Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Of bread and herons

I baked Hanne Risgaard's Real Rye Bread the other day and it seems to have come out fine although it didn't rise as high as it normally does. But it might have been because I had digressed from my baking routine. As usual I had soaked the cracked rye overnight and done all the mise en place (gotten everything scaled and prepped and at room temperature) the night before. I had mixed the dough in the morning around 10 and transfered it to the oiled pan but - and that isn't something we normally do when I start on a bread - we decided on the spur of the moment to go to Ikea on an errand we had been postponing for a while. Ikea isn't exactly next door. What to do? I weighed the pros and cons and projecting that the dough would have risen nicely by the time we came back, I determined that everything should and would be fine.
But just as we were leaving, I got spooked. With my mind's eyes, I saw the neglected dough climb over the edge of the pan, slither under the clear plastic film, crawl down the door of the cabinet to pool on the floor in a puddle that would morph from gooey-sticky to rock-hard by the time we got back. So I put the pan in the garage (where the temperature must have been around 50°F/10°C). That probably scared the dough out of its wits because when we came back five or six hours later (we got stuck in traffic), it hadn't moved at all. Not even a shiver...
It must have been about 5 PM when I brought it inside where the temperature was 65°F/18°C. Five hours or six later it still hadn't moved. At all. It looked petrified. I went to bed with a heavy heart. For a first foray back into baking in more than two months, it didn't look encouraging and I wasn't sure overnight proofing would help since we keep the thermostate on low during the night.
But, lo and behold, in the morning the dough had changed color: no longer grayish, it seemed to glow with the bloom of life and it had started to dome a bit in the middle. This time I watched it like a hawk. And watched. And watched. It took its own sweet time. At about 4 PM, when it looked like it wouldn't rise much further than up to 3/4 inch from the top, I pre-heated the oven and waited some more. Talk about a balancing act between hoping for a higher rise and making sure it didn't overproof.
At the time of this writing, I haven't sliced it open yet (it is best to wait at least 24 hours and preferably 48 to 72 before slicing into a fresh loaf of whole grain bread). Whole grain breads need to settle: they taste better when they dry out a bit. It makes sense, right? Moisture evaporates and flavor concentrates. With a bit of luck, the crumb will be okay... I wish I had taken pictures all along but I wasn't planning to blog this bread and also what's so exciting about a dough that plays dead for hours on end?

Four days after the bake
Not the prettiest crumb ever (see the lower part of the loaf which looks a bit dense and gummy) but not the worst either.
Moral of the story #1: rye dough can and will trick you. This one looked as lifeless as the mummified heron our two-year old golden retriever dragged in from the marshes and dropped proudly at my feet one winter, the very same day she fell through the ice and we thought she was a goner. It was her first visit to our little camp by the St-Lawrence River. We had adopted her a week earlier. She fought her way back onto the ice, shook herself and was as good as new, white teeth flashing in a wide smile and dripping tail wagging. The heron got flung back into the marshes when she wasn't looking.
The dough was so inert that I almost chucked it out too. The only thing that stopped me is the thought that waiting till morning would save me having to wash the pan before going to bed. Also that I really, really craved some naturally leavened whole rye bread. And finally that I knew we would soon be seeing our Danish cousins who live in Vancouver, BC, and that I wanted to bring them a little taste of home, however elusive the similarity of this bread with their native rugbrød.
Moral of the story # 2: any resemblance of unproofed rye dough to a wizened heron is entirely fortuitous and best taken with a grain of salt.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Gun legislation in Washington State: let's speak up!

I read a couple of days ago in the Seattle Times that a gun-rights group is currently negotiating with lawmakers on background checks in Washington State. While the article gave me some measure of hope that we are indeed moving forward on the issue of curbing gun violence, it also brought in stark relief the necessity for all of us Washingtonians to act now. Twenty kids were killed in a hail of gunfire in Newtown, CT, on December 14, including our grandson Noah. If it happened in peaceful Newtown, it can happen anywhere and we must do everything we can to try and prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
Our kids have the right to stay alive! No right is more fundamental than this one. Universal background checks may not be the full answer, but if they help save even one single life, if they spare one single family the terrible pain of losing a child to gun violence, they are worth implementing.
Our kids trust us to have their backs. What we can do, as constituents, is encourage our senators to stand up to their caucus. The legislators who need to hear from us are:
  • Sen. Andy Hill (45th Legislative District)- Kirkland/Woodinville,
  • Sen. Rodney Tom (48th District, Clyde Hill/Medina/Bellevue), and
  • Sen. Steve Litzow (41st District), Mercer Island/Newcastle.
If you live in any of these districts, please call the universal 800 number and leave a short message for your senator. The operator will get it to him. The number to call is 1-800-562-6000. (If you don't live in any of these districts but know people who do, you can still make a difference by encouraging them to call.)
In this message you will need to say:
  • Who you are and where you live
  • That you support common sense gun legislation
  • That you are glad the Senator signed on to sponsor the universal background check bill
  • That you are counting on him to remain steadfast and stand up to his critics.
We also need to call and encourage Rep. Mike Hope (44th Dist.) who is getting lambasted by the NRA. His office number is 360-786-7892. He needs to hear we are behind him.

Vice-President Biden said yesterday: "There is a moral price to pay for inaction." That is certainly true at the national or State level. But at the family level, believe me, the price is first and foremost exacted in blood and tears. I, for one, hope never to see a murdered child's name on a memorial poster again... I am sure you don't either.
Your kids and ours and everyone else's must be put first. They deserve a vote. Let's pick up our phones to make sure they get it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hanne Risgaard's Real Rye Bread

While I am not yet back in full baking mode, bread is slowly making its way back into my life (of course not baking was and still is made easier by the fact that our freezer was literally bursting at the seams when tragedy struck mid-December: we had been expecting our two teenage grandkids for their winter breaks and I had been baking up a storm).
This time around the first bread on the agenda is likely to be Hanne Risgaard's Real Rye Bread. There is something profoundly honest and straightforward about this bread. It isn't fancy and some may not consider it elegant (although I would argue the point.) But it does deliver in terms of taste, consistency, shelf life and versatility. Besides I find it deeply comforting as it brings back memories of light-filled summers spent in Denmark with beloved family members.
I have made it several times already, sometimes with my own rye starter, sometimes with the rye yogurt starter indicated in the book. I like both versions. For most people the yogurt starter is probably the easier way to go as you don't have to have a pre-existing starter on hand to try the bread (see below for the starter recipe).
You will find the real rye bread recipe on page 133 of Hanne Risgaard's gorgeous book, Home Baked: Nordic Recipes and Techniques for Organic Bread and Pastry. You will also find it a beautiful rendition of it online (with a list of ingredients and detailed instructions) at My Italian Smörgåsbord.
The ingredients listed make for a huge loaf (or two smaller ones). I don't find it to be a problem: it is a lovely bread to share, it freezes beautifully and, thinly sliced and dried out, either in a dehydrator or in an oven set at a low temperature, it makes lovely crisps which keep for months in an airtight container. Those crisps are the perfect foil for sardines, smoked salmon, pungent cheeses, etc. They are also handy and healthful in case of a snack attack!
Once I knew we both liked the bread and I was going to make it over and over, I started looking for a gallon-size pan (that's where the elegance comes in: I just love the sleek look of the loaf Hanne chose to illustrate her recipe). Thanks to my friend Larry Lowary who is an invaluable source of tips and advice, I found here a pan almost identical to the ones used in Denmark (except that the sides are not straight but slightly slanted). The price was right (I didn't get the lid which I didn't need) and I bought it. I have had no reason to regret it (my only advice would be to slightly grease the pan before placing the dough in it. The first couple of times the bread slid out like a breeze but with each later use the pan became a little bit more reluctant to let go).
Hanne says to leave the dough to ferment at room temperature for 24 hours before baking. I don't know how cold it is in Denmark where she bakes but here in the Pacific Northwest where the temperature inside our house usually hovers around 65°F/18°C, I have found six to ten hours to be enough. I tried letting it go twenty-four hours once just to see what happened and it was not a success. Which reminded me of the golden rule: rye doesn't like to wait!
So instead of following Hanne's proofing time suggestions, I heed her practical advice: bake the loaf when the dough almost reaches the top of the pan.

As I said, I love the book as a whole: I have already made the Pear and Sourdough Bread (p. 142) (I skipped the yeast though)...
...and the Pumpkin Seed Bread with Buttermilk (p. 136) (so tasty and fragrant, especially with the suggested addition of fennel seeds that it is close rival to the Real Rye one in our affections)...
...and there are plenty of other appealing breads that I plan to try and make. My only reservations would be that several of the non-rye levain-based recipes call for yeast (I don't see the point of adding yeast to levain except in a production environment with a tight schedule) and that it would be useful to see more crumb shots.
The photography is gorgeous however and guaranteed to make you want to start baking on the spot (which is maybe the reason why Hanne's real rye bread may be the one to finally pull me out of my baking funk).

The rye yogurt starter is fairly simple to make.

Ingredients (for 400 g mature starter, total)
  • 150 g water
  • 150 g organic plain yogurt
  • 200 g whole rye flour
  • 150 g water
  • 200 g whole rye flour
  • To start: mix all starter ingredients thoroughly and keep, tightly covered, in a warm place for 24 hours (Hanne recommends 86°F/30°C)
  • Feeding: After 24 hours, add water and flour, mix thoroughly and keep, tightly covered, in a warm place for another 24 hours 
Hanne's recipe uses all of the starter (and replaces it with 400 g of dough which she keeps in a fridge, slightly salted, for her next batch). She says that, when it has been refrigerated, it will need to spend 24 hours at room temperature to be ready for use again.
Hanne Risgaard's Real Rye Bread is going to Susan for this week's issue of Yeastspotting.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two months ago today in Newtown, CT

Two months already? Or two months only? I can't tell. Time stretches and compresses without warning. My only certitude is that, two months after the tragedy, it remains impossible to come to terms with what happened.
But today is Valentine's Day and I want to tell you a story: a few weeks ago, one of my little granddaughters came to me as I was sitting at the computer. She asked: "Maminou, what's your talent?" I was taken aback at first, then I remembered that the girls had just watched (and watched and watched) The Secret of the Wings, a Disney fairy movie where everyone has a talent waiting to be discovered. I thought for a minute, then recalling that when we meet after a long separation the first thing she asks is always "Did you bring us bread?", I said: "Bread!" She nodded, satisfied.
Then I asked: "And what's your talent?" She was quiet for a while, then she replied with a shy smile: "Loving! I think my talent is for loving..." I held her close. She didn't say anything for a while, then she looked directly into my eyes: "Do I have to love the bad guy who came into the school?" I told her she didn't and she looked relieved, as if something tight had just unwound inside her.
Love as a talent. I never thought of it that way but it makes sense. A gift that lies dormant at birth and needs to be awakened and nurtured.
Love as a choice. Some of us place themselves deliberately outside the circles. They cannot be trusted with love. Maybe because their talent was never discovered. Maybe because they never had it in the first place. I don't know. But I like it that my little granddaughter is already working on setting boundaries for herself.
Two months ago today in Newtown, CT, a shooter chose to rob twenty-six innocents of their lives and to tear them away from their loved ones. These flowers are for the victims and for the survivors. For all of us who choose love. For all of us who understand, like my granddaughter, that not loving doesn't mean hating. That there is another way...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Of walking and Walmart

Among the many things I love about living in the Northwest is how colorful the landscape remain throughout the winter, not only because of the everpresent evergreens but also because of the yellow, orange or red bark on so many trees and bushes. The hour-long walk around Green Lake in Seattle is color-therapy at its seasonal best. Plus it offers as good an opportunity for people-watching as an outdoor terrace in a Parisian café (one of my favorite pastimes when we visit family and friends there.) The crowd is strikingly different though: mothers dashing forward behind racing strollers, others dragged by eager pooches, muscled men in skimpy tank tops, Gore-Texed gents leaning on heavy canes, leashed dogs everywhere, mostly well behaved, old couples and odd couples, talking walkers and walking talkers, cyclists, roller-bladers, everyone in-lane, everyone oh so Seattle. Peaceful...
So we walk. We talk some. Mostly we watch. Sometimes we notice more than once the same people walking in the opposite direction. When it happens, I always regret not having paid more attention in school to problems featuring two trains leaving at different hours from different cities and going at different speeds: where and when would they pass each other? Are we seeing this elderly couple twice because they actually walk faster than us? It seems unlikely but then why are we meeting them again before our own walk around the lake is over?
My mathematically bent husband remains unfazed: he quickly processes the facts (where we first pass the couple, where we are now) and comes up with the answer. I like it that some problems can be easily solved.
As we walk I feel a burden lift then fall again then lift again: grief like an invisible cloak fluttering in the breeze. And I look at the faces, animated or stoney, smooth or wrinkled, dour or smiling, and I wonder  at the stories that live and breathe behind each of them...
Back home, the peace Green Lake has brought is shattered as I listen to Walmart and the AR-15, a Feb.6 podcast from the Leonard Lopate Show. From there I go to How Walmart Helped Make the Newtown Shooter's AR-15 the Most Popular Assault Weapon in America, the original article by George Zornick in The Nation. I had thought Walmart had pulled the weapon so that it could no longer be bought online. It turns out that it could never be bought online and that Walmart only pulled it from its online catalog but continued to carry it in its stores. I didn't know that gun sales was what helped the company pull out of a slump. I also didn't know that Walmart was now "the biggest seller of firearms and ammunition in America."
There is indeed a story behind everyone and everything, isn't there? Many of them never see the light of day but when they are exposed, when we clearly see that from coast to coast thousands of us are either already impacted or threatened by the plot, don't we have not only the right but the obligation to look for ways to bring about a different ending? I regret that Walmart declined to be interviewed for the article. I am still hoping it can be convinced to change its policies (or at least to make sure each and everyone of its stores abides by its stated policies). Meanwhile, let's vote with our feet and walk away both from Walmart Stores and from Sam's Club which it owns and operates.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Back home

A week after Noah died, my baker friend Sam Fromartz baked this beautiful crown to honor his life and memory. Here is what he wrote: "When I made it, I was thinking about the Buddhist concept of Mandala, the circle of life, as all life begins and ends, but ultimately is connected. I also thought about the Mandala when I made the grigne, like a series of never-ending waves. The way the flour unexpectedly dusted one half the loaf but not the other also symbolized lightness and dark. For all these reasons I think this loaf works and hope it is worthy of a Crown for Noah."
I was deeply touched. I know Noah would have loved the crown (he had a passion for crusty artisan bread). I also know the first thing he would have done is stick his arm through the hole in the middle and parade around the room wearing it like a gigantic bracelet and his sisters would have run after him: "My turn! My turn!" and the grown-ups would have been trying to retrieve the loaf ("Kids! We don't play with food!") and there would have been a lot of giggling and bustling about. The scene is so vivid that it is almost a memory... Thank you, Sam!
I told Sam that, with his permission, I would post the picture of the crown and his comments when I was back home and on the verge of resuming baking: today seems as good a day as any as we are indeed back home near Seattle and there is no more palpable reality in our day-to-day existence than the spinning of the circle of life and the play of light and darkness.
Going home was weird. First of all, those among you who believe in signs will probably love it that the first three letters of my confirmation number for the flight were NOA... Seriously, what are the odds? I know the code is computer-generated and meaningless but still it felt like a butterfly kiss before the trip back and it brought me joy.
Then our home was a time warp: I had forgotten that we had been in the process of decorating it for Christmas when we left precipitously on December 14th. There were boxes of ornaments left and right. The stepladder was still up. A red and white bead garland hung loose from one side of the doorframe. The tree stood unlit and petrified in a corner of the living area, like a stalagmite from the plant world incongruously decorated for the saddest of holidays. The star was pinned on the 13th on the naïve advent calendar I made for my kids out of a pillowcase back in 1974, a calendar their own kids love to see come out every year.
I  turned on my computer only to find the browser stuck on the post I wrote before leaving. After seven weeks, it was like being rocketed back to a time before time we could barely recollect. So much had happened since.
We took the calendar down, untrimmed the tree, collected the window candles (we have little star ones from Ikea which need to be turned on manually, one-by-one, a task our grandkids love to take on) and removed their batteries, unhook the hanging garland and started packing Christmas away. Truth be told, I don't know at this point that I'll ever feel like getting the house ready for the holidays again. But then "ever" is a very short word for a very long time and things may change. Also there are the grandkids to think of...
Friends from the baking community came by over the weekend: one walked in carrying two containers of levain (wheat and rye) (For those of you who are not bakers, levain is the French word for sourdough starter). I hugged her on the spot: inexplicably both my levains had died while we were gone. Feeding the new starters felt good.  Although I am not quite up to baking yet (still too distracted), it was a first step, a promise to myself.
She also brought gorgeous breads, crackers and cookies, including a marvelously potent beer bread we had with turkey chili on SuperBowl Sunday (not that we watched the game this year but still...). Others brought a sumptuous chocolate cake (we had a milestone birthday to celebrate) and a lovely Pithiviers. We sat around the kitchen table in the kids' house. We chatted, caught up on everyone's story. Life, interrupted, seeping back. Circles of love, still woven tight...

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