Pain d'Amande, On Demand

It's impossible for me to approach this time of year without thinking about baking. It's time to fatten up, after all. I do try to take precautions against an expanding waistline, but it's rough. I went to the gym for the first time in months a couple Mondays ago (haven't been back since). I've gone back to my rule of not going back for seconds at dinnertime, eating open-face sandwiches for lunch, and not letting myself impulse-buy any gummy bears from the vending machine (a strange but fortunately short-term obsession I had recently).

But perhaps the most effective revelation I had of late toward keeping these things under control was the fact that I don't have to make all the cookies at once! I kind of forgot that this is an option with some cookies, where you make the dough and bake cookies in an on-demand style, or even freeze dough for a snow-day emergency.

Butter and cinnamon whirlpool
This recipe for Pain d'Amande, or almond wafers, allows you to do just that. They are simple little biscotti that are light and crunchy. I used Turbinado sugar, which made them extra crunchy, but the original recipe calls for Demerara sugar, or brown sugar, which I didn't have but I'm sure makes them a little less brittle. Either way, brittle is the point of these kinds of cookies so that you may dunk them in a cup of coffee or tea.


Pain d'Amande
Adapted from Biscotti

5 T. + 1 tsp. water
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 c. Turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw)
4 1/2 oz. sliced raw almonds
300 g. or 2 c. + 2 T. all-purpose flour
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt

Warm water, butter and cinnamon in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter has melted. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp.

Transfer butter mixture to a large mixing bowl and gently stir in the sugar and almonds.

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet, mixing with a spatula until they are well combined and form a stiff dough. Divide the dough and shape into two rectangular loafs. I think you could wing this part as long as the loaf is no taller than an inch, and you know that when you slice it, it will form a 1"x6" cookie, give or take. Wrap the loaves with parchment and then plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or stick one or both into the freezer for a date as far as two months from now.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice the loaves into quarter-inch slices (or slightly less). Evenly space cookies on parchment-lined cookie sheets, leaving 1-2 inches between each cookie. Bake 10-15 minutes, until they begin to turn slightly golden. Leave them on the sheet as they cool to crisp up. Store in a sealed container for a week or so.


For the ages

I know how people love their slow cookers, a.k.a. crockpots. I love mine, too. But I can't usually say any of my slow cooker recipes are my favorites. It's the convenience I love, the aroma that greets me when I come home from work. But if I want to do anything right, I tell myself, I do it in a more attended fashion. Even so, on pretty much any day, a slow-cooker meal sounds just fine, especially when it means fewer dishes to do and more time to doodle around doing other things.

Breaking news, though: I've recently learned that the way to make slow-cooker recipes truly delicious, venturing into favorite-dish territory, is when you don't just dump the ingredients into the pot, e.g., you brown the meat and/or vegetables in a saute pan beforehand. This is kind of killing my understanding of why you'd want a crockpot, but these fussier recipes are much more intriguing to me, even if they require a bit of prep work first thing in the morning.

So early one Wednesday morning I chopped onion, fried bacon, and let spices bloom into my freshly washed hair before heading out to work, and all day I wondered how this recipe for black bean soup now sitting in the crockpot would compare to other recipes I've tried on the stovetop. I'll tell you: it's now my black bean soup for the ages. Totally worth the early-morning effort and the strange looks from coworkers when they get a whiff of cumin every time they get near you.

The recipe is adapted from an eye-catching turquoise cookbook called I [heart] My Slow Cooker by Beverly LeBlanc.

Smoky & Spicy Black Bean Soup

1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. chopped smoked bacon
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 T. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
3 1/2 c. vegetable stock, plus extra, if needed
1 1/4 c. dry black beans
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. dried thyme
1 dried chipotle pepper

Heat 1 T. olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. When slick and shimmering, lower the heat to low and add the bacon, frying for 1-2 minutes until the fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Transfer the bacon to the slow cooker with a slotted spoon.

Pour off any excess fat from the pan, but leave about 1 tablespoon. Add the onion and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, cloves and cayenne and let the flavors bloom for 2 or so minutes, until the onion is soft.

Add the stock, beans, oregano, thyme, and chipotle and bring to a vigorous boil for 10 minutes. Transfer all the contents to the slow cooker and add extra stock or water to just cover the beans, if necessary.

Cover and cook on low for 10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Remove the chipotle chili. Using a blender or immersion blender, puree a portion of the soup (about half, or eyeball it if you're using the immersion blender) and reincorporate it back in the pot, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with garnishes and a nice cold Pacifico with lime!

For garnish, consider:

lime juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
feta or cotija
greek yogurt or sour cream
chopped cilantro
chopped cherry tomatoes or red bell pepper


Pretzel time

There are few snack foods that top pretzels in this life of mine. Popcorn and a good cheese platter are in the upper ranks, but ever since I was small, I've kept a permanent place on my palate for pretzels. It all started with an old ice bucket on my Oma's counter that was always stocked with tiny twists and sometimes sticks. In junior high, I used to microwave those frozen cardboard knots known as Super Pretzels, which you would sprinkle with water and salt before zapping them to Super Perfection. I got so sick of them that I usually steer clear of them now. Then Pretzel Time came into my life at the Boise Towne Square Mall, which offered those flabby, doughy pretzels with the golden brown crust coated with an irresistible, buttery dew. Then I had my first real Bavarian pretzel in Munich, and though it was much drier than what I would find at my American mall, I loved that taste of its deep, dark mahogany crust. Today, my pretzel nirvana is often just a bag of Rold Gold, occasionally dressed up with cheese (E-Z cheese included) or mustard.

I've made pretzels a few times from scratch, and while they've turned out okay, they always seem to be missing that quintessential pretzel taste - that caramelized, smoky aroma. I really liked Smitten Kitchen's recipe for soft pretzels, but they too lacked the outer pretzel taste and deeply colored crust I was looking for. Then one day I was at Auntie's Bookstore, killing time before trivia night, and I saw this:

An entire book devoted to pretzels, with the exact type of pretzel I wanted to perfect pictured on the front cover?! Sold.

This book is hardcore in that it calls for food-grade lye in the cooking water. Other differences from past recipes: butter, beer, and barley malt syrup are in this dough. That's the ticket.

I was so anxious to make these that I forewent the lye solution and used the other listed option of baked baking soda (bake 1/4 c. baking soda for an hour at 250 degrees in an aluminum pie tin, or any oven proof container covered with aluminum foil). I also couldn't get my hands on the barley malt syrup quite yet so I used another substitute of brown sugar. Also, the pilsner it called for was not in my fridge, but Pacifico was, so that went in its place, too. Needless to say, I didn't follow the recipe exactly, but the fact that I got so much closer to the right taste makes me excited to try the real deal soon.

It's worth noting that you should plan to make the dough the day before you want to eat the pretzels to allow the dough a full 24 hours to develop a nice flavor.

Basic pretzel recipe
the "I-can't-wait-to-buy-the-right-ingredients" version
Adapted from Pretzel Making at Home

Makes 8
(or halve this recipe to make 4)

2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
1 T. firmly packed brown sugar (or barley malt syrup)
3 1/4 c. (420 g) unbleached all-purpose or bread flour (I used AP)
1/2 c. cold light beer, like Pacifico, or a pilsner for echt deutsche Brezeln
2 T. unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for greasing bowl
2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/4 c. of baked baking soda (see note above)
Topping of choice, like a nice crunchy salt and/or poppyseed

Day 1: mixing and proofing
This is a good time to bake your baking soda while you do the other prep work. After it cools, place it in an air-tight container until you use it tomorrow.

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in your mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar or syrup and let it sit 5-7 minutes until the yeast is foamy. Stir in the flour, beer, butter and salt until it forms a shaggy dough. Attach a dough hook to your standing mixer and let it knead the dough at a medium-low speed for 5-8 minutes. The dough should be smooth and slightly tacky, not dry or wet. Add a little extra flour or water if it's not the right consistency after 5 minutes. You can, of course, just knead this by hand.

Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl, large enough to hold the dough after it's doubled in size. You can technically wait a couple hours with the dough at room temperature or warm place and keep going, but I strongly suggest you stick it in the fridge and finish the next day. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap or a lid and let it become what it needs to be.

Day 2: the day you've waited for
Line two large baking sheets with parchment and set aside.

Turn the dough out to an unfloured work surface and divide it into eight equal pieces. Take one piece and pat it into a small rectangle, about 3x5". Roll it up, lengthwise, and continue rolling a rope, starting at the center and working your way out. At this point, the rope will likely shrink back but that's okay. Just set it aside for now and repeat this process with the other seven. Return to the first and, now that it's a bit more relaxed, roll it out to 12-16", and then, when it's ready to go further, keep going to 24-28". The middle should be fatter than the ends.

Holding each end of the rope, forming a "U," quickly bring your hands together to make the dough cross a couple times. You'll probably need to practice this, but if you want, you can just lay it on the work surface and manually cross the arms. Fold the ends down to complete the pretzel shape, allowing the ends to hang 1/4" inch off the bottom. Place each finished pretzel on the parchment lined sheet and cover with a damp towel.

Let the pretzels rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 500 degrees at least 20 minutes before the pretzels go in the oven.

Heat a large pot with 8 cups of water and the baked baking soda (or lye) to boiling, then, after the baking soda completely dissolves, reduce the heat to a gentle, constant simmer.

Place one or two pretzels into the cooking liquid, and using a slotted spoon, flip them after 10 seconds, then remove them after another 10 seconds and place back on the parchment-lined sheet. They should be floating the whole time they're in the water.

Once all the pretzels have taken their baths, slash the fat bottom portion with a sharp paring knife, brush them with an egg wash (egg yolk + tsp. water) and sprinkle with desired toppings.

Bake the pretzels until they are that beautiful mahogany color, 8-12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Transfer pretzels to cooling rack and wait 10 minutes before tearing one open.

If possible, eat these the day they are made, particularly if you've salted them (the salt eventually liquifies if you store them for more than a day). Keep them at room temperature, uncovered, for up to 12 hours, then store them for a couple days in an air-tight container. You could also freeze them for a month.



The first time I attempted making that beautifully fragrant and savory Vietnamese beef noodle soup known as Pho was in my tiny kitchen in Browne's Addition. Leading up to that moment were a couple of years peppered with visits to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Van, where I came to love the comforting broth, particularly on rainy days. Pho seems like a dish you don't try on your own; you go with a guide who shows you what to do with all the trimmings placed aside your steaming bowl. A friend of mine showed me her way of eating it, which has since been my way, and is what I hope is kind of the general way to do it because it's dang good. A smattering of freshly torn basil leaves, a squeeze or two of lime, a daring toss of thinly sliced chilis, and a light topping of bean sprouts are mixed in at the last minute with some sriracha to taste. To me, that is the ultimate.

Feeling completely capable at age 25 with blossoming cooking skills, I ventured to try pho on my own stovetop, and I found a recipe that required a trip to the Asian food market. It was a recipe of sheer discovery. It was the first time I'd ever bought fish sauce, as well as some star anise which I had never seen before, along with the other aromatics and garnishes. I also remember how the meat it called for freaked me out. A couple recipes called for oxtails or beef marrow. I think I ultimately settled on some good beef broth and some eye of the round. I had a dull knife and it felt like the prep work took forever. 

This photo says it all. My eyes were burning from chopping onion so I held a piece a bread in my mouth (an old trick I learned from my Oma). You can see the fresh bottles of sriracha and hoisin sauce on the shelf to my left, the yet unopened fish sauce barely in the frame in the bottom right corner. 

I put so much love and care - and money - into this dish. I was being adventurous! When my friend and I sat down to eat it, however, there was just something missing. It was massively disappointing. I swore I would never try it again. I remember dumping that entire bottle of fish sauce down the drain when I moved out of that apartment a couple years later, and oh, how that sink smelled for days. Good riddance.

Sometimes it just takes time and a little more experience to try these things again, and here we are, seven years later. Thanks again to that ever-reliable Vermonter Christopher Kimball and his America's Test Kitchen empire for making a good-enough version of my beloved soup that I was willing to try. Their recipe was much simpler, did not require a special trip to the Asian market or a dent in my paycheck. These days I use fish sauce and sriracha more regularly so I already had them on hand. 

Of course, I'm happy to let this be inferior to what you'd get in a Vietnamese restaurant, but at least this doesn't leave me wanting, like the last time. It's among my favorite feel-good remedies when I'm suffering a cold of any kind, be it health or weather related, but for those times I don't want to go out, this will be a nice alternative.

Stay home and treat yo'self in a matter of minutes (this recipe goes really quick).

It's not much to look at in the dark evening light, but it really does the trick.

Vietnamese Pho with Beef
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen's The Best Simple Recipes

8 c. chicken broth
1 2-in. piece of ginger, peeled, halved length-wise, and smashed with a meat pounder
3 2.5-in. strips of lime zest
1/2 tsp. five-spice powder
8 oz. rice noodles
1 lb. sirloin steak tips (or tri-tip works OK, too), trimmed and sliced thin
3 T. fish sauce
1 tsp. Asian chili-garlic sauce
4 scallions, sliced thin
1/4 c. fresh cilantro leaves

For garnish, to taste
Mung bean sprouts
Lime wedges
Basil leaves, freshly torn

Bring broth, ginger, lime zest and five-spice powder to boil in a Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add noodles and cook until nearly tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in beef and simmer until cooked through and noodles have finished cooking, about 2 minutes.

Off heat, remove the lime zest and ginger with a slotted spoon or tongs. Stir in the chili-garlic sauce and fish sauce, followed by the scallions and cilantro. Ladle into bowls and garnish as desired. May need a little salt, depending on the broth.


A word of thanks

This post is just to thank you for reading this blog. I know how crowded the internet is and the sheer quantity of things a person could consume. Whatever brought you here, whether you're a regular subscriber or you've simply stumbled on my Pflaum Kuchen recipe (one of the top ways people find this blog, apparently) and decided to poke around a little, thank you.

Blogs (both my own and others') are like safe, quiet places for me. I can be myself without being too self-conscious, but the idea that someone out there might read something I've written pushes me to keep getting better. These posts do take time and I put my heart into many of them,usually without thinking about how I'll grow my readership or build my personal brand, which is what blogs have largely become. Most of the time I have no idea who's reading and then out of the blue, someone will mention something I wrote here. That feels great (and also a little like I've been caught).

And for as long as I've kept a blog (starting with my first post here, back in 2006), I don't think I've ever stopped to just thank you, the reader, for being part of this in some way.

Thank you so very much.


Book Report II

It has been exactly one year since I posted my last book report (see it here), and I'm pleased to have averaged one book per month this past year, even though one of them took me all winter (see the fourth book listed and you'll understand). It was a good mix this time - a number of classics, a couple I've been wanting to get around to based on recommendations, and a few that were basically hot off the press. I'm not elaborating much here in the interest of mental energy, but I'd be happy to discuss them more if you're interested. Let me know any favorites of yours I should add to this year's list!

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: A coming-of-age story set at a 1970s creative arts camp that weaves the present generations with the past. Kind of unbelievable, kind of pretentious, but if you take it for what it represents in finding your place in the crowd, and the complexities of responding to the kind of peer pressure that allows you to reinvent yourself, it’s worth a read.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: This book was recommended to me by several people, and it was probably the most delightful of this bunch. My only complaint was that for the creativity of the storytelling mechanisms (i.e., email messages between characters), there wasn’t much variety in voice or tone. Everyone was a little too clever. But I got sucked in.

The Dinner by Herman Koch: About halfway through this book, I started asking myself, “Am I supposed to like anyone in this book?” The answer is no. Nevertheless, a great anti-hero story that is compelling and complicated. I love the structure, which uses the various courses of a dinner at a fancy restaurant in moving the story along.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: This was a bucket-list book. I read the unabridged version, though I abridged it a bit on my own, skimming past a bit of the deep historical set-up. I will never regret having read this book, or how sore my hands and wrists got while trying to keep a 3-pound book out of the bathwater. Having been so familiar with the story (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber), reading this book allowed me to grapple with the moral quandaries of Jean Valjean and Marius in a much more profound way. The ending brought me to tears, not only because I was so proud of myself for getting there, but because I had truly experienced something divine.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro: This was my first dive into the beautiful world of Munro’s prose. It won’t be my last. I sunk so far into some of her stories that days later, I was thinking back on them as though they had really happened to someone I knew.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: It’s hard for me to read books like this that base themselves on actual events and writing, and on as much as we know of historical figures’ characters. Still, I truly admire those who write them, and I thus try to read them without wondering how true a scene was to the actual event. This was based on the accounts of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and I loved the portrayal of her as a strong, practical woman who was nevertheless insecure in her love for her husband. I read this as much for the portrayal of Paris in the 1920s, which is an era and a place to which I would love to take a time machine.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: This was a re-read because it didn’t stick with me the first time, but I can’t say it stuck with me much the second time, other than the fragmented style of storytelling and my continued disinterestedness in it. However, there were a few lines that I found to be quite lovely, like "...how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked."

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill: When I first picked up this book, I thought it had to do with 9/11 and how a Dutch family copes with relocating to New York, but that was hardly it. I read a review that likened it more to a modern-day Great Gatsby, and the more I thought of that comparison, the more it seemed to fit. The main character, a Dutch guy, hooks in with a cricket club in New York, and there’s a lingering mystery about its leader. Totally bizarre. But I kind of liked it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I loved this book. We live in a world that markets countless ways to keep us looking young, and this is that classic story that shows how that obsession can eat one’s soul. I love Oscar Wilde for writing things so dark and humorous (though this was lighter on humor). 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I cried twice while reading books this year. Les Miserables was the first, and this was the second. It might be one of my top 10 of all time. There is so much to this book, from the haunting images to the unlikely relationships, to the beautiful symbolism of the Goldfinch painting – and the writing was just so elegant and still approachable. If you haven’t read this, you must.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: This was a fun read that made me wish I knew the city of Oakland a bit better. It reminded me a bit of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a record store is practically one of the characters, along with the soundtrack it provides along the way – in this case, it was a lot of jazz.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson: I was aching for some good nonfiction and this totally delivered. I’ve loved Bryson’s writing for years, and this was a lovely return to his fascinating and approachable encyclopedic research. It is all about the summer of 1927 – the baseball, the tabloid scandals, the mob, the bootlegging, the electric chair, the strangest president, and the sad life of Charles Lindbergh. And so much more. You have to read it to believe it.



I don't know what got into me, but I'm on a roll. I knit two hats in one month. One as a gift, another for me (the yellow one, so people can see me when I'm out with the dog on dark mornings). Now that I've remembered how quick and satisfying they are to make, even when the pattern is moderately complicated, I am kind of thinking it's all I want to knit anymore. Who wants one? (Just kidding. Christmas is coming and I'm all queued up.)

"Hammer Time" slouch hat

Lotus hat
I've been getting over my first cold of the year and am trying to settle back into my regular routines. But we just enjoyed a quick weekend of sports in Seattle (my first time at Safeco and CenturyLink!), and now that we're back home I'd love to hole up for a spell with a hot beverage and basket of yarn and fancy magazines. Lazy, lazy. But productive! These are the times to pull out that old Maurice Chevalier record and let him sing to you in his jolly way, "Enjoy it!