Almond, Ricotta, and Polenta Cake (with Blood Oranges)

Above photo from Liz Prueitt / her Instagram
I thought I was pretty original when I decided to make and write about this recipe, which I found on Liz Prueitt's Instagram account. Turns out, I’m not! Smitten Kitchen made it weeks ago. In Prueitt’s description, she wrote that the cake "bakes up almost NY-style cheesecake-like." So really, I bet like 50% of the people who saw her post then immediately walked into their kitchens to see if they had some cornmeal and almond flour on hand.

I’ve been a fan of Liz Prueitt’s food for a long time now. At Heath Ceramics, we carried all of the Tartine cookbooks and I spent a good percentage of my time at work reading them.

But recently, after reading this Lucky Peach interview with her I became a fan of Liz Prueitt, the person. It was this section of the interview in particular that resonated with me:
I feel like I know exactly what Prueitt is talking about. I definitely didn’t see so many of motherhood’s life-changing aspects coming. At the same time, though, I feel like I’ve been lucky, being a writer and being able to write from home, save for a couple of months when things really did come to a screeching halt.
Two years ago, when Teddy was a newborn, I was finishing up my book and could justify paying for a nanny once or twice a week. And then a year ago, right before the book came out and Teddy was a sprinting one-year-old and I couldn’t get any work done at all, I could justify paying for daycare—which basically saved my life. With this second baby, things are pretty different. The short of is that we have no plans (read: funds) to hire a nanny. Not that I would at this point anyway. This time around, I know how fast these first months go and I’m not as stressed as a first-time parent. This time around, I’m reminded of how I actually adore the newborn stage. Not just because newborns are so helpless and needy, but also because they counteract this neediness by sleeping so much of the day (please note that I didn’t say night here) during which time I can accomplish a few things and actually feel like myself.
Me feeling like myself?
I have been working on a new book for a while now—basically my entire pregnancy. It’s a novel. I’ve got about 45k words. I haven’t let a single soul read even one sentence of it. But I really want to get a draft of it finished in the next couple of months / before Isaac starts showing signs of becoming the busy little boy that his big brother is. (Just this weekend, Teddy bounded into our room bleeding from his chin. Matt and I looked at each other, confused. What the heck did you just do, Teddy?)
I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish this novel, or if when I do, I will want to share it with anyone, or if I do, if it’ll be any good. What I'm hoping for is to somehow stay at a gentle deceleration for the next couple of years / avoid coming to that screeching halt again. I don't know. It might be too tall of an order. I guess only time will tell!

In the mean time, at least there is cake?
Almond, Ricotta, and Polenta Cake (with Blood Oranges) via Liz Prueitt via The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook

scant 1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon water
1-2 blood oranges, thinly sliced
4 oz softened butter, plus more for pan
2/3 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 cup packed almond flour
3/4 cup ricotta
3 lemons, zest and juice (Pretty sure you could substitute with blood orange juice and zest and it would be great / make sense, but I had Meyer lemons on hand.)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Line a 9-inch cake pan with parchment and butter the sides. In a saucepan over medium heat, turn the brown sugar and water into a thick syrup. Spread a very thin layer over the bottom of pan. Arrange the citrus slices.

Preheat the oven to 300°F.  Beat together the softened butter with the 2/3C sugar. Add the three yolks, and mix in the cornmeal and almond flour. Mix in the ricotta, zest and juice of the three lemons. 

Beat the three egg whites with the salt to soft peaks and fold in. It's a very thick batter. Pour it over the prepared citrus slices and level. Glaze with quince or apple jelly (if you have it!) after you turn out the cake. Bake for 30-40 minutes. 
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Video: Teddy, Ages 1-2

Dear Friends,

About 24 hours after hitting “publish” on that last post, I gave birth to our second little boy. His name is Isaac, and as you may have already guessed: he’s the perfect baby. (I’m actually in the middle of writing up the birth story, which I probably won’t post here, but I am kind of dying to share it, as birthing a baby is one of those amazing/insane/wholly unique experiences.)

But as much as I love and welcome this new baby into my life, this post is actually more about the other two guys in my life. Let’s start with Matt. You all remember the “Teddy, Ages 0-1” video Matt made and that we posted last year, right? Well, Matt’s done it again! Of course, this time it’s: “Teddy, Ages 1-2.” (I don’t want to play spoiler, but it ends with a special guest appearance.)

For the most part, I feel like I keep a fairly self-deprecating tone on this blog (and in real life), but I would like to take a moment to earnestly and publicly say that I am so effing grateful for this family Matt and I’ve created. Remember when I told you about how I went to a book club that had read my book and was so surprised to see my life as viewed through other people’s eyes and how one person was annoyed by how incredibly perfect Matt was and I was so surprised because, while I obviously love Matt, I didn’t exactly see him as “perfect.” Well, I take it back! I see what that reader was saying. He IS perfect.* And he helped me create two perfect boys! And as I type this, he is putting away a pile of clean laundry that is taller than Teddy. And he has perfectly documented our first son’s second year in about two minutes of video perfection.

I’m also so grateful that I have this site to be able to share this and all of our other projects with you.

And on that note, I gotta go breastfeed.

Postpartumly and most sincerely,

*The next time Matt and I get in a fight, I really hope he doesn’t bring this up.

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Big New York Cheesecake

There were a few moments this past weekend when I thought I might go into labor. I was finishing up dinner and having lots of back-to-back Braxton Hicks contractions (which I didn’t get with Teddy until the very end) and quickly thought to myself, “I need to eat this food, fast.” But then I didn’t go into labor.

Point being, this is probably going to be the last post I write as a family of three. And there is perhaps too much ground I’d like to cover. I obviously want to write about this cheesecake, which blew Matt’s and my mind. I want to tell you how I know that in January most food media has moved on to cleanses and “healthier” fare; how, in fact, Bon Appétit’s January issue declaring itself chockfull of “healthy-ish” recipes arrived at our doorstep before Christmas day. (It’s a gift subscription that continues to come, and Matt and I continue to read it despite ourselves.) The holidays hadn’t even begun yet and we were already being reminded of the post-holiday cattle call to live better, eat healthier, and improve, improve, improve!

(As you know, I’ve already given myself permission not to improve this year.)

If you read my previous post on my general anxiety about the state of the world and my specific anxiety about hosting my mom and step-dad for Christmas, I want to tell you about how their visit didn’t go very smoothly—to put it lightly.
One of the questions I get over and over again about my book is a variation on the following: “Did you ever worry you were writing about things that were too personal and/or things that put people you know in a bad light?”

And I’ve answered this question in a variety of ways. (The short answer is: Yes, of course I worried about this.)

A longer way I’ve answered this question (most recently in an interview in this journal) is like this: “A few months before my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, I got to have a really honest conversation with him about the timeline of certain events that took place when I was a kid. He was very forthcoming even though I was asking him about things that would certainly cast him in a bad light; he also knew I was asking him these questions because I was going to write about it all. And while I knew he wasn’t thrilled, I think he also knew that his actions had shaped my life in a major way and that it was my story to write.”

I also answered it like this: “Yesterday I listened to Terry Gross interview Jonathan Franzen about his new book Purity, and they got to talking about this very thing—specifically about Franzen’s relationship with his brother who thought he’d recognized himself as one of the main characters in The Corrections. Franzen was worried that his brother would hate him forever, but then came to a different conclusion. He said, ‘But if I can't be a writer, then who is [my brother] in a relationship with? Who is he the brother of? And I think that that's broadly true. You have to be allowed to do what a writer does, and if a relationship can't take the identity of…one of the participants, then it's probably not going to last.’”

But recently, my friend Kara said something in passing that really resonated with me. I’m paraphrasing of course, but she mentioned how, of most of the writers she knows, at some point in their life, someone wasn’t listening to them. The implication being that they therefore had to write it all down—it being what they were trying to say. So, at the very least, the page was listening. The page couldn’t ignore or deny their perceived reality.

This is how I’m feeling right now, re: my big family blow-up over Christmas. I feel very unheard. And what do you know? I’m writing about it, even if it’s in fairly vague terms right now.
Another thing I want to tell you about is Transparent. Even though all of our friends seemed to be raving about the show, it took Matt and me a while to follow suit (mostly because we’ve been boycotting Amazon ever since their fight with my publisher, Hachette.) Anyway, we watched seasons one and two over the holidays, and when it was over, I wanted more. So, I read this article about its creator, Jill Soloway. Here’s a snippet from it: “Soloway describes herself as ‘seditious.’ Her production company is called Topple, as in ‘topple the patriarchy.’”

Go, Jill, go! I want to shout. Topple it! (And if I step outside, she might even hear me as she lives in nearby Silver Lake.) But as I cheer for her, I also want to tell you about the men in my life and how much I’ve been leaning on them. See, the holiday fight was/is between my mom and me. Meanwhile, my step-dad and Matt acted as support beams. It was actually a good trip for my step-dad and me, I think. I saw him differently—a much softer version. I’ve also been leaning on my brother, on the way Teddy now tells Matt and me on a somewhat regular basis, “I love you so much,” and on the anticipation of getting to meet his little brother any day now; I don’t think I’ve mentioned it online yet, but this second baby is another boy. I’m going to be surrounded by men! And that’s A-OK with me.
Did you want to hear more about this cheesecake? OK. So maybe it's because cheesecake is inherently delicious or maybe it's because the last time we made a version it was 2010, but this one was to die for. Matt and I brought it to our friends' Neal and Jodi’s house (with a slice already cut out so that we could take the above photo of it for this blog post) for Christmas dinner, and then when we saw it wasn't completely eaten by the night's end, had to bring another slice home for the next day because we were already hungry for it again. In short, I will never want for another cheesecake recipe for the rest of my life. This one is perfect. 
I hope your 2016 is off to a fantastic start. But if not, that’s OK too.

Big New York Cheesecake from Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year
serves 8 to 10

1 package Famous Chocolate Wafers
1½ pounds cream cheese
1 pint sour cream
1 5/8 cups sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter (melted)
4 eggs
2½ teaspoons vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To make the crust, crush chocolate wafers until you have about a cup and a half (that will take about 6 ounces of wafers). Mix in a quarter cup of sugar, a pinch of salt, and the melted butter. Using your fingers, pat this mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, making it even all around. Put the pan into the freezer for 15 minutes (it will keep here, covered, for a couple of months). Bake for 10 minutes, just to crisp the crust. Remove the pan and turn the oven down to 300 degrees.

Beat the cream cheese with a cup of sugar, the eggs, and 1½ teaspoons of vanilla until you have a completely smooth mixture. Pour it into the crust and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the cheese is set on the edges but still a bit wobbly in the middle. Remove the cake from the oven (leave the oven on) and cool for about 10 minutes on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, mix the sour cream with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Spread this mixture evenly over the cooled cake, then return it to the oven for about 12 minutes until the glaze is glossy and set.

Cool completely, then chill for at least 8 hours.
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Chinese Dumplings / Trying to Be a Good Host

In the past few weeks, I’ve abruptly turned off my local NPR station at least seven different times. I’d say four of these instances were during reports on climate change. The message of these segments always seems to be a variation of the same: we are effed. One time was immediately after the San Bernadino shootings when one of NPR’s national reporters was asking a frightened mother to read through the text messages her daughter, who was currently on lockdown in some nearby building, had sent to her.

I started crying before I could switch off a story about a toddler that had been left alone for two days. He was found alive, but severely dehydrated.

I’ve stopped Matt mid-sentence while he tries to tell me about recent articles he’s read, e.g. something Ted Cruz said or did or about people who somehow support the concept that more guns would lead to less gun violence even though there are already as many guns as there are people in this country. “I just can’t hear about this right now,” I say to him.

This weekend, he and I saw The Big Short and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that it ends by reminding us that within the world of Wall Street, very little has changed since that epic collapse in 2008. (2014 was the most profitable year on record for the “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions that received the $700 billion bailout from US taxpayers and three of the four largest financial institutions are 80% bigger today than they were before we bailed them out.)

Point being, after the movie ended, I said to Matt: “This is such a horrible time to be having a baby.”

Hilariously, and if you know Matt, perhaps predictably, Matt responded with: “I think it’s a great time and I’ll tell you why on the car ride back home!”

Being the cynic that I apparently am, it’s two days later and I’ve already forgotten why Matt thinks it’s a good time to be having another baby.

One of the best things I did this year was purchase a subscription to The Sun magazine. For the past month, I’ve been carrying around their October issue with me wherever I go. There’s an interview in it with a psychotherapist named Francis Weller who specializes in grief and sorrow. I’ve got the interview all marked up. Just about every sentence is quotable, but I think the following paragraph is perhaps most relevant to my current state.

Weller says: “But then every time we encounter defeat, inadequacy, or loss, we’re at war with ourselves, and that’s a bitter fight. A client apologized to me the other day for ‘going backward’ in his work with me, as if forward were the only acceptable direction. But the psyche moves every which way. It’s our job to follow its lead and be curious about where it is taking us.

Think about how much energy we expend trying to deny and avoid these parts of ourselves. What if all that energy were available to us again? We would laugh more. We’d know more joy. Life is asking us to meet it on its terms, not ours. We try to control every minute detail, but life is too rambunctious, too wild. We simply can’t avoid the losses, wounds, and failures that come into our lives. What we can do is bring compassion to what arrives at our door and meet it with kindness and affection. We can become a good host.”

Those last sentences hit home in more ways than one.

One: My body is currently hosting a baby.

And two: My mom and step-dad are coming to visit for the holidays. Visits from family members are major sources of stress for me. Why? Because I am a person who loves her routine. Visits invariably break that routine. I am a person who loves to control every minute detail, particularly within my own house, and that’s much harder to do the more people there are in the equation. Lastly, my mom and step-dad are politically quite conservative. For the most part, we deal with this by avoiding talking about it, but sometimes I get in the car with my mom, and NPR is on, and suddenly she is saying something about whatever it is they are reporting about and my blood starts to heat up.

I think this is where these Chinese dumplings come into play. I came across this recipe while reading Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. The book is a true 50/50 hybrid of cookbook and memoir. I read it from front to back in a couple of days while Teddy lay in bed in a fevered state next to me. For the most part, it was such a pleasure to read. And I think it’s because Reichl’s approach to life and cooking are so different from my own. She comes across to me as a much more adventurous cook. She seems to be always making a mess, fearlessly cooking for a large crowd. She makes these dumplings over Thanksgiving, as something easy to have on hand in order to boil up and serve with a quick dipping sauce for whichever one of her many guests is hungry over the long weekend. In short, she seems not just a good host but a great one.

Weller also says, “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.”

This holiday season (said in the voice of a movie trailer voiceover guy), how much sorrow can I hold? Ha! I’m kidding… mostly.

Seriously though, I can see how much I’ve bent toward cynicism and despair. This holiday season, I’m going to try to give a bit more gratitude. I’m going to try to be a good host. Not just to my parents, this new baby, and all of this shitty-seeming news, but also to myself.

(Can I just quickly add that this kind of approach might be made a lot easier by a couple of glasses of really strong eggnog?)

xoxoxox Amelia

p.s. Weller has a new book out, which I’d like to belatedly add to my gift guide.
p.p.s. For a video of me (and Teddy) making these dumplings, click here.

Chinese Dumplings adapted from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year
Makes 40-50 dumplings

1 lb. ground pork
1 ½ bunches scallions
10-11 dried shiitake mushrooms (optional)
a 3-4 inch piece of fresh ginger
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 package square wonton wrappers
1 tablespoon cornstarch

If you got your hands on some dried shiitake mushrooms, start by reconstituting them. (Just place them in a bowl of room-temperature water for 30 minutes.) Meanwhile, chop the scallions—both white and green parts—and put them in a mixing bowl with the ground pork. Grate in the ginger. Chop the mushrooms and add them too. Mix.

In another bowl, mix the soy sauce with the rice vinegar and the sesame oil. Add the sugar, a few grinds of black pepper and the whites of the two eggs. (You don’t need the yolks for this recipe.) Stir this gently into the pork mixture and then allow the filling to rest for at least 30 minutes or overnight, covered in the refrigerator.

When you’re ready to make your dumplings, mix the cornstarch with half a cup of water in a small bowl. Set it next to a pile of the wonton wrappers.

Put a heaping teaspoon of filling onto a wonton wrapper. Using your finger, brush the two edges of the wrapper lightly with the cornstarch mixture. Fold the wrapper over into a triangle and then press and pinch the edges firmly together, trying to press all of the air out of each dumpling. Next, bring two corners of the triangle together and press those together, using a bit of the cornstarch water as glue. Set each one on a baking sheet as they’re finished.

Freeze the dumplings, in a single layer, on their baking sheet. When they’re frozen, put them into plastic bags. (They keep in the freezer for about 6 weeks.)

To cook, bring a pot of water to a boil. Put as many dumplings as you’d like into the pot, bring the water back to a boil and cook for 7 minutes for frozen dumpings, or 5 minutes for unfrozen ones. They’ll rise to the top when they’re ready.

Serve with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and a splash of rice vinegar.
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Gift Guide 2015

A brief word about this gift guide: Some of these items are things I can honestly recommend, some are things that I honestly want for myself, one is something that I've written, and one is a Tesla. 

1. This new line of clothing from textile designers Jen Garrido and Lena Corwin is exactly what I want to wear everyday and exactly how I want to dress Teddy.

2. One can never have enough good-looking baskets. I would love a couple of these for the new baby's room.

3. Heidi Swanson's cookbooks are very calming for me. And while I sometimes find her recipes a bit too healthy, I feel like she has a weakness for good bread and I like that a lot. There are two bread recipes in particular in here that I want to make: one from Morocco called beghrir and one from India called paratha.

4. I've been wanting to read this book ever since it came out last year. Here's what Rachel Cusk (whose book Outline I really enjoyed) said about it: "...its deeper purpose is to define the artist's relationship to truth and to demonstrate how, from within the correctness of the artistic process, life can be meaningfully understood.”

5. I was already super into Glen Hansard's latest album, Didn't He Ramble, and then Matt scored us free tickets to see him live at the Disney Concert Hall, and now I'm a mega fan. If you're not familiar with his music, let me describe him for you: he's part Van Morrison and part Bruce Springsteen with just a touch of Leonard Cohen. For real!

6. At first, I found this tome intimidating. Am I really that interested in Nordic cooking? But it turns out: I am! Even the recipes that call for seal or reindeer meat (that I know I'll never make) are intriguing. I think a lot of this is because, despite its immensity, it's still written personally, specifically from Magnus Nilsson's point of view, which makes it much more accessible. 

7. If you have a kid or were a kid, you’re probably familiar with the books of Richard Scarry. But are you familiar with this particular one: Cars and Trucks and Things That Go? Teddy’s hand-me-down copy is falling apart, but he doesn’t care. There’s this character called Goldbug who is hiding (or possibly just very small) on each page and he loved finding him and pointing him out. And now that he knows where Goldbug is without even thinking, he loves pointing out all the other cool things, e.g., a bananamobile, pumpkin car, bug bus, alligator car, etc.

8. Coffee! When I worked at Heath Ceramics, we got ten or twelve bags of Blue Bottle shipped to us weekly—just after the beans had been roasted. Opening up that box and inhaling was always a highlight of my day.  

9. I checked this book out from the library earlier this year and found myself upset that I couldn't take to it with a pen and start marking it up. Meghan Daum writes bravely and honestly about many topics, including her relationship with her dying mother and also her decision not to have kids. 

10. Josh Ritter’s new album! The problem with this digital age is that I rarely listen to a full album anymore. Lamenting this fact, I bought this CD—a physical, actual CD—and have thoroughly enjoyed driving around town playing it loud, like a teenager in the late nineties.

11. Just like last year, I’m going to make a giant batch of pizzelle to give as gifts. I know my mom would like a box and think that everyone at Teddy’s daycare might too.

12. I’ve been a fan of Kate Christensen’s fiction for a long time. I’m reading her first food memoir Blue Plate Special now, and would love to follow it up with her follow-up, How to Cook a Moose.

13. Who doesn’t love playing memory? Especially around the holidays? OK, I know a lot of people. (Many of our family members won’t play with Matt and me at all.) But Matt and I love it. We already have the Charley Harper version but I think we could use another board to mix it up.

14. As long as I make gift guides, I can guarantee you that this book will be on it.

15. I adored Eleanor and Park and so will trust Rainbow Rowell with whatever else she writes.

16. This brings us to Matt’s pick! In past gift guides Matt has added things like a jar of pickles and an Opinel pocket knife. This year, it’s a Tesla Model S! I love Matt for many reasons but one is that ever since Teddy was born (and we put his carseat in our newer, safer car), Matt’s been driving around my ever-so-slightly-banged-up, clunky, eleven-year-old Scion Xa without complaint. (Note: we cannot afford a Tesla, but hey if Tesla wanted to send us a car, we would be happy to shoot a bunch of cooking videos during which we have to constantly drive to the store to pick up one more ingredient.)

17. These are the ideal shoe for a pregnant person living in Southern California in winter.   

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