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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And beautiful. Found photo at AllRecipes.com
So here’s the recipe, courtesy of AllRecipes.com (link above):
2 1/2 cups warm water
1 tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp salt
8 cups all-purpose, unbleached white flour
1 tbsp poppy seeds (optional)
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.
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.
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.
These past four months have been some of the most intense, hectic, stressful, and occasionally boring months of my life, up to this point. Short bursts of intense activity centered around keeping our heads above water, feeding ourselves, getting to class, and paying the bills, followed by long periods of hunkering down with minimal resources and an increasing set of demands – it’s enough to drive anybody a little bit crazy. It’s also enough to give even the most weak-willed, spoiled person a sense of perspective and help them tap into reserves of inner strength they might never have known they had.
I have learned a lot this semester, not the least of which is the information and skills of my new major. In baking, not only am I learning about gluten development, the life and times of yeastly critters, or how to vary the same eight to ten ingredients enough ways to create an unlimited number of delicious baked goods, but I’m learning how to work in a group. I’m learning when to take charge and when to step back, accept somebody else’s superior skills and knowledge, and do the butt work for an hour or so.
But some of the most important lessons, the moments that shine the brightest or throw me into what can feel like the darkest of abysses (that seems like a word which should never be plural), are not about school, although it is through having stepped up my game and making school my absolute first priority in life that has led me to them. Here is some of what I have learned, in list form, because transitions suck:
1. I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that everyone I ever meet is judging me harshly and deeming me unworthy.
It is possible to step outside of your own brain and attempt to interpret what other people think of you, but more often than not, they’re not thinking of you. They’re thinking of the stressful day they’ve had, or the dream they had last night, or the hours they’re not getting at work. They’re thinking about what they’re going to do when they get a moment to themselves, or about how silly or awesome they feel, or the dentist appointment they have next Tuesday.
You’re the one thinking about yourself, and if your thoughts are centered around the idea that other people are thinking awful thoughts about you, that means you’re thinking awful thoughts about you. It’s important to be kind to yourself, not only because it decreases your stress and makes you happier, but because when you’re kind to yourself, it shows. Other people might not be thinking about you, but they are affected by your moods and your attitude.
In a similar vein, doing something that you think is awesome makes you awesome because you recognize it. When somebody else doesn’t see that or praise you for it, that doesn’t mean they’re blind and incapable of seeing how nifty you are. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t as awesome as you thought and it doesn’t mean they’re judging you. Be as pleased with yourself as you like, but don’t expect other people to worship the ground you walk on. It can be hard to admit to being so self-centered as all of this, but it’s true, and the people who are most at peace with their self-centered emotions tend to be most at peace with other peoples’ self-centered emotions, and end up being incredibly loving and peaceful people.
At least, that’s the theory I’m going with these days.
2. No matter how screwed you feel, you still have room to be happy and relax.
I finally got a job late in November. Up until this week, I’ve had between 4 and 8 hours a week (thanks to covering a sick co-workers shift, I got twelve hours this week, and am officially scheduled for 18 hours next week, so things are definitely looking up). My roommate, Metcalf, is in about the same boat, and Jon still can’t find a place that will give him an interview, much less hire him. We’re lucky in that we’re friends with a woman who owns a farm and has irregular work for him to do. Still. We’re behind on bills. We’re behind on rent. It seems like every time we get a little bit of money, it comes in one hand and goes right out the other, and despite the fact that we don’t see it long enough to recognize it’s there and it goes straight to necessities, we’re still in debt. We’re still behind. It’s still not enough.
People around us are unhappy, depressed, and making stupid life decisions left and right. People we care about are behaving self-destructively, and a lot of the time, there is nothing we can do to help them. One of our friends was about to make an incredibly healthy decision to go out of state for help with her mental illness – it was a move we were so proud of her for making. And her insurance ended up not working out at the last minute, and now she’s taken what seems to be a nosedive into destructive decision-making. It’s hard to be angry at and worried about somebody at the same time. It’s hard to be angry on their behalf and at them at the same time. Digression aside, the point here is that…
I am very stressed. Jon is very stressed. Metcalf is very stressed. Hera is stressed because the apartment’s not big enough for her energy. We let her outside as often as possible, but it’s still not enough and it’s not what we want for her. If you can’t tell, I’m stressing myself out right now writing about how stressed we are.
It could, of course, be worse. And counting my blessings is certainly a method I use to relax. But there are other things, too.
We still find time and ways to laugh and joke around, to enjoy each others’ company and enjoy the company of our friends. In high school, when I was stressed, I was stressed. I was obsessed with being stressed, and would find the littlest of reasons to sink into weeks-long bouts of unhappiness and moodiness. At the slightest provocation, my life became a tragedy of the most epic proportions. In short, I wasn’t very pleasant. But it took me an embarrassingly long time to see that, to get my head out of my ass, to even realize that’s where my head was to begin with.
I guess I really like the comfort of my own internal waste system, because I still find my head in my ass quite often. This life, though, has made it a lot easier to recognize the smell of excrement. Despite my brain soaking in a hot-tub of cortisol, I am one happy camper. I am in love. I have incredible friends, an incredible major, and an incredible family. Nothing helps you see that more clearly than some time in the pit of poverty.
3. Being in love and effectively loving somebody are two entirely different things.
I have been in love a couple of times. In high school, I loved Tristan Butcher with that aching intensity that makes you think, what with your head being up your own ass and all, that you’re the only person ever who has truly loved anyone. Then, I loved Krista Haman. I learned the taste of unrequited love and became so enamored of it that, quite frankly, I lost sight of my best friend and drove a wedge between us that is still there to this day. Later, I loved Devin Webb. I bought him everything. I spent so much money on him I could have fed a family of four for a year and a half with his gifts. After that, I loved Jon.
I was with him for a year and a half, though, before, with wide-eyed naivete, I began to think to myself, Oh, I love this man. Maybe I should go to extra mile every once in awhile to think about his point of view and try to figure out what makes him happy.
So, yeah. Sometimes I think about what might have happened if I’d never come to understand the difference between being in love and actually expressing love effectively. My inability to understand this concept for so long has distanced me from numerous family members and friends. In trying to make up for it, I am sometimes boggled by the immensity of the task before me. The damage I might have caused had I not opened my eyes, the damage I might still cause just because habits are so hard to break… it’s mind-boggling.
And it only takes a simple thing to make you learn the lesson. We’re dead broke, but Jon’s childlike happiness and ability for immense joy in his hobbies and activities led me to genuinely, truly, always want to see him happy. All it really took was that special gleam in his eyes, and my whole world-view changed. (Actually, that lesson was sparked just a year ago, but the ramifications are still reverberating throughout every area of my life today, and have been especially important these past few months.)
4. Every decision you make will cause you doubt. There is no path you can take with 100% certainty – definitely not when you’re a person like me.
I used to think that if I searched hard enough for the right passion, that if I tried enough things, that I would someday, eventually, find the pursuit that would be my true and lasting joy. I still don’t think this is a bad idea – but to me, the way I believed I would know the accurateness of the path would be the absence of doubt.
I’d take up a new hobby, switch my major, wobble back and forth over whether or not I was with the right person or had the right friends, over whether I was going to the right school or eating the right way or dressing the right way or… whatever, and I’d believe that someday I’d come upon the perfect combination of activities and methods of life and I would stop doubting anything, ever again. (At this point, I ask everyone to take a moment of silence for anyone who has ever loved me – these people are brave and amazing in so many ways. That they have put up with me for so long, while I’ve been so blind and childish, fills me with warmth and the desire to give them everything. There are no words to express how incredibly patient and tolerant these people must be. xD)
Of course, this isn’t true. Especially when my ‘doubts’ come at just about every moment I don’t do something 100% perfectly. I gave up writing for a long time after somebody told me something my English teachers never had – that I had a shit ton of room to grow. I was used to being told I was the best in the class. So the first voice of reason stopped me in my tracks, and I threw away writing like it was a grenade in my hand. I doubt myself in baking when I have to throw out the creme anglaise and start again – creme anglaise having an incredible precise temperature range. I doubt myself when Jon and I have a fight, and our lack of perfection as a couple punches me in the face. I doubt myself when I’m not 100% sure about somebody’s tone.
In short, I’m one of the most highly sensitive people you will ever meet.
I can’t change how sensitive I am. However, I can work on being able to tolerate doubt, and move forward in spite of it. I doubt, often, that I am going to get out of Ohio, or that I am going to find any semblance of a life in which I am happy. But the thing is, I’m happy now, and if I can be happy when I’m under this much stress, I believe I am capable of learning how to be happy in any situation. Maybe that’s a big claim considering life could be a lot worse, but I do believe it. And when I have doubts… well, I can tolerate a little bit of doubt.
It just comes down to making a decision and sticking with it.
So that’s a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about this semester. I’m not great at sharing details and stories from my life, but this semester has had such an incredible impact on me, I thought I’d at least try. So, I guess the main thing to carry away here is…
Try not to live with your head up your ass. It gets lonely up there.
Edit: Oh jeebus effing Christ on a stick. I tried to post this, and it was GONE. I spent about five minutes wibbling at the screen, then another three researching to see if there was anything I could do to save it. Thanks to WordPress’s WONDERFUL ‘Screen Options’, I was able to find previous drafts that had been autosaved and save the post. So, thank you WordPress, for not putting one hell of a damper on my afternoon. : )
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.