It's a Sunny Day in the Neighborhood...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's a great day to be out and about, doing something.  Unfortunately, two of four family members are sick and home-bound.  That translates to about a 50-50 chance of having any fun.  When the weather lady on TV says that there is a 50-50 chance of rain, you just know that it's not going to happen.  That is the story of my life today.  I'll probably end up making some Red Velvet Cupcakes, from a recipe that I got at a cupcake class last week.  If I don't end up eating all of them, maybe I can sell some at our street corner.  (I'm sorry.  Did I say weather lady?  I meant meteorologist lady.  No, I think I meant weather person.)

I already went out to get my wife's car washed, and the air freshener that they sprayed is still making me sneeze.  I don't what they sprayed in the car, but I just know that it wasn't the 'new car smell' that I had requested.  Now the scent is all over my clothes and I'll probably have to change.  I also stopped at Target to get some kind of sniffly nose medicine that I will have to bribe my daughter to take.  For some reason, neither daughter likes to take pills, and they just start to cry when I bring up the subject.  "If you're really sick," I say, "why wouldn't you want to take any medicine to help you feel better?"  Does anyone else out there have to buy the kid's liquid medicine and do the fancy calculations to properly dose the older kids?


Home Grown Rye Bread

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Although this is not a recipe driven blog site, I would be remiss if I left out the story of my latest baking creation: the rye bread.  After all, cooking and baking are among my few and far between hobbies (as is washing dishes, apparently).   My grandmother, on my father's side, was a great old school baker.  And even though my exposure to her was limited, I still remember the cookies and baked goods that came out of any kitchen that she visited.  She is my "gold standard" reference whenever I think about doing anything with flour.

I have to admit that I don't have the skills to bake a rye bread without a recipe.  I found a recipe that looked interesting in our local newspaper.  Being a lover of rye bread, the article spoke to me and I had no choice but to attempt the project.  This is my story, with play by play pictures.

 You've got to start somewhere.  This is my lucky mixing bowl that I use for banana bread, Portuguese sweet bread and this rye.  Don't let anyone tell you that a little luck isn't involved when you cook anything.  I say, "Find something that works and stick with it."  I also have a whisk and wooden rice paddle that I use to mix almost everything.  If I can't find the rice paddle, I've been known to panic. 

Here are the dry ingredients needed to make the "sponge."  The sponge is an important part of the rye bread process.  Without going into great detail, it is an additional fermentation stage prior to the main rising stage of the bread.  There is some chemical and bacterial stuff going on that help create a greater depth of flavor than your ordinary white bread.  Sourdough bread is probably the most common bread that uses a sponge or starter.  I need to make a few more rye breads before I'll feel ready to try a sourdough bread, though.

Here is the sponge, after the wet ingredients were added.  It kind of looks like ranch dressing in the picture, but that's just the rye flour in contrast with the white flour.  You'll have to take my word for it that it really is the sponge.  There was an unusual ingredient, malt barley syrup, required for this step.  It was a little difficult to find in the store and even more difficult to measure and pour it into the batter.  It has to be the gloopiest liquid that I've ever run across. It's very thick, gooey and sticky.  You have to wrestle with it to get it out of the measuring spoon.  The jar of syrup cost about $5.00 and I only needed 1-1/2 teaspoons for the loaf.  Apparently, a little goes a long way.  The jar will probably be in our refrigerator until it expires.  I wonder how many times I'll use it before then.  

This is the second set of dry ingredients for the bread.  Those little dark specs are caraway seeds.  These add a wonderful flavor and texture to the finished loaf.  If you have digestive problems with seeds, they can be omitted.   After mixing this together, it is poured evenly over the sponge.  You don't mix this into the sponge at this point, you just pour it over the sponge.  This is the first step in the sponge-rising process.  It takes about four hours for this action to happen.  I would suggest taking a nap, watching a movie or in my case, taking the girls out for some clothes shopping while you wait.

The photo on the left is the second set of dry ingredients after mixing.  The photo on the right is that second dry ingredient set, after being poured over the sponge.  After this, you cover everything with plastic wrap and wait a for small eternity.

You wait and you look.  Then you wait and you look some more.  A more experienced baker would just leave the room and let nature take it's course.  It's like watching a pot of water come to a boil - only it takes much longer.  As I said before, we all ended up leaving the house to take a break.   If there's one thing that a baker learns over time, it's that you can't rush a bread.  If you're in a big hurry, I would recommend going to the store instead.  But I don't think they make rye bread in those refrigerated, open-on-the-side-of-the-counter cans.

Success at last, at least for the first half of the bread making process.  The sponge is beginning to peek through the top layer of dry ingredients.  At about this time you might think to yourself that you should have made a white bread in a bread machine.  I would ask you to be patient; the finished product will be well worth it.

I finally get to touch the bread for the first time.  This is the fun part where you knead the dough.  You've got to develop a feel for kneading a loaf of bread.  You keep adding a little bit of flour at a time until the sticky feeling just begins to go away.  Suddenly it will just feel right and you'll know that it's time to not only give your hands a rest, but let the loaf rest for a while too.

I think there were about two risings after this.  But at least there was an end in sight.

I'll have to use a sharper knife next time to cut the decorative slits on the top.  The top of the loaf was fighting me a bit.  You also give the loaf a light misting of water before you put it in the oven, because even bread needs to be pampered a bit after all the manhandling during the kneading.  A weird part of the baking process included pouring about a cup of ice cubes in a cast iron pan with the loaf.  This created a lot of steam, and assisted in keeping things moist. 

And here's the beauty shot.  It took 8-1/2 hours from start to finish to make this bread, about 8 hours and 15 minutes longer than it would have if I had gone to the store.  The bread was moist, chewy and had a great flavor.  It tasted great plain and with unsalted butter.  I also made a pastrami sandwich with it and it tasted incredible.

If you are interested in the recipe, I would be happy to forward the newspaper article to you, as well as answer any questions that you might have.

This loaf is now just a fond memory.  It's time to plan production for the next one.


Yellow Snow

Monday, January 17, 2011

It’s generally understood by parents that our kids only listen to a certain percentage of what we say.  It depends on a number of factors which include, but are not limited to: the time of day, their level of hunger, their level of sleep and whether or not the current TV show they’re watching is a “new one.”  We know this, and may or may not stress certain things over others depending on our mood and whether or not we want to make a specific point to them. 

I was reminded about this important concept during a recent trip we took to the snowy mountains atop the Palm Springs Tramway.  The day began just as we had planned.  We got an early start out to Palm Springs.  Traffic was light, so we made it to the tramway entrance in about an hour and twenty-five minutes.  While waiting for our scheduled tram to arrive, I excused myself to use the bathroom.  I’m an adult; I know my limits.  I’m also of the belief that it's sometimes better to use the facilities out of convenience, than just out of necessity. 

After a beautifully scenic and increasingly cold tram ride, we reached the lodge at the top of the mountain.  We were teased by snippets of snowy landscape along the way.  There were branches with thick layers of snow on top of them and other branches with icicles dripping from the morning sunlight.  We even spotted small animal paw prints left in the snow at the sheer rock’s edge. 

While still inside the lodge, I asked what I thought was a logical question, “Does anyone have to go to the bathroom before we get started outside?”  I could have heard a pin drop after asking the question.  My small audience reacted to me with a series of shoulder shrugs and nods indicating a negative response.  “OK,” I said. “Let’s go.”  I’m not in the habit of patronizing my girls as if they were five year olds.  If they don’t need to go, I can’t make them go. 

It had been a while since I had been out in the snow.  Skiing is one thing, but being out in snow covered nature is a different experience entirely.  The snow was dry and powdery.  The only sounds breaking the silence were the melting icicles dripping from the tall trees and a stream running over rocks and ice formations.  I had the entire family stop and listen to the, all too foreign, quiet voice of the Earth.  “You don’t get to hear this sound very often in your life.  Enjoy and memorize this while we’re here.” 

I introduced the girls to one of my strong childhood memories: eating snow.  I showed them how to carefully push away the top crust portion and then scoop up the soft unexposed snow.  It was flaky, cold and melted quickly on our tongues.  It was refreshing in a unique way.  We walked by a patch of snow that had a blue tint.  “Don’t eat the snow over there,” I said.  “Oh, and don’t eat yellow snow.”  The girls laughed. 

We reached the end of a snow trail and walked up some snow covered rocks, revealing a spectacular view of the valley beneath us.  I was at once completely aware of my small place in the world.  “Daddy,” my daughter interrupted, “I have to go to the bathroom.”  I told her, as firmly yet compassionately as I could, that she was going to have to go right there.  I wasn’t going to walk all the way back to the lodge just so she could pee. 

We left the mountains that day with the surroundings just as pristine as when we got there, except for that one little patch of yellow snow. 


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