Sunday, April 27, 2014

Making dough with a borrowed tradition

So much of my childhood memories are associated with food.

Specifically, the food my perpetually flour-covered mother made: spaghetti and meatballs with homemade sauce that had just a touch of sweetness, cinnamony apple pies with crisp, flakey crust I'd nibble on when she wasn't looking and loaf after loaf of fresh bread right out of the oven begging to be slathered with butter and eaten while steaming.

The smells I identify most with the houses I grew up in are moth balls from my mom's closet, sawdust from my dad's workshop, the overpowering scent of jasmine from a giant plant my dad kept in the kitchen and that soul-warming fresh bread. 

I attempt to replicate some of these memories in my own kitchen -- to varying degrees of success. My pie crusts crumble and I've had epic battles with the waffle iron. But bread and pizza dough -- especially when made with the same careworn KitchenAid mixer my mom used for the endless loaves of my youth -- well, those are just magic.

Jovie learns early to double-check the recipe and that flour
is really more fun when it covers everything.
My mom's KitchenAid in the background. It's pretty old. 
Seriously. The process of putting together the ingredients for bread dough -- dissolving the yeast in warm water, or scalding the milk, or adding the flour until the dough is on this side of not sticky is a matter of timing and observation. The rest is magic. 

It has to be. How do such simple ingredients -- water, yeast, sugar, salt, butter and flour -- transform into something so universally comforting? Puffing up again and again, despite being beaten down. Bread dough is a role model for persisting in the face of adversity.

And it offers a little therapy for the baker on the side -- kneading bread dough is kind of a meditative act. 

I'm a bit of a romantic (maybe more than a bit … OK … a lot more than a bit) so whenever I make bread (which isn't often, mind you) I always feel like I'm paying a little homage to a long line of bread-making ancestors. Women who, like my mom, always had a pot on the stove filled with milk and melting butter and who had hands that were always dried and little cracked from flour's moisture-sucking qualities and hair that was always dusted in white. 

I was borne of bread makers, therefore, whether I have any confidence about the practice or not, I should make bread -- even if it's only on special occasions.

So I was asking my mom recently about whether she'd learned to make bread growing up and I was shocked to find out that no, she hadn't. While my grandmother had taught my mom that lard is the trick to making perfect pie crust, but she hadn't been the one to teach my mom about how humidity helps dough rise.

As it turned out, she and my dad experimented with making bread together early on in their marriage, hoping to replicate the loaves my dad ate as a kid on the farm he grew up in Maine.

See, here's an interesting part of my family's history: When my dad was 3, my grandmother sent him and his brother and sister to live with the Wilder family in Maine. I don't really know the circumstances surrounding why she did this -- maybe as a recently divorced mom she was concerned about providing for her kids -- but I'm only now as an adult beginning to understand the impact of this decision on our family today.

Growing up, my siblings would all roll our eyes when dad brought up Maine -- mostly because Maine was usually invoked when we were whining about something. If the house was too cold ("Well in Maine in the winter we'd sometimes wake up with frost inside the window.") If we didn't feel like cleaning ("Well in Maine everyone did chores or you didn't eat.") If you stayed home from school because you weren't feeling well ("Well in Maine when you were sick you had to stay in bed all day … there was no TV).

You can understand, then why we weren't always thrilled about Maine and its apparently unbreakable hold on my dad.

And here it comes up again. I'd assumed bread making was part of my family's pedigree -- but really, it seems, just a borrowed skill from someone else's. I was sad for a minute about this. The visions of my ancestral carb fanatics slowly dissolved in my mind's eye.

But then I thought about my young parent's in their kitchen in Florida, trying to solve the problems of too-hard bread or dough that wouldn't rise until they came up with the formulas that I use now. Kneading the most beloved parts of the real and adopted families into new memories and traditions. Creating their own flock of bread makers.

As a kid, we visited that farm in Maine a few times. The family would pile into our car and make the more than 600-mile trek, stopping for a hike or pictures of scenic vistas along the way. Once in Maine, we'd eat butter-socked lobster and stop at the enormous L.L. Bean in Portland. One time we dipped our toes into the frigid Atlantic, insistent on swimming at the beach despite our parents suggestion that it might be too cold. 

And then we'd turn inward through endless forests and come to the farm. I remember long grass, a rickety wooden garden swing (my dad replicated this for an anniversary present for my mom), an old car or two rusting in various outbuildings, a rainbow of chickens, sticky-nosed cows and goats. My sister Sarah and I loved the goats. We'd scramble out of the car to go play in the barn and pet them -- which I later learned disgusted my grandmother who was stuck in the car with us (mostly because there was always a billy goat -- and billy goats urinate on their heads to make themselves extra appealing to the ladies -- not unlike a 15-year-old boy with a can of Axe body spray -- and so after an afternoon among the goats, my sister and I smelled like goat pee. I can see why this bothered her). We looked forward to going to Maine and a day on the farm.

I still like goats. 

And garden swings. 

And dusty old barns filled with sweet-smelling hay.

Even though Maine still elicits an eye roll from time to time, I feel lucky to have these memories. 

And if it weren't for Maine, I might not have homemade bread. And I wouldn't get to show the girls how to punch down the dough and watch their little fingers sink into it with glee.

Sometimes it seems like parts of our family are running on a borrowed heritage. I suppose that's how it is for all families. Why shouldn't we incorporate the best traditions we come across in life into our own homes? 

God willing, my girls won't ever have to wake up with frost inside their windows, but if I have anything to do with it, they'll know how to bake bread.


Here's my mom's recipe for French bread -- it's really easy -- and it makes for delicious garlic toast, French toast or just regular old toast toast. 

Mom's French Bread
1 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt

Put water in a bowl and sprinkle yeast over it and wait to dissolve (you can stir to check if it's completely dissolved). Add sugar, salt, vanilla and butter. Start adding flour a little bit at a time until it is no longer sticky to the touch*. Let rise until double. Punch it down then let it rise a second time until double. Punch it down and shape it into a loaf. Cut slashes along the length and let it rise again. Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Here's my dad's recipe for waffles -- which is actually Aunt Marjorie's (she cared for my dad when he lived in … wait for it … Maine!) Given my unhappy history with the waffle iron, I tend to use this batter for pancakes. 

Dad's Waffles
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar
salt to taste
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2+ cups of milk (or buttermilk)
1/2 cup corn or canola oil (I use vegetable)

Sift the dry ingredients together. Mix in oil and eggs. Add milk to batter until it's not too thick. Cook!**

* Family recipes like this are fun -- because I feel they're kind of assuming you've seen what they're talking about a time or two. I found with the bread that you should add no more than 1/2 a cup at a time to make sure you don't make the dough too hard, which makes it difficult to roll out evenly. You'll probably end up using around 2 1/2 cups. 

** Here's another vague instruction. This batter is a bit on the runnier side. I usually don't use more than two cups of milk, but feel free to experiment!

P.S. In less than an hour, it will be almost two years to the minute since I first met my sweet, little Jovie -- proof that your heart always has room for one more (and anyway, how could you not fall in love with those cheeks?!)

She had no clue at this moment ...
… how tasty life would be.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Procrastination rocks

My sister Sarah shared this very cool video with me earlier this week:

Somehow, even an hour and half away, she must've known I've been a little … well … neglectful of current projects.

Lately, procrastination has made itself quite comfortable in my house. Just an hour ago, it cozied up in my bed with me and a bowl of chunky peanut butter ice cream and an episode from season two of "Downton Abbey" (Cousin Matthew* can walk again huzzah! But did Bates kill his wife?!).

What was I procrastinating on, you're no doubt wondering. I'll tell you what. 

Writing this post. 

That's right. I was procrastinating on my go-to method for procrastinating on finishing my novel.

And I wasn't even making disturbing stick horse heads while procrastinating on procrastinating. Does that mean I was procrastinating on procrastinating on procrastinating? I can't even keep track of my own stall tactics anymore.

In my defense, the reason I decided to watch "Downton Abbey" in bed with nary a stuffed sock with button eyes and yarn mane in sight was because I'm bone tired from the day's earlier procrastination.

Namely, moving rocks from one portion of my yard to another.

See, when we moved into our house five years ago there was this giant pile of rocks lining the length of our sunroom. And I hated that pile of rocks -- because it was ugly and as far as I could tell its only use was collecting piles of leaves and serving as a habitat to giant spiders like this one:

This picture doesn't really do the spider justice. But you can get a sense of her immensity with a couple of clues. On the bottom left corner of the picture you'll see an acorn cap and on the bottom right corner there's a dead oak leaf. The spider falls on the upper end of the acorn cap to dead oak leaf spectrum. It's an obscure spectrum. But a really big spider.

And more recently, it's offered endless rounds of ammunition for a little game the girls like to play called "Throw the Rocks at the House and Sometimes at Each Other" (it's not a very catchy name … they need to work on their succinctness … wonder where they got that problem from hmmm?)

Anyway, five years ago, I did nothing about the rock pile. Nor did I do anything the year after that, or the year after that or the year after that … you get the picture. 

Here's the rock pile. And the red wheel barrow, on which I actually did depend a lot on today. 
But today -- today the sun shone overhead, the birds were singing, the breeze was blowing and the rocks were ready to be moved.

So even though there was writing to be done and a husband around to monitor the little ladies, I began relocating them. 

First I'd loosen them from the dirt with a shovel, then I'd pitch them into the wheel barrow, then when the wheel barrow got full I'd roll it to the opposite side of the yard and dump them. I did this for a couple hours.

It was pretty tedious. But still way, way better than working on that novel. At least that's what I told myself.

At a certain point during the proceedings as I was attempting to dislodge a potato-sized rock from the grip of some very unwilling clay, I started thinking about how stuck I was on my novel. I have probably 75 percent of it written. But I'm terrified that that 75 percent is awful and also that I have no idea what to do with the remaining 25 percent (or, that I have ideas, but those ideas are also awful … which, if I'm doing the math correctly, would mean that 100 percent of the novel would be awful). 

And then what would I have to show for my life?

I wrote this awful novel and all I got out of it was this lousy blog. 

And the reason I think that my novel falls on the upper end of the orange-juice-and-toothpaste to Nickelback spectrum of awfulness (another obscure spectrum) is because I'm worried that 1. I don't have a strong enough central conflict or 2. That that central conflict won't be compelling enough to read about for the length of an entire novel. 3. That my characters and their conversations are way more poignant, hilarious or enlightening in my own head than they actually are in the reality of the novel**. 


Johnny Kelly is so right about procrastination.

"It's not being able to decide what way to do something. It's overcomplicating things for yourself. It's being afraid to finish something. It's not knowing when to finish something. It's not knowing how to finish something.

So, much like the past several times we've revisited this seemingly unending project, I'm still mired in self-doubt. A big 'ol pile of it.

My pile of rocks. Also, a convenient metaphor for my self-doubt!
But mostly just a pile of rocks.
On the bright side, the back of my sunroom is no longer mired in unnecessary rocks! 

Here's where I need to give a shout out to Brad, because he took over rock-moving after I burned out at the the halfway point. He transferred the remainder of the pile to the other pile, then braved a spring Saturday in at the Lowe's garden center (twice!) to get the necessary amount of dirt to fill in the rather large hole I'd created, and then he also filled in the hole. 

Maybe I should just get him to finish my novel … I kinda want to watch the next episode of "Downton Abbey."

*British nobility doesn't help itself when a romantic protagonists proclaims her love for Cousin Matthew. Maybe just call him Matthew. You know, so that way we don't have to picture your future children as 11-toed hemophiliacs.

** This fear has been especially aggravated after finishing Maria Semple's perfect "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," whose protagonists now top my list of favorite characters in literature. And how I loved this line: “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.” Who knows, perhaps my writing is actually a menace to society, but not writing is a menace to my soul.

Friday, April 4, 2014

When stick horse heads attack

"So have you worked on your novel at all recently?" a friend asked today.

The answer to that question is no. No, I haven't worked on it recently. I haven't even opened the story file in weeks. I've avoided even thinking about it this week -- even though I've had time to think about it. And even though I've spent most of the last two years blogging about how I don't have time to think about it. I'm the worst kind of whiner.

When the pangs of guilt start creeping up I push them down with the efficiency reserved for the dog when he's forced to swallow entire bagels whole after stealing off the table lest he risk of having them stolen from his jowls mid chew. 

Lily's stick horse. His name is either Minimus or Sparky,
depending on what Disney Jr. show she's more into that day.
Obviously, we're totally willing pawns in Disney's
quest to indoctrinate the brains of our nation's youth.
My guilt is a honey-walnut cream cheese slathered blueberry bagel and I am the beagle that stomachs it in one tremendous gulp. 

I haven't been working on my novel.

But I have been making a large quantity of stick horses. 

You know how the saying goes -- those that can't write, make disembodied equine heads out of used socks, buttons and yarn.

I might not have that totally right.

Anyway, since my brain has taken an unapproved writing/creativity vacay, I decided to put my fingers to work with a little crafting.

It's for a cause.

See my friend is hosting an event at her farm to benefit in May. And despite the fact that my sisters teased me about the stick horses I made for the girls (they couldn't stop themselves from suggestively stroking the sock head -- we're a perverse bunch) they thought that other, less disturbed people, might be willing to pay money for a handcrafted stick horse. So I thought I'd make a bunch to try to sell at my friend's party to help raise money for the wounded warriors. 

So that's my excuse for not writing. 

It's getting a little creepy at my house right now though. See, I haven't gotten bodies for my stick horses yet, so right now I'm just amassing stick horse heads. 

All the pretty little horses' heads.
It's like the prop closet for an ill-conceived children's theater staging of "The Godfather."

Lily is not at all fazed by the fact that none of the horses have bodies. In fact, she attempted to gallop around the house using just the neck of one of my half done ponies, which I'm sure will not leave her permanently scarred when she reflects on her childhood in therapy years from now.

Look ma, no body!
For those of you living in the Mid Atlantic (or any of the Ukrainian readers Google Stats reports I have scads of) looking for a family-friendly adventure, please consider checking out Blue Hound Farm's 200-year Barn Birthday Bash 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 17 at 125 Pleasant Hill Road, Lewisberry, Pa.

Activities will include: 
A barn dance from noon to 3
Native plant sale
Edible nature walk
Stable tours
Sheep shearing
Discussions on cheese-making and beekeeping
Repurposed crafting
Pony rides
Hay rides
Bake sale
Bass fishing (bring your own rod)
Silent auction

Cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and younger and free for veterans and active military with ID. All the money raised will benefit Pennsylvania Wounded Warriors Inc.

You're also welcome to test-trot one of my stick horses (which Lily demonstrated today also make fantastic weapons -- especially when battling little sisters) or get a henna tattoo from my sister Sarah.

Blue Hound Farm is one of the most beautiful places you'll ever visit (and I've been to Yosemite, so I know about such things) and there's plenty of cute critters (pigs, goats, horses, chickens, ducks, cows, etc.) and great photo ops. It's a magical place. So. You should go and stuff.