stop-you-in-your-tracks good

Did you catch what I said earlier? About the chicken class?

Yeah, I'm that person. Every time I want to tackle a new project, be it knitting or planning a garden or photography, I find it impossible to just jump in headfirst. Before I can do, I have to learn. I do extensive Internet research, I check books out of the library, I seek out tutorials, and I talk to anyone I can find who knows more than me about whatever topic it is I'm currently obsessing over.

Obviously, then, when I decided I wanted, no, needed, hens, I immediately signed myself up for chicken school.

Okay, that might be exaggerating a little bit. It was not so much a "school" as a "three-hour introductory class on the basics of keeping chickens." But still, it was me once again embracing the role of student before embarking on a new adventure. And it was a good starting point for a girl like me, one with no close friends or neighbors keeping chickens from whom to learn the ropes, who had no idea that hawks and racoons would suddenly be problematic creatures, who naively assumed chicken wire would be the best material for constructing a chicken fence (apparently its uses run parallel to duct tape - good for everything but), and who never would have guessed that a dog crate is handy to have around for dealing with broody hens.

I'm happy to report, I'm finding chicken husbandry utterly fascinating.

It's not just the thrill of collecting freshly-laid eggs that I'm most looking forward to. (Although it's a big one, being as it is the leading cause of my campaign to install hens in our yard.) The more I learn, the more excited I get to witness the differences between various breeds (we're hoping to have two, maybe three varieties), and to laugh at all the humorous antics hens are (apparently) known to perform, and most certainly to share in my children's experience of caring for and bonding with the creatures whose "product" they are already so in love with.

Of all we do to be part of the self-produced local food movement, I anticipate that having chickens will be a lot more life-changing and fulfilling than, say, our small garden plot has proven to be. (Not to knock gardens! I love ours! It's just that, most of the time, the interaction and entertainment factors are quite low.)

So anyway, there I was at the chicken class, listening to discussions around different types of feeders and how much kitchen scraps you can feed your hens and what size and shape your roosts should be to allow the ladies to use them to warm their feet in the winter, when the conversation turned to gluten-free food.

It should have been unsurprising. Gluten-free is on the tips of so many tongues these days that it has a habit of sneaking into even the most unsuspecting conversations. And really, given that the class was taking a break to visit the store downstairs, where, among the naturally-dyed yarns and locally-made soaps, gluten-free baked goods were prominently on display, it was inevitable.

The most surprising thing, actually, was the tone of the chatter. It was so . . . negative.

I was waiting in line at the cash register when I heard the cashier caution the man in front of me about the whoopie pie he was trying to buy.

Cashier: "You know that's gluten-free, right?"

Man: "Oh, no, well, I'll get it anyway."

"Are you sure? I feel I should warn you: it's an acquired taste," the cashier said, delicately.

Things went downhill from there. The cashier recounted other customers who hadn't liked the whoopie pies. A woman behind me had had them once, when she was trying to eat gluten-free. They were awful, she said.

At that point, the gluten-free lifestyle more generally became the topic around which the talk swirled. How hard it was to find things to eat. How expensive all the gluten-free (packaged) foods at the grocery store are, and how bad they taste. The whoopie-pie-hating woman exclaimed that she was so happy when she gave up eating gluten-free, that living that way was unbearable. Everyone else agreed, in a chorus of talking over each other with their gluten-free horror stories.

This was where I jumped in.

I practically had to shout to be heard above all the eager-to-complain voices, but finally I had the floor. I spoke emphatically, with an urgency that was new to me; never before had I so strongly felt the need to defend the gluten-free lifestyle. And while I may have gone on too long, and been too fervent in stating my case, I think I got my point across.

Food that comes with a warning, that needs to be apologized for, is not good food. Gluten-free should be no exception; no one should have to settle for food that, in its most polite description, is an "acquired taste." Living gluten-free should be far from unbearable.

I talked about my work at the restaurant, about the rave reviews we get for our gluten-free focaccia and pasta and all the desserts I make. I talked about this space, and all the other amazing gluten-free bloggers and bakers and chefs and cookbook authors out there proving daily that gluten-free food is not only not a shadow of its gluten-full cousin, but in some cases actually, defiantly, better.

But you know what? I didn't have any concrete evidence with which to prove my point. I didn't have anything to feed to my classmates. All I had was my convictions and some business cards and the whoopie pie the guy at the cash register gave me for free, because he wanted my opinion of it.

It was not a good whoopie pie. It was a very bad whoopie pie, in fact. I would not want to eat enough of those whoopie pies to acquire a taste for them. And yet, as the cashier explained to me, they wanted to have gluten-free treats for sale, and support local businesses. There was only one local gluten-free bakery, so it was these whoopie pies (and chocolate chip cookies and brownies) or nothing.

While I understand the desire to accept fresh-baked gluten-free items with gratitude and bite our collective tongues against any criticism we may have (Hey! The fact that there even are local gluten-free bakeries is a big deal, and we should support anyone out there making an effort to feed us well!), it still doesn't feel very good to be presented with food that is unpalatable. Not now, not when the culture has changed and we've realized that gluten-free can be stop-you-in-your-tracks good.

I don't want my food to make me sick. And I want to eat tremendously, phenomenally well. These two desires should not be mutually exclusive.

So what to do? Well, we've got to keep making amazing food, for one thing. We've got to keep sharing our knowledge and discoveries, spreading the word on how to make gluten-free taste great. When we find a product or company worth talking about, we've got to do our best to promote it. And we've got to be patient. Because as explosively popular as gluten-free has become, it is still a very, very different way for most people to approach baking and cooking. And, like all foods, there's always going to be a range of gluten-free food out there, from the barely passable to the five-star. Accepting that, while still working to tip the scale further and further away from the "passable" end of things, is the job of many food movements right now. We're in good company.

And if we're lucky enough to do all that with a delicious, pillowy-soft, seasonally-scented whoopie pie in hand, well, all the better.

Multigrain Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Whoopie Pies
yields 2 dozen individual cookies, and 1 dozen whoopie pies

These whoopie pies are not only far better than any of the ones I remember eating as a child, they also have the added benefit of being a lot healthier. Packed with whole grains and pumpkin, the fluffy domed little cakes sandwich a filling that eschews the traditional questionable ingredients (shortening and marshmallow fluff) for cream cheese and pure maple syrup. As an added bonus, they are gum-free. Whoopie!

65 grams light buckwheat flour
55 grams almond flour
55 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour (or your favorite all-purpose blend)
50 grams certified gluten-free oat flour
25 grams potato starch
20 grams teff flour
8 grams/2 tsp baking powder
4 grams/1½ tsp roasted Saigon cinnamon (regular cinnamon is fine, too)
3 grams/1 tsp psyllium husk powder
3 grams/½ tsp fine sea salt
pinch ground cloves
dash of freshly ground black pepper (I did about 10 turns on my pepper mill)
50 grams sour cream
4 grams/1 tsp baking soda
175 grams light brown sugar
114 grams/1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
212 grams pumpkin purée
52 grams/1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
175 grams/1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 recipe Maple Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line two sheet trays with parchment or silicone baking mats. Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the buckwheat flour, almond flour, all-purpose flour, oat flour, potato starch, teff flour, baking powder, cinnamon, psyllium husk powder, salt, cloves, and black pepper. Set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and baking soda. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the brown sugar and butter. Add the pumpkin, and mix until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

With the machine on low speed, add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream. Mix in the chocolate chips.

Using a small ice cream scoop with a spring release mechanism (I use this one; you want something that scoops 3-4 tablespoons of dough), scoop the dough onto the prepared sheet trays, about 2 inches apart. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges have just begun to brown, the tops are cracked and dry, and a tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool completely.

To assemble the whoopie pies, fill a piping bag fitted with a large star tip (or just use a large plastic freezer bag and snip off one corner) with the cream cheese frosting, and pipe a spiral of frosting on the flat sides of half of the cookies. Sandwich with the remaining cookies. Wrap each whoopie pie in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to three days. Whoopie pies can be served cold or at room temperature.

Maple Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
Yields enough to fill 1 dozen whoopie pies

454 grams/16 oz cream cheese, room temperature
226 grams/8 oz confectioner's sugar, sifted
140 grams/10 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
80 grams/4 Tbsp pure maple syrup
30 grams/2 Tbsp heavy cream
¾ tsp roasted Saigon cinnamon (regular cinnamon is fine, too)

Combine all in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer to thoroughly blend. (You could also use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a whisk and elbow grease!) Refrigerate until needed.


settling in

Long absences are funny things.

Whether it's reunions with old friends, returning to a beloved-but-seldom-visited location, the long-anticipated commencement of your favorite season, or simply rereading a much-loved book you've practically forgotten about, it's easy to hype it up and expect the experience to be intensely exciting. With the rush of memories you know it will conjure, and the fervor and anticipation with which you will approach it, it seems like the entire thing should be a jumble of emotional fast-talking and laughing and catching your breath while you're swirled around in a nostalgic soup.

I've found, however, that these things usually happen a lot more gently, organically almost. There's that initial burst of excitement, but pretty quickly everything calms down and you just sort of  . . . ease into it, as if the absence, all that space and time, had never happened. It feels natural, and easy, and right.

I think this might apply to blogs, too.

I've been absent from this space for several weeks now, which in the instantaneous world of the Internet is a pretty long time. And a lot has been happening, between parties and first days of school and backyard poultry classes and hiring and training a new pastry cook at the restaurant and weekend travel . . . you get the idea. We're busy.

And as much as I'm not writing regularly here, I'm thinking about this space more than ever, wishing I was here, trying to scheme up ways to get just a little more time each day so that maybe I can eventually have a recipe for you with pictures to go with it and some text, just a little, so that it feels like more than merely a page out of a cookbook.

I've fantasized about all the stories I will tell you, about how remarkably my first-day-of-school worries for Kalen were proven to be completely unnecessary, about how fortunate I feel to finally have an extra set of hands in the 40 Paper pastry kitchen, and about our family's increasing excitement about and commitment to getting some hens next year. And then, of course, I wouldn't be able to leave without waxing ecstatic about last weekend's Fair, which is one of our most-looked-forward-to events of the year.

But you know what? Just like The Fair and the best reunions, now that I'm finally back in this space it doesn't feel all jumpy and excitable like I'd expected. I don't want to give you lots of extended, breathless recounts of everything that's happened between then and now, running anxiously from topic to topic to make sure I haven't left anything unsaid. Because being here again feels comfortable and normal. And easing back into our routine, with photos from last weekend and a recipe for a delicious and unusual apple cake, feels right, and a lot more authentic.

Catching up and settling in, with a slide show and good food. Classic reunion fare, wouldn't you agree?

It's good to be here again with you, friends.

Tuscan Apple Cake (Torta di Mele)
Yields 1 9-inch round cake, or 8 individual cakes

This cake is one of the newest additions to the 40 Paper dessert menu. It's light, only faintly sweet and a little bit homey, with the unmistakable fall flavor profile of spiced apple. Of course, we fancy it up with a scoop of cinnamon cream cheese gelato and lots of spiced caramel, but the cake is delicious all on its own, or served simply, with a side of vanilla ice cream. We use it to feature one of my favorite local apples, the Honey Crisp, but feel free to use your own favorite variety. You can pretty much assume that if you love a particular apple in pie, you'll love it in this cake.

unsalted butter, room temperature, for greasing pan(s)
100 grams granulated sugar, plus additional for coating pan(s)
1 large Honey Crisp apple (or other tart, firm apple), peeled, cored, quartered, and sliced into 24 thin wedges
220 grams whole eggs (about 4 large), room temperature
55 grams granulated sugar
60 grams sour cream
1 Tbsp vanilla
zest of one lemon
70 grams Tara's gf pastry flour
33 grams almond flour
¾ tsp cinnamon, plus additional for apple slices
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp xanthan gum (optional; your cake will be a bit firmer with it)
¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
375 grams peeled, cored and thinly-chopped Honey Crisp apples (or other tart, firm apple)

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, or 8 large ramekins. Coat with a layer of granulated sugar, then scatter the 100 grams of granulated sugar over the bottom of the pan, shaking it gently to evenly distribute the sugar. (If you're using ramekins, divide the 100 grams of sugar among them; it's just under 1 Tbsp per ramekin.) Arrange the apple slices in one layer in the prepared pan/ramekins, and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs and sugar until very light and foamy. It should more than triple in volume. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla, then stir in the lemon zest.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pastry flour, almond flour, ¾ tsp cinnamon, baking powder, xanthan gum (if using), nutmeg, and salt. Fold into the egg batter. Gently stir in chopped apples to thoroughly distribute.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake for 15-18 minutes for ramekins, or up to 22 minutes for the springform pan, or until the top is golden brown and shiny, and the cake has started to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool on a wire rack for 20-30 minutes, then remove sides of springform pan to finish cooling. (If using ramekins, let cakes cool completely in them.) Cake can be served at room temperature, but I find it's even better warmed up. At the restaurant, we upend the ramekins onto a plate (the cakes easily slip out), warm the cake briefly in the microwave, then use a blowtorch to caramelize the sugar syrup and apple slices on the bottom (now top) of the cake. It's wonderful.

Cake keeps, wrapped airtight and refrigerated, for up to one week.
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