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29 February 2008

I am a Dirt Nerd

At least, that's what my husband tells me. I've been working on a second batch of plants for the garden this year. Last time I planted mostly vegetables. This time it's mostly flowers. But in the process of adding to the tray of starts that I did last week, I noticed that we have already got sprouts. And I got a bit excited about it. Perhaps a little giddy. I sorta dove for the camera. I think I may have clapped & jumped up and down just a little bit, though I don't really remember. This is what made me so happy. My "bunching onions" have sprouted.

Daring Bakers: Third Time is (had better be) the Charm

I already made this recipe twice, and it flopped both times. This time I'm going to get it right!

While the dough was resting the first time I realized that my boy is something of a "flower child" today!

We took turns kneading - he wasn't really up for watching all 850 whacks of the bread this time, so I pouched him up and went to town. That worked better than him screeching for attention. Although it took a very long time today, we did get the bread dough made and it's doing the first rise now. So far, so good.

Still looking good - best it ever has at this point, in fact. I realized that I forgot to use my special unbleached flour, and so it's just regular all-purpose this time. I don't know if that's helping, but the bread was much lighter after the first rise, and it had the air bubbles that needed to be popped this time too. So I flattened it, reshaped it, and repainted it with olive oil (an idea from Canela & Cominio), and it's now working on its second rise. I'm off to eat lunch.

I think that this waiting part is perhaps the hardest part of the process of making this bread. I'm about 1/2 way through the 2nd rise now, and there's the shaping & then another rise to go before I get to cook... and then the sill stuff thinks it wants a rest before I get to eat it! But I digress. I didn't actually intend to whine about how long this bread takes. I had planned on listing several of the things that I have learned in this, my first, Daring Bakers Challenge.

1. I can now spell "Daring."

2. Bread needs to be beaten around a bit more than I have been. I've tried the kneading technique on some other bread (pizza dough that became pizza pockets and bread sticks) and it's just better than the old way. If for no other reason than that, I'm glad that I did this challenge.

3. Sticky is not always bad. In fact, in this case sticky is good. And if you give it 5 minutes after you add the water, sticky isn't so sticky after all.

I just shaped the bread into some nice long loaves. This being my third try, I'm mostly just interested in getting the bread part to turn out right, and I don't really care any more if the shape of the bread is completely authentic anymore. But I did decide not to use my baguette pan, in the spirit of the challenge still. This is easily the softest kooshiest dough I have ever made. Tartelette says that she's going to cut out the second rise when she makes this recipe again, and also decrease the salt. I think that with those two changes (and the successful completion of the bread-in-progress) that I could think about doing the french bread again. And Tartelette also eats her bread as a chocolate sandwich. I just happen to need to do some grocery shopping this afternoon, and I think that I'm going to have to get some nice chocolate. Probably dark chocolate. It sounds delicious.

I am so irritated! Everything was perfect until the last 5 minutes of baking. But we were leaving to go grocery shopping as soon as the bread came out, so I put my shoes on & rounded up the Monkey & put his shoes on too. When I came back the bread had burnt. (It came out of the oven around 5:30.) It's still delicious, but you have to cut the top crust off. Had I just taken it out before we put our shoes on, like I'd considered doing, my bread would have been picture-perfect. Well, except that one of my seams wasn't sealed well enough & came apart during baking. But still, it's some of the best bread I've had in a very long time. I got some dark chocolate this evening while I was out & tried Tartelette's "chocolate sandwich," and that is good! Just as good was Andy's reaction: he asked me if I'm sure I'm not pregnant! Sadly, I could assure him that I am not, and I did so once I was done laughing so hard I couldn't speak!

More stuff I learned from this bread:

4. You can avoid the whole "unmoulding" step by letting the silly stuff rise on the pizza stone after you shape it.

5. Trust my bread making instincts: if it looks perfect, take that baby out!

6. Chocolate is an important ingredient to have on hand when making this bread. Most good stuff.

Dairing Bakers: (not quite) French Bread

I've made bread before, and it's not hard, but I've never worried about getting things exactly as the recipe says. In fact, my Dad teases my Mom about never making the same thing twice, and I seem to have followed in her footsteps: I often will play with things a little bit. So needing to do it exactly the way the recipe said was part of the challenge for me. The next big challenge was finding time to do it, as the recipe requires that I be home and thinking about bread all day long, and February has been a busy month for us.

We got up to an ice storm on Sunday the 17th, and when church was canceled, I decided that it was a great day for doing bread!

First, I printed out my recipe and had a chocolate-maple cupcake. These cupcakes were supposed to be for my Sunday School class, but with church canceled I'm stuck with 16 of them. I need to find someone to give them to before I eat them all.

Concerned that my regular all-purpose flour might not be gluteny enough, I bought some unbleached all-purpose flour when I went shopping this week. I looked at several packages trying to find where they say what the gluten content is. But I never found it. On any of the packages. So hopefully the flour is the "right" stuff. If not, I'm sure that it'll make tasty bread anyway.

So, having decided to do this, I assembled my "cast of characters," al la Pioneer Woman. I love looking at her food blog.

Now, truth be told, the Daring Bakers instructions were much more precise than what I'm going to type up. That sort of finicky directions makes me tense, so I'm not going to reproduce them. But you can find them here. I think it makes making bread a lot harder than it needs to be. But if you really really want to do it the Julia Child way, the recipe is from Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume Two by Julia Child and Simone Beck. So. Here it is: french bread.

1 3/4 t instant yeast
1/3 cup water, about 100F
3 1/2 cups (unbleached) all-purpose flour
2 1/4 t salt
1 1/4 cups tepid (70-74F) water

Proof your yeast. To do this, take your warm water and put the yeast in it. I don't usually actually use the thermometer, just get it a bit warm, yet not hot. But this being a Daring Bakers challenge, and part of the challenge to do it just right, I got out a thermometer I bought for something that I never actually made, and used it for the first time. It was kind of fun. In a fiddly sort of way. I nuked the water for 45 seconds, which was way to long: shot the temp up over 150F. So I poured a bunch out and added some cold water and then it was fine.

Add your yeast to the warm water. Stir it up a bit, and then let it sit while you measure your flour out into your big bowl. And do put it in a big bowl, it'll need room to grow.

You want to give the yeast a few minutes, so it'll start to get foamy. I've read that proofing the yeast isn't really necessary for making bread before, but the ladies that issued the challenge say that it is important for the taste of the bread, so I'm proofing it. And there's just something kind of fun about seeing the yeast all bubbly like that.

Add the yeast, the salt, and the rest of the water to your flour.

Now, although it's not actually in the recipe to do so, the squeaks coming from the high chair informed me that it was time to release my assistant from his seat, where he had been enjoying one of those tasty cupcakes.

But then I returned to my bread making. The direction say to "stir and cut liquids into the flour with a rubber spatula, pressing firmly to form a dough and making sure that all the bits of flour and unmassed pieces are gathered in." I did the stirring and cutting with the spatula, but it was still pretty crumbly, rather than soft and sticky. It was also hard to work in the bowl with the spatula, so I went ahead and turned it out onto the counter.

It was about this point that my assistant finished up whatever it was in the living room that he'd been doing, and he joined me for the kneading of the bread. I let him check out the dough, then I got to work on it.

I kneaded it a bit, just to make sure that it really was too dry, then I added a small slosh of water, right onto my dough ball. It didn't take much and it started to act more like good bread dough. Once I'd formed it into a ball, Monkey informed me that he needed to have some turns kneading the dough too. First I took pictures of him kneading it.

But it didn't really do justice to the Monkey kneading bread, so I also took a movie. As a result of my assistant's efforts, it actually took a little longer than the recipe said to knead the dough, but I thought it was worth the time. Oh, and I also learned that it's difficult to keep the camera steady while kneading. But I didn't do too badly.

Then, the bread is supposed to rest for 3-4 minutes. So we checked the weather. It's still yucky. We also stopped by the computer room and said hello to Monkey's dad. Then we returned to the kitchen.

We kneaded the bread just a little more, then got the big bowl ready to put the bread in for rising. The bread is supposed to grow to 3 1/2 times its current (small) size. The recipe suggests measuring 10 1/2 cups - 3 1/2 times it's current mass - and pouring the water into the bowl to mark where it needs to grow to. I took a picture instead.

Then, you dump out the water, dry the bowl completely, and grease it with butter to keep the bread from sticking to it. When I put bread in to rise, I like to sort of roll the dough around to get the grease on all sides. Helps keep the moisture in. My kitchen is pretty cool, I don't think that it's really the 70 degrees that the bread needs to rise, so I turned my oven to warm, then when it was preheated, I turned it back off. Just enough heat to make a cozy place for the bread to rise. The recipe suggests that you can also just turn your oven light on to keep things just a bit warm in there, if your kitchen (or your kitchen counter) is too cold for bread to rise on. Cover the bread with plastic wrap, then a towel, and let it rise 3-4 hours, until 3 1/2 times as big as it was.

At this point, I decided that I had no idea what was going on with the shape of the bread, so while I was waiting I went and googled "Julia Child french bread" and found these videos on pbs.org. And I learned that I had not gotten nearly enough kneading in before I set it to rise. I'm looking at the lady's french bread dough and thinking that it looks like it's a lot of fun to work with, and thinking that I may want to try this again sometime! That, and her kneading technique is fabulous; I want to whip my bread around like that! The technique they suggest is slightly different from this month's recipe's instructions, so I'm sticking to the instructions.

No pictures of the second rise, it looks remarkably like the first.

I divide my dough in to three sections, even using my scale. I'm trying so hard to do it all right, but by this point in the process, having looked at those videos, I'm a bit disheartened by all the things that I've already done wrong. But I finish it out to see how it turns out.

My dough has not been kneaded nearly enough. And it wasn't moist enough to begin with, and at this point in baking, that's starting to be a problem. I get 2 baguettes and one of the round loaves (I forget the fancy name). And I cook them, dousing them with my spray bottle every 3 minutes for the first little bit, just like the recipe says to do. And they come out of the oven Hard.Like.Rocks. There's no fluffy-ness here. No nice air pockets like some of the other bakers have. They're dense and tough and chewy. Not exactly what I had in mind. They also taste a bit salty. It's some of the worst bread I've ever made.

A few days later, I try again. I use more water. I knead about 850 times. It takes more like 30 minutes than the 5-10 that the recipe says that I should be taking for this. At the end, not only are my wrists and arms completely worn out, but I have some great bread dough. Rise, flatten, rise again, shape, it's looking pretty good. I go out to vote in the Primaries while my bread rises. And I lock my keys in the car. And I have no spare on me. (I carry one in my wallet now.) And my good friend Jenny comes to rescue me. And my bread rises for an extra 2-3 hours in its final rise, because I can't get into my house to finish baking it. Oops. By the time my husband comes home from work with his nice set of house keys it's looking a bit flat. Not a good sign I bake it up anyway: there's a lot of WORK in that there dough! This batch of bread is better than the first, even with the super long rise. And it's got places where there used to be air pockets. But the extra time was too much for the bread and it remains flat flat flat.

The plan is to try again. Today, the day that we post, is the first opportunity I've had to try this very long recipe again, so I'll have to make another post if it turns out. Third time's the charm, right?

27 February 2008

Seeds: the Cure for Cabin Fever

First, you shake the seeds.

Then you decide how many peat pellets you need, and you put them in the tray.

We needed quite a few.

Next, you water the pellets so they get fluffy.

Now, stop and admire your work.

Last, go play while Mom adds seeds and funny labels which are sticks with letters on them.

23 February 2008

Photo Hunt: Wood

A wooden workbench for Christmas from his Daddy, which remains a favorite after almost 3 months!

21 February 2008

Total Eclipse!

Kudos to my sister for calling me up and telling me there was an eclipse going on! I think I'm going to have to find some sort of astronomy calendar to look up cool stuff like this and see if I can't know what's going on. Since the Monkey was sleeping, I had to find a window to watch through, and so there is a slight reflection in some of my pictures, particularly the first bunch that I took. I'm editing it out as much as I can, but I'm no photo editing whiz, so be patient with me!

Once the moon was fully eclipsed, I got to looking around. I took a couple of photos of Saturn, after I took a peek at it through my bird-watching binoculars. I was pretty excited by what I saw in those binoculars: I could see the rings! Only I need to get some sort of stand to put the binoculars on so they don't move too much. The natural movement of the hands is not at all a problem when looking at birds, it's not a serious problem when looking at the moon, although it's a bit annoying, and it's a relatively serious problem when looking at another planet. The image jumped around more than my 17 month old son!

Then I got out my telescope and had another shot at getting it to work. It was still a bit disappointing because I was unable to get it to focus. However, it was a huge improvement on my past attempts because I did manage to get the moon to show up in my telescope! So maybe there's hope for this telescope after all!

After that I took another batch of pictures, but by this time the Monkey was really getting tired of looking at the moon.

And for something a bit whimsical & very cool try this photo, called ten moons, also taken during last night's eclipse.

20 February 2008

My Sister the Brave

She held an icky tarantula! She's braver than me. I am of the opinion that spiders are for squishing inside, and for eating bugs - but not too close to me - outside. She let it walk on her. On purpose. Brave woman.

18 February 2008

Weekend Snapshot: Great Backyard Bird Count

We've been doing the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. It's been lots of fun, although I think that we would have seen more birds had we not been having an ice storm followed by a blizzard. But the weather makes it more interesting, right? Here are a few pictures of our weekend. Apparently our part of the state has been getting record breaking amounts of snow and other Wintry Stuff. That would explain why the snow mounds at the end of our driveway are nearly double the size of my Monkey. I plan to take pictures of that soon, but it's still snowing, so it may be even more impressive when I get to it!

Northern Cardinal, looking miserable. Notice the ice caked onto each and every branch in my lilac bush.

Bird feeder: deserted. This is how it looked more often than not when I wanted to watch birds this weekend.

Icicles on my gutter. I am impressed by how well we grow icicles. And check out how thick the ice is there under the snow! That stuff was all over the roads too.

This is what's left of my treat bell. There was actually a black-capped chickadee on it at one point this weekend, and also a dark eyed junco, but I didn't have my camera handy either time.

Lilac bush. I'm hoping that the ice doesn't make it so brittle that it breaks under the weight of all that snow. Maybe I should go out there and nudge it so the snow isn't so heavy. We're headed out anyway for more shoveling and picture taking.

Bird feeder: occupied. The poor little bird huddled there is a house finch. But you'll probably have to take my word on that. He stayed there for about 20 minutes, munching every now and then, but mostly just trying to stay out of the worst of the snow, I think.


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