Friday Baking Postponed…

…yesterday was an awesome, wonderful day, in part because it was my birthday, and so full of doings and whatnottery that I didn’t see the computer screen for anything but my morning writing. I do have a post about baking to share this weekend. I’ll update this post when it’s finished. Hope that everyone is having a wonderful day!

 

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I am embarrassed by positive emotions

 It’s OK. You’re allowed to look at me funny. Whoever heard of somebody who’s embarrassed to feel happy? Who will start blushing at the thought that she’s given the slightest indication she likes you. Who hides her smiles and can’t seem to figure out how to say thank you or I miss you or I love you.
 
I love you so much that I imagine our future life and feel giddy, like a child. I want to dance.
 
I want to smile. I have to control smiles. I want to express gratitude. But I fear you’ll laugh, or lord whatever it is I am grateful for over my head, or you’ll think I’m silly for thinking that what you did is something that I should be grateful for, when clearly you did it for these other people who deserve it so much more, or you did it out of social obligation, or…
 
A dawning realization, taking hold again and again, each time enlightening, each time promising to save me from myself and make this awful paranoia/distrust/fear/ungratefulness go away. Now, now that I know: this isn’t normal, I can fix it. I can fix the way I think. I can accept your gratitude and show you that I care.
 
She said, I like your dress. I looked at her sweater. Wanted to compliment her. Pretty sweater. Said nothing. She saw me look at her sweater deliberately and not say anything to return the compliment. Now she thinks I think her sweater is ugly.
 
This is madness. Help, please.
 
Another girl gave me a gift. Simple gift. A gift card. She doesn’t know me that well and I’m not that easy to get to know. But I’ve been eyeing that pair of red faux-velvet gloves for weeks now, and the gift card is exactly the amount of money I couldn’t afford to spend on them. Now I can express gratitude! Thank you! She can see how excited I am. I’m showing something real. Excitement for a new pair of beautiful gloves. So soft and thick and warm. So deep and rich in color, so elegant in form. Great. The only time I seem to express a sincere emotion and it’s about receiving a gift. How selfish can I be? Thank her one too many times. What is wrong with me? It’s just a gift card. A gesture. A gift of obligation thanks to secret Santa. So embarrassed. Try not to dwell.
 
Sometimes, a sense of contentment: do not dwell on yourself, child. Count your blessings. Focus on them.
 
Write your grandma. It’s not what you write, it’s the fact that you write at all. Sit down with a blank page, write a thousand words. Put it away. Find more paper. Write thirty words. It’s not so embarrassing. She’ll appreciate it just the same. I’ll send this. Sometimes I find letters I wrote to my grandma years ago, buried away in an old notebook, heartfelt and longing. Then I write another short note.
 
I’ll send this later.
 
But never send it. She’ll hate me because I’ve never written.
 
She won’t hate you. She can’t hate you. She loves you. You’re her first grandchild.
 
My letter will just remind her of all the times I never wrote.
 
My letter will just remind her that I was taken away from her without so much as a goodbye. (But that’s not true, we’ve gotten plenty of goodbyes in since then.)
 
Or worse. She never really noticed I was gone. (And isn’t it awful of me to feel that that’s the worse of the two options? That her feeling pain is somehow better than her not feeling pain?)
 
Being taken away was not my fault. Never finding a way to return… that is.
 
Sometimes a blog post just needs to be personal and chock full of whine.
 
Oooh, we finally have cheese again.

Friday Baking

So my mom and sister drove down to see Jon and me yesterday and take us out to lunch. We had lovely discussions and I realized that, though my mom can be oddly judgmental a lot, she really doesn’t mean any harm by it. So that was a nice little ‘it’s time to grow up, Dee!’ moment. But, of course, today’s blog is not about complicated mother-daughter relationships. It’s about baking. So why’d I start by writing about my mom and sister’s visit?

Simple. Yesterday was the first time they saw our new, teeny apartment. I showed mom the French bread and the pumpkin Challah bread we made, and she asked if I’d really actually been baking in this kitchen. This kitchen being only slightly larger than a moderately comfortable bathroom. Proudly, I said, “Yes!” and she chuckled and nodded and said, “Cool!”

You see, baking in such a tiny kitchen, and pretty much all cooking in general, is difficult. We have about eight inches of counter space on either side of our sink, a bookshelf on top of which we keep our slow cooker, a short black table, and the stove. I mention the short part of the black table because that’s the only surface we can really cut our vegetables on – one side of the sink has the coffee maker, and that’s about the only thing that can fit there, and the other side has our make-shift dish rack (and by this I mean a towel). And in order to cut vegetables on this table, you have to hunker your shoulders and lean forward. It’s mildly uncomfortable.

But we make do. A couple times a week, if we can afford it, one of the three of us housemates likes to make dinner or cookies or (this week) a loaf of bread or two. It requires a juggling of kitchen tools and food that’s difficult to conjure into words – I’m hoping the use of the word ‘juggling’ gives a vivid enough image that you get the idea. And the thing is, it would be so easy to be lazy about cooking and baking with a kitchen as small as ours. As often as we can, though, we find comfort, solace, and a sense of purpose in the kitchen. We feed ourselves and each other, sharing our stresses and finding reasons to laugh.

 So, onto the baking segment of Friday Baking. As I said, this week, we made two loaves of French bread and a loaf of the Golden Pumpkin Challah bread recipe I posted earlier in the week. Also, we made pumpkin cookies.
 
First, a note on the Challah bread. Somehow, in the midst of creating what should have been a masterpiece of sweet, chewy, pumpkin-y perfection, we forgot to add the sugar. When I first realized this, I thought to myself, Well, the sugar is there to feed the yeast, right? Maybe it won’t be terrible? I mean, the yeast has other things to feast on, like the pumpkin. Perhaps my understanding of yeast is a little wobbly, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a problem. After the bread came out of the oven, I remembered the sugar is also a tenderizer, cutting into gluten strands and making bread and other baked goods more delicate. So we ended up with Challah bread that had the consistency of French bread. Not bad, but not the amazing, I-would-walk-forty-years-in-the-desert-for-this loaf that I was hoping for.
 
And the French bread… well, I wasn’t in charge of it passed the first fermenting time, because I had to go to work. So the fact that they were flat, almost unrisen disks when I returned had nothing to do with me! I swear! Anyway, from what I gathered, the loaves were placed too close together on the pan for their second proofing, and when my roommate saw that they’d melded together, he tried to reform them or punch them down again. So while they turned out fairly tasty, we all learned to give proofing loaves of bread more space (because, you know, they are supposed to double in size).
 
Working in a tiny kitchen, as I mentioned, can be frustrating. Sometimes the frustration, the tight-space, the way trying to work with somebody else just makes everything more claustrophobic, can lead to mistakes. Silly little mistakes that make you huff and puff and questions yourself as a baker. I’ve made Challah bread about six times over the course of Autumn semester and it turned out fine! Suddenly I make it in my home and it’s of lackluster quality, striking out on my ‘I would totally serve this in a bakery!’ test that I put all of my baked goods through. It’s maddening, and on those days when I can feel myself doubting more than usual, I start to wonder who the heck I think I am, trying to become a professional pastry chef in the face of an astronomically absent-minded brain.
 
But, of course, the fact of the matter is this: I love baking, and I will put myself through the cramped frustration of attempting to do so in my miniscule kitchen as a way to cheer myself up on a low day, or to bring energy and motivation into the house on a boring one.
 
And those cookies? They turned out beautifully. 100% delicious. Here’s the recipe:
 
Old-Fashioned Soft Pumpkin Cookies
 
Ingredients
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
 
Procedure
 
Set oven to pre-heat at 350 degrees F. Cream together butter and sugar. Mix pumpkin, egg, and vanilla. Add to butter and sugar. Mix all dry ingredients together, then add gradually to mixture. Drop spoonfuls onto greased pans and bake for 18-20 minutes.
 
There is also a glaze that goes with it, although we did not make this glaze. Also, we ran out of sugar (grrrrr) and had to use half sugar and half brown sugar. The cookies still turned out incredible.

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A Thread of Grace – or – Cynicism? What cynicism?

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 My sophomore year of high school, I remember talking to an older friend about the senior AP English reading list. She told me about this book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, explaining how it was about Jesuit priests in space. From that moment on, I knew I had to be in AP English my senior year. When I got there, when I read that book, it rooted itself into my soul as one of my favorites. Incredibly well-drawn characters, a heart-breaking journey in which two cultures meet for the first time and miscommunication ensues. It amazed me to learn that The Sparrow was Russel’s first book.

So, of course, I got my hands on anything else of hers I could find. I read Children of God. It didn’t tear my heart to shreds, and being of reader!type:masochist, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Sparrow. Still, it made my list of annual rereads. I purchased A Thread of Grace three years ago, along with Vamped: A Novel by David Sosnowski and Sunshine by Robin McKinley, two books also recommended by my previously mentioned older friend. Both books were good, but something about A Thread of Grace daunted me. I’d heard that Russel had decided which characters to kill based on coin tosses, and knew that the book would likely pitch me into a week-long depression. After all, if the characters were half as lovely and incredible as the characters in The Sparrow, in which you at least know who’s going to die right from the get-go, my poor heart wouldn’t stand a chance.

So the book followed me around, unopened, but lovingly placed on the shelf next to The Sparrow and Children of God, for three years. I kept it with me out of a deep respect for the author and the knowledge that, someday, I would be strong enough to read it. Yesterday, I picked it up, flipped it open, and braced myself for the worst of the worst. All of an hour ago, I finished it (hey, winter break, yo). It is, as expected, a heart-breaking book. Even in the hands of a lesser author, of course, any book about World War II is bound to be some sort of depressing. In A Thread of Grace, though, it’s not all of the death and tragedy that really breaks your heart. It’s the compassion that Russel shows for all of her characters. It’s the dozens of singular moments of grace displayed by at-times cranky, irritating, “shithead” humans. It’s the constant voice throughout the book challenging you to withhold your judgment, to simply step into these characters’ shoes, and live as they lived.

There seems to be no shortage of love for Mary Doria Russell. Another glowing review is not my intent with this post. Instead, I want to talk about the feeling I was struck with yesterday, about a third of the way through the book. The realization that, though the events in this book, right from the get-go, are traumatic and horrifying, I was not reacting emotionally. At least, not in the way that I responded emotionally to The Sparrow. At one point I turned to Jon and said, I can’t tell if these characters just aren’t as real as the ones in The Sparrow or if I’ve just grown more cynical since I was 18. I’m not feeling that ache of sorrow in my chest. And I’ll admit, the book did not once make me cry, although it launched a couple hour-ish long sessions of simply laying down and taking stock of the world.

Having finished the book, I think I may have been right about the cynicism thing, although not in exactly the way I was thinking of when the thought first occurred. The characters are intense and quirky, unique from each other and easily identifiable despite the sheer number of them. It’s not the writing that failed to evoke immediate, intense emotional response. I have mellowed out, a lot. My reaction feels like an old, tired sadness, a feeling which I used to treat as an enemy but has, through the years, become a kind of solitary friend. I believe this book would have infuriated me at 18. I would have chosen sides. I would have read, my heart-racing, my muscles taut, with my awareness centered completely on trying to figure out which of the characters were the most right. The end would have sucker-punched me into a moody contemplative silence that overshadowed my days for at least a week.

One of the characters, about midway through the novel, identifies a man he is talking to as someone who has seen war. The man asks, How can you tell? The other man responds, Nothing I say surprises you. It kind of makes me think of one of my bosses at work, who talks candidly about her life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about how I don’t know how to respond to being told about personal horror stories. Or rather, I worry that my response is interpreted as unfeeling and cold. I usually don’t say anything. I just nod. I tried, once, to say, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you,’ but the words felt clunky and wrong. If I could be more candid about some of the things I’ve been through, or had to accept or witness, I wouldn’t want that response. In part, I feel that my boss is so candid with me because my response is so mute. I nod. I listen. I am not shocked. (Could… also be that she’s a little crazy. A lot of crazy people talk to me because I’m quiet, I think, and a little too eager to not offend… that may or may not be the topic of another post.)

I was not shocked by this book. I was shocked by The Sparrow when I first read it. But the emotional intensity of horror has faded as I’ve become more at peace with my own negative emotions and hang-ups and tried to let go of snap judgments. A Thread of Grace is more heart-warming than heart-breaking, more concerned with highlighting the grace of God in people than the awful things that we are capable of, despite the book being about the worst massacre in modern history (in human history?).

I seem to meet a lot of people who consider themselves hardened and made bitter by the world, who will look at me contemptuously should I show the slightest sign of optimism or faith in people. They seem to say, or will say flat out, that I simply haven’t learn how the world “really” works. As if I’m supposed to believe that the One True Lesson in life is that everybody’s out to get you and faith/optimism are childish traits that get weeded out when you grow “wise.” As if the greatest secret in life is that people can be douche nozzles. (People? Douchey? Never! *le gasp*)

Anyway. A Thread of Grace is a beautiful book, almost overloaded with sentimentality (maybe I am a little more cynical) but mellowed by humorous dialogue and believably ornery characters. Am definitely glad I read it. Whether or not it’ll join the annual re-reading list, I haven’t decided. That list probably can’t hold too much more without some cuts.

edit: Why is this post being so ornery about formatting?! -_-

see Dee maudlin

I have not seen The Hobbit yet.

In December of 2001, my life changed forever. I’ll admit that there wasn’t much in the way of a life to change – at eleven years old, I was more or less guaranteed at least a few life-altering events in my future. I just don’t think I expected one of those life-changing events to be the release of a movie, the first in a trilogy that would come to shape how I saw myself as a person. Fantasy became more than just a genre for bad puns (Piers Anthony) and teenage wizards (do I really need to specify?). It also became, for the first time in my life, a foundation on which to make friends, instead of merely an escape from the world in which I had none.

In short, because I watched Fellowship of the Ring and subsequently read the trilogy, I became friends with a girl named Krista Haman, and not just friends, but best friends. We changed each others’ lives irrevocably. We’ve had the kind of friendship that is the reason songs like For Good become cliche.

A couple weeks ago I visited my parents in the town where we both went to high school, where she still lives, and we saw each other briefly. She mentioned that she’s been attempting to write out the story of our friendship. I did not know what to say. How do you tackle so many years between two girls who simultaneously built each other up and tore each other down? How do you write that, when all of the memories are tangled in nostalgia and happiness, anger and guilt? How do you even begin to fathom where to start?

It would take hours, days, weeks or longer to sort out where the strongest veins of truth lay, what were the moments that defined us, that brought us together, and that, ultimately, tore us apart and turned us into two girls who barely know how to talk to each other. And that would be before I even attempted to summon the courage to write a single sentence of it down.

I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

But I carry with me this sense of having no idea who I am sometimes and I feel like it’s not having Krista as a sounding board that leaves me floundering for any kind of sense in my own thoughts. It’s not understanding how to be a person without her, when for so long, she gave me a sense of meaning, she provided a foundation upon which I could be assured in myself. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always a healthy friendship, but for at least six years, she defined me. That part of the relationship has more or less been over for quite some time now, but I still feel like I just can’t quite figure out who I am without her there. It’s not that she ever told me who to be or that I didn’t have the self-confidence to be myself – not entirely, anyway. It might just be as simple as the fact that when I told her my thoughts and feelings, she found a way to repeat what I had said in a way that made me feel just a little bit better about myself.

It feels like this kind of friendship either happens to everyone, or no one. If it happens to everyone, they’ve learned all of the lessons; where I am blind, they see. Where I flounder for answers, they smile knowingly and nod; they say, ‘You just have to figure it out for yourself,’ as if there is some kind of secret, some kind of answer that, upon being smart enough to figure out, sends you to an exclusive club for People Who Know Better. And I don’t want to admit how much I crave access to this club and I don’t want to reveal that I’m not a part of it.

If friendships like this don’t really happen, if people haven’t been hurt by someone they love, if people haven’t committed atrocious acts of cruelty and viciousness against those very same people, if no one has ever found themselves floundering to figure out who they are after the petering out of a long and intense relationship, then, frankly, I’m pretty sure my entire understanding of the world is incorrect.

I have not seen The Hobbit yet, and for me, this is loaded. The idea that it’s out. That it’s been 11 years since that fateful December afternoon when I was introduced to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, and that, throughout all of this, the woman who connected my love of stories with the sense that I could actually have friends who loved them too is a couple hundred miles away, and might as well be several thousand, for all the good it would do to call her up and ask her how she’s been.

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Friday Baking

And now it’s time for this week’s Friday Baking segment! (Which is as much news to me as it is to you, dear reader.)

I already talked about my semester being over – well, now it really is. All of the exams are out of the way, and for the next three weeks I don’t have to put on those damn stiff chef pants. However, I also don’t, even once, get to spend five hours making baked goods in a professional-grade kitchen.

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Stiff. Baggy. Everything falls out of those pockets the second you sit down.
Oh, yeah, and if you stare at them too long you’ll start having seizures.

So, today I want to talk about my favorite recipe from this semester, challah bread. Challah bread is a traditional Jewish bread braided into loaves with twelve knots. Thanks to Wikipedia my exhaustive research efforts, I now know a little bit about the story of why Challah bread is so important. It was the bread that God sent down from the heavens everyday (except the Sabbath and holidays, which he made up for by sending two loaves on the days before) while the Israelites made their famous forty-year-long desert trek.

That’s about the point where I am in the Bible. From what I remember, the Israelites very much doubted that God was on their side at this point. I would be, too, if I had to spend well over half my life walking in the desert. But for what it’s worth, let me say (as a largely non-religious person), if God were dropping this on my head every day, I could probably forgive anything.

It’s so. freaking. tasty.

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And beautiful. Found photo at AllRecipes.com

So here’s the recipe, courtesy of AllRecipes.com (link above):

Challah Bread

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups warm water
1 tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
4 tbsp vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 tbsp salt
8 cups all-purpose, unbleached white flour
1 tbsp poppy seeds (optional)

Procedure
1. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over barely warm water. Beat in honey, oil, 2 eggs, and salt. Add the flour one cup at a time, beating after each addition, graduating to kneading with hands as dough thickens. Knead until smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed. Cover with a damp clean cloth and let rise for 1 1/2 hours or until dough has doubled in bulk.
2. Punch down the risen dough and turn out onto floured board. Divide in half and knead each half for five minutes or so, adding flour as needed to keep from getting sticky. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long snake about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Pinch the ends of the three snakes together firmly and braid from middle. Either leave as braid or form into a round braided loaf by bringing ends together, curving braid into a circle, pinch ends together. Grease two baking trays and place finished braid or round on each. Cover with towel and let rise about one hour.
3. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
4. Beat the remaining egg and brush a generous amount over each braid. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired.
5. Bake at 375 degrees F for about 40 minutes. Bread should have a nice hollow sound when thumped on the bottom. Cool on a rack for a least one hour before slicing.

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Now I am very excited to say that I have some opinions on this Challah recipe. (OK, one opinion.)

It’s about the selection of active dry yeast. If you can find it, use instant dry yeast. It’s just better. First, there’s no chance of getting this weird off quality in the bread because, unlike active dry yeast, 25% of the yeast isn’t dead when you incorporate it into the recipe. Think of that! All that poor, dead yeast, not even getting the chance to feast and release its gases before you pop it into the…

Oh god, there is a hideously inappropriate joke there. So I’m just going to stop myself now before I out myself for the horrible human being that I am.

Ahem. Anyway.

Second, you don’t have to use as much of it. Using about 20% less instant dry yeast than active dry yeast will provide you with the same leavening. Thirdly, you can just incorporate instant dry yeast into the flour. That makes this recipe a ton simpler, because you can just toss all of the ingredients together. Since instant dry yeast absorbs water quicker and more efficiently than active dry yeast, you don’t need to let it sit in the warm water for any amount of time.

I have made challah bread several times this semester (though not with the recipe above), and it has far and away been the favorite thing that I have brought home from class. It’s chewy, eggy, sweet, and soft. I truly believe that it would make marvelous French toast, and I just found a recipe for PUMPKIN Challah – called Golden Pumpkin Challah Recipe – which looks flat. out. freaking. amazing.

So that’s my weekly baking segment. In honor of Hanukkah – whether you celebrate it or not – I would strongly advise you go make this bread. You will never want to stop eating it.
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Daily Prompt:Flawed

Alright, I’ll bite. ‘Cause I’m a sucker for self-analysis.

My worst flaw is that I care too much, work too hard, and give too much of myself for others. No, really.

(And that earns a gigantic snort of derision. Please, drop the tomatoes. I’ll try to be honest now.)

In an effort to answer this prompt with something resembling the truth, allow me to share with you a recent conversation I had with Jon. This transpired after a bantering session in the car. Later that night, after the bantering ended with both of us being mildly amused and the conversation dropping, the night toned down into one of those nights where I’m on the computer and Jon is hobby-ing it up with the paints downstairs. After reading for awhile, something he said in the car takes a hold of my brain. I start picking over it and analyzing it and getting incredibly angry that he would say such a thing. How he said it is gone. The context in which he said it is gone. All that’s left is anger that he said it at all.

So I traipse downstairs, grab the tobacco, and bring it back upstairs, knowing that he will be up eventually to take it back. That’s right, ladies and gents. This lady went agro, and then she went passive aggressive agro, and then she fumed for another half hour while waiting impatiently for her loving, wonderful boyfriend to fall into her trap. And when he did, here’s what happened:

Agro Grilfriend: Why would you say something like that?

Jon: What?

Agro Girlfriend: Seriously, who the fuck says that shit?

Jon: What the…

Agro Girlfriend: (Using my, ‘This is what you should be saying’ voice) Oh, I’m sorry Wendy, I didn’t realize I hurt your feelings.

Jon: Um… Can I have the tobacco?

Agro Girlfriend: I mean, that is a seriously fucked up thing to say! I know you were joking, but please, just acknowledge that was going a bit far?

Jon: Anything else you want to script out for me tonight?

Agro Girlfriend: I just wish you cared about my feelings, damn it!

Jon goes back downstairs, shaking his head, wondering when his sane girlfriend will come back to replace the paranoid nutso currently sitting in his bedroom.

So my worst flaw is the fact that I literally go insane with paranoia, hatred, and fear at inexplicably random moments.

I honestly don’t know what else there is to say about that. That I’m working on it? It took me so long to realize that I did it at all, and even longer to realize that I am rarely, if ever, justified in these moments of rage. On the whole, I’ve got other flaws, and I’ve got good qualities, too (somewhere). But this one flaw has caused inordinate amounts of damage in my life, and despite recognizing it’s here, it not only continues to cause damage when I indulge in it, but the damaging effects of past outbursts are still rippling throughout most of my relationships.

And the rage is all tangled up with the way I felt upon reading this prompt. I read it, and a loud voice really, really wants to say…

My worst flaw is that I care too much, work too hard, and give too much of myself for others!

I want flaws that aren’t really flaws. Or flaws that make me quirky instead of frightening. But my flaws are exactly the opposite of that. I want too much to be seen as someone who is selfless; it’s its own form of selfishness. I want too much to be seen as completely reasonable; it’s its own form of madness.

Anyway. That’s a bunch of gibberish. My biggest flaw is that I’m always right and nobody can stand it. xD

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