and stringy meat (or making your dinner party guests wait an additional hour for their meal. Oops.)

The beauty of this recipe is that it has all the great, rich flavor of a beef bourguignon, but comes together much more quickly. As a plus, it’s vegetarian, despite it tasting very "meaty." My vegetarian office lunch bunch was skeptical, but there really isn’t any meat in there!

I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but this mantra comes to mind almost every time I make a knockout vegetarian recipe: “You won’t miss the meat.” It’s so good that you might even hope for a frigid winter day like today to make this dish.

Mushroom Bourguignon (via Smitten Kitchen)
Serves 4

I don’t have a Dutch oven, and my heaviest saucepan wasn’t very wide, so I had to sear the mushrooms in batches. This took up a lot more time (and butter) but still made for an extremely tasty dish.

2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more if needed for searing mushrooms in batches)
2 tablespoons butter, softened (plus more if needed for searing mushrooms in batches)
2 pounds portobello and/or cremini mushroom caps, in 1/4-inch slices (reserve the stems for another use, maybe in a green bean casserole?)
1/2 carrot, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup full-bodied red wine (I used cabernet sauvignon)
2 cups vegetable broth (or beef)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup pearl onions, peeled (thawed if frozen)

Egg noodles prepared according to package directions, for serving

  1. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter in a wide, heavy saucepan (or Dutch oven if you have one) over high heat. Sear the mushrooms (in one layer if possible, or in batches if using a smaller saucepan) for 3-4 minutes until they start to take on color, but do not release any liquid. You may need to add more olive oil or butter if searing in batches, but make sure to reserve one tablespoon softened butter. Remove from pan and set aside.
  2. Lower stove to medium and add the second tablespoon of olive oil. Cook the carrots, diced onion, and thyme (seasoned to taste with salt and pepper) for 10 minutes, and stir occasionally until the onions are lightly browned. Add garlic and cook for one more minute. Adjust seasonings as needed.
  3. Add wine to the pot, scraping off anything stuck to the bottom, then turn heat to high and reduce the mixture by half. This should take 4-5 minutes, but keep an eye on it.
  4. Stir in the tomato paste, broth, and mushrooms with any juices.
  5. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender.
  6. Add pearl onions and simmer for five more minutes.
  7. With the fork, combine the remaining tablespoon butter with the flour, and stir mixture into the stew to thicken. Adjust seasonings if needed. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 more minutes. If the sauce is too thin, boil it down to a consistency where it can coat a spoon.
  8. Spoon over egg noodles to serve. Other serving ideas: Deb serves her recipe with sour cream and chopped herbs, I think mashed potatoes or crusty bread would be great.

Recipe: Ina Garten's Cheddar Biscuits

I did not grow up eating biscuits (unless you count Popeye's biscuits, which believe it or not were available to me growing up in Seoul, South Korea in the '90s. I'm not sure they do count, but as a kid, I thought they were the best.)

I did, however, grow up eating Ina Garten, as Barefoot Contessa Family Style is one of approximately three cookbooks my mom has faithfully relied on throughout the years. While I can't claim to be a biscuit expert, I too have faith in Ina—and her recipes have very rarely steered me wrong.

That's why I knew her recipe would be my go-to when I was looking up biscuits to go with my sweet potato chili. These are not your typical Southern biscuit, but instead almost more like a rich, flaky, cheesy pastry—and would probably make an incredible breakfast sandwich. They're pleasantly simple to make, good for anyone daunted by dough. As a plus, the finished biscuits freeze well, allowing you to indulge in your new cheddar biscuit habit at any time.

Cheddar Biscuits (via Ina Garten)
Yields 8 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
12 tbsp or 1 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup cold buttermilk
1 cold egg
1 cup grated extra-sharp Cheddar, tossed in a bowl with a small handful of flour, plus more for sprinkling
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water or milk)
Flaky sea salt, to finish (optional)

Sheet pan, lined with parchment paper

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Place the 2 cups of flour, baking powder, and kosher salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low using the paddle attachment and add the cold butter, mixing until the butter forms pea-sized clumps.
3. While flour and butter are mixing, combine buttermilk and egg in a small cup and beat lightly with a fork. With the mixer still on low, add the buttermilk quickly and mix only until moistened, then add the cheese to the dough and mix only until roughly combined. The world will not end if you overmix (as I often do) but try to restrain yourself.
4. Flour your work surface and knead the dough lightly about 6 times. Roll dough out to an approximate 10x5 in. rectangle.
5. Cut dough in half lengthwise with a sharp knife, then cut across into quarters to form 8 rough rectangles.
6. Transfer to prepared sheet pan. Brush biscuit tops with egg wash and sprinkle with salt and/or more cheese as desired.
7. Bake in oven for 20-25 min. until tops are browned and biscuits are cooked through (I tested with a toothpick.)
8. Serve right away. The biscuits are fine cooled to room temp, but they’re better hot. To freeze, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap, foil, and then stuck them in a freezer bag. I promise they are just as good—if not actually better—toasted from frozen.

Brunch for the Distressed

I’ve had a hard time writing lately. I started this blog in hopes of finding respite from my day-to-day work in the reproductive rights movement, which can be emotionally and mentally taxing. But in the face of a relentless cycle of daily horrors—targeting not only reproductive rights but also the environmentimmigrants, you name it—writing about food can feel so trivial. I start and stop, leaving a trail of half-finished pieces that never feel quite right. What good is a cheddar biscuit recipe when it feels like this country has lost its humanity? I seek joy and relief in writing, but is there any respite under a presidency designed to break me and other minorities down? 

I went to a gathering yesterday that got me thinking about how I might start answering these questions. My wonderful friend Helen, part of my famed office lunch bunch, hosted a “Brunch for the Distressed” at her home, inviting friends to share resources, action plans, and protests in the spirit of resistance—all over a lovingly prepared meal.

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It reminded me how food is so intimately tied to community. It’s easy to feel powerless, but less so when you're surrounded by a group of people committed to action—and powered by homemade scones. Activism can be intimidating, but food is one way to invite people in. Creating spaces to bring people together, ask questions, and share experiences is vital. Breakfast pizza helps.

We talked about SURJ, a group that organizes white people in support of racial justice, which some have found helpful here in New York. Some folks left brunch to attend the protest at JFK Airport. Some of us decided to attend future protests or take time for self-care. We all left happy and full.

We have to nourish each other if we’re going to be strong enough to face the next four years together. I’m going to try and keep this in mind as I fight my instinct to view my writing as trivial. After all, making food and writing about it nourishes me. And I want to do what I can to make sure the resistance will be well fed.

Recipe: Vegetarian Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili + The One New Year's Resolution I Actually Kept

It seems like every post-New Year’s article these days includes the caveat that the author does NOT believe in New Year’s resolutions, even though they will then proceed to tell you how 2017 will be the year you eat better/work out more/look hotter/never die. I, however, am actually a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Even though I don’t always keep them (found this swiftly forgotten 2016 goal in my journal: “Run a 5K. I wrote it down so now it has to happen.” HA.) they often do keep me on track for the year to come. I like to think of them more as "New Year’s goals,” which I suppose is not that different than goal setting at any other time of year, but the imaginary collective reset does bring me some motivation.

When I was younger, my resolutions were usually some variation of “lose weight,” although in retrospect there was probably no real reason for me to have been so concerned about that. As I got older, wiser, more body positive, and less interested in society’s obsession with unattainable standards of beauty, my goals changed: Eat more vegetables. Exercise more frequently. Feel healthy.

Sustaining these goals hasn’t been easy, but there is one thing I decided to do at the start of last year that actually changed me for good: Cook more.

Sweet potato chili

It wasn’t even about cooking healthier, necessarily. I wanted to learn, improve my skills, stop getting a slice of pizza on my walk home after every long day, and maybe, just maybe, the health benefits would be an added bonus. What ended up happening went beyond any of my initial hopes: I found a joy in searching for recipes and making food—that I actually liked—for myself. And somewhere along the way, I think I found a balance between virtuous and indulgent meals that works for me. My diet may not always be nutritionally healthy (you can pry the cured meats from my cold, dead hands) but cooking for myself has certainly helped—along with helping me feel more emotionally healthy.

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All of this is to say: Maybe your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. Maybe it’s to be healthier. Maybe it should be to cook more and find a balance that works for you. This sweet potato chili does it for me. It’s packed with vegetables. It’s actually vegan without trying at all, but just as great smothered in sour cream and cheese. Most importantly, it’s satisfying, comforting, and sticks to your ribs, turning this recovering carnivore/vegetarian chili skeptic into a believer who does not miss the meat.

Recipe: Vegetarian Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili (adapted from Cookie + Kate)
Yields 6 servings

I made this recipe for my office "lunch bunch" last year—more on this in a future post—after eating the shockingly good, shockingly vegan guacamole burger at by CHLOE. At some point I might try to recreate it (with its black bean, quinoa, and sweet potato patty, corn salsa, onion, guacamole, tortilla strips, chipotle aioli, and whole grain bun that I’m writing out here so I don’t forget) but this is my winterized, less labor-intensive take.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 whole dried chili pepper (optional, I used a dried chipotle)
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper (or more or less)
2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
ground sea salt and black pepper
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes, including the liquid
1 14/15 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 14/15 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups vegetable broth

Sour cream, cilantro, scallions, avocado, shredded cheese (optional, to garnish)

  1. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat until shimmering.
  2. Add the chopped onion, peppers, and sweet potato and cook, stirring occasionally until onions become translucent (about 5-7 minutes). Turn the heat down to medium-low.
  3. Add the minced garlic, dried chili, spices, and canned ingredients. Stir and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes or up to 2 hours.
  4. Remove the dried chili (...if you can find it. It might be too broken down, so try to break it down further to distribute the spice.) At this point, the sweet potatoes should be fork-tender and the liquid should have reduced, although it may still be soupy. This is how the original recipe serves it. You can take out 1/4-1/2 cup of chili, cool slightly, blend in a blender or food processor (make sure the lid is on tightly!) and add it back into the pot and stir if you like a thicker consistency (I do.) Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
  5. Divide chili into bowls and garnish.

I served this with some (less virtuous) cheddar biscuits. Recipe to come!

Recipe: Gingerbread snowflakes

New York is an actual winter wonderland, and I know because I trudged to and from the subway in the fresh snow several times today in search of chocolate chai danishes and fresh seafood with good company. It was worth it. But I much prefer snowflakes in the form of these cookies, which I made for my family over the holidays.

Gingerbread snowflakes

They may look overly precious or intricate, but the beauty of snowflake cookies is that you can basically decorate them any way you want because, you know, every snowflake is different.

Gingerbread snowflakes

Plus, you can always gobble up the weird-looking ones when your icing goes wrong (as I do) and no one will be any the wiser. Unless you eat all of the cookies, and in that case, I can’t help you.

Recipe: Gingerbread Snowflakes (via Smitten Kitchen)
Yields a lot of cookies with 3-5 in. cutters, like maybe 40? I lost count.

I realize about 50% of the posts I have written here so far are about gingerbread, but this is one of the best gingerbread cookie recipes I’ve tried and you should know about it. I haven’t yet found a royal icing recipe I’m 100% happy with, but I tried out the icing included in this chocolate gingerbread recipe and it was fine, if a little runny. (The cookies aren’t quite as good, though.)

6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger
4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp finely ground pepper
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfured molasses

Snowflake cookie cutters (or shape of your choice)
Your favorite royal icing recipe (or see above)
Sanding sugar and dragees

  1. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Beat butter and brown sugar together in an electric mixer (I would recommend a stand mixer if possible, as this dough becomes quite heavy and my arms aren’t that strong) until fluffy.
  3. Beat in eggs and molasses into the butter-sugar mixture. With the mixer on low, add flour until just combined.
  4. Divide dough into thirds, shape into discs and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, about an hour (and up to two days).
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Roll out one disc of dough on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Cut out shapes of your choice and spread two inches apart on your prepared baking sheets. Re-roll the scraps and cut out more cookies (they may have a more cracked appearance, but it will be covered in icing anyways.) If you don’t want your cookies to spread, refrigerate the sheets until firm, about 15 minutes. If not, it’s not the end of the world, but they might puff and lose a bit of their shape.
  7. Bake cookies about 12-14 minutes until crisp. Cool on a wire rack.
  8. When cool, ice and decorate as you please. If using sanding sugar, make sure to let the cookies dry for at least five minutes before tapping off excess sugar. I usually decorate all of my cookies and wait until the end to tap off excess sugar. It will probably take at least an hour for the icing to set at room temperature, but I’ve left them out for longer (just in case) and the cookies were fine.
  9. Store in an airtight container (between sheets of parchment or wax paper if you want to be safe) for up to a week. Broken cookies are inevitable, but they are still cookies, so eat them.

Recipe: The (im)perfect gingerbread

I readily admit to my cooking hubris. I will dive headfirst into a recipe if it sounds delicious, no matter how many comments I read warning of potential risks ahead. It’s not that I think of myself as an exceptionally skilled cook—I’m usually just hungry, and that’s enough to convince myself that the thing everyone said would go wrong couldn’t possibly go wrong when I do it.

Inevitably, the thing goes wrong, just like they said it would. And I never learn.

But sometimes the imperfections simply don’t matter because the end result is still impossibly perfect. This gingerbread from Gramercy Tavern is a prime example. Every single commenter raves about the flavor—but no one can get it out of the damn bundt pan.

Count me among them. 1/4 of my cake stayed inside the pan when I tried to turn it out, clinging to a gooey tar pit of sunken molasses. Nothing a little cake surgery (read: scraping bits off the bundt pan and smushing it back onto the cake) and a healthy dusting of powdered sugar couldn’t fix, because its craggy exterior contained the gingerbread of my dreams: boldly spiced, moist yet fluffy, dolloped with fresh whipped cream, and totally worth the risk. This is gingerbread as gingerbread should be.

Gingerbread (via Gramercy Tavern by way of Epicurious)
Yields 8-10 servings

1 cup oatmeal stout or Guinness Stout (I used Guinness)
1 cup molasses (Grandma brand worked just fine)
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cardamom
3 large eggs
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
Confectioners sugar for dusting
Unsweetened whipping cream for serving on the side

A 10-inch (10- to 12-cup) bundt pan

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. The original recipe says to “generously butter bundt pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess” but there are a number of pan preparation tricks in the comments. (I tried using butter and flour AND sugar, but might test using just sugar next time.)
  2. Boil stout and molasses together in a medium/large saucepan and remove from heat. Whisk in baking soda and cool to room temperature.
  3. Sift together flour, baking powder, and spices in a large bowl.
  4. Whisk together eggs and sugars in a medium bowl (might be a little pasty, but it will thin out.) Whisk oil, then molasses mixture. Add to flour mixture and whisk until just combined.
  5. Pour batter into prepared bundt pan and rap pan on the counter to minimize air bubbles.
  6. Bake in middle of oven until a toothpick comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 50 minutes.
  7. Cool cake in pan on a rack 5 minutes. Some commenters swear by a longer cooling time, others insist that cooling only 5 minutes allows the cake to turn out. Turn out onto rack and cool completely.
  8. While the cake cools, whip unsweetened whipping cream in an electric mixer until peaks form. You can add a little spice (like nutmeg) or vanilla, but I liked it plain to contrast the sweetness and spice of the cake.
  9. Dust cake with confectioner's sugar, using a sifter for an even, snowy look. Serve with whipped cream.

Recipe: Homemade hot chocolate mix

Despite spending many of my formative years in Canada, I have never fallen in love with winter. Perhaps it’s actually more Canadian of me to feel totally “over it” once the snow hits the ground (and the dreaded slush puddles form).

The one silver lining of the whole ordeal is that the freezing temps completely justify the mindless, excessive consumption of hot chocolate all winter long.

This hot chocolate mix is so easy to throw together. It’s just a few steps more than buying hot chocolate mix at the store, but unlike the store mix, you know exactly what ingredients are going into your cup. If you’re a baker, you likely have everything you need in your house already.

It makes a cute gift, packaged in mason jars with a little twine, greenery, and a gift tag. (I used the free tags they give out at Fishs Eddy, where I bought the jars. But if I was a fancier woman, I would buy fancy gift tags.)

That being said, I wouldn’t blame you if you kept a batch for yourself.

The mix lasts two months, long enough to keep you and yours warm through the dreary months to come the holiday season!

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix (via Smitten Kitchen, via Cook’s Illustrated)
Yields just under 1 3/4 cups mix, enough for 9 cups of cocoa

One recipe will fit in a 1 pint/2 cup jar. I doubled this recipe and divided into three 1/2 pint/1 cup jars. The mix will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two months. The links above provide variations if you’re a flavored hot chocolate person (I am not.)

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
3 oz semi- or bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup cocoa powder, any kind (but I’d go for the best you can find!)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract or seeds from a small segment of fresh vanilla bean
1/8 tsp fine sea salt or 1/4 tsp kosher salt

1. Blend all ingredients in a food processor until powdery (this will take a matter of seconds). If you don’t have a food processor, you can also chop or grate the chocolate as finely as you can and combine with the other ingredients. That’s it!
2. Heat one cup milk (I use whole, but you can use any milk you like, including coconut or nut milk) in a saucepan over medium heat until steamy. Add 3 tbsp mix and whisk over heat for another minute until dissolved. Pour into a mug and enjoy.

Recipe: Whipped brown butter

More often than not, attempting to get brunch with friends in New York is a process. You wrangle your group together. You pass dozens of Yelp suggestions back and forth in an ever-growing text chain, ultimately deciding on the much-buzzed-about spot that doesn’t take reservations (of course). You wait 45 minutes to an hour for your name to be called. Someone is always late, and they won’t seat you until you’ve all arrived. Suddenly it’s 4 pm and after spending $35 on pancakes and a mimosa—okay, a few mimosas—you're left reassessing your life choices.

And yet, I embrace the process. I’m a seasoned practitioner in the ways of brunch.

But now it’s winter, and it’s going to take a lot to get me to put pants on and leave the house, especially on a cold morning. I invited friends over for brunch last weekend at my tiny New York apartment instead, served atop a makeshift coffee table composed of a free, Craigslist-sourced Ikea side table pushed up against a multi-purpose cube I took home from a fashion week event. (This is what happens when a cheap 25-year-old tries to write about "lifestyle.")

I wanted to recreate a meal I had while visiting my hometown of Toronto. Emma’s Country Kitchen is a cozy, unassuming little bakery/restaurant in a neighborhood I rarely frequent, and yes, there is a wait. But I would return again and again for its buttery biscuits, house-cured Canadian bacon, and seasonal pancake menu. Each bite of the gingerbread pancakes I tried was a literal mouthful of holiday cheer—comforting, fluffy, and packed with warm winter spices.

My attempt? Not so much. I like to rest my pancake mix before cooking to meld the flavors and allow air bubbles to form. But I forgot to add melted butter until the last minute, mixing out all of the air bubbles in the process. The pancakes turned out dense, slightly gummy, and not as assertively spiced as I hoped.

Thankfully, the geniuses at Emma’s paired their pancakes with whipped brown butter, which turned out to be quite simple to recreate. I believe you could put this whipped brown butter and maple syrup on nearly anything and it would taste amazing. Even gummy pancakes.

Whipped Brown Butter (via The Kitchn)
Yields about 3/4 cup

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste

  1. Cut the sticks of butter into small cubes, reserving one stick’s cubes in a medium heatproof bowl.
  2. Melt the other stick in a cast iron pan or heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook the butter until it starts to brown—you can check by taking a small spoonful and checking for brown flecks. The foam will subside a bit and the butter will smell “nutty.”
  3. Take it off the heat before it burns and let it cool for a few minutes. If you forget to let it cool like I did, nothing bad will happen, I promise. It just might take on more of a waxy texture than whipped.
  4. Pour over the other stick of butter in the heatproof bowl and refrigerate immediately.
  5. After the butter cools, add salt and whip in a food processor or mixer until smooth.
  6. Slather on anything and everything. Pancakes, waffles, toast, green beans, mushrooms, cauliflower, carrots, or fish all sound like good ideas to me!

How to: Make a holiday wreath

Like many fun, fabulous twentysomethings living in New York, I spent a wild Friday night at home watching the new Gilmore Girls and attempting to make a wreath. My life is very glamorous and exciting.

My mom is a big wreath person. As long as I can remember, she has hung one on our door every year without fail. Me? I never thought about buying one, let alone making one. But in another attempt to cope with my post-election mental health (or lack thereof), I decided to double down on holiday cheer this year. I was scouting out some holiday greenery for my office desk when I passed by a wooden box marked "$2 Shrube" outside my favorite bodega, filled with branches cast off from the surrounding Christmas trees on sale.

I stuck some branches into a jar at work and called it a day. But what to do with all of the leftover "shrube"? Guided by Google and Martha Stewart, I figured it out:

How To Make a Holiday Wreath

Note to self: Never go to Michael's (Flatiron) on Dec. 1 for supplies ever again. Everyone and their mother is there in a CHRISTMAS PANIC.

Wreath ring (I used this one, choose the size/#of bands based on how big/heavy you want your wreath to be)
Floral wire
Scissors or wire cutter
Pine branches, cut into small/4" pieces leaving a bit of stem to wrap wire around
Small decorations (Baubles, ribbon, shiny things, whatever you please. I got these ornaments from Anthropologie, just take all my money already)
Newspaper to cover your work surface and catch pine needles
Command hook

  1. Cut a segment of floral wire around 1.5 ft and secure one end to a crossbar on the wreath ring by wrapping at least three times or making a knot.
  2. Starting from the inside band (if using a wreath ring with multiple bands), lay a pine branch piece on the ring and wrap together around the stem three times using the floral wire.
  3. Lay another piece on the ring so its needles cover the wrapped stem of the last piece. Attach this piece by wrapping the same piece of floral wire around the stem three times.
  4. Repeat in the same direction around the ring, working outwards until the wreath ring is covered in overlapping pine branch pieces. You can add more pieces to fill in holes or adjust the positioning of the branches, but don’t fuss too much or the needles will fall off! This step took me about one 90-min. episode of the new Gilmore Girls.
  5. Decorate the wreath as you fancy. I used floral wire to weave baubles in and out of the wreath until I liked the way it looked, making sure to secure both ends so they wouldn’t fall out.
  6. Hang your wreath. There are many ways to do this, but I found it easiest to use a small, clear command hook on my door and hang the wreath by its middle bar so it would conceal the hook.

There you have it!

Reasons why I shouldn't write

I am really, really good at coming up with reasons why I shouldn't start a blog, even though I have been thinking about doing so for years. For example:

  • I haven't written in years, therefore, I must be terrible at it.
  • My writer colleagues will discover my terrible writing and fire me. I will agree with their decision because they are brilliant.
  • Do people still blog? Or is everyone just an Instagram model now?
  • I will never be an Instagram model.
  • I don't have a fancy camera. I have an iPhone 5S for goodness' sake. Isn't it required to have a fancy camera to start a blog?
  • I want to write about things that make me happy: cooking, baking, crafts, arts, and travel. "Lifestyle," they call it. But I don't think my "lifestyle" is that desirable. Above average, maybe (living in New York City doing my dream job for the past three years), but still a struggle (getting by in New York City on a non-profit salary.) My lifestyle is probably fine but falls short of what I imagine Jefferey Garten's is like, or that of a golden retriever puppy belonging to a rich family.
  • Aren't "lifestyle bloggers" kind of perfect and annoying?

I am not good at turning off my inner critic. Believing in yourself is difficult! But for the first time in a long time, I don't just want to write—I need to write. Post-election despair has hit me hard and in order to cope, I'm trying to put my nervous energy into things that make me happy. If we're all living in a dystopian universe anyways, I might as well do what I want while I can.

Plus, if every single cast member of The Bachelor can have a blog, then I can totally do it. If a small-town aesthetician with a dream can do it, why not me? Who said The Bachelor wasn't empowering for women?

Maybe I've listened to the Hamilton soundtrack too many times, but I can't get this line out of my head: How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive? / How do you write like you need it to survive? Perhaps my writing will be as terrible or annoying as I fear, but it's something I need to do. These days, I'm feeling like I have very little to lose—and that's enough to tell my inner critic to shut up. It's my turn to speak.

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