cont. last post:

And, here’s a video of Jon and I at our wedding. My sister and I made and decorated the cake (with some help from early guests). Jon made the dress I’m wearing. I wanted to add this to my previous post but could not figure out how. So.

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aaaaaaand… the answer is relative.

I am interested in too many things. Starting projects might be one of my greatest talents. Finishing them… well. My dad bought me a shirt that says ‘I never finish anyth’ and it is without a doubt my best self-defining shirt.

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This would be the second best.
 
Recently, I’ve been cross-stitching, and reading Anatomy and Physiology for Dummies, and contemplating using beer as the yeast in my next homemade bread. I’ve been thinking about buying a brew kit and learning how to make my own beer. I insisted on making and decorating my own wedding cake and crafting my own centerpieces/favors for the wedding. (My favorite thing about the wedding – the actual wedding, not the after party – was wearing the dress that I watched Jon make me over the course of a couple weeks.) I have an incessant itch to learn how to quilt. I want to start a garden and grow tomatoes, chamomile flowers, lavender, peppers, basil and garlic (and that’s just to start out). I’m obsessed with books about Tai Chi, alternative healing, philosophy, and sociology. I want to learn massage therapy. I’ve already detailed some of my travels into the realm of computer programming and theoretical physics is basically my religion. Fantasy and science fiction created my morals and drive my passion for travel. I’ve crocheted, attempted to knit, obsessively studied abnormal psychology and dreamed of majoring in everything from creative writing to mechanical engineering to equestrianism. I love building things with my hands – one of my proudest achievements is contributing to the construction of a horse shelter. I taught myself how to draw (although I can’t really draw so much as copy black-and-white photographs in graphite) and study shadows and colors and space. Someday, I want to be a yoga instructor. I want to own a bakeshop. I want to pick up my violin and relearn music I haven’t played in well over five years and join a bluegrass/jazz/Celtic metal band. I’m in a technical writing class right now and I truly believe I could make money from the skills I am learning. I hope to become a major part of my dad’s business, which films conferences all over the States (and some of Europe) and posts them online.
 
I fucking want everything.
 
And this is part of the reason why I never finish anything. Because as soon as I’ve started on one thing, I become terrified that that thing is going to prevent me from all of the other things I want to do. So I have to go do something else. Sometimes it’s a matter of consciously giving up what I’m doing in favor of something else. Other times, it’s simply a matter of attempting to juggle too much at once and having bits and pieces fall by the wayside. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve stopped doing something I love for months or even years, and when I realize it’s gone… I freak out and need to start doing it again. But then something else falls away. My life can often look like it’s in shambles, and the people who know me know not to take me too seriously when I become obsessed with yet another thing. Because it’ll fade out. The more intense the obsession, the quicker it goes away.
 
Some things stick. Some things come back again and again. I have to learn how to manage my time.
 
There’s never enough time.
 
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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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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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Cookie Catastrophe

About a week ago, my better (or worse, I haven’t decided yet) half had to scramble to sign up for a CPR class last minute. Something about how he’s a little scatterbrained and the college we go to is a little bit unable to effectively communicate with its students, ever. He and the lady who helped him out had what I presume was a joking conversation that went something about like this:

“So, you’re a culinary major?”

“Indeed. If you help me sign up for this class, I can bring you some baked goods!”

(My dialogue skills are the most amazing thing, I just had to show them off.) So Jon told me I should make her something, or maybe he just told me about the conversation and I got really excited about the idea of making her something. Either way, the next time we went grocery shopping, I picked up some sugar cookie essentials and got to work.

The first problem occurred to me about halfway through creaming the butter. I realized I didn’t have cookie cutters, a rolling pin, or a large enough flat surface area in our teeny tiny itty bitty kitchen to actually roll the dough out. No big deal – I could wing it. I’d used a glass cup on the cookies I made a few weeks ago at my parents’ house. Granted, I’d had a rolling pin and my parents’ gigantic kitchen island, but I always put faith in my improvisational abilities when it comes to baking.

The next problem came when I realized that we didn’t have nearly as much butter in the fridge as I’d originally thought we had. I’d picked up shortening and enough butter for the cookies, thinking there was plenty in the fridge for icing if I made it 50/50 butter/shortening. Not the best way to make icing, but not the worst.

The worst way to make icing being the 25/75 butter/shortening ratio I ended up actually using. Shortening, especially in large quantities, gives icing a filmy texture that lingers on your lips and tongue. I like it in a very small amount, probably because I ate a lot of Wal-Mart cakes growing up, but when the essential flavor of butter is cut down so extremely, it ends up feeling like you’re eating sugared up melted plastic.

My third and final problem came right after dumping 6 of the 7 necessary cups of flour into the cookie dough, because those 6 cups were the absolute last of my flour (and it wasn’t even my flour, it was my roommate’s). So the batter ended up way too sticky. Frustrated, I put the dough in the fridge to chill, hoping that would firm it up a bit, and got sucked into Minecraft until 4 in the morning. (That is totally unrelated to the story at hand. Oh well.)

Next day, the dough was still too sticky, but I had a few ideas I thought might work. A) I remembered that my knife kit that came with school actually DOES have cookie cutters in it (HUZZAH!). … There is no B.

The dough seemed about as sticky as a rich bread dough, which I actually really like working with. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I laid down some confectioner’s sugar as flour and cut down on the icing (this is before I realized my icing would be trash). My roommate came up with a different idea – he crushed up several cups of graham crackers as fine as he possibly could and we used that as flour instead. It gave the cookies a not entirely unattractive bumpiness, making them look like snickerdoodles. It did the trick, and when the cookies came out of the oven, the added flavor of the graham crackers made them quite delicious.

We decorated them with thin layers of my more-shortening-than-icing-icing (it’s not so bad in a thin layer, as it just adds a bit of sweetness). The twelve I planned on giving to the lady who helped Jon we decorated with crosses and various symbols I found online related to CPR/first aid. They turned out super cute, and Metcalf (the roommate, if I have not introduced him), came up with the sweet idea of writing ‘Thank you’ on one of the cookies. We put those away and still had about fifty more to just play around with.

I was pleased.

Thursday morning, however, I was pissed. I decided to try one of the cookies with my morning coffee. Gone was the soft, graham crackery delicious confection of yesterday. In its place, my teeth met cruel stone. I had to dunk the damn thing in coffee for about fifteen seconds before I could bite into it, and even then, it’s flavor was gone.

I couldn’t give these cookies to anyone, not even my very worst enemy, let alone a woman who had helped Jon get into a class he needed. I was furious. I had wanted, so many times, to throw the whole thing out and start again – but I couldn’t. We didn’t have the resources and I didn’t have the time. But at each step along the way, I’d thought, no, these won’t be what I wanted them to be, but they’ll be cute, and they’ll be decent, and if they’re presented right, the lady I’m giving them to might not even suspect that they didn’t come out exactly how I wanted them to.

And now there are about three dozen stones in my fridge dressed up as cookies, coated with filmy plastic that even the most devoted sweet-tooth would not want to consume. They’re not terrible when dipped in coffee, but all-in-all, they’re a colossal failure.

We made cinnamon rolls in class yesterday, so I had hoped to deliver this lovely lady I had never met warm, fresh gooey sweet rolls – she would never know about the cookies, but damn it, she would have some baked goods delivered to her. But she was gone by the time I got out of class, and Jon, convinced that it didn’t really matter since the whole conversation was kind of a joke anyway, didn’t seem to get why I was so disappointed.

Even though I will likely never meet this lady, and even though she would not have known that I made them, there is something quintessentially satisfying about giving somebody baked goods you made yourself. They’re a treat. A fresh cinnamon roll or a well-made, adorable sugar cookie will put a smile on most anyone’s face. It will make them feel good, and the thought of that makes me feel good. It’s one of the reasons I love this major. I have always enjoyed bringing treats to family get togethers. I have always enjoyed baking, but until recently, it’s just been one of those delightful things that comes with the holidays. Now, amazingly, I get to do it all the time. I cannot say how many times in class I stop, look at what I’m doing, and get almost giddy about it. It’s like I’m getting away with something, somehow. I’m doing something special, something I have always loved doing, and I’m getting credit for it.

So not being able to deliver that lady her baked goods has me disappointed. Failing at those cookies so terribly (cookies I could have easily made years ago, before the concept of culinary school had ever entered into my consciousness), has me somewhat disappointed. But I wanted to share this story because it illustrates how much I love this major. I feel so blessed to be here, and one of these days, I’ll get to work at a bakeshop (or even own one!) and feel the joy of sharing baked goods every day.

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