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Posts Tagged ‘yeast’

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With all due respect to the believers out there, my hallelujah news this past week was only peripherally due to Easter Sunday. Most of it came from putting my overworked, overwhelmed hands into a bowl of bread dough, where I was able to dispel the stresses of the past month with a few turns.

2016 marks something like my 25th year of making Easter bread, a 100-year or so tradition my sister and I assumed, and I took it over entirely a dozen years ago. Chocolate-cinnamon babka is what I make. It is sticky and goopy, with spiced dark chocolate twirled throughout layers of buttery, eggy dough. No one argues with this recipe.

After a March of solid writing, phone calls, candy making and delivering, stage prop hunting and more delivering, I was beat from every angle. The crazy thing is, when the world spins too quickly and it feels like I can’t catch up, I crave the kitchen. I need to make something…and specifically, to put my hands in something.

When I flour my hands and first put them in the dough, an enormous calm washes over me that says this I can do. My heartbeat slows to match the motion of my hands. It’s probably akin to knitting, music-making, or any number of things that have a beat. But this has the added bonus of that raw yeasty smell and the cool feel of dough. Dough-working is instinct and skill: discerning when the dough needs more flour, how many turns it should take, when it’s springy enough to stop kneading. And I love dropping it into my parchment-lined, secondhand wooden bowl. I love covering it with more parchment and a dishtowel, and setting it to rise on the cooler end of my kitchen radiator.

I think back to our grandmothers and their aunts, sisters, cousins who bent over bread bowls in the middle of their chockablock lives, and wonder if their heartbeats slowed to a sane pace as well. I think about the unique stresses of their lives—illness, war, foreclosure, rationing—and wonder if they were able to breathe in yeast and and breathe out the cares of the day and the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. All I know is it puts heart back into me in a way nothing else quite does, letting me resume the world with a clear outlook.

Bread dough—now that’s a religion I can stand behind.

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What’s the difference between what truly satisfies and what doesn’t? We’ve heard about determining what’s enough; that’s been posed at least since the ’90s, when the Benetton and zircon-brooch* excess of the previous decade got to all of us. The threshold of enough is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it’s pretty easy pickings.

It’s being in reasonably good health (check), which I don’t take for granted after many years of stress-related illnesses and a further-cheering car accident chaser. It’s people around me who want to be there (check). A non-leaky roof over my head and warm walls within a safe town (check). Having a few electronics and a car that behave (check). A well-stocked kitchen (checkity check check). Grains, olive oil, good quality chocolate**, milk, yogurt, some protein. An avocado ripening on the dining room table is a lovely thing. It’s having a freezer with butter and snoozing yeast, slices of my homemade coffee cake, tubs of chicken broth, Ziplocked fruits I’ve bought, foraged, or picked at the farm. That’s close to what constitutes enough, at least for me.

One step farther. What’s the difference between enough and plenty? What constitutes plenty? Because as I see it, if we’re operating from a place of plenty, it significantly changes our experience of the world. It feels a lot different than enough.

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I saw this book in Anthro as soon as I started thinking about this post. Riddle: How many Plenty books are plenty? Answer: JUST ONE. Ha! I slay me.

Lest you think I’m advocating the spend-happiness of our culture, no. When it comes to buying extras, I generally don’t. I’m not a stuff person. Small and manageable is my thing. (To further amplify: I don’t have a kazillion dollars, but if ever I did, I wouldn’t build an 11-bedroom monolith to myself with two sun rooms and a cat porch.*** Plenty might mean torso-high vases in a color West Elm calls ‘aubergine,’ but I’m skeptical.)

Plenty, like enough, is in the eye of the beholder. The Danes have a word that comes closest to what plenty means to me: hygge (pronounced HUE-gah). There’s no clear-cut translation into English, but here: it’s the well-being that comes from creating and living in a place of warmth, coziness, and safety, of enjoying the good things in life with the people who matter most. That’s a different planet from enough; that’s letting the peace that comes from plenty wash over you, and deliberately and consciously sinking into it. I think it’s worth seeking out, for ourselves and for the old ripple effect of it, you know?

The last time I felt a sustained sense of plenty—I narrowed it down—was in the late ’80s when I wore Benetton and zircon brooches and was sent to a small boarding school with my brother and sister. It was an unusual place, one in which I felt constant, enthusiastic, and unconditional support from the staff. And the food was decent to boot. I remember crossing the grounds at night on my way to the library, looking up at the winter sky, and feeling deep peace, of being right where I wanted to be and with the right people.

I’ve felt a sense of plenty in bits and pieces many times since then, and have made a point to suck the marrow out of each instance. It hit most notably a few years ago when I had a surge of creativity that brought me squarely into food writing as well as bigger leaps into marzipan-making and theatre. I’ve always been a project person, but I was unexpectedly gobsmacked with a whoosh of new and cool and way more fulfilling. The Mad Hatter told Alice that she’d lost her muchness, and so had I. I got it back. I had to slay a few Jabberwocks to get there, but all in a day’s work.

It hit again recently when I had a windfall of sorts and felt a calm ooze over me like warm blackberry honey. That evening I zipped off on my bike. And with no plan at all I felt my feet take me to places I’d never been before, found new foraging grounds, and came within a few yards of one seriously surprised white-tailed deer.

My years of working with children taught me that the more secure kids feel, the more adventurous they are. It does not fail. That night felt like a crazy and delicious head trip, but it wasn’t drugs. It was the plenty.

I’m still looking for that elusive sustained plenty, that sense not just of having enough but of being sated. I’ll know it when I see it.

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Macy’s, for example, spells it wrong.

Here’re a few ways I feel the plenty, when I find it in bits and pieces.

-A shamelessly exuberant, burst-open flower.

-A really good conversation.

-Harvesting anything, especially foraging, and really especially finding new plants.

-The beach—its smell, its textures, its ever-changing and unabashed wildness.

-Nailing a cue onstage. The tougher, the bloody well better.

-Kneading and punching down bread dough.

-Celebrating every season.

-Making something with my hands.

-Warming someone who’s been cold inside.

-The magic in a genuine connection.

-Watching a small-town parade.

-Dramatic weather—being utterly immersed in snowflakes, blowing leaves, or fog.

-Noticing something beautiful amid the ordinary.

-Writing this piece. It’s been banging around in my head for months.

-A full-fat ice cream cone.

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*I had a bunch of these and wore them with a shoulder-padded black jacket and looked FLY, dude.

**Hey, I made that the third item and not the first. Impressive!

***I have no idea what this is. I hope I just made it up. Please don’t google it. If you do, please don’t tell me it exists.

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Well, this was one of the stranger years making Easter bread (which explains, I hope at least to an extent, my woefully late post). This is chocolate cinnamon babka, my take on a family tradition to bake and deliver Easter bread on Holy Saturday. I’ve written about it in 2011, 2012, and again last year. Always seem to have something new to tell, which is good, because I have no plans to stop making it.

The good news is it all went off without a hitch*, tasted great, was well received, etc. But I made it in the days leading up to a production of Shrek, for which I’m designing props. This means lack of sleep that generated mild but entertaining and sometimes useful hallucinations; stepping gingerly to the kitchen over googly eyes, glue, grey wool felt, remote control cars and Lowe’s receipts; and tucking the finished loaves under six sheets of foam board in the back seat of my Honda. I’m thinking of creating business cards that say, “Making Easter Sweeter For Three Generations, Though The Most Recent Years Are Closer To What We’d Call Loony.” Obviously I still need sleep.

Here, then, a photo essay of my baking night, which started at around 9pm last Friday.

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Yeast has a big, big sweet tooth. It rises best when it has a little sugar to munch on, so initially the recipe has you add a pinch to the warm milk and yeast. Then it gets a ton more. Got a bang out of watching the mixture change as the yeast chomped their way into a frenzied lather.

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Been making Easter bread for some 20 years now, but due to my aforementioned lack of sleep this was the first year I came up with the idea to change the orientation of my measuring cups to show how many cups I had added to the dough. Here I’m at 6 cups—at 6 o’clock, more or less.

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When the wooden spoon can stand up in the dough, you have a choice. Choice 1: turn it out and start using your hands; choice 2: get a new wooden spoon, because it’s about 11 seconds away from cracking in half. It will, I’m serious.

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My kitchen counter space is about as big as a Ritz cracker. My kitchen table is much bigger, but is drop-leaf—not spectacular for kneading bread dough, since flour falls through the cracks. I decided to use the cookie sheet we were supposed to use in Shrek, a full sheet pan, to knead. It was too heavy for the actress who plays Gingy to carry and dance with at the same time, so I bought it. Yeah.

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Kneading. I love the feel of dough as it’s getting more and more elastic, and the pattern is both grooved and groovy.

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Dough set to rise. It looks a lot like the way cauliflower grows. Picture the parchment as the leaves. Right? Lack of sleep again? Not in this case.

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The next morning. Couldn’t smell better, I’m telling you.

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Gratuitous three-bites-gone shot.

*I’m not counting when some of the chocolate, butter, sugar, and cinnamon filling fell on the floor, which is not a hitch; it’s a crime. That I’ll give you.

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I do love me a hot cross bun. The kind from the store are okay, but homemade ones are a totally different animal. A very cozy, awesome, affectionate animal. My recipe is from The Joy of Cooking*. It’s a milk bread spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg and sweetened with a handful of raisins**.

Hot cross buns are very easy to make. I baked them one morning this past week—a wildly hectic week, quite frankly—and didn’t sweat it. Simple, fun, great payoff, kids (especially the little ‘uns) adore cooking…it got me to wondering why more people don’t bake them at home. I think part of it is yeast anxiety. True? Maybe we perceive ordinary things like sugar and eggs and flour as controllable. But we think of yeast as something with a mind of its own. It’s not the case. To an extent, every ingredient on Earth as well as several on Jupiter has a mind of its own. The way to work well with ingredients is to understand them. Don’t frazzle; just know that if you add a little sugar and warm water to yeast, it will grow and make a bread. That’s really it.

Here’s butter melting in a heavy pan. Lovely way to begin anything.

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Added dry ingredients and stirred with a fork until it becomes, below, what some recipes call ‘shaggy’. Post gratuitous Scooby-Doo references in the comments below.

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Once it came together, I added the raisins and kneaded it for a while until it became smooth and stretchy. Then I covered it with a dishtowel (with a piece of parchment underneath to keep it from sticking) and set it on my radiator (which was warm, but not hot, that day). Here’s how it looked after it rose.

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I punched it down (the English call it ‘knocking it down’) and let it rise again. Dumped it out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and pondered for an inordinate amount of time whether I wanted to make just one BIG bun. It’s tempting, right?

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Enjoys walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and fantasies of world domination.

But nah.

Cut the dough into buns and brushed them with just milk. I was out of eggs, so I couldn’t make an egg wash (which is one egg mixed with milk or cream, to make the tops Saint-Tropez tan).

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Plain milk worked fine.

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I icing’ed one with powdered sugar that had a little milk stirred in and made a cross to salute tradition.

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And then I decorated the rest differently since I’m agnostic. Either way, they taste the same: fantastic.

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*The book’s 15 years old and the binding’s split and duct taped. Good thing we don’t all go to seed so early in life.

** I think it needs two handfuls, but that’s me.

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