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Category: baking

baking bread: essential communion

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i baked bread a sunday ago. all day. with a beloved friend. and in the rhythms of yeast and friendship — yeast leaping into action, yeast rising, yeast resting, interlaced with the pas de deux of courage instilled, folly shared, revelation of heart — i found an elusive blessing, one necessary, curative, in these steep and shaky times.

it began with the humblest of offerings (as all friendship, all holiness does): wheat milled into flour; grains from the field; seed from the sunflower; honey, the bees’ sweet contribution; and yeast, God’s gift to the belly — and parable, too.

by the time the oven was blasting its gas-fueled insistence, we’d savored the blessing of pushing up old sweater sleeves, one friend reciting instruction, the other (uncertain and seeking conviction) following along, the blessing of slow time, of deep unspooling conversation, and an afternoon in which the slant of light slipped imperceptibly away. all punctuated with a thick slice of grain, slathered in soft salty cheese.

it’s as determined an equation for healing as any i’ve stumbled into of late. it was the gift of the sharing of hours — not a phone call squeezed in between errands, not a text passed in the night — that held the miracle. it was the rare chambered nautilus of friendship, a structure within which we could burrow, nestle into sacred uncharted spaces.

perhaps, too, it was the particular alchemy of shared labor — engaged task — across those hours. we’d started from scratch and were working our way — together — toward shared triumph. it was altogether richer than my usual preferred art of sitting side-by-side or foot-to-foot under blankets, sharing words and stories and mugs of spiced tea.

indeed, the tea kettle would sing before the afternoon ended, before two toothsome loaves would be pulled from the oven. and ever since, each time i pull a slice from the loaf, each time i sit down to lunch, i return, at least a part of me does, to that fine afternoon and the knowledge that i can bake my own bread, leaning all the while on the sturdy friendship of the rarest of companions.

there is something breathtaking about baking with a friend. something in sharing a kitchen, a cookstove, something in finding our way together. i grew up afraid of two things (my inventory here is confined to fears in the kitchen): yeast and pie crust. the former i thought i could kill, a notion that felt murderous to me; and the latter i thought would crumble in my indelicate fingers. so i did what any deep-fearing girl would do: i stayed away. steered clear. bought my bread, more often than not, from the very nice baker who shared not my particular fears.

for me to enter the kitchen, to haul out the mixer with bread hook and paddle, to tear open the packet of yeast, to try not to wince when i submitted said yeast to the bath my friend promised would not kill it, leave it gasping for breath, well, that was, in fact, a small act of courage. and i find i’m in need of courage-building these days. there is a world that needs our voice — our calm and gentle and deeply considered voice. and there is a world that needs our conviction, our conviction put into action.

it came as something of a surprise that my starter class in courage, my beginner’s curriculum, unfolded in the kitchen. yet there i found steadier footing. it all came in the certain embrace of a friend to whom i could bare my uncertainties, my qualms about yeast and life far beyond. it’s friendship that weaves the strong with the faint. none of us come to the kitchen, to the world, with all threads emboldened. we are, each one of us, tapestries; some threads glimmering, some threads too thin, too easily frayed. and in the submission to friendship, the willingness to say aloud, “i’m scared of this” (be it yeast or life or speaking up in the face of opposition), and then dive in anyway, well that’s what finding courage looks like. and courage is the thing we need — in double doses, at least — if we stand half a chance of making a difference, making our one small life matter, of leaving this world more filled with even one drop of grace, of goodness, of kindness, of light.

and so i started with wheat + yeast + the dearest of friends, and i wound up with two fine loaves, and the wisp of knowledge that i’d moved a baby step or two closer to finding my way across the rocky landscape.

in these times that tear at my heart and my soul on a daily or hourly basis (depending on the news of the day), i found something holy, i found essential communion, in the baking of two loaves of power bread. and i did not kill the yeast.

my annotated recipe: power bread from food52
by someone who goes by the name boulangere

makes 2 large loaves

1/2 cup kamut*
1/2 cup buckwheat groats*
1/2 cup pearled barley*
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups tepid water
1 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
2 ounces canola oil
2 ounces honey
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup golden flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
1/4 cup polenta

*my dear friend tells me that you needn’t follow precisely the rules (see why i love her); any combination of grain will work, as long as you start with a total of 1-1/2 cups uncooked. i for instance skipped the kamut altogether and then forgot to double the buckwheat, and all ended well anyway.

Place barley, kamut, and buckwheat groats in saucepans with ample water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until not quite done through. They still want to be a bit toothy when you take them off the heat so that they retain their integrity in the dough. Kamut will take the longest, about 1/2 hour; barley about 15 minutes; and buckwheat groats about 10. When done, strain off water and allow to cool a bit before adding to the dough.

img_8884To mix dough, pour water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. (my dear friend tells me 25 seconds in the microwave gets water to just the right non-murderous temp.) Add yeast and whisk to blend. Add all other ingredients, including slightly cooled grains. Mix on lowest speed until dough comes together and looks homogenous. This will be a sticky and fairly soft dough, but it should generally leave the sides of the bowl, so add some bread flour if necessary; just don’t add so much that it is too firm. (here we have the debate on whether to use the bread hook or the paddle on the super-stand mixer; we tried both, first hook, then paddle, then quickly back to hook.)

When dough comes together, stop the mixer and wrap a piece of plastic wrap around the top of the bowl. Let the dough have an autolyse for 20 minutes. (that’s a scary word to me, but my friend tells me not to be afraid, just let the dough have at it.) This will allow the whole wheat flour to become fully hydrated, and also allow the water in the grains to settle down. If you overknead this dough, you’ll essentially start squeezing water out of the grains.

After the autolyse, remove the plastic and again begin kneading on the lowest speed. Within a few minutes, the dough should come fully together, leaving the sides of the bowl. Knead for 5 minutes, then test for a windowpane. It will not be as thin as what you’d expect from a dough without all the grainy content, but it will form a general windowpane.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl large enough to contain it as it doubles. (my friend tells me to use the largest possible bowl. i used one that might have bathed a plump tot.) Turn dough over once, then cover bowl with plastic, not a towel. Let it proof at room temperature until doubled in size.

img_8892Flour your work surface – remember, this is a sticky dough! Gently turn dough out onto it. Keep your piece of plastic! Divide dough in half, and shape each as you wish: either shape it for conventional bread pans (my friend says don’t forget to oil your pans), or shape as hearth loaves. Dust the top of each with flour (I love that rustic look!), then drape your piece of plastic over them. While your bread is proofing again (and the second proofing goes faster, so keep an eye on it), preheat oven to 375 degrees.img_8893

Just before putting bread in oven, decoratively slash the tops a good 1/2″ deep. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating loaves halfway through. This bread is deceptive – it tends to look done before it is. When done, an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle should read 180 degrees. (or, says my friend, who is now your friend, anywhere between 190- to 210-degrees Fahrenheit.)

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Because of all those great, moist grains, and a touch of honey, this is an excellent keeper, and also freezes just fine. While it is still warm, cut a slice, butter it, maybe add some honey or your favorite preserves, and get ready to power up!

notes from food 52 and boulangere:

Food52 Editors’ Comments: Boulangere’s multi-grain bread is hearty and delicious. The combination of grains and seeds makes the bread both flavorful and texturally appealing. I had to use the upper end of the water amount for my dough to have a good consistency. I was unable to find chia seeds, so substituted millet instead. One of the beauties of this recipe is its ability to accommodate different grains and seeds based on what you have in your pantry. It makes 2 pretty huge loaves of bread. I made mine 2 days ago, and have been nibbling on it ever since. I highly recommend giving this bread a try — you won’t regret it! – hardlikearmour

I developed this bread originally using spent grains from a friend who is a gifted and endlessly creative artisan brewer, along with a mix of seeds, depending on what I had on hand. I never knew exactly what the mix would be, but it always made bread so deeply good that people would call ahead on bake day to reserve loaves of it. I adapted it for the Bulk Bin project to replace the mix of spent grains with some of my other most favorite grains and seeds. I still call it Power Bread for the intrinsically wonderful protein, fiber, and EFA qualities of kamut, buckwheat, pearled barley, chia and golden flax seeds. And I always toss in some uncooked polenta for a bit of crunch in every bite. It makes great toast, and a killer grilled cheese sandwich! As you read through the list of ingredients, if you think the water measurement seems unclear, bear in mind that you’re going to cook the whole grains, and though you’ll also drain them, they contribute a lot of hydration to the dough, depending on how thoroughly you drain them. Don’t press water out of them, in other words. And feel free to add additional water to the dough if need be. – boulangere

and a note from me, not about bread but about the state of the world and what i write about here: dear beloveds, because long ago i set out to make this a sacred place, a place that keeps close watch on the world, and close watch on the soul, i am trying to thread a very fine needle here and keep politics off the table. i know we come from myriad perspectives, and because i want to preserve the sense of shared communion, of a place where we can all breathe deeply and purely, away from the everyday noise and congestion, i am aiming for matters of the soul. you might have gleaned that these are hard times for me, and that would be an accurate assessment. but because i can’t stand the dissolution of conversation i see in so many places, because i can’t stand the sense that division is the math of the moment, i’m trying for inclusion, trying to weave and not tatter, staking my hopes on the deep faith that we have many places in our hearts that spark to the same beauties, crack at the same shatterings. i hope we all speak up for justice and never ever muffle our outcries against what we see as injustice — and i won’t muffle here. i emphatically aim to live a gospel of love, an instruction found in every holy book of every world religion, and, yes, in the books of those who claim no religion but follow a sacred light. as a journalist i have long practiced the art of keeping my politics out of my stories, and so even here, especially here, where my aim is deeper and higher at once, i continue to pray that this is a sacred place, a place for everyone of gentle heart, fierce belief, and carefully considered thought. 

your thoughts? or if you prefer, your bread baking tips? or, perhaps, what you’ve found as the most delicious ways to deepen a friendship. xoxox

baking en masse: when you need to jumpstart your holiday heart

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the calendar was cajoling. winking, taunting. counting down the days till Christmas. and there i was, slumped in my red-checked armchair, curled in what amounted to the fetal position that even the president (the one still dwelling in the white house) advised was not a wise position (and not because he was worried about my posture or my crooked spine). no matter how hard i tried, i just could not muster the oomph the holidays demand.

so i did the surest thing i know to beat back the mid-december blues: i cranked the oven. i hauled an armload of oranges from the fridge. grabbed the canisters of flour and sugar. soon found myself slamming my grandma’s rolling pin against a sack of walnuts (therapy with a mighty bang!). already, i was starting to feel a little oomph in my kitchen dance. i grated. i measured and dumped. i inhaled the sweet scent of orange. delighted at the garnet bits swimming through the mixing bowl of batter. i was baking my way to Christmas. and on the way, i found my merry heart.

there is something deeply therapeutic about not just baking, but baking en masse. making like you’re a factory of one. i lined up all my baking pans. buttered, floured in one long sweep. i found it much less onerous to tick through required steps in quadruplicate, so much more satisfying than one measly loaf at a time. there was some degree of superpower in seeing my butcher-block counter lined in shiny tins, a whole parade of Christmas possibility. i found a magic in the multiples. in not just joy times one, but joy by the dozen.

i made a list of folks i love, and folks i barely know. folks who might do well to find themselves cradling a still-warm loaf of cranberry-orange-walnut (sometimes pecan) holiday bread. it took hours, of course. because each batch demanded an hour in my crotchety old oven, the one that deals in approximation rather than precision. the one that might respond to Fahrenheit, or might play in Celsius. it seems to change its mind day by day. all the while i cranked the Christmas tunes (truth be told, i played “Mary, Did You Know?” till even my little radio called it quits, fritzed out from all the times i clicked “replay”).

and therein came the joy. the simple act of drumming up a recipe, ticking off the short list of recipients, wishing more than anything i could wander down the lane to souls i love who live miles or time zones away. suspended in a day’s long animation, in the act of making plump golden-domed loaves from scoops of this and pinches of that, it was december’s holy balm.

this seems to be a season, in this particular whirl around the sun, when old tried-and-true rhythms and routines just aren’t working. but scooping your way through a whole sack of flour, grating the zesty peel off a whole orchard of oranges, it held out hope. it nudged me from the dark shadow of ho-hum into the more glimmering terrain of well-it’s-Christmas-after-all. and at every house where i rang the bell, and left behind a loaf, i felt a little thump inside my heart. every once in a while, someone was home, which led to invitation to step inside, to shatter the cloak of isolation that harbors all of us inside our solitude and day-long silence.

it’s a merry tradition, the merriment that’s spread by the baker’s dozen. the simple act of creation — not just for me or mine, but for folks beyond my own front stoop. the simple equation of making to give away. addition through subtraction.

midday i found myself thinking i should take this up for all sorts of holidays, for groundhog day, perhaps, for flag day. for the annual first wednesday in september (a holiday i just declared). point is, sometimes the distance between loneliness and shared company is no farther than the few footsteps from my front door to a door across the way, or down the block. it’s no farther than the mailman’s empty hands once he drops off my daily pile of circulars and bills. no farther than the garbage fellow whose heart-melting smile is carrying me through these days.

it’s not escaping me this year that the deeper i burrow into my own silence, the harder it is to extricate my soul.

and sometimes a simple place to begin the cure is with the canisters that line my kitchen corner. and that cranky oven that lives and breathes to warm my kitchen — and, indeed, my soul.

what’s your recipe out of the doldrums this year? 

and merry almost Christmas to each and every one of you, and happy blessed almost Hanukkah, too. here’s hoping you find scraps of joy, and bundle them into just enough to carry you through these ever-longer, darker nights till the solstice comes, and light creeps in, minute by minute, day by day.

by the way, here’s a link to the cranberry-nut-bread recipe (from gourmet magazine, via epicurious) that got me started. i vamped, as always, from there: more orange zest. more nuts. 

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when a scone is so much more than delicious

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the other dawn, at the start of a day that had long been circled on the calendar, at the start of a day when a young lad i love was about to strap on his soccer cleats and pour his considerable heart into tryouts for the high school team where he wants — more than anything — to be the goal keeper, i began my mama ministrations, the ones that begin when you drop to your knees at the side of your bed, and whisper a plaintive petition.

you then descend to the kitchen, often the high altar of mama-dom. you pull out the red plate saved for days marked “high alert.” you survey the shelves of the fridge, pull out the juices and the various species of protein. you grab for a balsa-wood basket of super-food berries. and then, if you were me the other morning, you remembered that tucked at the back of the freezer was a zip-top bag of ready-to-bake, made-from-scratch, farmers-market-blueberry scones.

they happen to be scones that come with a story. scones delivered with love and out-of-the-blue kindness, the sort for which the world is so hungry these days.

i happen to be blessed with a friend named amy. she’s an art teacher in the chicago public schools. and she’s hilarious. and she can bake like nobody’s business. she’d once come for a morning’s respite in that sacred space that is our summer porch. as i poured the coffee, she pulled from her satchel the MOST amazing, buttery, crumbly, golden-domed scones i might ever have known. that was a year or two ago. i must have been emphatic in my proclamations of their excellence. because my friend amy remembered.

just a few weeks ago, dear amy was at the farmer’s market and, as one is wont to do, she went overboard at the blueberry stand. not one to waste a fine berry, she hauled out her mixing bowls and her flour and butter and cream so dense you might dollop it out with a spoon. as she mixed and patted and started to cut the butter-lumped dough, she says she suddenly thought of me (was it the buttery lumps, i wonder?).

she remembered how vociferous we were in our proclamations of her scone excellence. so, out of the blue on a summery morning, she pinged me a message, asking if i might be willing to come to the door for a load of just-made-but-not-yet-baked blueberry scone triangles, ones i could pop straight into the freezer so that when the spirit moved me, i could make like i’d been the one stirring and sifting and patting my cakes, and infuse my kitchen with buttery-blueberry olfactory whirls.

at first, i demurred — not wanting my friend who lives 20 minutes away to take such a detour. but she insisted, and i caved — more than delighted to partake once again of her scone excellence. it wasn’t till i cranked the oven, not long after she rang the doorbell and ran, that i was klonked over the head by the fact that this truly was a russian doll of gifts: inside the gift of out-of-the-blue scones, there was the gift of getting to make like i’d made them myself (if plopping the scones on parchment and sliding a baking sheet into and out of the oven amounts to “making them”).

and so this week, at the start of a very steep climb, i pulled the remaining half dozen dough triangles from out of the freezer bag, cranked the oven, and by the time the would-be goalie sauntered into the kitchen, a pedestal of deliciousness awaited. a pedestal of i’d-do-anything-to-help-you-make-this-team. if only i could make you grow six or 12 inches.

instead, i’m confined to buttery lumps of blueberry deliciousness. and the hope that each morsel fuels the pit so deep in his belly.

amy’s scones were merely one thread of the love blanket we’ve been weaving here all week. the young lad’s big brother, who had no reason to awake before dawn, set his alarm for six on the first of three days of twice-a-day tryouts. he climbed groggily into the would-be goalie’s four-poster bed. and there they lay, side by side, the big one whispering brotherly courage into the younger one’s ear. we’ve made it our job to be his bumper pads for this roller-coaster of a week. steaks have been grilled; silence, honored. ben-gay has been rubbed up and down legs, and water bottles have been filled and filled some more. word comes tonight. 

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i’m telling you, friends, these scones are blessed. and that magic of having them at-the-ready, with the bonus of hot-from-the-oven-ness, prompted me to beg my friend amy for the recipe, so i could bring them to you, here at the table. she calls them “life’s a butter dream,” because that’s what her son sam said when he took his first bite. 

Life’s A Butter Dream Scones

provenance: amy manata, baker, art teacher, glorious good and generous soul.

4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries ( or whatever you like, I’ve used apricots, choc. chips, anything)

Directions

-Use the Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt.
– Add in the cold butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in small pieces.
-Mix the eggs and heavy cream and add them to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended.
-Add the blueberries, and mix quickly. ( I freeze the blueberries so they don’t smoosh) The dough may be a bit sticky.
-Put the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined.
-Flour your hands and flatten the dough 3/4-inch thick, and rectangle shape. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.
-Cut into squares and then cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.
-Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
This is when I freeze them on a baking sheet so they don’t stick together.

To Bake:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with cream or milk. Sprinkle with “Sugar in the Raw,” and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

because these scones came to me in an act of sublime out-of-the-blue kindness, i’m convinced they beg to be passed along in that very same spirit. so consider them next time you’re in the mood for committing an act of random kindness.

i know that for lots of reasons this was a tough week for chair folk. here, too. sending love and prayers to everyone who faced — and faces still — uphill climbs.  

what’s the latest act of random kindness that’s come your way? and how, precisely, was it pulled off?IMG_8066

red bird pie: a recipe of courage

red bird pie before

perhaps its name is misguided, a culinary blunder nearly as stark as the dough with the mind of its own.

perhaps in calling it red bird pie, instead of the more ingredient-precise — say, peeled-granny-smith-with-occasional-appleseed pie — i’ve sent you and your brain cells tumbling down the very wrong path. perhaps you envision a meat pie. a pie filled with bird. i can’t even bring myself to type “red bird” when typing in this particular vein. for that would be a slaughterous pie, and we’ll have none of that here, not in this teetering-on-greens-only house.

it’s all just poetry, the poetry of pie naming. and once i discovered i could play with my pie dough, could press my old tin cutter, a wee red-bird cutter, you see, well, i was suddenly in joyful terrain. i pressed and i lifted and plopped. i was going gaga for the red birds i pressed in my pie top.

and deserving was i of this romp and reckless dough-cutting. for it had been a long way to red bird.

and thus is the story of the red bird of courage.

you see, as long as i’ve been alive i remember the words of my mama: “i’m afraid of pie dough,” she once said (though the minute i type that, i expect the phone to ring and denial to ring out across the land). for the sake of maternal peacemaking, let’s just say that someone once uttered the words, pie dough = fear, and they stuck.

if my forebears in the kitchen were fearful of dough, well, then, i too held ancestral right to be fearful.

so, all these years, i’d never done it. not until the day before yesterday, that is. the day before thanksgiving 2014, the day my dough dread crumbled. and the red bird rose to my rescue, served as my bent-tin medal of courage.

red bird cutter

it so happens that this happens to be my season of conquering fear. and one of the very last bastions was the one splayed across the now flour-streaked pages — clear from page 24 to far yonder 44, a full 20 sheafs of schooling in butter + flour + water! no wonder i shook in my tattered-and-splattered over-head apron!

i’d turned in my hour of fear-mounting to “the hoosier mama book of pie,” a nestled-to-the-bosom book of pie tutelage if ever there was (though ms. paula haney, the hoosier mama herself, does seem to revel in raising the rolling pin higher and higher with each and every pie-baking instruction).

pie page instruction

why, before the day was done — and it was a long one — i would have fumbled my way through these fine kitchen verbs: i macerated. i reduced. and i chilled. i would have pulsed, but the food processor also is among the kitchen wares i dread (or simply hate to haul from the pantry shelf), so i rocked with old-fashioned half-moon pastry cutter. i sprinkled “crust dust” (who knew?). and before i’d so much as frozen the butter, i’d stalked the grocery store shelves in search of tapioca starch. (i went with minute tapioca. oh, well. chalk it up to kitchen transgression.)

apparently, i’m not so good with numbers, either. at least not when it comes to butter. i grabbed two sticks, but promptly forgot that the wee little fraction tucked alongside the 1, there in the ingredient roster, spelled out 3/4 — as in less than a whole, as in fraction of buttery stick. so my virgin voyage of pie dough had an 2 extra Tbsps. of land o’ lakes unsalted butter.

you might wonder why if i started this whole rigamarole at 2 in the afternoon, i didn’t pull that ol’ bird-pocked pie from the oven till half past 10 in the night? well, it seems ms. hoosier mama believes in slow baking. meaning every step was punctuated with full stop — freeze for 20 minutes, rest for 20, macerate at least 25, drain for 25, chill for 20, freeze for yet another 20; 130 full minutes of pause, pause and more pause.

in which, i suppose, the ponderous baker is supposed to deep breathe the wonders of all this mindful attention to butter and flour and water laced with red wine vinegar (the better the chances to shorten the protein strands, ms. haney explains, the ones that make your pie dough tough to the tooth).

seeing as this was my first run-through, i more or less sighed deep sighs of exasperation at each and every prescription to pause. by dinner time, when everyone’s tummy was growling, and i was still pausing to freeze or to drain, i’d gotten to calling this “apple pie interruptus,” for the way i seemed to take two steps fore and one step to the side.

and i flubbed plenty along the way: besides the mistake with my buttery math, and despite the fun i had thwopping the cold ball of dough with the girth of the rolling pin (lest all the rolling toughen it into one hard-bitten bird), my dough circles never did reveal themselves (more like a raggedy-edged oblong was the best i could do).

so i did what any self-respecting virgin pie baker would do: i scrimped. scraped the doodads of dough right off the cutting board. dabbed droplets of water there at the seam, where dough met dough, and i made like a band-aid.

and then, at last, i got to the side note, the one about cutting to vent, and that’s where all my years of flipping glossy pages in foodie tomes came to bear: i plundered my mostly-unused-but-abundant collection of old cookie cutters, and there, at the way bottom of the basket, lay a toppled wee red bird.

and that’s how i wound up reveling in pie dough, just before the 10 o’clock news. i pressed myself a whole flock of dough birds. i had red bird holes in my pie top. and red bird doodads of dough, rising up to a second dough layer. i had so very much fun with my birds i barely noticed the disastrous crimp to my crust. nor did i mind the splotches of dough bandage.

which leads me to think that, as with all acts of courage, the recipe reads something like this: shove up your shirt sleeves, take it one step at a time, don’t flog yourself for dumb mistakes and necessary U-turns, and let rip when it comes to the part where you’re in your glory.

in the end, does anyone other than you give two whits that you’ve mastered the thing that you feared?

but once you find yourself grabbing the hot pads and oven mitts, and you’re yanking your prize from the sizzling oven rack, all you need do is deep breathe the truth that, step by step, blunder upon blunder, you’ve inched your way over and across the very terrain that once made you tremble.

life is like that. pie-baking is too.

red bird pie after

and what fears have you conquered of late? the ones you’ve batted down with rolling pin, or ones of whole other ilk? and how did you muster the courage?

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

summer’s succulence

sky lights

it’s the morning after the night exploded.

it’s gentle out now. the pop and fizzle are long gone, replaced by mama wren singing. and mr. and mrs. cardinal chattering, as they imbibe on the annual inebriating feast of plump purple serviceberries, dangling from the bough.

i’m inhaling all of it, as i try for one short spell to push away the worries, the deadlines, the cobwebs in the corners.

this is what summer is for, the reason it exists: to catch the rhythm of your breath, to notice how it flows in time with tide, with water gurgling toward the lakeshore sands, then rolling out again.

this is a day for slicing watermelon, for scooping little balls of sweetness from soft and juicy flesh. for popping back blueberries by the fistful. for paper napkins catching all that dribbles — because you’d never get the fruity stains out of cotton squares or linen.

this just might be a day for cranking up the oven. and the grill, of course. but one short blast of cake baking just might be what the declaration of independence does declare.

because it’s a holiday, because we’re practicing the art of stepping out of time, and into the hallowed hollows of timelessness, i’m making like this here is a backyard with picket fence, and i’m leaning across the fence to hand you a recipe for the finest chocolate cake this side of the iowa state fair.

a dear college friend drove down from wisconsin a week or so ago, with a sheet pan of devilish deliciousness and the spelled-out recipe to boot. she left the whole darn cake when she packed up to head back north, and my boys declared it the finest chocolate cake they’d ever slipped between their lips.

with no more hoopla, and one sweet promise: here’s a slice of delicious summer’s succulence, brought to you courtesy of judy smith, who was motored here by one maureen haggerty warmuth. they’re two of the treasures i’ve held onto from my college days. and here’s the treasure to tuck inside your banged-up, battered, much-used tin of recipes. (fact is, this is all-season’s succulence, but since we’re at the fever-pitch of summer, we’ll tag it one for summer’s glory. seems just the thing to ferry to the independence day cake stand.)

minnesota chocolate cake

provenance: my friend judy smith’s dear friend tammi baumann

2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking soda

ADD:

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, slightly beaten

2/3 cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup coffee brewed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat together your litany of ingredients — batter will be runny.

Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

frosting:

In saucepan, dump:

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. corn starch

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Cook over medium heat while stirring, till thickened.

Remove from heat, and ADD:

1 tsp. vanilla

3 Tbsp. butter

Cool frosting and pour over cake.

grab fork. dig in. declare this a day for summer’s succulent sweetness — in all its many flavors.

p.s. there was a rumor wafting about the kitchen that this chocolate-y deliciousness might have won blue ribbon at one of those fine midwestern country fairs. fact or fiction, it won just such an honor here in our humble kitchen. so pinned by the boys who left not a crumb behind on the cake plate…

and what will you be ferrying to your independence day feast? and what’s your definition of summer’s succulence? how would you spend a holiday away from all that weighs you down?

 

apple pie, poker & the afterglow of hardballs to the noggin

these odd chapters somehow always manage to creep up unawares. and so this one.

we were sitting the other eve, forks in mid-lift, i’m certain, when suddenly a skinny pair of sun-browned legs came swishing through the steamy jungle that these days is my secret tangled garden, the one tucked along the side of this old house. not many lopes behind him came another pair of legs, grown-up legs, a mother’s legs. but not his mother’s.

while it took my brain cells a spell or two to shake all this out, it all came tumbling clear once i saw the look of dazed despair on the little one’s face, and the ashen worry on the mama trailing just behind. then i saw the boy holding something to his dust-splattered head, and i needed little explanation to reach the quick conclusion that this was not how the evening had been scripted.

while the little guy stared up at me with those thirsty hazel-brown eyes of his, in that way that kids have of signaling simultaneous distress and “help me, help me, mama! this here’s your job,” the mama trailing behind him began to spill the dots.

there had been a game of stealing bases, and a hardball, one zipping through the air at 35 miles per hour, she figured (and, the mother of three ball-playing boys, she knows these things). that hard-beaned hardball made a beeline straight to my little guy’s forehead, which set him “crumpling” (her word) to the ground, upon which he couldn’t remember my phone number, and kept saying the same thing over and over. oh, and he was dizzy. and he thought he might throw up.

now, mind you, i’d just the week before heard a tale of precisely the same thing, a kid on the side of a ball field taking a bean to the head, how he got rushed to the school nurse, who thought not so much of it, so he went along to his after-school playdate, only to start getting droopy-faced within the hour. that poor kid wound up in emergency brain surgery before the sun set, and now, thank god, is a-okay. though he won’t be playing ball for a long long time. or ever, if his mother has anything to say about it.

so, with that fresh little spectacle shining in my head, i took in the scene with my very own head-bonked boy, and before you can spell “concussion,” i’d speed-dialed our trusty pediatricians, who wasted no time in sending me to the ER we live so conveniently close to. (note to mothers of boys: when house hunting, be sure to clock the door-to-door distance to your nearest friendly emergency room. it comes in handy.)

not-so-long story abbreviated: dear boy didn’t even need a CT scan, though of course they ruled his head bonk a by-the-book concussion. and, worth mention, his big brother did a memorable job playing ambulance driver, clicking on the bright red flashers only to be stuck in traffic behind the north shore’s slowest-ever driver, meandering lazily down the express route to the hospital. and, happy ending taken up a notch, we walked out of that ER into the arms of a thrashing summer’s storm. hallelujah!

but this wouldn’t be a tale worth telling if not for the prescription that came with the bump: no TV, no computers, no reading, no contact sports.

egad.

for how long we must endure this, we do not know. we see the concussion doctor monday. so for now, and through the weekend, we’ve turned back the clock and we’re playing like pioneers, minus the covered wagon.

yesterday we filled the day with this list of exotica: two boys — ages 10 and 11, mind you — baked, from scratch, an apple pie. yessiree, they sliced the apples, dumped the sugar, sprinkled cinnamon with vigor. they rolled out the dough, crimped the edge (in remarkably poetic undulations). then, because both share the initials TK, they drew out a lance from the kitchen junk drawer and lanced away at their letters, a cris-cross of hard-edged consonants nearly doing in the pie top.

while the apple pie did its oven dance, they did what bakers do: they tried their hand at texas hold ’em, a poker variation, then moved on to black jack and dominoes. ping pong served as minor interlude, along with a promise from our head-bonked one that he would not, absolutely not, come crashing down on the sharp corner of the table.

later in the evening, yet another little fellow wandered by. he took the bumped one out for ice cream, and, quietly strolling the lanes from there to here, they returned home for a long night of not-oft-seen board games. checkers, monopoly, and the fierce pursuit of plastic real estate.

so goes the old-fashioned, turn-back-the-clock life of the forehead compromised.

and, of course you’ve guessed that the point here is that gifts sometimes come wrapped in odd packages. say, ones with purple-green swirls just under a little boy’s forehead curls.

it is rather a refreshing, if taxing, way to spend a summer’s day, exercising the imagination, steering clear of pursuits that might potentially jar that tender brain of his.

deep inside, i long for just such summer days. for the gift of building tree forts (though at the moment, the fort is grounded, not cleared for take-off). for, perhaps, lying upon a summer’s couch, listening to the words of a mama turning the page of some fine adventure tale. and, pray tell, how about a lemonade stand, peddling from-scratch lemony-sugar potion, at the turn-back price of 5 cents a glass?

sometimes it takes a klonk on the head to get us seeing clearly. and if that’s the moral to the hardball story, well, then, i wish we could have gotten there without the goose egg hatching on my little fellow’s forehead.

how do you dream of spending a summer’s day? one spent the old-fashioned way?

baking for God

if you wandered by my house, you would never stop to think, hmm, something unusual happens inside that house. not any more than you would think that at anyone else’s house.

but inside my house, once a month or so now that my kitchen is back in business, i bake for God. yes, yes.

not in the way dear benny, grandson of a bagel baker in the charming, makes-you-brush-away-a-tear, children’s book “bagels from benny,” ferries the hot bag of bagels into the synagogue every friday morning, tucks them into the holy ark, the blessed cabinet where the torah scroll is kept. only to find, come every saturday morning, that the bagels are gone. and he is convinced he is feeding bagels to God.

no, i don’t bake for God that way. though i cherish the story, cherish the thought.

in the uncanniest twist for a girl who grew up knowing that only cloistered nuns in faraway places were holy enough to mix the wheat with the water that would be cut into wafers that would rest on our tongues and get stuck to the roofs of our mouths, all in the name of jesus, well, i bake communion.

yes, yes.

the same ovens that once a week transform twisty dough into risen sweet challah, once a month turn hot water (4 cups), white flour (2 1/2 cups), wheat flour (4 hard-to-add cups) into squat, flat unleaven loaves.

there is a recipe i follow, and i follow it religiously. turns out i was not doing it according to rules for my first few at-bats, and in a flash that took me back to sister leonardo mary rapping me for my mispronunciation of the word “women” (i couldn’t get that the pronunciation change was on the first syllable instead of the second), i was rapped in an email for my failure to cut the unleaven bread into little brown bits.

i was told they were tossing my loaves. (never mind that that step had been left off the photocopy they’d given to me.)

and i was informed, later on at a workshop (a remedial baking class, disguised as one-day retreat, perhaps?) that the recipe i now follow, one titled “boulder bread recipe” (you only need drop a loaf on your foot to understand the derivation thereof), was the product of many many hours of ecclesiastical to and fro. i was informed that to diverge from the steps was a sure path to, well…at the least your loaves would be, shame of shames, tossed. they would become so much squirrel food.

all kidding aside, there is something so sacred about turning two essentials of life–water and wheat–into loaves whose cut-apart squares will be blessed, will be made into communion.

communion, whatever you believe about it, is the sacrament of taking in life in the form of bread so that in your belly, your soul, you might live life more fully.

i have always found it to be far more than a metaphysical vitamin. i have the sense when i swallow a host that God, more than ever, dwells deep inside me.

so to stand in my kitchen, alone in the silence, to stir the ever-thickening dough, is indeed to be in communion with something far greater than little old me. i think as i stir of all those who will partake. i haven’t a clue who they are, or how this might change them. even if only so far as the trip back to their pew.

but perhaps, just perhaps, the person who swallows the bread that i bake needs sustenance of a form that only can come if you believe that far more than water and wheat is mixed in that bread.

believe me, i pray as i knead. i push hard into that smoothing-out mound. God only knows what else is working its way into the soon-to-rise dough.

for a short spell, then, my kitchen is holy. and the oven at 375 is filling the room, filling my soul, with a heat and a light that lasts long after the loaves they are packed, sealed and delivered.

you wouldn’t know that if you paused by my house. but you do now.

baking for God is a prayer that i pray with my hands and my raggedy red oven mitt. baking for God is my unspoken blessing. baking for God is, well, really quite heavenly.

baking with henry

it is friday, a friday. it will soon be shabbat. it is time for baking with henry. henry and i bake challah together. henry is my teacher.

henry lives downtown. in a tall black building.

i live in a leafy little town 12 miles north. in a stone-and-shingle, two-story house.

we bake over the phone.

henry is jewish. i am catholic.

henry is a grandfather; he talks about growing up in germany, before the nazis erupted. every friday night, he tells me, stewed chicken or brisket main-staged the meal; the challah, his mother’s opening act.

challah, the braided egg bread that is the sustenance of shabbat, the sacred canyon of time stretching from sundown friday to sundown on saturday, marking, each week, the seventh-day rest at the end of God’s original creation.

i am a mother, a wife, married to a fine jewish man. we have two boys, growing up jewish and catholic. together, we lift up shabbat, wrap up our harried work week with the pause and the majesty of blessing bread, blessing time, at our table.

i have, over the years, made shabbat mine. i sink into the rhythms of friday, sink into the rhythms of unfolding shabbat. i slow cook on fridays. i pick and choose from the book shelf, finding a passage worth reading, a thought worth shabbat. i put out the candles. i bring out the wine. i reach for the yarmulkes, or little skull caps.

and, after years of wishing i could, i now bake for shabbat.

henry is sifting through my lumps, leavening my learning. henry is teaching me challah.

he came to me in an email, with story attached.

last year, typing away on a 10-year anniversary book for our synagogue, i culled recipes for a few trademark foods. the rabbi’s brisket. his wife’s gefilte fish. henry’s challah.

with recipe in hand, i decided i had no excuse not to roll up my sleeves and insert fist into flour. i did what henry had written. thoroughly blended all dry ingredients; added oil, eggs, water. kneaded for 5, then for 10, finally upward of 15 minutes, in search of the elusive dough state, “moist and elastic.”

it was then that i made my first call to henry.

add water, just one little drib at a time, he advised.

i followed orders.

place dough in warm spot to rise. about 1 hour, he had written.

two hours later, accidentally out longer than planned, i came home to dough that had let out its air.

i put in a second call to henry.

that night, we broke bread but it was more like we were breaking a flat-shelled turtle. this was challah without the rise. this was challah gone flat.

henry called the next morning. he was with me now, and wanted the word on what in the end had come out of the oven.
and so it went, week after week.

i progressed. sort of a reptilian progression. one week a turtle, the next week an alligator. it would be weeks before the soft twisted mounds looked anything like the challah in the bakery windows.

and then my kitchen was demolished. so all baking stopped. but it is a new year, and a new kitchen.

so henry and i begin baking again.

the flour is measured and dumped. the yeast, quick-rising, mixed in. i know how to knead. i know that one hour’s rise, not two, and not three, is essential.

best of all, i know henry’s number, even in florida.

stay tuned for the reptilian report.

all right, all you bakers. anyone willing to go on record with a tried-and-true challah tale? pictures to come, if you promise not to laugh…

Henry’s Berches Challah Recipe
_
_
Makes 1loaf
_
_ 1 Pkg Instant Yeast*
_ 3 cups Unbleached Flour
_ 1 TBS Sugar
_ 2 tspn Salt
_ 5 oz. +/- Warm water
_ 1 TBS Vegetable Oil
1 Egg white (save yolk for egg wash)
* simplifies and speeds baking

_
_ Toppings
_ To taste: Poppy seed, Sesame seed, Kosher salt, etc.
_
_ Thoroughly blend all dry ingredients in a large mixing
bowl. Add oil, egg whites, and water. Mix thoroughly using
an electric mixer with paddle attachment (or hands) until
dough forms. Get dough as smooth as possible in mixer.

Remove from bowl and knead a bit more by hand until silky smooth. If
dough sticks to hands, add a bit more flour; if dough is too dry,
add a little more oil for elasticity. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes.
Dough should be moist and elastic.
_
_ Place dough in oiled, covered bowl, in a warm spot, to rise.
_ About 1 hour. Gently deflate dough and divide into 3 lots.
Roll each lot into a rope, about 10 inches log, and braid to form the finished loaf.

Place on lightly oiled baking sheet for a
second rise, (or use a parchment paper lined sheet, which makes for less clean up) until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
_
_ Brush loaf with beaten egg yolk (beat yolk with 1 tspn water),
paint top and sides of loaves, and sprinkle with
_ favorite topping: poppy seed, sesame seed, kosher salt etc.

_ Place in oven until browning begins. Lower temperature to
350 degrees and continue baking until golden brown and
loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It is best, though, to use an instant read thermometer and bake to 190 degrees internal.

If loaf brown too quickly during baking, tent with aluminum foil.

Baking time about 30 minutes. Cool on rack.

after i struggled with this version, henry sent a tutorial, titled, “challah, one step at a time.” i’ll send–or post later–if you, too, need henry over your shoulder.