Friday, March 23, 2012

Accessible Bread

Bread for You, Bread for Me, Bread for Everybody

Removing the Mystery and Complication
from Bread Making

Daily bread—I couldn’t do without it. I’m a carb lover and won’t ever give up bread and its steaming aroma when I first slice through it, minutes after removing a golden loaf from the oven.
Bread making is simple. It is. I once was afraid to bake bread. Baking bread from scratch had an aura of mystery surrounding the act, and I was certain I would never master the alchemy that produced food from flour, yeast, and a few other ingredients. I mastered that art 30 years ago and have since filled my home with the aroma of fresh-baked bread.
Many bread bakers and authors of bread cookbooks promote the incorrect impression that it’s difficult to make a loaf of bread. In doing so, they scare away newcomers to the craft. Words like mill, wheat berry, gluten, spelt, grinding your own flour, artisan, and baking stone have probably sent many a would-be bread baker running to the Wonder Bread aisle in their grocery store.

Using the simplest ingredients, you can bake a loaf of bread.
It doesn’t have to be that way. A homemade loaf of bread is accessible to anyone who has a few basic ingredients and an oven. Bread making is so elemental to providing our daily fare that if it were that difficult, bread wouldn’t have been a food source for over a thousand years, in almost every culture in some form or another—loaves, tortillas, bagels, baguettes, breadsticks, sweet rolls, crackers. In those ancient cultures, grinding wheat berries, rye, corn, and other grains was an essential step in the process. That step is unnecessary today. Modern grocery stores have everything we need to make bread.
I’m starting with white bread because I want to share the easiest way to make bread with ingredients most people have in their kitchens: all-purpose flour, sugar, water, oil, and salt. Newcomers to bread making probably won’t have yeast in their kitchens, but most grocery stores stock it in the baking aisle.
Purists and whole food aficionados likely will not want to make this white bread. It’s basic and easy, and that’s the point. Beginners can produce a fresh-baked loaf of bread in a few hours and not be frightened away by a complicated process. A loaf of white bread made in your own kitchen is worlds better than commercially produced bread.
After 30 years of baking bread, most of the process is second nature to me. But I have one rule that must be followed: Do not kill the yeast. Yeast is alive. Yeast is what makes your bread rise. You must treat it with consideration. When dissolving yeast in water, it’s always better to keep the water (or other liquid) too cool rather than too hot. Room temperature is fine, even though it might take the yeast a bit longer to become active. You can do the baby milk wrist test if you think the water is too warm. Unless it’s expired, yeast will always activate, so remember to never, ever kill the yeast with hot liquids.

White Bread

1/3 cup warm water
1 cup warm water
1 package yeast (1½ teaspoons of bulk yeast if you have it)
2 Tablespoons oil—corn, canola, vegetable, olive
1 Tablespoon honey or sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons salt

In a large bowl, pour the 1/3 cup of warm (never hot) water. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water. Let the water and yeast sit for about 10 minutes. It will start to look frothy and bubble. Add the oil and honey (or sugar) to the cup of warm water and stir. Add the water, oil, and honey mixture to the yeast. Stir.

The water and yeast mixture should look similar to this after about ten minutes.

Measure the flour you'll use into a large measuring cup.
Add 1½ teaspoons of salt to the bowl.
Measure 4 cups of flour into a large measuring cup. Begin adding the flour to the liquid mixture, one cup at a time, stirring after each addition. At about 3 to 3½ cups, the dough will be too thick to stir.

The dough is quite sticky at the stage you remove it from the bowl and place it on your kneading surface.
Using a counter, a table, or a large cutting board, first sprinkle some flour on the surface. Remove the dough from the bowl—it will be sticky, —and put it on the floured surface. Begin kneading. Kneading is simple and quite satisfying. Flour your hands, and shake a bit of flour from the cup onto the dough. Fold the dough and push the dough with the heels of your hands. Add more flour, fold, push, fold, push. When the dough gets sticky as the flour is absorbed, add more flour. Continue kneading for about 10 minutes until the dough feels soft and springy to the touch—a baby’s butt is the best way I’ve found to describe this stage. You might have some leftover flour; that’s fine.

After about ten minutes of kneading, you're ready to let your dough start rising.
Oil a clean bowl and put the dough in the bowl. Turn the dough a few times to cover it with oil. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel or plastic wrap and set it in a warm place for 45 minutes. I put the dough in the oven—a cool oven—with the light on. The heat from the light is the perfect temperature to spur the dough onto rising. Don’t clean your floured surface. You’ll use the area again to shape your loaf.

When the dough is close to double in size, remove it from the bowl. Knead the dough for a few minutes, adding a bit more flour if necessary, and then shape it into a rectangle that will fit a standard bread pan. Oil the pan and place the dough in it. Cover the dough and again let it rise for 45 minutes.

This dough has risen and is ready to be shaped and then placed in the baking pan.

Dough is ready for the second and final rise.

Cover the bread pan and dough while it rises the second time.
The dough has finished rising and is ready to bake.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Brush the top of the bread with water. Use a light touch so you don’t deflate the loaf. If you do, just let it sit for a few more minutes. Slide the bread into the oven on the center rack. Bake for 40 minutes. The bread is done when the top is browned and it makes a hollow sound when you rap it with your knuckles.

White bread loaf, just out of the oven and brushed with butter.
Ten minutes before the bread is ready, take out a stick of butter to soften. After removing the bread from the oven, brush the top with butter. You don’t have to do this step, but I like the taste and texture this produces.
Cool the bread for 10 minutes before you slice it. I have a bread knife, but any serrated knife will do for slicing bread. Slice, butter, enjoy!

This loaf won't last long.

If you have any questions about this process, or problems following the recipe, please post a comment on this blog and I will be happy to help you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Music Can Be the Lance That Pierces Us…

It Opens Us to Let Our Tears Fall
I Was Grieving Before I Listened
to “Your Own Special Way”

Alexa Renee Provo
March 22, 1979 - November 2, 1986

I still cry.
My tears started falling Monday evening when I read Julia Cameron’s phrase “. . . buried in that word ‘heart’ is the word ‘art’ and another word, ‘ear.’” (From “This Writing Life,” The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron). Something about the juxtaposition of the words art, ear, and heart stuck me and tears started spilling from my eyes. I chalked it up to not feeling well for the previous week; I decided my weepiness was more from tiredness than sadness. Sometimes tears come to my eyes and fall for no particular reason, but those times occur less and less often, so the tears surprised me.
I continued reading The Right to Write, and prepared for a writing exercise that involved lighting a candle, putting on music, and writing for 15 minutes about something I’m trying to metabolize. I was in my room behind a closed door and didn’t want to wander into the living room to get a CD, so I checked my meager supply: two CDs, one opera, one Genesis’s “Wind and Wuthering.” The Genesis CD always makes me cry, but I thought I could escape my tears if I put the volume on low and wrote as it played in the background. I lit a rose-scented candle, pushed play, picked up my pen, and started to write. The music was too loud, so I muted the volume further and skipped a song that was too active for my solitary mood and the atmosphere I was trying to create. I skipped too far and “Your Own Special Way” began playing. I know I’ve heard these words before, but they hit me and hit me hard:
“I’ve sailed the world for seven years,
And left all I love behind in tears.
Oh, won’t you come here, wherever you are,
I’ve been all alone long enough.”
The words “seven years and left all I love behind in tears” crushed me. My child Alexa sailed this world for a too-short seven years and left those behind her in tears. In the past when I’ve listened to this song, I probably noted the words, but hearing them that night was like hearing them for the first time. It was the first time, because each time I visit that grief in its entirety, it is like it’s the first time.
I shy away from things that make me cry. I know that certain movies, stories, songs will pierce the armor I often wear, so I avoid them. Grief is scary. It can and does take on a life of its own at times and wrenches the life from your soul. I need—and want—to stay alive even as I step through these times of grieving, rarer though they’ve come to be after twenty-five years all alone since Alexa died.
I wanted to pinpoint a reason for my grief, for the fresh flow of tears and the sorrow that welled up inside me and fought its way out in a torrent of choking sobs. A friend lost her son a few months ago and she’s heavy on my mind and my heart. My daughter’s friend lost her baby girl to SIDS and that loss is also heavy on my heart.
When I spoke to one of my surviving children, I tried to explain away why I cried such bitter tears of loss that night. She gently noted that I don’t have to have a reason to express my grief; that it is simply there, it’s present, it’s a part of me. Because I don’t walk around mired in the deepest throes of grief and mourning, sometimes I mistakenly think that because it’s been 25 years my deepest loss and pain is long over. That fresh grief, that searing, tearing pain in the soul doesn’t happen the way it did in the early days, but it’s present. It’s there. The missing and loving change, but the grief, the loss, stays, stays in the deepest recesses of my heart, and despite what I think or do or say, the grief is a part of me as much as my eyes or hair or distinctive laugh or the way I speak.
I don’t always speak. I have times of silence and like those times of silence, my grief sits quietly, letting me live, letting me love, letting me laugh, and letting me forget for huge swathes of time so that I can be happy and complete and as whole as I’ll ever be.
Grief changes, it morphs, it becomes a wound that no longer cuts to the bone, but it never quite achieves complete healing. I sometimes feel like I have to apologize for my grief, that someone might think it’s been so long, but I know that’s not the case. Anyone who has experienced loss—and we don’t stay in this world too long without doing so—knows that it’s not static, it’s not a book that we read and then close after the last page is read. It’s a book that stays open, that calls to us from its pages, and those pages can hold light, laughter, love, but they also reflect loss, like any good book.
Most days I live pages of light, laughter, and love, but the loss is also a part of my life and there will be days, times, when, as I wrote on my Facebook page a few nights ago:

        These lyrics kill me:
        “I've sailed the world for seven years,
        And left all I love behind in tears.
        Oh, won't you come here, wherever you are,
        I've been all alone long enough.”

        "Your Own Special Way," from Wind and Wuthering by Genesis
        Seven years just wasn't long enough... I still miss my little girl.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jeepers Creepers—Don't Eat These Peeps!

Perpetual Peeps
Chicks That Stay Fresh
Long After the Party’s Over

Basements are nasty, dark, moldy places. Ours was, especially the unfinished part we called “the furnace room” that was about 3 feet by 14 feet, and held an oil tank, furnace, humidifier, breaker box, central vacuum, and stuff. Some important items were stored: paint, tools, screen, extra tiles, furniture projects, whatever would fit. If you wanted to open the window above the oil tank, you had to it climb atop the tank, lean over it, grab the spider-web-encrusted pane, and push.
Basements are damp; of course they are, they’re underground. Engineers have devised countless ways to keep basements dry, and some of them work, especially those that require a second mortgage. Other people use dehumidifiers, bleach to kill the mold, and the ubiquitous shop vac to suck up whatever the spring rains dump into that hole in the ground. Killing mold in basements is an ongoing chore. No matter how often I cleaned, if a book sat on the floor overnight, black speckles of mildew sprouted like tulips pushing through the ground in spring.
Until I figured out the overnight mold growth, I used the “storage room” for papers, photos, anything I couldn’t cram in other areas of the house. The “holiday” corner was where I stowed wrapping paper, boxes, and the plastic eggs I filled each Easter.
After a year or two of cramming, the storage room became impassable, and if my five-foot-two, 115-pound self couldn’t fit in the space, nobody could. I knew that time had come to clean when I had to replace items like hammers, nails, mops, and brooms because I couldn’t access them.
Out came the boxes and bags and I’d sort, toss, clean, and organize. Few things I found surprised me, but I was disappointed when I mold destroyed photos and the kids’ artwork. Did I mention that the mold took over? It was moldy. You know your basement is moldy when your child says the smell of bleach reminds them of home.
During one extreme cleaning session, I opened every box and bag with the intent of finally cleaning and clearing the area. It was early spring because other times of the year it was too cold to be in the basement unless the space heaters were spinning the electric meter into oblivion. When I found the bag of plastic Easter eggs, I was relieved because the previous Easter, I couldn’t find them and used baggies tied with pastel-colored ribbons. Because they had been stored for two years, I knew I’d have to wash them. As I picked up the eggs to take them apart, I noticed one was heavier than the others. Feeling queasy, I realized it still had candy in it. I imagined mold-encrusted jellybeans, malted milk balls sans the malt, or unrecognizable tiny chocolate bunnies swimming in a pool of goo. Holding my arms away from my body, I opened the egg. Sitting inside as yellow as, well, as yellow as a Peep, was a Peep. I was shocked. Peeps are yellow, so why the shock?That Peep was in the nasty, dark, moldy basement for two years and as I studied it, I saw that it didn’t have a dot of mold. The Peep looked like a Peep just out of the package. I touched it; it wasn’t gooey or damp. In fact, it was only a bit drier than fresh Peeps. It had lost a bit of its spring.
Horrors! I loved Peeps, loved being the past tense. That love ended abruptly when I found this almost-perfect Peep that had languished in the basement for two years. What ingredient did they contain to preserve them so long? I have never eaten another Peep since finding those preserved Peepsplural, because I found more, all in fine condition.
Some love affairs come to an end. No longer did I anticipate the spring arrival of boxes nestling yellow chicks with their sweet black eye dots watching me from the store shelves. Never again would I taste the smooshy marshmallow, sugar-crusted delights. Never again would I save the heads of the Peeps for last. Never again would I gorge on Peeps until I was queasy and sugar high.
I once was fond of Easter for reasons beside the spiritual ones. I loved Easter in those pre-worldwide days of anything available at anytime because in the weeks leading to Easter, I could have my Peeps and eat them, too. Peeps have now morphed into marshmallow bunnies, hearts, and santas—each holiday has its version of marshmallow candies, crusted in sugar, and loaded with preservatives. If something that’s supposed to be edible festers in my basement furnace room for over two years and doesn’t, well, fester, that’s a sign that Peeps should never pass my lips. I miss them, but now you can’t get a Peep into me.

The Peeps I purchased to photograph for this blog have an expiration date of March, 2014two years away. My kids know I don't eat Peeps and they know why. Nonetheless, since the day I bought these for pictures only, they’ve asked when, oh when, would I take the pictures so they can eat the Peeps.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Is Your--My--Real Work?

I've been writing all morning—since 10 a.m. I feel alive, accomplished, worthwhile. It's almost 1 p.m., and I haven't made any money yet. I just thought to myself: “It's time to do my real work.”
Thud in my gut! What is my real work? Is it only the work I get paid to do? What is work? What is real? Can't the thing I love doing most be my “real work”? I think it can. But first, I have to make it real.
What is your real work? How do you reconcile that work with the work you do for money? Are you fortunate enough to get paid for doing your “real work”?

Brokenness Versus Fixedness

Frustration Abounds When Things Break
and I Start to Break, Too

Sometimes things are too broken, beyond fixing.
Most broken things can be fixed.
It's the intervening frustration that is so hard to get past.
Brokenness I have done far too often. Fixedness evades me in many respects. The past month was a bonanza of brokenness—not so much spiritual but material—yet I found over those four weeks that when material things break in abundance, my spirit also suffers.
That suffering is a result of frustration. If I tear a fingernail, I get out the clippers and snip it. Brokenness gone—in an instant. When I drop a plate and it shatters into a thousand shards, I toss it in the trash—brokenness again is gone, not so much in an instant, but after sweeping and vacuuming to assuage my compulsion to remove the threat of every splinter of glass from bare feet and fragile fingers, I forget the plate. When broken things can be fixed, I get out my duct tape, Elmer’s Glue, wood and regular, stapes, screwdrivers, hammers, nails, and fix what I can.

Some things are hard to fix and cause extreme frustration
in the process of fixing them.
But the effort pays off.

Frustration ensues when I cannot fix what is broken and when broken-things lists get longer and longer. The past month included the following:
·      Telephone and TV service not working
·      Garage door stopped working
·      No scan options error message on the computer
·      Computer mouse stopped scrolling
·      Trackpad purchased to replace the mouse did not scroll
·      Glitches occurred in software
·      Front window screen sliced
·      Cell phone that was supposed to ship from Florida never arrived—from      China
·      Amaryllis plants showed no sign of blooming this year
Television is a low priority for me, but my son likes it and I watch an occasional program. However, the TV service I signed up for was bundled with the phone service I tried to switch from one company to another. Company A refused to release my phone number. The tug of war between Company A and Company B started February 10. I have a cell phone, but its limited reception inside my house means I need a landline for business calls. I can’t move my desktop computer or my desk outside for business calls. Companies A and B tugged for 25 days, during which time I had no phone. After four tech visits and at least four hours on the phone with various support people, I gave up trying to keep my old number, consented to a new number, and the phone (and TV) worked within 10 minutes.
The garage door wouldn’t close a few days ago, so we pulled the emergency cord, although it wasn’t an emergency. Not a good plan. The door wouldn’t resume working, even after reading directions and trying every suggested fix. We finally walked away and let it stew for a few days. Yesterday, I suggested trying again. It works! Maybe it needed a few days off. I can relate.
Computer issues are the most frustrating and disheartening because I lack tech skills. I study pages of documents retrieved via Google to figure out how to fix my various techy possessions, but after only moments, my eyes glaze over, my brain goes on standby, and I realize I don’t even understand what I’m reading, much less how to fix the issue. My mouse is too poor quality for the work I do, so I ordered a trackpad. The trackpad would not work unless I updated the OS. I updated the OS and then the scanner wouldn’t work. I tried fixes suggested on support sites, eyes glazing over and brain going on standby, and none of them worked. I let the scanner rest for a few days. Yesterday, I downloaded software and marshaled my patience and focus to install new printer software. The scanner now works, and the upgraded OS has resolved some other software glitches.

It's a good idea to make sure everyone in the family has a copy of the new keys.
New, improved door locks are a fine addition to any home. A key that fits those locks is a fine addition to each family member’s keychain. Skipping the key-sharing step often means the next thing you have to add is a new screen. The front window screen was in a slashed state for a week until I replaced it. The window is open to the welcome the breeze.
My son’s dad ordered him a cell phone weeks in advance of his February 17th birthday knowing it would arrive in time because the seller was located in Florida. The much-anticipated cell phone was not in Florida, but in China. Weeks after the birthday amid mounting disappointment at the mailbox, the seller informed him some screws were missing. The order was cancelled. A week later, the new, improved cell phone from another seller has arrived.
Amaryllis blooms delight me each spring. By this time last year, the buds had burst into color and brightened my day. Sometimes, despite the best of care, an Amaryllis might skip a year and not bloom. It looked like one of those years. If checking each plant five times daily produced blooms, the plants would be covered. On top of all my other frustrations, I added disappointment. Yesterday, I spied the buds poking up from the earth.
I wish problems and their resulting frustration were predictable and that when I meet them, I could just resolve whatever issue I face and get on with life. When I can’t fix what’s broken, frustration increases. When multiple material items aren’t fixed and more continue to break, my frustration becomes helplessness. I begin to feel despair because I want things to work, I want things to be smooth, I want to use my computer mouse, I want to have a business call at my desk and not in the front yard. I love technology when it does what its supposed to do, but when it doesn’t, I take it as a personal affront, as if nature, electricity, and machines are conspiring against me.
I usually can take things in stride, unless I’m taking ten things in stride and the weight throws off my footing. My demands that things go my way probably don’t help. Like most people, I want things to go my way, and when an overwhelming amount of things go the opposite direction from my path, I lose my way on that path.
I know that sometimes brokenness is the way of that path. Sometimes I have to take a call outside on the walkway or on the back patio. Sometimes I have to bumble through a document without being able to scroll. Sometimes I have to wait until the scanner is fixed to be able to scan a document. I have to buy the replacement screen and spline and have the necessary time to repair the screen. I have to make more copies of the keys. Sometimes I have to carry my gardening basket through the front door, rather than through the garage. The garage door didn’t work, it looked like rain, and I didn’t want to schlep the dirt-crusted gardening basket back inside, so I left the basket by the front door.
Sometimes something shakes us up. At first sight of my basket by the door, one family member’s thought, “Oh, no! Someone left a baby in a basket.” On closer observation, it was obvious there was no baby. But that’s how imagination works. I need to bring imagination into play more often when things don’t work. Imagine what it would be like to just sit back, and as I’m able, fix things one by one, and then relax away from the frustration. It’s going to happen. It’s life. And sometimes, things are going to break all at once. Other times, everything will get fixed in a few days time. At that time, I must remember to sit back, look around at everything that’s fixed, relax into the lack of brokenness, and wait for the amaryllis buds to open and show me their blooms.

Friday, March 2, 2012

It Was No “Random Act of Kindness”

A Conscious Act of Kindness
What Can You Do Today?

Her feet dragged along the sidewalk. The black plastic bag she held in her hand hovered only inches from the ground. She paused, let go of the bag, and put her hand to her forehead. She took a few labored steps, stopped, and dropped the bag again as if it held the weight of the world. I waited for her to complete her path across the sidewalk in front of the driveway I wanted to pull into. I saw her struggle as she continued her weary walk. She took a few steps and then she stopped again. After she crossed the driveway, I pulled in, turned my head to the left, and watched her again stop and drop her bag. The bag didn’t look full and was knotted far from the top, but the effort it took her to carry it made me think it was heavy.
I had plans. I always have plans. I was in that driveway to pick up someone and go about those plans. Sometimes our plans must be put aside. I knew it was one of those times.
I got out of my car, walked over to her, and asked if she needed some help. Her answer wasn’t intelligible; she was that exhausted. I asked her where she was going. She said around the corner and then home. I told her I would carry her bag and walk her home. When I picked it up, I was shocked at how little the bag weighed—not even five pounds. We took a few steps forward and she continued to struggle, so I suggested we go in my car. I put the bag in the trunk, started the car, and even though it wasn’t a typical hot Florida day, I turned the air conditioning as high as it would go. Overweight, she struggled into the passenger seat and had difficulty putting on her seatbelt. She then began repeating, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
I asked if anyone was at her home and she said her children would be there soon from school. I also asked if she wanted me to get her some medical help. She declined, but kept repeating her mantra of “Thank you, Jesus.” I drove the two blocks to her house and helped her out of the car. I was worried. I didn’t want to leave her there, but she reassured me she would be okay. “Do you have a phone so you can call for help if you need it?” I asked. She said she did. I gave her the bag from the trunk and she walked toward her door.

I then went about my plans after answering a phone call asking where I was. I didn’t give the experience much thought yesterday, but it came to me again this morning. Why? Because I hesitated before I asked the woman if she needed help. I had to decide to help. And even then, I had to decide just how much I was going to help. Would I walk her home when it was clear she was struggling, or would I put a complete stranger in my car and drive her somewhere? I am shamed that I had to ponder it, even for the short moments I did. I know it’s wise to consider whether it’s safe to help someone in this society-gone-mad in which we live, but unless the woman was Meryl Streep caliber, her distress was no act, and I knew that.
My act was not a “random act of kindness.” It was a considered and then conscious act of kindness. I am not proud that I had to consider whether to help someone, but the result is the same. Someone who needed help received it.
My aim here is not to bring attention to myself for my actions. I believe and take seriously the Bible verse about not letting my left hand know what my right is doing. It’s not about what I did, but about what you can do. My aim is a gentle reminder to step forward and partake in an act of kindness, be it conscious or be it random.

Matthew, Chapter 6
Giving to the Needy
1“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.