Perhaps one of the more interesting, creative and exciting things about being a cook is when one thing leads to another and before you know it, almost by accident, you have created something really delicious. Something out of nothing, or nearly nothing. It can begin with an idea, of course, a whispered question in the back of your head (I wonder if… ? Or how would it taste if…?)
Or sometimes it's that an unexpected ingredient has landed in your lap, which is exactly what happened to me yesterday when I ran next door to deliver something to my neighbor and she showed me the magical secret of her autumnal porch decoration.
"Look," she said. "Check it out." She plucked a beautiful dried pod from a huge bunch stuffed into a crock next to her front door. She turned it upside-down over my extended palm and out poured poppy seeds, beautiful blue-black poppy seeds, grown from her abundant curbside garden over the summer. "Take a few," she said, always generous. And I did and I hurried back home with those wonderful "how would it taste if …?" questions already bouncing around my head.
After shaking out the pods into a bowl, I found I had about three tablespoons worth. I could have just swept them into a spice jar and used them here and there over the months to come. But I wanted to use them in a way that honored the unexpectedness of their arrival, something that would showcase their incredible beauty. A classic poppyseed pound cake or cookie was OK but I wanted to give them more of a staring role. So I asked the Googles and my pals on Facebook and flipped through a few favorite books and finally I discovered that what I wanted to make was a savory poppyseed stuffed challah bread.
And so I did. Along the way, I encountered a badly written recipe, jumped ship to something more reliable, and discovered (thanks to the lovely lady behind Poor Man's Feast) that I also wanted to add walnuts. I filled my autumn-chilled kitchen with the warm, damp, yeasty smell of baking bread and browning onions. I tapped my community of cooking friends and felt a deep appreciation for how much the search for something delicious can connect us, even if we are thousands of miles apart and broken into bits and pixels.
I was reminded that a good cook, a happy cook, is always engaging the questions "What if …?" and "I wonder what ... ?" Often it's not even an articulated question, just that quiet, non-verbal 'hmmm' of a mind and heart harmoniously at work. And I was reminded that it's helpful to engage our whole lives with this kind of curiosity and attentiveness.
But most importantly, I was reminded that when a gift is given (like, say, a handful of poppy seeds or the inspiration to add nuts) the best thing to do is to use it as well and thoughtfully as you know how. That receiving a gift means we take on the task of keeping the spirit of generosity and wonder moving and in play, spreading the message that there is enough, more than enough, for everyone.
Recipe for an Unexpected Gift of Poppy Seeds
Make your favorite challah dough (here's one option, and another). While it's rising, sauté an onion in lots of butter until soft. Add about 3 tablespoons of poppy seeds, a teaspoon or so of salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. (As I write this, I can see that the leaves stripped from a few springs of thyme would have been nice, too.) Let the mixture cool. Then decide that chopped walnuts would be nice and add in what you have left in the cupboard (about 1/4 cup).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the bread is done rising, roll it out into a rectangle and spread the poppyseed mixture evenly over the surface. Follow these instructions from Sara Kate on how it make regular old stuffed bread into something magical. Bake until done. My loaf took about 35 minutes.
Let cool slightly. Cut off a nice hunk and run next door and give it to the neighbor that got all of this started in the first place. Hand another big piece to your other neighbor who is coming down with a cold and appreciates something warm and comforting. While your at it, give a slice to your landlady who is just returning home from a long day's work. Finally, sit at your kitchen table with the last remaining piece and slowly eat it as the autumn dusk dims your kitchen and you feel your well-used muscles begin to relax into the contented hum of a job well done, your journey come to its deeply satisfying, wonderfully tasty conclusion.