Just the thing

Five years ago, my friend Molly wrote a book. She wasn't “my friend Molly” back then, not yet; just the voice behind the blog I’d discovered right before that book came out. I was recovering at the time from all that crazy brain stuff, still a couple of surgeries away from a fully intact skull, and on medical leave from graduate school. I’d recently started my own blog, this one, because I needed a project, and because for reasons I couldn't yet explain, occupying myself with food and writing felt like just the thing.

I didn't read blogs of any kind before I got sick; I didn't know food blogs existed. This was 2009 already, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The whole thing was a revelation: people sharing food and stories on the internet, like one sprawling dinner party, tables and chairs for miles. I did a lot of clicking around and determined that blogs were primarily records. Of days, of recipes, of photographs. A blog was a place to get things down, a jewel box of sorts for collecting favorites, a hub for sharing and connecting with likeminded people. Then I found Molly’s site, Orangette, and learned that a blog could also be something else: a space you turn into something; a kind of studio where you could go to make art.

The subject of Molly’s art – her writing, photos, and recipes – was everyday life. From where I sat in early 2009, that was huge, since illness had put such a giant wedge between me and my own. I missed the big things plenty: studying, teaching, runs along the river. But more than any of that, I missed my everyday. I missed waking up early, comfortable in my bed and in my body, contemplating the leftovers in my fridge and a second life for them beneath fried eggs; I missed kneading challah dough on Friday afternoons, carrying a heavy stack of dishes and a fistful of silverware to the table, standing around in the kitchen with Eli at the end of the night scraping plates, rinsing glasses, wiping down counters.

It's clear to me now that starting a blog and filling it with food, making something of the bits of normal life that were slowly sprouting up again, was my way of registering these things, really seeing them, and believing in them once again. Of course it was! But back then I didn’t have a clue. In fact, I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps a bit weird, this writing about and photographing my everyday. Molly made it feel less weird (or made me feel less alone in the weird) not least because she showed me what it looked like to do it really, really well.

So I sent her an e-mail: a short piece of fan mail on the day her book came out. And Molly, because she is very lovely and also a little insane – it was her publication day!! – wrote me back right away. She started reading my site, which meant a lot, and somewhere along the line, through e-mails, phone calls, and in-person visits on her coast and mine, we became friends.

About three years ago, Molly and her husband Brandon and I spent a couple of days at a house on a lake outside of Seattle. I was pregnant with Mia at the time and getting started on my book proposal, and Molly had just sold her second book, Delancey, to her publisher. We talked a lot on that visit about the stories we tell, why they matter, if they matter, about the process of getting them down (owwwww!), and the preliminary nuggets – memories, scenes, ideas – that were driving our respective projects. We've kept these conversations going over the years, and it’s the highest praise I can think of when I say that reading Delancey, which came out last week, felt exactly like those conversations: Molly being her smart, funny, thoughtful self, figuring things out as she goes, discovering what’s what through the stories she tells. I could hear her putting things together bit by bit as I turned the pages which, when I'm reading, is my favorite thing to hear.

Delancey the book is named for Delancey the restaurant that Molly and Brandon opened almost five years ago. All of these photos, if you haven’t already guessed, are from our visits there. The book is about the collision of their marriage with that restaurant and what came of it, for better and for worse. (Spoiler alert: Mostly for better.) It’s about how the things we make, make us. It is also, I think, about discovering our stories as we live them, learning to understand them, and ourselves through them. Oh, and it’s about pizza, too, of course. (Did I mention, Delancey’s a pizza restaurant? And that Brandon’s pizza is THE BEST?!) By the end of the book I was ready to consume an entire Delancey pie. Preferably the crimini, like so:

Congratulations, Molly, and thank you, for so much inspiration.

Freddie

World, meet Freddie.

She was born in a flash on Sunday, March 23, at 9:12 pm. (As in, from 6 cm dilated to a baby in the room in 12 minutes flat. TA DA!!!) She flopped around on my belly for a bit, sneezed twice, just as Mia did upon arrival two and a half years ago, then settled in for some milk, a cuddle, and a snooze. She weighed 6 lbs. 13 oz. and was 19 inches long.

We're all feeling great. Really, really great. And super proud of the girl we loved first.

You want to get to Freddie, you've gotta get through THIS:

Last Sunday, together with a living room full of family and friends, we gave Freddie her name: Frieda Rose Schleifer. She's named for my great-great aunt Frieda, also "Freddie" to the people who knew her best, who just weeks before she died in 2008 at the age of 97, was on the phone with Eli discussing Walter Isaacson's book on Benjamin Franklin, and David McCullough's 1776. Rose is for Aunt Frieda's mother, my great-great grandmother, a woman I'd heard about, but never met. In our tradition, you get a Jewish name too, so our Frieda Rose is also Frayda Nitzan. The Yiddish, Frayda, comes from the word "frayd," which means "joy." Nitzan is the Hebrew word for bud, fitting, we thought, for this child born on the cusp of spring.

At the gathering on Sunday, my father spoke about Freddie's namesakes, his great-aunt Frieda and his great-grandmother Rose. Eli's father spoke about the German, Norse, Hebrew, and Yiddish meanings behind the names we chose. Mia's wonderful, wonderful babysitter read a story to all of the kids about an elephant who dreamed of becoming a photographer. There were quiches, and granola bars, and banana chocolate muffins, fruit, and flowers, and balloons, per Mia's request. Mia also requested a ringing of the bells, these bells, that she passed out to her cousins and friends at the end of the afternoon.

The morning that Eli, Mia, and I brought Freddie home from the hospital, I checked Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, as I do every day. Each post begins with a poem, and that day's seemed to have our Frieda Rose, our joyful bud, all wrapped up in it. Cheers to you, Freddie, to these early spring days, to the pleasure of being exactly where we are, and the love that enables us to feel this way.

"A Prayer in Spring"
By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

(p.s. Third photo up. Dimple!!)

In it

Nope, nope, no baby yet. I’m 36 weeks along, though, so that will change very soon. (Mia came at 37.)

I want to talk a bit today about my book. I've been shy about doing so here; I know not everyone’s interested in the nuts and bolts, the nitty-gritties, THE PROCESS. But there’s some stuff I’d like to get down before a baby shows up and eats my brain. I hope you won’t mind. I’m just so in it right now. So deliciously embedded. There’s no way of knowing for sure how I’ll feel a few weeks from now, but I bet I’ll be glad for a reminder of this time.

Writing isn't something that comes easily to me. A lot of the time, I hate it. But in a sick, sick way, what I hate about it is also what I love. As my writing partner Katrina says, the hard parts are the figuring-out parts, the points in the writing where there is something important to learn and you get to do the work of learning it. The hard parts are what allow us to make writing that’s worth writing at all. And, hopefully, worth reading.

Earlier this year, I read a wonderful book called Good Prose by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd. It’s styled as a book on writing, with sections on point of view, structure, editing, things like that, but it’s also a portrait of Kidder and Todd’s working and personal relationship over the years. It’s moving and smart, and made me laugh out loud at least twice. I’ve been dipping back into it whenever I need a boost. Just yesterday I rediscovered this gem:

What you “know” isn't something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best conversations with a friend – as if you and the reader do the discovering together.

That feeling of discovery while I write is everything to me. It’s how I know the writing is going somewhere and, with enough revision, has a shot at being good. It’s also the only way I know to keep from dozing off and slipping into a boredom-induced coma as I write. Consciousness: very important for book writing.

When I first announced that I was writing a book, I said that it would be out at the end of 2014, as in, eight or nine months from right now. That was the plan. I’d write and test recipes for a year, spend a few months with my editor on revisions, and that would be that.

Things look otherwise now for a couple of reasons, the first and most obvious being this pregnancy, which took me doooown. I was sicker for longer than I was with Mia, and I had to put the project more or less on hold for a few months. But the main reason why the book has taken this long to write is because – wait for it – it has taken this long to write. It feels good to say that out loud because it’s been such a revelation for me (and to be fair, it wasn't even mine, but my agent’s and my editor’s, thankyouthankyouthankyou, you brilliant and generous people). I also want to say it because I know a lot of us here are in the same boat, making things out of words, or paint, or film, or food, and working hard to live up to our own ideas of what it means to do these things responsibly and well. It’s important, I’m convinced, to talk honestly about how we get where we’re going. I’m lucky enough to have artist friends near and far who have shared their own routes through. Thanks to them, I’ve never felt alone.

So let me tell you: That year I thought I’d spend writing? I spent it writing. (After I got the help I needed with Mia to make that happen, I should say, which turned out to be more help than I was able to admit for a while. Credit for this particular revelation – also not my own; why bother when I’m clearly surrounded by such smarties? – goes to Eli and a terrific series by Joanna Goddard on mothers who work from home in creative fields.) Anyway, I spent that year writing. Playing around, trying things one way, then another. I wrote mostly by hand, in no particular order, preferring instead to go in wherever I saw an opening, nail down the parts that felt most important, and let the narrative rise up to meet me.

What came out was a total mess. Some of the writing was terrible. Some of it was good, but had nothing to do with the story – whatever that was; it was getting harder and harder to see. I pieced things together into chunks and sent them off to my editor. I pieced other things together – once to the tune of 20,000 words – and sent them off to the cutting room floor. So it went for a year, I tell you. A YEAR. I like to think that I was a good sport about it for a while, but come last June, I reached a point where I thought, whoops. I made a mistake. I thought there was a story here, but you know what? There’s not. Pack it up, Fechtor. Move along. Nothing to see here. Forget about that book.

And then, slowly, things began to change. The story just opened right up. After so much doubt about what should be in and what should be out, so many starts, and restarts, and re-re-starts, the story was making itself known. One night in October when Eli and I were cleaning up the kitchen, I turned to him and said, without a trace of irony, “It’s like I’m inside the author’s mind now.” I guess in order to figure out what the story was, I first had to figure out what it wasn't.

In any case, my editor’s been with me all the way, and has kindly granted me an extension to get this job done right. I’m finishing up the manuscript now, and aiming to ship it off to her before this babe arrives sometime around April 1. If she stays put until then (the baby, not the editor), I think I’ll make it. If she shows up sooner, I’ll come close. Either way (take note, Jessica Kate Fechtor of the Future, TAAAAAKE NOTE), it will be okay. I will finish this book. It will come out next year, and honestly, that’s a-okay with me. One baby at a time, this way. It feels right.

xo.

Flutters and pokes

Since we last spoke, I've had my nose broken and smooshed back together again, spent a few days alone by a lake fattening up my manuscript, baked a mediocre chocolate cake (three times, just to be sure), read this book, and this one, and learned that the flutters and pokes rocking my belly as I type this are girl flutters and pokes. Mia thinks we should name her “Pizza.”

Pizza Schleifer. It has a nice ring.

So that’s what’s new on my end. That, and many thousands of words and a growing pile of recipes for the book. THE BOOK. A.k.a., the reason I’ve been scarce around here. There’s more to say about that – the book, not the scarceness – but the new year is almost upon us, and there’s still champagne and panforte to acquire. I don’t want to keep you.

I do, however, want to pass along a recipe, something for the next week or so when the merriment dies down and we go back to eating like the normal, monogastric bipeds we are. We’ll need something sweet and snack-ish while the cookies beat their retreat. Granola bars, say. These.

I wasn’t planning on sharing, since Molly posted about them only a year and a half ago, but they've become such a staple around here in the six weeks since I first made them that I feel compelled to deposit them in The Permanent Collection. Plus, I've played fast and loose enough with the ingredients to make an easy recipe even easier. That’s always something to write home about.

Off we go, then, into these final hours and the brand new ones that follow. Wishing you and yours the very best. See you in 2014.

(Vegan, if you want) Cherry Pecan Chocolate Granola Bars
Adapted from Orangette

This recipe produces a chewy bar, sweet enough that I’ve served them to lunch guests as dessert (and no one complained; in fact, they asked to take some home) and un-sweet enough that the words “nutritious breakfast” can reasonably apply. Aside from dialing back the sugar a bit, I’ve made one important change in the way that I deal with the oats. Instead of using a combination of finely ground oats and quick-cooking oats, I use quick-cooking oats and whole rolled oats. It saves me the step of hauling out the food processor and grinding the oats, and I prefer the heartier texture.

These bars are delicious with butter, but for vegan friends I’ve made them several times with coconut oil and they’re terrific that way, too. Feel free to swap it in.

1½ cups (143 grams) quick-cooking oats
½ cup (48 grams) rolled oats
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (110 grams) pecan halves
½ cup (25 grams) unsweetened coconut chips
½ cup (85 grams) bittersweet chocolate chips
¼ cup (40 grams) dried cherries
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (85 grams) peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter or coconut oil, melted
6 tablespoons (120 grams) honey
1 tablespoon water

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and line with parchment paper. You’ll want to cut the paper long enough to have some overhang on two of the sides. Lightly grease the paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, sugar, pecans, coconut, chocolate chips, cherries, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, vanilla extract, melted butter or coconut oil, honey, and water. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir well. Transfer to the prepared pan, cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap (to prevent the mixture from sticking to your fingers), and press firmly into the pan. Remove the plastic wrap and discard.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown. Don’t worry that the mixture feels soft; it will harden as it cools. Set the pan on a rack and let cool for 15 minutes, then run a sharp knife along the edges of the pan. Cool completely, still in the pan, then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Lift onto a cutting board, and cut into squares with a sharp knife.

Store in an airtight container between sheets of wax paper.

Little or big

Well. Now that that cat’s out of the bag, let’s get back to it, shall we? You may recall that once upon a time, approximately 26 months ago, I gave birth to a little lump of a thing bearing a strong resemblance to her father, yes, but even more so, to E.T. Despite this, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her – though I must have at least blinked, because one day in September, she woke up looking like this.

She tells knock-knock jokes now, made-up ones with questionable punch lines, and presses dough into tart pans. She’s into rocks, and band aids, and construction vehicles, and if you come for dinner, she’ll surprise you at the elevator and insist that you collapse in shock.

Mia bunked with us for part of the night last week, a rare occurrence nowadays. I woke up with a small cheek stacked on top of mine and an arm curled gently around my neck. She was stroking my hair, whispering the lyrics to Baa Baa Black Sheep. You know, the one about the master, the dame, and the little boy who lives “down the drain.” Yeah. I like her.

Anyway, this kid turned two on September 9. She requested waffles for the morning of her birthday, and for her party the following week, granola, eggs, and coconut. (She’s a breakfast girl! Yessss.) So I made this, and these, and a double recipe of Dorie Greenspan’s banana-coconut cake, enough for one layer cake spackled white with cream cheese frosting, and a couple dozen cupcakes, pink and purple, per the lady’s request.

“Both,” a word and concept Mia’s just recently nailed down, came in very handy that day.

And again last night, when I asked her if she’s little or big. “Both,” she said. Yep.

p.s. Big thanks to the talented M.E. Francis for the photos in this post.

p.p.s. Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Orange.
Orange who?
Orange JUICE!
Haaaahahahaah

Banana-Coconut Layer Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
Frosting from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen

Dorie Greenspan calls this cake “Lots-of-Ways Banana Cake” because of the recipe’s flexibility. I made it as written, below, but you can substitute granulated sugar for the brown sugar, and milk, buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt for the coconut milk, and all will be fine. Leave out the shredded coconut, if it’s not your thing. Leave in the rum, if it is your thing. (I skipped it because of the pregnancy thing and the tableful-of-toddlers thing, though that was probably overly cautious. There are only 2 tablespoons in the entire cake.)

The frosting recipe was enough to cover both the layer cake and 24 cupcakes, with a bit still to spare! If you’re making a single a layer cake or one batch of cupcakes, halve the frosting recipe.

For the cake:
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
About 4 very ripe bananas, mashed (enough for 1½ - 1¾ cups)
½ cup canned unsweetened coconut milk (careful not to use one of those coconut milk “drinks”)
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted

For the frosting:
3 8-ounce blocks cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Bake the cakes:
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9x2-inch round cake pans (or two standard-size cupcake pans).

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, then add the sugars and beat at medium speed for a couple of minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then the vanilla and the rum (if using.)

Turn the speed to low and add the bananas. (Don’t worry if the batter curdles.) Add the dry and liquid ingredients alternately, adding the flour mixture in 3 portions and the coconut milk in 2. (Begin and end with the dry.) Mix until everything is just incorporated, then fold in the coconut with a rubber spatula. Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans (or among the cupcake tins).

Bake 35-40 minutes for the cake pans, 25-30 minutes for cupcakes. The cakes are done when they are golden brown and start to pull away from the sides of their pans, and a tester inserted into their centers comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in their pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks and let cool to room temperature.

Make the frosting:
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using an electric mixer), cream together the butter and cream cheese. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the powdered sugar a little at a time and beat until smooth.

Spread the frosting on top and along the sides of one of the cake layers, stack the second layer on top, and finish the job. To frost cupcakes, load the frosting into a Ziploc bag, cut one of the corners, and pipe.

Yield: One frosted 9-inch round double layer cake or about 24 cupcakes.