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Lazy Bread

Hob

How many of you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’? I do, I’ve been known to binge-watch it, trying to second-guess each move and enjoying myself a great deal. However, I don’t cook like a chemist or physicist, though I believe in the science of baking. I cook with my hands and the touch of my fingers. 

Bread is a deep pleasure, and I haven’t used a recipe since… I can’t recall. I throw it together– it’s a lazy bread that I make! The dough can be kept in the fridge for when you want it, for about a week.

There are in my mind five basic ingredients. Gently warm water, dry yeast, salt, olive oil and flour. To this I frequently add dollops of honey and several tablespoons of psyllium husk to up the fiber content and the moistness. The flour content is variable, since I’m fond of mixed grains. Dark rye flour at about an eighth to a quarter of the total amount of flour is nice. With that I often will use about half whole wheat flour, preferably Indian Attah, but almost anything will do. The last quarter is white bread flour. All purpose flour is fine, though given a choice I will head for a bread flour with its extra gluten. 

I have a Hobart mixer named ‘Hob’, since none of the non-commercial mixers have the mixing moxie to stand up to the heavy labor of bread making. Actually let’s be honest, I have burned out a succession of Kitchenaids on cakes and cookies (I knew better than to even attempt kneading bread with a Kitchenaid.) I really do try to take care of my machines, never to ‘horse’ them or force them. But even the big Kitchenaid is not a professional piece of equipment, in my opinion. Hobart is the source of the Kitchenaid but the interior housing of the Kitchenaid motor is liable to cracking.

For those of you who have been reading this blog, you know I’m serious about hosting large parties, and working with massive amounts of ingredients. Wedding cakes for a hundred fifty guests, that sort of thing. The Hobart is up to my lifestyle. Before I had one, all yeast doughs were mixed and kneaded by hand. This makes for good shoulder muscles, by the way. I can mix a dough in fifteen minutes without my Hob.

I throw in about two to three cups of warm water (not hot, or it will kill the yeast,) a scant tablespoon of yeast, 3/4 teaspoons of sea salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, optional dollop of honey, five cups of flour and put the kneading hook on low until it’s all mixed. No, I don’t bother to check my yeast– I cook so often that I know already that my yeast is alive!

Look at the dough, touch it with a dry finger tip. If it clings to your skin and doesn’t rub off easily, slowly add another cup of flour, any kind of flour, while running the machine or kneading by hand. If doing this by hand, have it out on your counter for the kneading process.. If still sticky, add more flour and knead more But if there is an elastic resilience to it and it doesn’t adhere longingly to your finger, unplug your mixer, take off the dough hook and turn the bowl on to whatever surface you use for kneading, if you’re not already there. Keep your flour duster close to hand. The dough should be a little sticky, but it should be possible to rub off your fingers. Knead it and slap it on the counter for fun, adding a little flour when it starts to come apart and cling. Five minutes, possibly eight. Let rest under a clean tea towel.

Now in my kitchen when I had the counter re-tiled ten years ago, I chose square tiles, big enough to roll out a whole pie crust on or knead bread dough on. Most kitchen designers make the error of planning little tiles, four by fours, for example, for their counters. If you can stop them from doing that to your kitchen, do it. Big tiles mean far less upkeep, a pleasantly simple aesthetic and no horrid bits of grout grunge in your kneaded doughs.

bread dough

poked bread dough focused

You can let the dough proof (or rise) for an hour or up to two, under the tea towel before you shape it. But if time presses, just form your loaf without bothering with that extra wait. The bread texture will be coarser, but it will still taste good. Leave your shaped loaf in its greased pan to rise between an hour and two and when it retains the impression of a finger poke, bake it in a preheated oven at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it sounds hollow when rapped with a knuckle. I find I get my best rise when I roll the dough. So make a flattened rectangle once you have kneaded your dough, and roll it up firmly before fitting it into your baking  pan to rise, covered with a tea towel.

If you do the slower method and let the dough rise for an hour or so before progressing to the shaping,  knead it down before your shaping of the loaf. When shaped, let the loaf rise until the dough retains the indentation of a poking finger. Then bake, and test doneness by rapping on the crust as above.

Let the loaf sit about five to ten minutes before turning it out of its greased pan; it should come out easily.

bread in square pan

If you want a fast lunch, try pan bread. Take a double fistful of dough and pat it into a rough circle, to fit the bottom of a middle sized cast iron pan.. Heat that pan, well-oiled, on the stovetop  and when hot, place the dough in the pan. (Sometimes to be dramatic, I throw it. That’s fun.) Turn the burner down to the low setting and cover with any lid that fits. Leave to rise and cook in this improvised oven for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the upper surface is no longer sticky. Then flip it over and continue to cook five to ten minutes more, until lightly browned on the bottom. Eat hot with butter, or with sauteed vinegared red peppers and onions with fresh goat cheese or pickled artichoke hearts or… whatever you like. I’ve been known to sit down with peanut butter and this hot bread for a fast lunch. It tastes different from oven baked bread, and while it can be a little sticky inside, or dense, it has a lovely immediacy and nuttiness.

Want a particularly spongy soft interior texture in your bread? Take the water from boiling potatoes and use some in your warm water when you make the dough. That will give you a softer resilient crumb in the final loaf. Love a soft crust surface? Rub butter over or spray the crust with oil when you take it baked, from the oven.

And yes, before you ask, you can stretch and roll this dough out to make a pizza if you like, but if you’re doing that, crank your oven to 500 degrees, do a full pre-heat, don’t overload the crust with sauce and additions, and do use a perforated round pan for a crisper crust… I recommend caramelized onions and gorgonzola with a crumble of walnuts and rosemary across the surface.

Enjoy!

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A deeper breath of air

       It has been a mess here but things are looking up today. Two days ago we had skies filled by smoke and ashes falling  so heavily you could hear them striking leaves and rustling through branches. Our Thomas Fire is a monster. For the past week a friend and her cat have been with us staying in our front rooms, due to the evacuations east of us.  It is this terrible dryness that has us in this fix. Years of drought followed by one adequate rain last winter, and now this year an even more intense drought. Until that breaks I see no real end to these flames and smoke, even when this particular fire, God willing, passes. For now we only hope there will be no sundowner winds to bring the fire into our laps. But, as said before, this is a fire ecosystem, and we are packed with our cat carriers set out ready for our four beasts should the call to evacuate come.
Our daughter has lingered in Phoenix where she’s a graduate student, because as we have told her, why should she drive ten hours to join us in this terrible air? But she is tired of waiting and has set out this morning. She’s a good driver but I shall be much relieved when she’s actually parked once more in our driveway.
Now, today, there has been a sense of jubilation that perhaps the incredible efforts of firefighters have succeeded in controlling the Thomas fire. My fingers are crossed, but now we have blue skies with only a bit of smoke haze, so different! We all look to the foothills and mountains thad think of those brave souls who have put themselves in harm’s way for all our sakes. All good honor and praise to them. Our sorrow for the fallen firefighter and his family.go-fund-me site
Thanks for all your good wishes and ours to you– may you have happy holidays with those you love, and peace.

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After Nanowrimo

I’m a little slow posting this, but while Nanowrimo (national novel writing month) is officially over, the greater part of the work on a novel begins. The biggest job isn’t the first complete draft, though you can’t go anywhere without one!

I totaled 67,565 words on mine, working title Living with the Enemy, then over the first days in December I created a chapter log– giving the page number on which each new chapter begins and what the main action or actions may be in each. This allows me to look over the action and pacing, as well as keep a sense of character development– the progression of change in each person of interest. I also note what themes are recurring, so I can figure out what events might better serve in a different order.

Many of you who write, and it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, make an outline. Sometimes I do, but this November I didn’t. Writing in the first person makes an organized plot harder for me– I feel as though I’m letting another voice speak through me when I write in first person, thus it’s much harder to guide. I feel there’s an organic power rising through first person narrative. Maybe I will cut and shape later, but while the story is first erupting, I hate to dictate what I want to hear about. (No, don’t tell me about the murder right now– I want to hear about the dog…)

I want to invite in the voice out of the darkness that comes and tells me something, sometimes troubling or even terrible. Such a voice gives me a feeling of personhood, and the burden that soul bears. Who is it? How did he or she get there? Sometimes I’ve thought it was a woman or a girl, and then I found out as the reveal progressed that I was wrong, and I have another strange man in my head telling me what happened to him. After all most voices sound alike in a whisper.

So I will confess it right now. More times than not, I write the end of a novel before the beginning. How many of you do likewise?

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a scrap of paper

I’m supposed to be prepping for our next department party scheduled for this coming Saturday, so of course, every distraction is a delight. Isn’t it so often true that as soon as an ‘assignment’ looms, other things rise in interest and significance?

I picked up a scrap of paper, my handwriting. Worn, slightly discolored by time around the edges. Part of a map of Isla Vista on it, and a note. This is what the writing says:

“Oh she’s a murderer, all right. Do you fancy I don’t know my own flesh and blood? She killed him, I know it as though I saw it all. Because to see the beginning is to see the end.

What was I imagining when I scribbled that? Probably an entire novel. Problem is, it sounds too familiar, as though I’ve read such a novel already, where the protagonist/observer makes lots of such comments as the tale unfolds. The voice makes me think of Leslie Ford, who has such a friendly knowing tone and invitation to engage. So I think I probably have looked at this note before and thought– no, don’t go there. It’s a cliche, it’s been done. You don’t want to shadow another writer.

Then, because today is full of the prompts that only procrastination fuels so well, I start speculating. What if we use this voice, this friendly slightly irreverent knowing voice, and put it into a science fiction novel about a murder that is prompted by the genetic programming of a particular lineage in some alien species? Use the notion but give it new legs? Maybe about twenty legs and compound eyes? What are the instinctive prompts that would not be common knowledge in a mixed culture of various species from different worlds, but could be interpreted and understood by an individual sharing a common blood? And what if the entire opening speech here is a deception on the part of the narrator, to protect the real culprit, an assassin who might even be itself/herself/himself/theirselves?

Procrastination is such fun. Back to the kitchen and the crusts of ten pies….

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Every Time I see Your Face

Every time I see your face… I heard Ringo Starr singing this yesterday in the grocery store (all right, it was a recording on the speaker; he wasn’t really there singing in the aisle to the whole-grain spaghetti….) I woke with it in my head, and I keep hearing it.

Beyond an easy tune, with a set of memories triggered, as so often happens with the soundtracks of our lives, I find myself wondering. He and George Harrison wrote the lyrics one way, and it seems clear Ringo sang about a lost love. But there are so many lost loves in all our lives. Is it telling that now in my sixties, I find myself yearning over this with thoughts of my parents? Thinking of walks in the late summer woods of New Hampshire on almost forgotten paths my father recalled from his father’s footsteps, with the maidens hair fern and the old brown ghosts of past lady slipper leaves, barely visible if you know what to look for? In my mind I find myself walking on warm night roads with my mother, daring the amazing depth of an African moonless dark, with only the shimmering glory of stars for light. You can tell me that we shouldn’t have done that, given the danger of snakes, but we did, and it was magic and I’m here to tell you about it.

But all I’ve got is a photograph...and what photograph can ever tell anything? Like a song it’s just a fragment of the riches of our lives, a trigger for the tenderness of our pasts.

A friend wrote to me the other day: The truth is, most of us receive much more attention, encouragement and love than we merit, or even notice. It’s with maturity that that realization comes, if it comes at all. So many of our contemporaries seem to be on a treadmill of earning money to educate children to maintain social status, etc., that they cannot even stop to admire a rainbow, or ask news of a friend in the same town, or spend an hour or two with an elderly person whose kindness enhanced their lives at some point.

 Years ago, Barbara Bush declared at a commencement address at Barnard College: “You’re bright, well-educated, ambitious, and you’re determined to succeed in your careers. Just don’t forget that at the end of your lives, what will count for you, is those you have loved.” — Those words created a scandal, and many rued having invited a housewife, be she a First Lady, to speak at such an occasion. They make sense to me, however, as does the first tenet of Jewish faith (according to one of our classmates, to whom I admitted my Presbyterian ignorance of Judaism): leave the world a better place.

In a wonderful way my friend’s letter is an invitation to live, and live well. I take it personally, I needed that. It is so easy to become trammeled about with anxieties and worries that in the long run fade, or were never one’s personal business to be offended by or fraught over. I’m not arguing for indifference, for political passivity, but I am thinking that cultivating your own garden is necessary before you can offer vegetables to your neighbors.(You should see the basket of eggplant I just harvested!)

Sept gathering smaller

How does this go with walks by night or in the New Hampshire woods? The point is this– all these generosities made us. Time spent, often quietly– shared time. The point is gifts given freely to allow us to live. These are messages from the dead to the living, from experience to youth. Pick up your bent photograph with its tattered edge, and remember, and in remembering make it real. Step out, go, give, share, even the silence.

I have often thought that our job is not to listen for God’s words, but for his silences. Walking together, we live forever under this holy sky.

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Whittier Fire Continues

Santa Barbara fire map with recent fires_1499724149968_7424712_ver1.0

The day has a color to it and a faint taste.  The Whittier Fire has burned over 10,800 acres so far, and the sky is hazed by a strange warm hue. From the detail map it seems that a fierce defense of the two peaks which carry most of our communications may have been successful, but as I noted before if any of you find it difficult to reach family or friends in this area of Southern California, don’t panic– communications may be challenged.

I can only salute the extraordinary fire respondents in all roles, who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us who go about our daily lives with little more than a feeling of anxiety, refreshed every so often by a look at the alien sky. I think this will be a long fight.

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Off again!

We seethed about the Geology loading dock for a while, counting heads, listing names. Last call for the restrooms, then faculty, students and tag-along (count me) piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I volunteered as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

moon at eve copy

I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.

grand

Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.

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