Of all the kitchens I’ve cooked in, this one is my favorite.
It’s the kitchen at my family’s lake cabin, just north of Everett, Washington, and as small as it is, it looms very large in my life.
When I was a baby, my mom would stand right here and give me baths in the sink. I’ve got the faded photograph of my splash-happy baby self to prove it. When I was a little older, my grandma would putter here in the evenings, making hot chocolate for us kids, watching out the window as we took one last swim in the lake before bed. We’d come in, towel-draped and teeth chattering, and she’d hand us a warm mug. There was always a marshmallow on top.
Now I’m the one standing here, washing dishes as the sun sets behind the fir trees across the lake, gilding the ripples on the water with sparkling golden light. I look up and catch glimpses of my own kids as they bounce around on inner tubes, squealing, my cousin’s speed boat twisting and turning as it whips them around in figure eights. I feel at once so old (how can I possibly have a teen-age daughter?) and so young, as time seems to bend and I can almost hear the sound of my long-departed grandma and great-aunt chatting away in the living room.
This kitchen, and the little two-bedroom cabin it lives in, has seen five generations of my family and counting. A lot has changed in the 70-odd years since my great-grandfather built it, but one thing hasn’t: It still brings us together after all these years.
I don’t think Grandpa Great, as we used to call him, had any clue that his fishing cabin on the shores of Lake Goodwin would become the lynchpin of his family long after he passed away. But his two daughters knew. For them, it was so much more than a vacation spot. They were 10 years apart and opposites in many ways, but they had a bond as close as twins. When the oldest (my grandma) followed her new husband back home to California, leaving her own family behind, the lake cabin was where she could reconnect with them every summer.
My grandpa knew this. He appreciated her sacrifice (or knew better than to deny her). So he’d drive her and their daughters 18 hours north, long before the birth of I-5 shaved hours off the trip. When their kids had kids, I joined the annual trek to see the Washington clan. And now I’m bringing my own children.
I don’t like to think about it, but I’m 100 percent sure that if it wasn’t for this funky little cabin, I’d barely know my Washington relatives at all. But distance has that affect on families. We get busy. We lose touch. The complex people we once knew in vivid, hi-def color fade into a black and white sketch. With little in common but genetics and memories, without a strong pull from someone or something to keep us together, we drift apart.
The cabin, thankfully, is our center of gravity, and it’s always been there for us, ready and waiting, whenever we can carve out some time. We don’t all show up every summer, but we try. And when we can’t, we take comfort knowing the cabin, and the lake, will be there next year. As always.
The older I get, the more I appreciate this place, and now I wouldn’t miss our visit for anything. If I’m not hanging out on the deck with everyone, watching the skiers and wake-boarders and kayakers, you can usually find me here, in front of this tiny stove, because cooking for people I love and see only once or twice a year makes me inordinately happy.
I also like a good challenge — and cooking in this teeny kitchen is definitely a challenge. There’s little equipment, even less storage, and the available work surface is about the size of one cutting board. Creating a delicious meal for a large group in there is like trying to solve a puzzle. It’s hard, but that much more satisfying when accomplished.
For some reason, I don’t have a go-to repertoire for cooking at the lake. I never know what I’m going to make until I get there. But you can pretty much bet that at some point I’ll make a dessert, and it will always have blackberries. It’s our decades-old tradition to pick wild blackberries on our walks up the road. I remember my grandma coming home with heaping bowls of them and magically turning them into pie. And we can always count on our giant old blueberry bushes at the lake’s edge to give us fruit, even in the lean years, so often I add those, too.
Usually I make a crisp, because it’s just so easy. But sometimes I’m feeling plucky, or bored, or just want to get my hands dirty, and I make something more challenging, like a biscuit-topped cobbler.
I’ve lately become obsessed with Angel Biscuits after having them at Mae, one of my favorite places in Portland. Mae is sort of a restaurant/pop-up hybrid, in that it “pops up” regularly at the same time and place each week (like a restaurant) but you have to pre-purchase your ticket to it online (like a pop-up). At Mae, chef/proprietor Maya Lovelace, a North Carolina native, makes the most delicious multi-course Southern dinner — refined enough to be special, but not so chef-y that it’s not recognizable anymore. From crispy-juicy fried chicken, to pimiento mac and cheese, to braising greens drizzled in hot bacon fat, it’s all fantastic. But those ethereal Angel Biscuits, light and tender and flaky all at once, are the stuff of my dreams.
And they’re really good on top of a cobbler.
I don’t have Maya’s recipe, sadly, but I’ve come up with a close approximation. The key to their lightness is that they’re leavened with baking powder, baking soda and yeast. Adding the yeast ensures loftiness. It also adds that wonderful yeasty, brioche-like flavor.
I make the biscuits every chance I get. I serve them with homemade jam for breakfast, or with soup for dinner. They store beautifully in the freezer, so I make a big batch and make sure I always have a bag of them tucked away. It’s comforting to know I can pull them out any time I want to make a meal a little more special.
It’s comforting to know they’re always ready and waiting for me, just like the lake.
Blackberry Cobbler with Angel Biscuits
Makes 8 to 10 servings
These super light and tender biscuits are fantastic on their own, so don’t save them just for cobblers. Make a batch and freeze them before baking, then you can bake up a few any time the craving strikes. Because of the yeast, the dough is best if given a chance to rise. Try making the dough the day before and letting it rise in the fridge.
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (between 105 and 110 degrees)
1 teaspoon sugar
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
6 cups blackberries
3 cups blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Biscuits: Sprinkle the yeast over the water, add sugar, and stir. Allow to sit until foamy, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and cut it in with a pastry cutter until the mixture looks a bit like cornmeal scattered with some larger pieces of butter. (Alternatively you can do this in a food processor.)
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the buttermilk and yeast mixture. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet until incorporated into a shaggy dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead into cohesive mass.
At this point, you can refrigerate the dough overnight, which will give the yeast a slow rise and add more flavor, before shaping into biscuits. Or you can shape the dough, let it rise at room temperature for an hour, then freeze before storing or baking.
To shape the dough, pat it out into a large rectangle. Fold the sides of the dough over on itself like you’re folding a letter, then fold in half. Pat it out again and repeat. Pat the dough into a 3/4-inch to 1-inch thick rectangle and cut into rounds using a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Gently push the scraps together and cut out as many more as you can.
If you haven’t let the dough rise yet, arrange the biscuits on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and allow to rise at room temperature for 1 hour. Freeze for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven, or freeze until hard and pack into ziptop bags and bake later.
If baking the biscuits on their own, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Arrange frozen biscuits in a buttered baking dish or cast iron skillet just big enough to hold them side by side. They should just barely touch, which will help them support each other as they rise. Brush the tops with melted butter and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.
If using them in a cobbler, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Filling: In a large bowl combine the blackberries, blueberries, sugar and cornstarch. Pour into a large cast iron skillet or baking dish and bake fruit for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Remove from oven, increase heat to 425 degrees. Arrange frozen biscuits on top of the hot fruit, brush the tops with melted butter, and bake another 20 minutes or until biscuits are golden brown and cooked through.
Serve warm, with ice cream of course.
- For flaky and tender biscuits, you want a mix of flour, butter-coated flour, and flour-coated butter, which is why you’re aiming for a mixture that looks granular like cornmeal, but with some larger butter pieces mixed in.
- Folding the dough helps create flaky layers. It’s a French technique usually used for things like croissants.
- The sharper the edge of your cutter, the higher the biscuits will be able to rise. Something dull, like a drinking glass, can mush the sides of the biscuits, almost pinching the dough together, and make it harder for the dough to break free and rise up.
- If you don’t want to deal with scraps, use a knife and cut the dough into squares.
- Freezing the dough before baking chills the butter down so it can create flaky layers once it’s in the oven.