We sat down with one of our favorite humans, Sarah Owens, and asked her all of our burning baking questions, including the best music to listen to while baking, and the things every baker needs. We love her thoughtful answers, and she even gave us access to her baking playlist, just in time for our holiday baking frenzy.
Sarah is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, naturally-leavened baker, professional horticulturist, culinary instructor, and all-round awesome person. We asked Sarah if she’d help us come up with a Ziba recipe for the holidays, and she said yes! It’s an Italian-inspired cookie recipe that uses our Kishmish raisins and Gurbandi almonds, and we’re willing to bet it’ll be on your regular baking rotation over the holidays (maybe even forever?). Take me to the recipe.
How did you get into baking? Is it something you were always interested in?
I’ve always loved the alchemy of baking and the satisfaction that comes from combining seemingly inert ingredients to make something creative, impressive, and comforting to share with others. The women in my family were influential in encouraging this exploration and I was always hovering around the kitchen when I was young.
It wasn’t until I began experiencing some digestive intolerances that I began exploring sourdough which opened up so many doors personally and professionally. Harnessing the power of natural leavening allowed me to incorporate whole grain baked goods into my diet and expand my repertoire. When I started a little baking side business that grew into Ritual Fine Foods, my customers responded with surprising enthusiasm. I loved the opportunity to highlight ingredients from small, ethically-minded, and environmentally sustainable businesses to make my goods special and expand awareness of growing and processing practices. Building personal relationships through the cultivation, flavor, and accessibility of nutrient-dense food is my ongoing inspiration.
What about baking do you love most?
It’s absolute magic! And there is always something to learn. My background is in both the arts and professional horticulture and baking combines craft with a strong connection to the land, the people who tend it, and the community with whom I get to share the baked goods. It’s a wonderful way to connect. It also makes the house smell amazing when I’m baking at home! As a pleasure-seeker, it is the most wholesome way to sustainably indulge the senses.
Do you have a particular go-to recipe?
Well, I love baking sourdough bread and my standard weekly ritual is The Table Loaf using stone milled flours. It is versatile and I can switch up the types grains, increase the percentage of whole grain by also increasing the hydration and lowering the leaven, or shape it into sandwich style loaves. Flexibility is key in my kitchen and why I love this recipe and its adjustment notes published in my most recent book Heirloom.
Are you big on the holidays? What is most representative of the holidays for you, and what is your favorite thing about the holiday season?
I do love the holidays – I’ll use any excuse to bake goodies and share them! Food has always been a way to explore learning about culture and tradition and I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate both through holiday-themed baked goods. Cookies are my absolute weakness around the holidays and are a great opportunity to offer the gift of love from your hands. Every culture has a unique cookie with a story! They keep well and are a 1 to 3 bite treat. You just can’t say no to a cookie!
If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Well, I love a good crusty hearth-style bread made with stone ground heirloom grains. It is filling, comforting, and there’s so much flavor, texture, and aroma! But it is hard not to eat this without a good cheese, cultured butter, or quality olive oil and a naturally fermented wine or cider of course. Combine those three things with lightly cooked veggies and seafood or roasted lamb and I’m set!
What is the one thing in your kitchen (or home) you can’t live without?
A good wooden spoon. Especially one that is hand-carved and naturally fits my hand. I can’t cook without one, even when I’m camping.
If you could take three things with you to a desert island, what would they be and why?
I’m not sure I could live long term without an oven of some kind! My sourdough starter would definitely be in tow and as a creature of comfort who likes to physically work hard, I need a good warm nest to snuggle into and sleep well at night.
What’s your favorite record to listen to while baking?
It really depends upon the mood, what I’m baking, and why. I grew up in a musical family in Appalachia who all sang and played multiple instruments – it was self-entertainment, especially when it rained so hard that we couldn’t be outside working. While my mother loved bluegrass and moody folk artists like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, my daddy and his brother were rowdy ramblin’ types who played Memphis blues and rock n’ roll. My uncle was tragically talented and could play a banjo and harmonica at the same time and I always aspired to be like him! I appreciate a pretty wide spectrum of musical styles and voices accordingly and as a teenager of the 90s, hip hop music was also hugely influential. Through my college years and beyond in Louisville, KY I discovered a rich jazz history and Afrobeats but also post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, the piano-driven chamber collective The Rachel’s, idiosyncratic indie folk artists like Will Oldham, and the spillover of deep house music from Chicago and Detroit. These genres and more are on regular rotation in my kitchen, but I certainly go through phases.
When I am doing production-style baking and trying to keep the vibe steady, I love listening to albums I can sing along to like Rumors by Fleetwood Mac or You Are Free by Cat Power. Strong, female-identified voices have been playing lately while I test new recipes like Warpaint by Warpaint, Halo by Juana Molina, Horses by Patti Smith, Jolene by Dolly Parton, or anything by Roberta Flack (Quiet Fire is a good one), The Staple Singers, or Betty Davis!
If you had to pick one, would you pick sweet or savory?
It depends upon the sweet but I as I get older, I can’t resist savory! Especially buttery, cheesy, herby savory. I’m always pushing the lines between sweet and savory though with the argument that it brings balance to both. Baked sweet goods can be really off-putting if they don’t have other flavors besides sugar and butter or enough salt and some acid like lemon or orange zest. Savory food often benefits from just a pinch of sweetness to amplify other flavors and mellow out any harsh acidity or saltiness. These are subtleties but I think they really count!
What should every baker have (other than patience!)?
Curiosity and flexibility. I try and encourage both new and experienced bakers to respect the recipe but also cultivate what I call observational baking skills through a willingness to experiment and discover. This contributes to cultivating intuition through intentional study and reflection, especially when using ingredients that haven’t been mass produced or standardized according to industrial processes. These ingredients often have a gentler footprint on our environment as well. Nature encourages variability and if we can stay flexible, we can nurture a closer relationship with our beautiful, generous planet.
2020 has been an unusual year—what are you most grateful for this year and why? What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
As someone who has worked creatively for most of my working life, I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating flexibility as well as resourcefulness. I’m grateful for this practice, as it has helped me to pivot during a time of great challenge and extreme uncertainty. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without a strong support network of people who appreciate my books, recipes, and tutorials and also friends, family, and collaborators who are all trying to make the most of this year and help each other out.
I’m hoping in 2021 I’ll be able to settle down somewhere more permanently and begin creating a dream kitchen and garden. I’ve been taking small (COVID-safe) weekend camping trips to scope out affordable areas of southern California with low(er) fire-risk. I’m also learning about the history of colonization here as well as the native communities that are still present. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to do so when it’s safer to interact, hopefully in 2021 and am trying to stay open to whatever comes. Every part of the US has its story and I’m trying to understand the complexities and how I may fit into a new narrative that empowers those who have been marginalized in the past. This year has presented a unique opportunity for change and I believe with a new government administration, more of healing and growth will happen on hyper-local, national, and global levels. It will take time, but I feel hopeful and invested in the process.
Favorite Ziba product and why?
That’s really difficult to answer! But I suppose the nuts hold my favor because I primarily use them for baking and equally for snacking.
- I’m smitten with the Pishori baby pistachios for their distinct, intense resinous flavor that compliments herbs like rosemary and contrasts so beautifully with brown butter. The flavor of pistachio can get lost sometimes in sweet or savory baking but not with these! A little goes a long way as a garnish as well.
- The sweet apricot kernels are also so special in baked goods – they taste like almond-flavored almonds! And are an excellent pairing with whole grain flours like naturally sweet and nutty spelt.
- Lately, I’ve been playing with the Gurbandi almonds that have a delicate sweetness and really open the palate to what an almond can be. So often we are resigned to using monoculture grown almonds that are ubiquitous at the supermarket; they can be quite bland and require a heavy-handed use of extracts to elevate them in baked goods – but not with the Gurbandi! I appreciate ingredients that have identity and all of Ziba’s products lend incredible personality to my sweet and savory treats.
Sarah Owens’ Raisin Stuffed Chewy Almond Cookies
MAKES ABOUT 34 COOKIES
The delicate sweetness of Gurbandi almonds shines in this simple but impressive, Italian-inspired cookie. Although blanched almonds are typically used, this recipe highlights the nutrition and additional skin aroma of this unique almond family from central Afghanistan. The Gurbandi almond’s light color and addictive, unique flavor will add remarkable character to this cookie. They need less sugar and extract flavoring than when using store bought almonds and pair perfectly with the hidden surprise of large green Kishmish raisins that bake into a jam-like center. Alternatively, top the cookies before baking with additional almonds for a more decorative effect.
- 200g organic cane sugar
- 360g raw Gurbandi almonds
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 105g egg whites (from about 3 extra-large eggs)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
- 30g green Kishmish raisins (about 34)
- Place the sugar In the bowl of a food processor and process on high for 3 minutes to achieve a fine, powdery texture. Add the almonds and salt and process for about 3 to 4 minutes to achieve a fine flour.
- Add the egg whites, vanilla extract, and orange zest and process until the ingredients come together in a sticky paste, scraping down the sides as necessary.
- Line two 12 x 16-inch baking sheet trays with parchment paper. Using slightly damp hands, scoop tablespoon-sized pieces about 20-25 g each. Stuff each piece with a raisin and roll between your palms to create evenly round balls. Place on the trays at least 2-inches apart. Set aside uncovered at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F/150°C and position a rack in the middle.
- Place one tray of cookies in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating halfway through. When the edges turn a light golden brown, remove the cookies from the oven and transfer to a wire cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining tray of cookies.