Our house is modest by most standards, I’d say, small by others’ standards, “mouse house”-sized perhaps by others’. But it is a nice house and it is ours, and we are fortunate and blessed to have it. One of the decisions we made when we moved ourselves and our belongings in to this three story, tall and narrow townhouse was that even though it is short on room, we wanted it to be clutter-free and to have some intentionally unfilled space that we think brings peace to a place (well, in theory anyway, lest you think we are living a wholly peaceful existence).
Due to this desire, we are constantly organizing and re-organizing, getting rid of things and looking for places for other things that we can’t bear to part with. So it was that after all the Christmas gifts had been opened and schlepped back from Portland, Travis was cleaning and re-organizing our office closet last weekend. I was happily spared from helping with this intimidating task, what with the baby and all…
When Travis emerged from the rubble many hours later, dust covering his hands and shredded bits of notebook paper protruding from his hair, he asked only that I help sort through a box of old books and choose what I wanted to keep. As I perused the box, full of college textbooks and forgotten novels, I came across a hardback I read years ago when I first became enamored with wine. Entitled A Very Good Year, it was written by journalist Mike Weiss and brings to life the making of a Sonoma wine–specifically, Ferrari-Carano’s Fume Blanc. The content of the book itself bears little relevance to me now, and yet, before placing it in my give-away pile, I held it for a moment and couldn’t help but smile at the title: what an apt moniker for these past twelve months. What a very good year it was for us indeed.
Just as I was about to become a mother for the first time in mid-July, Marion Cunningham, one of the few great mothers of American cuisine, passed away in Walnut Creek, California at the age of 90. A latecomer to the culinary scene, she was 50 years old–a mother of two and no doubt an excellent home cook–when she overcame struggles with both agoraphobia and alcoholism to attend a class taught by James Beard in Seaside, Oregon in 1972. This small decision marked the pivotal point that launched her amazingly successful culinary career. She caught the attention of Beard, and they soon became friends, traveling the country together teaching and giving cooking demonstrations. Upon encouragement from Mr. Beard, Marion revised the seminal Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a classic home-cooking reference first published in 1896, and subsequently wrote several other cookbooks, including my favorite, The Breakfast Book, a charming collection of homey recipes for the morning hours. These books are refreshingly free of the bright color photos that are de rigueur in cookbooks today, as if to say, “The point is not to imitate a picture of this dish. Make it your own and share it.” Marion was a fierce advocate of cooking as an essential and important way to bring people together; her books are a call to gather at the table and break bread together. I can’t think of a better reason to cook.
This past weekend I made a couple of loaves of Marion’s Chocolate Walnut Butter Bread, from The Breakfast Book. I love that she calls it “butter bread.” It is an egg-rich dough, just barely sweet and rich with chunks of chocolate and walnuts. It takes about 3 hours from start to finish–I started it at 7am and we were enjoying it at 10–but if you don’t want to wait, I am certain that the dough could be left, covered, in the fridge to rise overnight and be finished in the morning. However you do it, don’t fuss too much about what it looks like, serve it warm, and pass butter and salt around the table.
Chocolate Walnut Butter Bread, adapted from The Breakfast Book
makes 2 loaves
½ C warm water (about 110F)
1 package dry yeast
3 ½ C all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ¼ tsp. salt
4 eggs, room temperature
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter, softenend
1 C chopped walnuts, in large pieces
6 ounces semi- or bittersweet chocolate, broken or chopped into big-ish chunks (I used two Theo 70% bars)
Sprinkle the yeast and sugar into the warm water and proof for 5-10 minutes. Mix in the flour, salt, and eggs until well blended, using the dough hook of a standing mixer, or your hands. Add the butter one tablespoon at a time until a sticky, soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled, 60-90 minutes (or place in the fridge overnight). Gently stir to deflate the dough and mix in the chocolate and walnuts. Divide between two greased loaf pans and bake at 350F for about 45 minutes, or until golden.