Tonight feels somewhere between summer and fall. The past few days have been glorious, weather-wise. I went home to the farm in Maryland and it was like a postcard advertising autumn: The tips of the trees are tinged in russet red and vermillion and orange. The hills are covered in green grass, but the fields of corn and soybeans are slowly turning a dusty tan, like they've been baked too long in the hot summer sun.
On Sunday, the air was warm and breezy; it felt delicately soft on my skin. I wore a tank top and felt the freckles emerging on my cheeks as I walked up the lane, then abandoned my shoes to continue around the three ponds, the grass tickling my bare feet. I climbed the stone wall near the stream and swung on the rope swing that hangs from the big oak tree near the old smokehouse.
Back in the city, the air is thicker and heavier. A dense humidity hangs in the air tonight, warning of tomorrow's thunderstorms. For dinner tonight, I replicated a recipe my mom used to make all the time when we were little. She made it on Saturday night and it reminded me of how much I love it: It's a riff on a classic chicken cacciatore that she calls Hunter Chicken. You brown chicken breasts in some olive oil, then add some cognac and light it on fire, flaming it until the fire goes out. Cook some thinly sliced onions and garlic in the same pan until brown, then add in crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and white wine and very reduced chicken stock. It all gets baked together until saucy and savory and lick-your-plate delicious.
At home, we had it with a big green salad of baby spinach + kale + baby lettuces from the greenhouse tossed with a light vinaigrette and grated Parmesan. There were potatoes from the garden, mashed with butter and salt and pepper, and squares of lasagna layered with cheese and thin shingles of butternut squash (from the garden, too!). We had buttery brown rice and wine and so much laughter. For dessert, there was a deep Pyrex bowl of steaming apple crisp with a pecan-oat streusel and cold leftover apple pie with a thick flaky crust. A pitcher of cold cream to pour over it all.
After dinner, I climbed into bed. Pulled the crisp white sheets over me, the soft comforter over the sheets. Opened the windows wide to the sound of the wind whistling through the trees, the distant and indistinct noises of the farm: a dog barking, the barn door creaking, the stream trickling. In the morning I'll hear the sounds of the house awakening: my niece yelping happily, lots of banging about in the kitchen as coffee is made and cereal is poured and oil hisses in the skillet for fried eggs.
I try and keep my eyes open to start the crossword that my mom prints out for us, but my eyelids grow heavy and they lower against my will. I read this before bed, and it fills my dreams:
"The first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it's impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It's been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It's so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we're being punked. It's filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together." -Anne Lamott
Then I read this:
"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what of my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." -Wendell Berry
And finally, as my eyes close drowsily, this:
"I gather you were in the lobby
Terrifying to almost see you again.
I smelled the shockwave, the burning air.
Last night I looked up at the sky,
Lights out as I was falling asleep.
There was the moon, a full moon, or nearly.
It was you." -Frederick Seidel
Tonight's dinner is more reserved, being just the two of us. I miss the closeness of my family. I love raucous dinners with my niece grinning in her highchair, banging her spoon as she eats bits of chicken, wearing no clothes and tossing scraps down to Tye, our dog. I miss clinking wine glasses with my dad and holding my little sister's hand after dinner on the couch. But being back in the apartment is nice, too, and I'm glad to bring a little of the farm with me by replicating the dinner. On the morning I left, my mom made a double batch of my favorite chocolate biscotti, because she is a gem and I methodically crunch my way through a bowl tonight.
I dip each biscotti in a glass of milk, dunking it just long enough that it softens but doesn't fall apart. I half-heartedly offer some biscotti to him, and then (to really sell it) say, "there's also leftover banana bread!" in the vocal equivalent of jazz hands. Between you and me, this is because I want all the chocolate biscotti for myself. It works. He asks for banana bread, warmed up so its frozen in the center but soft on the edges.
If you like banana bread at all, you must try this recipe. I use cream cheese in the batter to make it extra-tender and moist without adding too much richness. If you can get your hands on it, use the blend of yogurt and creme fraiche that I use, but if that's a pain, just sub an equal amount of Greek yogurt which will achieve the same effect of adding density without too much heft.
The millet might sound odd, but trust me here. It adds crunch and texture that really adds so much interest to the bread, but it's much more subtle that using, say, toasted walnuts or other nuts. If you're reluctant to buy millet, know that it is an excellent add-in to homemade granola. Or you could just use it to make a million more batches of this banana bread. Just saying.
Crunchy Cream Cheese Banana Bread
3/4 cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (5 5/8 ounces) brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 ounces Greek yogurt (full-fat preferably) or creme fraiche or a mixture of both
4 medium bananas, mashed
3 cups (12 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1/2 cup uncooked millet (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease two standard-sized metal loaf pans.
Melt the butter in a large bowl. Add the sugars and whisk well to combine.
Add the eggs, mixing in each one at a time, then the vanilla and salt.
Add the softened cream cheese, Greek yogurt, and crème fraîche. If your cream cheese doesn't fully incorporate, and has some lumps, transfer your batter to a stand mixer (or use a handheld electric mixer) and beat on high for a few minutes. The batter will lighten up in color and the lumps should smooth out.
Add the mashed bananas and mix well.
Add the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon if using. Stir until the batter just comes together. If you want to use millet, which gives the bread a wonderful crunch, add it now (you could also use up to a cup of chopped toasted nuts, chocolate chips, or even coconut!).
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake for about 1 hour, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool before turning out of the pans and slicing.