Writing a novel can be long, grueling work. It took me two years and two months to complete my first novel. The second came in at just under a year, and it looks like the third will be more like six months, so I seem to be getting better at it. Still, it’s sometimes disheartening to pour months of work into something that people will read in a day or two. Sort of like spending hours on cooking a really good meal that your kids then inhale in ten minutes, fifteen if my teenager goes back for seconds.
So why do it at all? Simple: because it’s FUN.
Cooking your own meals and desserts means you have total creative control to do anything and everything you like. Your three-year-old wants a robot birthday cake with moving gears? Sure! Your ten-year-old is obsessed with dragons? Make a cupcake tower with dragon cookies perched on them. Launching your first novel? Make a cake that looks just like your book! I love cooking and baking challenges, and my children do, too. One of my great parenting joys is helping them to realize their own crazy ideas in chocolate and candy and fondant.
And yet… cooking is limited to the available ingredients. In writing, anything is possible. I can create a character who grew up on Mars and needs an exoskeleton to visit Earth, or a frog prince obsessed with baseball, or a village where everyone is a monster, but they’ll never admit it. Right now, I’m writing about a thirteen-year-old elf girl fascinated by math and programming who’s been roped into helping rescue a magical, sentient baby tree who’s been kidnapped by someone who basically thinks he’s a Norse god, all because the elf girl’s grandmother has a secret agenda. Whaaaaat? How does that even make sense?
Well, it makes about as much sense as making candy sushi or books out of marshmallows and graham crackers. And you know what, I love every crazy second of it, even when my plot goes sideways and I have to spend ages revising. i love creating whole worlds and the fascinating people in them who live and strive and fail and pick themselves up and keep on going. It was inevitable, i think, that I’d end up writing about a young witch with a flair for magical baking. And I love that I get to share these stories, not just with my friends and family, but with everyone, everywhere.
For some examples of the crazy, fun, wild things I’ve made, please visit my Facebook page. And for more about that young witch and her friend, the pixie who discovers she has more of a knack for magic than she ever imagined, preorder A Pixie’s Promise before the Kickstarter ends in just a few scant hours. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until it comes out in September.
Today’s post was going to be about cooking and culture, but sometimes the universe intervenes and hands you something completely different. Yesterday, while out walking along the bike path, I found and harvested two different species of wild edible mushroom. Before I go any further, a warning: DO NOT EAT WILD MUSHROOMS UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY AN EXPERT!!! I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll say it again. DO NOT EAT WILD MUSHROOMS UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY AN EXPERT.
I have been studying mushrooms for over ten years now and training with a group called Mushroom Hunters USA, which is led by professional mycologists. We do mushroom surveys, in which we hike through a section of forest picking every mushroom we find, then bringing them back for study. The mycologists explain which are dangerous, which are edible, which are interesting for other reasons, e.g., used as a dye for wool, and which are just fun to look at. After a decade, I’m now confident enough to harvest just six foolproof species – that’s mushrooms that don’t look like anything else and are very safe to eat, and even those have a few caveats. So it’s rare indeed that I find two different edible species on the same day. In this case, I found oyster mushrooms and dryad’s saddle (also known as pheasant’s back), both growing on maple tree stumps.
I love foraging wild species, particularly things most people consider weeds. Quelites, also known as lamb’s quarters, are as delicious to me as spinach. Garlic mustard, an invasive species, is a fine addition to my skillet. Wild garlic and onions as well as wild sorrel are tasty additions to any salad. These all fall under the category of usufruct, one of my favorite words. Say it with me: you-suh-fruct. It means the legal right to use something found on someone else’s property or belonging to someone else. In other words, one man’s weed or infestation is my treasure. I have frequently offered edible mushrooms to the owners of the property on which I found them (including the oysters yesterday, which happened to be right behind a friend’s backyard). No one has ever wanted them.
Finding an edible mushroom gives me the same thrill as hooking a fish or tasting a surprisingly good wine (very surprising – I’m not at all fond of wine). And cooking with them is even better. It’s a moment of spontaneity, an opportunity to do something creative and new. This was the first time I’d found dryad’s saddles fresh enough to use, so today I cooked them for the first time using a recipe I found online. Warning: I set off the smoke detector frying them up. All worth it. The edges were tender and delicious, the inner parts a little tough. Next time, I’ll reserve the flesh close to the stem for stock.
This moment of unexpected spark happens all the time in my writing. I’ll come across something – an article on a comet swung out of its long ellliptical journey by Jupiter or a conversation with the caretaker of a Masonic museum or an NPR discussion of the history of marshmallow fluff – and that random discovery becomes a found ingredient, something I may throw into the writing pot, today or tomorrow or ten years from now. Every day is an opportunity for discovery and spontaneous inspiration.
I usually end my posts with a recipe, but this time I’ll leave you with instructions on wild mushroom foraging.
- Train with an expert. There are many, many books out there, but nothing beats first hand experience. Look up your local mycological club or chapter of Mushroom Lovers USA and sign up for a tour or a mushroom survey. Ask LOTS of questions. Eat only what a trained mycologist gives you.
- Now get the books anyway. It’s good to have backup when you’re trying to positively identify a mushroom. Most of the mushrooms you find won’t be edible at all, but it’s interesting to learn more about them. I recommend starting with Mushrooming Without Fear bu Alexander Schwab. Their first rule, never pick a mushroom with gills, is a good one, and I only break it for oysters, which are pretty foolproof. After that, find guides to mushrooms in your local area. You’ll find different mushrooms, and at different times of the year, in different regions. I have two or three guides specific to New England.
- Learn the distinguishing features, as well as the lookalikes. Morels have a hollow stipe (stem), false morels do not. Chicken mushrooms that grow on pine trees make some people ill, so I steer clear of those. Jack o’lantern mushrooms are a mildly toxic lookalike to chanterelles, but they glow in the dark (hence the name). Chanterelles have a distinctive apricot smell, and dryad’s saddle smells like watermelon rind. Pay attention to the tree you found the mushroom on or near. There are 20,000 species of mushroom, but only 400 species of tree, and many mushrooms only fruit in the presence of certain trees, e.g., chanterelles with oaks or maples, morels with pines. Oysters are a notable exception. They will eat ANYTHING: sawdust, compost, manure, even oil spills. But you’ll never find them on a healthy tree because they only eat dead matter. And that’s another clue, where they fruit: on dead wood, in the ground, on living trees. It’s a good idea to take a picture of the location where you found the mushroom.
- The first time you think you’ve found an edible mushroom, take it to an expert to confirm the identification. If you can’t bring it in person, get a spore print, take pictures, and email them in. There are many mushrooming groups on Facebook that will help with identification as well, but it’s better if you can speak to someone you trust.
- ALWAYS COOK YOUR MUSHROOMS. Many edible mushrooms are toxic when raw, such as the delectable morel mushroom. And mushroom expert Paul Stamets says that mushrooms have no nutritional value unless they are cooked. (Fun fact: if you leave a mushroom in the sun for an hour, it will produce your day’s supply of vitamin D, the only vegan source, in fact.)
- NEVER CONSUME WILD MUSHROOMS WITH ALCOHOL. Wild mushrooms tend to absorb more toxins from their environment, which can interact badly with alcohol.
- The first time you eat a wild mushroom, eat just a small amount. Some people have reactions to wild mushrooms, even after taking all the precautions.
If you like the idea of fresh mushrooms and varieties other than buttons, portobellos, and shiitakes, but you aren’t willing to risk wild foraging, you can also grow mushrooms from kits at home. There are several providers, but my favorite is Fungi Perfecti. Around here, you can often buy them at farmers’ markets. It is amazing fun to watch them fruit, and many kits will fruit several times, after which you can add the spent medium to your compost, and you may get even more. Enjoy!
I live in a cohousing community, an intentional community designed with extensive common spaces to foster community interaction. It’s not a commune; we all own our own apartments and townhouses. It’s more like a condominium association with a big clubhouse that the members own and run. It should come as no surprise that my favorite part of the community is the common house kitchen and dining room, where we dine together as a community at least once/week. I love cooking for big crowds, and here I get to make large, elaborate meals I’d never be able to do at home: Cinco de Mayo, Italian Carnivale (not my meal, I just helped out), paella made in a table-sized pan over a wood fire. The photo above shows a Halloween meal I made: lamb-in-a-pumpkin stew. I love the challenge of it, but also the economies of scale. The cost of my meals rarely exceeds $4/person.
Even more, I love the effect my meals have on my neighbors. We gather to eat and drink and talk and laugh and share experiences past and present. We swap recipes, collaborate, cook together and clean together. Studies have shown that people who dine together, and in particular, those who eat the same foods together, are more likely to compromise and reach agreements (gastrodiplomacy). Meals are an integral part of society. We break bread together, we chew the fat, we kill the fattened calf to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. In some countries, it is unthinkable not to offer tea to visitors, and “tea” may range from a cup of warm liquid to a lavish dinner. No wedding is complete without a reception dinner. No holiday goes unmarked by food: the Thanksgiving turkey, the Christmas goose, the Passover seder, the Memorial Day cookout. Food binds together our society with shared experiences. It gives me no end of pleasure to provide that opportunity to my friends and family.
So it seems natural to me to write about food, because ultimately, I’m writing about people, how they interact, how they grow and develop and change together, and sharing meals is a vital part of that process. After all, writing, too, serves to bring people together. We chat about newspaper columns, join book clubs, recall the classics we were forced to read in school, perhaps with fondness, but certainly with a sense of camaraderie. Writing, too, weaves people together.
Here is one of my favorite vegetable side dishes to serve at large meals. If you’re scaling this up for 20 people or more, I recommend using a food processor or mandolin to slice the vegetables thinly for rapid roasting.
Roasted Root Vegetables
- 1 large or two medium potatoes
- 2-3 carrots
- 1 large or two small sweet potatoes
- 2-3 beets
- 1 large parsnip
- 1 turnip or rutabaga
- 1 medium onion
- ¼ c. olive or sunflower oil
- ¼ c. melted butter
- 1 tsp. salt
- fresh thyme and sage to taste
Preheat oven to 425˚F. Chop all vegetables into ½ inch cubes. Finely chop herbs. Place vegetables and herbs in a bowl and drizzle with oil, butter, and salt. Toss to coat thoroughly. Place in a single thin layer in a shallow baking pan or sheet. Roast for 20 minutes or until all vegetables are tender and slightly caramelized but not crisp. Makes 4-6 servings. Note: you don’t have to have all of these vegetables. Use whatever subset you can find. If you’re feeling adventurous, add half a celeriac. It’s a strange root vegetable and will require a lot of paring to remove the bumpy outer skin, but it’s well worth the effort for its mellow celery flavor.
For more recipes, consider preordering A Pixie’s Promise on Kickstarter. It’s chock full of recipes simple enough for a child to make with adult supervision. But you’d better hurry. The Kickstarter ends at 11:30am EDT on Wednesday, May 23rd..
Reminder: Less than four days left to preorder my next novel, A Pixie’s Promise, through Kickstarter! We’re just $500 short of reaching our goal, so if you’ve been on the fence, now’s the time!
For Mother’s Day, my husband made me flan. That’s it at the top of the page, with my portion already gleefully consumed.
I love flan. I love all things custardy: flan, crème brulee, those Danish tarts with the glazed fruit on top. If it jiggles, ever so slightly, that’s my bowl of cream. But for the life of me, I cannot make it. The custard curdles, or it won’t set, or it somehow sets too well and cracks apart.
My husband hates all things jiggly: custard, pudding, Jell-O, and nearly everything that appears in a dim sum cart. But he got it into his head that flan was what I wanted, so flan I would have. He checked recipe books. He watched The Great British Baking Show and Alton Brown videos. He consulted the Internet at large. And then he coated a pie plate with caramel, poured in a perfect custard, and made me flan.
It was so delicious, even he liked it.
We can’t live without food. It nourishes us, it gives us energy, it provides us with the building blocks we need to grow and maintain our bodies. It allows our muscles to contract, our heart to pump blood, our lungs to pump in the air we need to process that food. It keeps our greedy brains, which consume 20% of the calories we eat, running smoothly.
And yet, food represents so much more. It’s the tortillas my abuela made by hand, the deep dish pizza I first tried in Chicago, the face pancakes my mother always made for our birthdays. It’s the fried clams that taste twice as good after sailing across Boston Harbor to Hull and the chai latte at my favorite café and the cream sauce my father-in-law invented and the challah I braid because my daughter loves it. It’s the salad I made from my very first garden and the zucchini I grew bigger than my forearm and stuffed with deliciousness and the raspberry rhubarb crumble made from raspberries I picked fifteen minutes before. It’s the terrible sandwiches my husband and I took on our first date when we got lost hiking in the Blue Hills and ate in the rain. It’s the first time I made tortillas by myself in college.
Smells trigger memories. The smell of mint takes me right back to my student days when I walked past a candy factory to get to class, and the smell of green chile puts me on the streets of Albuquerque in July, when you can smell roasting chile everywhere. Food becomes a road map through our lives, and we tend to remember most clearly the worst (all the pickles I begged off my classmates and ate on one hamburger, more pickle than meat) and the best (the chicken cacciatore Mom made for my birthday every year). And now flan.
Good writing is like this. It’s more than just entertainment. Good writing connects with the reader. Most readers I know can recall vividly the first time they read a particular book and map their lives through those books. I certainly do: the Black Stallion novels I loved when I was eight, that day when I was nine and the children’s librarian led me into the adult section and put The Fellowship of the Ring in my hands, my eighth grade teacher knocking Lord Foul’s Bane out of my hands with a well-aimed chalk eraser. And writers often say they write a particular novel for a particular person, hence the dedication page. I wrote my first novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, for my children, packing into it my love of cooking along with many of the lessons I wanted to them to learn, as well as all the love I have to give. To my surprise, more than one parent has told me it brought them to tears. Stories are more than just words.
Cooking is more than just food. Food nourishes the body. Cooking nourishes the soul.
Here is the recipe my husband adapted from Alton Brown’s Flandango.
½ cup water
1 cup raw or light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups 2% milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup raw sugar
Prepare the caramel: combine water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook 10-15 minutes, swirling the caramel, covering all sides of the pan, until the mixture is a deep caramel color. Coat a 9-inch pie plate with the caramel and place in a roasting pan. Fill the pan with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the pie plate. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Prepare the custard: In a separate saucepan, combine the milk, cream, vanilla, and remaining sugar. Bring to a bare simmer over medium-low heat. Separate 3 eggs, reserving the whites. In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, combine the yolks and remaining whole eggs. Whip the eggs with a whisk until slightly thickened and light in color. While continuing to whisk the eggs, drizzle in about a quarter of the hot milk mixture. Do this SLOWLY to prevent curdling. Now whisk the tempered eggs back into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a glass or stainless steel bowl with a spout. Pour the egg mixture through the strainer in order to catch any curdled egg bits or particles. Pour the custard into the pie plate, and place the roasting pan in the oven. Cook for about 40 minutes or until they wobble slightly when the pan is wiggled. You can also insert a paring knife midway between the edge and the center. If it comes out clean, the flan is done.
Carefully remove the pie plate from the roasting pan – silicone mitts or gloves work well. Let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight or for at least four hours. To serve, run a knife around the sides of the pie plate. Place a plate or platter on top of the pie plate and quickly flip over. The flan should slide neatly onto the plate. Serves six.
I love going to schools and teaching baking as science – particularly bread. We make batches of sandwich bread, varying the amount of yeast. As they’re rising, we make batches of soda bread and vary the amount of baking soda. While the soda bread bakes, we watch the sandwich bread rise, and I get to explain the chemical processes that make each bread delicious: the simple chemical reaction with the baking soda that releases carbon dioxide, the more complex process with yeast that yields the same result, the fact that the yeast also eats sugars in the flour and releases additional chemicals that give yeast breads their distinctive flavor. And then there’s gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt that gives bread its stretchy, springy texture. Students are always fascinated by this. Who knew how complicated bread could be?
And yet, for all that, knowing the precise scientific processes that produce tasty bread, I find there’s also an art to making bread. You adjust the amount of flour you add to account for the humidity of the air. You knead it to line up the strands of gluten so that they trap bubbles of carbon dioxide. Too little kneading, and you get flat, shapeless bread. Too much, and you can exhaust the dough, making it tough and chewy. You gluten cloak it, stretching a flat layer around the loaf, to give it a nice crust. You add water to the oven to make that crust crispy. And kneading dough is deeply therapeutic and satisfying. This is the alchemy of cooking, the small, unquantifiable details you add to make it more that mere bread. I love the challenge of it, to balance all the elements of the recipe to produce a delicious work of art.
This is the most basic recipe for bread I know. You can easily double it or halve it. I have bad wrists, so I knead my dough in a stand mixer, and I know it’s ready when the dough just pulls away from the sides of the bowl and peels neatly off the dough hook.
White Sandwich Bread
1-1/2 Tablespoons instant yeast
1-1/2 Tablespoons salt
3 cups lukewarm water
6.5 cups flour (bread flour is best, but all-purpose will work as well)
Combine the yeast, water, and salt, then add the flour and combine. If it’s a rainy or humid day, you may need to add as much as a cup of extra flour. Knead the dough by hand on a floured board or in a stand mixer with a dough hook until the dough just ceases to stick to anything and becomes a smooth ball. Place in a container and cover but DO NOT seal. Let rise for two hours.
While the dough rises, prepare two loaf pans by coating with butter or spraying with a neutral-flavored oil such as canola or sunflower oil. When the dough has risen, cut it in half. Gluten cloak each loaf by shaping into a rough ball and stretching the surface of the dough from top to bottom and side to side, tucking the ends underneath. Lay the loaves in their pans and allow to rise another 40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the bottom of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and place another rack in the center of the oven. When the loaves have risen, slash them three or four times across the top. Place on the center rack of the oven. Pour one cup of water into the broiler pan CAREFULLY. Watch out for sudden steam. If you prefer a softer crust, you may omit the water and brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter or oil.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn them out onto a cooling rack immediately or condensate will form inside the loaf pan and make the loaves soggy. Wait ten minutes or so until the loaves have cooled a bit before slicing.
For a healthier version of this, you may replace up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour. I like to replace one cup with whole wheat and one cup with rye for a rich, complex flavor.
For a more complicated, enriched bread, see my recipe for Molletes.
For even more recipes, pre-order my new novel, A Pixie’s Promise.