By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
My freezer is chock-full with all my family’s favorite foods, and later this week I’ll use all my McGuyver skills to defy volume and load the Kia to fullness beyond comprehension. I’m off for the annual gathering of my children and theirs. We’re headed to the Montana mountains of my childhood, and everyone’s especially anxious to greet our newest little clan member, three-month-old Samih. We’re all super-crazy baby lovers, and upon arrival, I imagine the anxious aunts and uncles (and grubby-hand children) will be lined up for a turn to cuddle and love on Sam. Age has privileges, though, and you can bet that I’ll be pulling rank.
I’m looking forward to our retreat and the weeklong quietness of the woods, especially since last week was just damn crazy: I prepared Hors’ de oeuvres for 175 wedding guests at a reception in Spokane, hosted a Sunday brunch for favorite out of town guests, shopped, cooked and began packing for the gathering. I also crafted an over-sized butterfly-shaped piñata (that still needs stuffing).
Last week, I took time out of my full schedule to be the plus one guest on a train ride — and talk about déjà vu. Ten years ago, I managed VIP trips with many of those same railcars. The minute I boarded the BNSF trainset, it felt like an homecoming, long overdue. After cocktails, and the melodic call of the dinner chimes, we were seated in the diner, and I imagined myself in the galley, plating the courses, instead of in that diner, eating them. I was struck by the comfort I felt in the still familiar scents that surrounded me.
When I lived on railcars during lengthy journeys, I could close my eyes and identify the car I was passing through. I’m not exactly sure where these distinct scents came from —maybe the rich wood paneling or the fine wool carpeting — but over the years, it was comforting to work in those old familiar cars. I was most at home in the stainless-steel galleys, which had their own distinct scents. Whenever there were guests onboard, I’d average about 16 hours a day in those galleys, and I knew them as individually as my children. I knew which coolers would invariably freeze a week’s worth of precious produce I couldn’t replace and which ovens need recalibrating after only a month or two of rolling through the countryside. I had my favorites, too (any galley that still had reliable air conditioning after eight or 10 hours of straight oven use).
Between meals, while most of the galley and serving staff disappeared to their compartments for some overdue downtime, I’d devote a lot of my time to recipe development. Sometimes between trips, we’d have two week layovers, so, with all the time in the world and an unlimited budget, I’d shop in cities filled with specialty markets, where I could source every esoteric ingredient my heart desired to whip up some pretty delicious offerings. Some of those recipes remain as part of my “favorites” repertoire and are still regularly requested by family, friends and past clients who are still in touch. I’m a baker at heart, so many of the recipes I still love to make are pastry-based. I usually double my recipes, so I can freeze, and then bake off small batches I can serve warm and fragrant, fresh from the oven.
Right now, my herb garden is bursting with an overabundance of aromatic, purple flowered sage, oregano and thyme that begged to be included in batches of savory goods, like breads, rolls and flaky crusts, for herbed tarts.
With a full car and a full heart, I’m nearly ready to head over the continental divide. As soon as I arrive at the lodge, I’ll bake off chocolate chip cookies for the young set and lots of cocktail-worthy savory wafers for the adults. I sure hope you’ll take some time (and thyme) and bake some for your loved ones, too.
Thyme and White Cheddar Wafers Recipe — (Makes about 30 savory cookies)
These little wafers are rich and fragrant and a perfect appetizer! Double the recipe, freeze half for later. There’s always a batch in my freezer for impromptu wine nights.
•1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at
•2 tsp freshly picked thyme leaves
•1/2 tsp salt
•1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
•1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
•8 ounces extra-sharp white
cheddar cheese, finely shredded
•1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
•Egg yolk and 2 tbs water
for egg wash
•1 tsp sea salt flakes
Using electric mixer with paddle attachment, beat together butter, thyme, salt, black pepper, and pepper flakes at low speed just until blended. Add cheddar and flour and mix at low speed until smooth (do not overmix). Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Shape-roll dough into log, about 1 1/2” in diameter, wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper, and chill 30 minutes (or cover again, with foil and freeze for later). Slice 1/4” thick and place on cookie sheet.
Arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat to 350°F (not on bottom rack).
Egg wash, sprinkle lightly with sea salt flakes. Bake shortbread until lightly golden and beginning to brown on edges, about 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t overcook! Cool on sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool. Garnish with garden-fresh thyme sprigs.