People frequently ask me how I come up with recipes, and I usually give some lame answer about being inspired by seasonal produce. Yes, that is the very thing I have sighed at when it's said by other San Francisco pastry chefs, but the fact is it's a) often true and b) easier than trying to convey the actual looney projects I tend to devise for myself. Example: While eating a bowl of oatmeal, I, unprompted, decided I wanted to create a dessert that would encapsulate that fall-in-a-vineyard feeling. Fall-in-a-vineyard feeling? What does that even mean? Glad you asked.
So living in San Francisco has its downsides, the greatest of which might be the absence of my favorite season: fall. I grew up in New York, where late September meant the first crisp winds, soft sweaters, and tea-and-scone outings. I love the smell of fall, when the scent of burning leaves is like a ghost in the air, even in city streets far from any farm.
Now there are certain people, namely my roommate/fiance, who probably want to rip the months September-November out of the calender just so that certain other people, namely me, will stop whining about them. Luckily he's not that dramatic and my stationary can stay intact in lieu of his other, far sneakier tactic: get me drunk.
Because living in San Francisco also has its upsides, the greatest of which might be its proximity to Napa and Sonoma. These areas do get a simulacrum of East Coast fall—the leaves on the vines turn colors and the air gets crisp enough to invite fires and sweaters. It's wonderful to visit the vineyards at this time, clutching a glass of a big bold red and smelling the earth, the grapes, and the barrels.
So how do I translate that smell and feeling combo (that'd be earth+grapes+wine barrels+comfort of sweaters while walking around a vineyard in fall) into a dessert? Well the grapes were obvious, though I needed to incorporate an earthy element, so I chose thyme (rosemary would be too overpowering). And because I love jam, that's what I made.
The jam is a little finicky to make because Concord grapes require de-seeding, but versus run of the mill, seedless grapes, there's just no comparison in flavor. Concord grapes taste like the epitome of grape. The thyme adds an herbal earthiness that saves the jam from being too school lunch-Smuckers and really draws out the complexity of the fruit. It's sweet but earthy, with the perfume of a vineyard during the fall. I could (and did) pair this with a little salty cheese, but what I really wanted was comfort food. So I made the jam into bar cookies.
The bars have a buttery, slightly crumbly cookie base—in fact I like to stick them in the fridge to make them easier to cut—and the same dough is sprinkled on top to make the crumb topping. Of course the middle, and the true flavor vehicle, is the rich grape-thyme jam. Put together into one buttery, transportable package, they are rather transportative themselves.