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Introducing the Cook Happy Project

Well hello there, reader.

Welcome to the Cook Happy Project, housed on my original personal blog and website, swirltocoat, which first helped me build my writer’s chops and eventually saw me through a career transition into full-time writing. All that to say, this site is equal parts cringe-inducing and affection-stirring for me, but I return to it because the philosophy behind “swirl to coat”—the idea of seizing the day, finding gratitude, and coating the pan of life with something added, whether that be writing or bee-keeping or cooking or stamp collecting, is a mindset that has truly, in the most literal sense, carried me through this past year.

To be clear, I am not talking about hobbies. What I a mean is more along the lines of what I’ve heard called a “proof of life exercise”—when faced with our mortality, such as in a pandemic, or a mental health crisis, or a divorce, or an addiction, and with the daily iteration of that, which we might call drudgery, or as the French like to say, “l’ennui,” we choose to follow the scent of what is life-affirming and humane and beautiful in our world … and … we do it, and then we document the process. In this way, we claim some degree of power over our own life story, despite the zillions of things over which we are powerless.

So my goal with this project of trying a few new recipes per week and then taking some time to reflect on the process each Sunday is to counteract the grief and melancholy I feel about my life’s personal challenges and to hold fast to the simple, life-sustaining pleasure of preparing a beautiful meal from fresh, raw ingredients. Or snack. Or dessert.

I’ve dubbed this the “Cook Happy Project” not because my end goal is happiness, per se, and certainly not because I aspire to pull myself up by my bootstraps—a quite unenlightened approach to healing, in my view—but rather, because I have found that cooking consistently sparks feelings of joy in me, spontaneously and effortlessly. Cooking (and baking) spur joy because they allow me to wholly immerse myself in the present moment, achieving a state of “flow,” and giving me the opportunity to serve others in a creative way.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to embark on my new year’s blogging journey one week early, beginning with two festive dessert recipes that I enjoyed during the week leading up to Christmas. The first is stuffed, poached pears, which is truly comfort food putting on airs as something fancier. I quickly ditched the bed of arugula and enjoyed my pear solo for breakfast and dessert. I also did away with the recipe’s instructions to baste them, savoring the ever-so-slightly caramelized flesh, and played up the sweetness factor with honey goat cheese instead of bleu.

The second is a winning gingerbread-with-mascarpone-swirl recipe, from a lovely cookbook called The Joys of Baking. The recipes are organized around different emotions, accompanied by narratives from the author’s life. These are a fun alternative to more vanilla, buttery Christmas cookie mainstays like Russian tea cakes, thumbprint jelly cookies, and cutout sugar cookies—and I was told by a co-worker who doesn’t like gingerbread that they struck the right balance between spicy and sweet. I love the fact that no electric mixer is required—just two large bowls and a spatula—but beware, the “mascarpone swirl” will quickly dissolve into a sloppy mascarpone mess if the cheese isn’t thawed to room temperature. Not a problem for me—they tasted just as well—but they weren’t pretty.

The through-line here, in terms of “cook happy,” is … Eat whatever the hell you want for breakfast! That’s how most of this was consumed. That, and go ahead and be the person who drops off homemade treats to friends and leaves random baked goods in the break room. It’s fun to be that person. Oh—and cheese. Cheese, may I count the ways I love thee …

Without further ado, the recipes. Have a good week.

Ginger

Poached Pears
Adapted from Back to the Basics

Ingredients
Three firm, slightly under-ripe pears
2 lemons
4 oz goat cheese
1/4 cup walnut halves, chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup apple cider, plus 3 tablespoons
1/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed

Instructions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Halve the pears and remove the seeds with a knife or spoon, or better yet, a melon baller. Place in a large baking dish. Microwave lemons for 10 seconds, juice them, and immediately pour liquid over the pears.

In a medium-sized bowl, crumble the goat cheese by scoring it with a sharp knife. Chop and add the walnuts, then the cranberries. Use your hands to bring the mixture together. Divide the mixture evenly among the pears.

In the same bowl, mix the apple cider with the brown sugar. Pour the mixture over the fruit.

Bake until tender, about 30 minutes.

Mascarpone Gingerbread Bars
Adapted from The Joys of Baking

Ingredients for gingerbread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
2 large eggs

Ingredients for mascarpone swirl
1 large egg, room temperature
8 oz mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Generously butter a 9-inch square baking dish.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cloves.
  • In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and molasses, then whisk in the eggs.
  • Fold the wet buttery mixture into the flour mixture.
  • In another medium bowl, whisk the other egg, adding the mascarpone, sugar, and vanilla.
  • Alternately scoop the two batters into a checkerboard pattern; then use a butter knife to swirl them together. Bank until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; 30 to 40 minutes.


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