Holiday Cut-Out Cookies | the vanilla bean blog
This past weekend the kids and I headed to my sister’s house for a cookie decorating party. It was really a few hours to eat cookie dough and spill sprinkles all over Auntie’s floor, but we all sure had fun anyway. This December has been rather odd for me; our house troubles are still ongoing (we are now currently gutting our entire basement and can’t run our furnace in freezing Minneapolis) and my father-in-law has temporarily moved in with us for a bit (to help with said basement and spend time with the kids). All those things combined make me feel slightly displaced – our home still doesn’t feel like ‘home’ to us as we struggle with trying to find root problems and share space. My facebook feed has also been filled with tragedy this past week, adding another layer of sadness. I’ve been listening to a lot of holiday music, finding solace in lyrics of Christmas cheer and hidden thoughtfulness.

The table is set
And all glasses are full
The pieces go missing
May we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
Cause life without revision will silence our souls

 So we sing carols softly
As sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope
-Sleeping At Last, Snow

Speaking of Holiday music, my Best of Christmas vol. 3 is now up on 8tracks! You can find Best of Christmas vol. 1 and vol. 2 there also. (Check out Eustace the Dragon’s cover of Justice Delivers Its Gift on vol. 3 – I’m in love with their version. Also! they have a holiday EP out now. It’s worth every dollar.)

And this made me chuckle: James Thurber pens “A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER” for The New Yorker, December 24, 1927.

Also: 51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature to cure a bad day.
holiday cut-out cookies | the vanilla bean blog

holiday cut-out cookies | the vanilla bean blog

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maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

Pure Green Magazine’s latest issue (volume 9) is themed family life, and I’m very happy to have a piece about life in the kitchen with my children tucked away in its pages. If you haven’t heard of Pure Green, I highly recommend heading over and taking a peek. Each issue contains thoughtful articles and beautiful photography, and there is also a blog and podcast to check out.
maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

Winter and I had a lot of fun making these scones. It was one of the last recipes photographed in our previous house, so we were a bit teary-eyed when the article came out; all those memories we weren’t quite ready to recall yet. The recipe for these scones can be found here, although I used the folding technique found here to put them together. They are tasty made either way.

And, I’ve slowly been putting together some Holiday Guides over on Pinterest. There is a Gift Guide, a Gift Guide for Children, and a Baking Guide, if you’d like to follow along. I’ll be adding a lot more to them as the season progresses. And, the gorgeous bowl featured in the photographs is from Wind and Willow Home.
maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

crème fraîche | the vanilla bean blog
I’ve been making crème fraîche the same way for years: heavy cream and a little bit of buttermilk shaken in a jar, then left on the counter for 24 hours. I’ve changed my method, however, after coming across Renee Erickson’s version in her book A Boat, A Whale, & A Walrus. Here larger amounts of cream and buttermilk are whisked together, then covered in cheesecloth and left on the counter for 2-3 days. It may seem like a subtle difference, but 72 hours later I was greeted with the creamiest, dreamiest crème fraîche that I had ever made. It was rich and slightly tangy, and I was ready to dollop and smear it on everything within reaching distance.

Ms. Erickson’s book is quite beautiful, and I respected it even more after reading the introduction. “I’m…not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” After working 15+ years in retail, coffeeshops, and kitchens I may have uttered a ‘thank you!’ upon reading those words.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of A Boat, A Whale, & A Walrus!

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chocolate chip cookies (wheat free) | the vanilla bean blog
It is nap time. The little ones are quiet, and I am hoping they are asleep. I sit down to breathe, to take time to be still. Almost simultaneously it comes – the near audible whisper, a voice from within, from above. It is time for chocolate. I feel amused when I hear the call, but still give in to my afternoon addiction. My feet find the floor and my hands the highest cupboard. There it lays, nestled behind looming bottles of olive oil and vermouth, out of sight to a quick observer. I stand on tip-toe, grabbing for the shiny silver tinfoil. Two pieces of dark bittersweet break into my hands; the brown-black squares stand out against my pale freckled skin. I seat myself again, quietly biting into the segments.

There, finally, is the silence I was searching for; precious moments are spiritualized as the chocolate washes over me. I reach back into my memory, and the past is quickly present as the chocolate calls out to the sweet. My husband and I are still; his arms wrapped around me. Some call it afterglow, but I see black cocoa blooming in steaming coffee, waiting to cool slightly before being whisked completely smooth. My mind finds another moment, and there is an old wooden church pew, well-worn with sincere hearts. I sit quietly in its comfort, resting in the torn pink cushions, and my questions are silenced for one flitting moment. I recall my first bite of chocolate pudding cake: the velvety silk silences me instantly.

But as quickly as the sweet came it is gone, my hands are empty as the squares sink inside me. I am not satisfied; I remember there are more pieces, whispering to me again from the cupboard. I try to ignore them, but the bitter flavor is now center stage, and its aftertaste lingering. My mind is  racing while my husband sleeps, and I am longing for what I can’t put words to, trying to keep doors inside me safely locked. I am seated in the pew again, but now I am lamenting and questioning: a dear friend left this earth too soon, her body unable to keep her here any longer. There are no answers, just clanging voices calling out to the sky.

But my chocolate-inspired daze is cut short. My daughter is calling to me. I walk the stairs to her room, open the door and lean in close to her face. She recognizes the scent on my breath, and to her it only brings to mind scenes of sweetness. Her innocent eyes ask me the question, and we smile at each other as I gather her in my arms. We climb down the stairs and settle in on the couch. I break off two more pieces and we eat them together.
chocolate chip cookies (wheat free) | the vanilla bean blog
(Whatever we’ve lost
I think we’re gonna let it go
Let it fall
Like snow

‘Cause rain and leaves
And snow and tears and stars
And that’s not all my friend
They all fall with confidence and grace
So let it fall,

let it fall.

-over the rhine)

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s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
I spent an afternoon looking through cookbooks with my daughter, and she immediately gravitated toward this s’more cake. So we made it. I used my favorite chocolate layer cake, then coated it in marshmallow-like frosting and crushed graham crackers. It was a sticky mess, as the delicate chocolate cake crumbled all over the frosting, the meringue did not streak into beautiful tall peaks as I had imagined, and then the top scorched under the broiler. I was just about to shelve the recipe when I tasted a small  piece that had broken off at the edge. Instantly my mind wandered to junior high sleepovers where there was always a boxed mix and a can of frosting for midnight cake baking; summer camp nights with friends, singing around the fire and scorching our fingers while we gobbled down burnt marshmallows and melty chocolate, and that Friday afternoon in 10th grade when I started an epic cake fight in my American history class. There was confetti and smashed bits of cake covering everyone and everything and I was grounded from the car for weeks, but I never regretted throwing that first piece. In other words, this cake was amazing.
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
smore cake4 (1 of 1)blogsize
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
Imperfection has an important place in the kitchen. I had forgotten the beauty of hands, shirts, and dishtowels covered in frosting, lopsided cake layers, and chocolate crumbs scattered all over my counter in a delicious mess.

“Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun.” – Julia Child

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Apple Almond Tart | The Vanilla Bean Blog
You might have noticed I’ve had a slew of cookbook giveaways here lately. This summer my inbox was filled with announcements for new cookbooks, and offers to send me a copy or two. I could hardly say no; they were all books I had on my wishlist. Also, getting books in the mail might just be the best thing ever.

It also happened to work out well for my personal life – we were in the middle of a move when the emails rolled in, and here was a string of books with beautiful recipes I could pick from and post about. After our move we settled in to our home only to have major troubles: I was allergic to the musty air in a basement crawl space, and having asthma-like attacks because of it. The last two months have been terribly stressful; so many visits to the doctor, dozens of people in and out of our house trying to give us advice and sell us something that may or may not work, side effects and allergic reactions to medication, and burning anxiety that has kept me up at night, many nights. I’ve spent most my life not thinking about breathing, and after having the feeling of not catching a breath for days, it was all I could think about. That, and of course, what happens if that next breath just isn’t there? Analyzing your thoughts on the afterlife at 2 in the morning night after night only triggers panic, I’ve come to discover.

Ah the breath of life is simple. It’s in and out and in again.* There were kind arms to turn over into, someone to catch me those late nights when I thought I might just roll out of my bed and off of this earth.  So we’re here, trying to remember how to breathe. Luckily this week has brought some calm, some real help. A doctor’s visit with answers, and ten whole days with no medication. Some words to hold tight to. In the midst of it all is the simple fact that things don’t always work out just the way you think they should. Those days may be frustrating as hell, but I’m thankful I’m here to spend those minutes just the same.
Apple Almond Tart | The Vanilla Bean Blog
“This business of being a human being is infinitely more fraught than I was led to believe. When my son Sam figured out at 7 years old that he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he said, ‘If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.’ That says it for me. It’s hard here, and weird. The greatness of love and laughter, the pain of loss, the bearing of one another’s burdens, are all mixed up, like the crazy catch-all drawer in the kitchen.” – Anne Lamott

(To enter the giveaway for the At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen Cookbook: leave a comment on this post with your name and email. I’ll pick a winner next week!)

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Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Autumn Harvest Breakfast Bread | The Vanilla Bean Blog
This Autumn Breakfast Bread is from Amanda Paa’s new book Smitten With Squash. It’s a lovely little book, celebrating that underappreciated vegetable, with knowledgeable tips and creative recipes. I’m giving away one copy of her book – leave your name and email in the comment section to enter.

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Izy's Swedish Chocolate Cake | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Every time I get a new cookbook in the mail, my daughter and I curl up on the couch and page through it together. We start at the very beginning, and I tell her about the author(s), and all the ingredients and tools that are recommended, and then we page through each chapter. We go through the titles of each recipe, and she responds with either little hands clapping and squeals of ‘let’s make that for my birthday, please?!’ or a wrinkled nose and a head shaking no. ‘I don’t think I’d want to eat that Mom.”
Izy's Swedish Chocolate Cake | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Izy's Swedish Chocolate Cake | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Izy' Swedish Chocolate Cake | The Vanilla Bean Blog
Izy’s book came in the mail a few weeks ago, and we sat down to look at it together. I spent a little extra time bragging about Izy (She was in high school when she wrote this book! She’s only 18! I met her and she is as lovely as you’d think she is! Aren’t her photographs beautiful?!) to my daughter, and then we decided what to make first. [W] was excited about almost every recipe and picture, but we settled on this dangerous, one-pot wonder chocolate cake. We weren’t disappointed.

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sunday suppers gathering
This past weekend I hosted a City Picnic in celebration of the Sunday Suppers, Recipes + Gatherings Cookbook by Karen Mordechai. I stumbled upon Sunday Suppers a few years ago on Instagram; a gorgeous feed filled with pictures from Karen’s Brooklyn studio. There I saw many of my favorite food bloggers and photographers hosting and participating in gatherings and sessions. I tried not to be envious, wishing plane tickets weren’t quite so expensive. But they are, so I looked on from a distance, happy to watch others partake.

When Karen asked me if I’d like to host a small gathering for her cookbook launch, I replied ‘yes!’ with no hesitation. A few months later I found myself on the lawn just outside the Gutherie Theater in Downtown Minneapolis, sharing a lovely city picnic with a few good friends and all our little ones. The sun was blazing but we were tucked under trees, basking in shade and a perfect menu, straight from the pages of the book. My children asked me all week long if we could ‘go back to the picnic again’, which I took as a sign of a really good day, tucked away in their memories. It will be in mine.
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
sunday suppers gathering
City Picnic Menu:
Nigella Chicken Pies with Baby Carrots
Rice, Zucchini, and Feta Frittata with Fennel Pollen Yogurt
Burrata Salad with Spicy Cauliflower Relish and Crostini
Fennel Slaw with Pickled Red Onions, Raisins, Hazelnuts, and Mint
Tomato and Cantaloupe Salad
sunday suppers cookbook