Sunday, September 8, 2019

Buttery White Bread

After a great deal of difficulty with my skin last winter, during which I desperately hoped I could peel like a snake and grow a new, healthy, and non-itchy layer, I learned that I had developed some allergies. Through a process of eliminating from my diet, in turn, gluten (not fun, but not impossible), dairy (I'm so sorry for the things I said when I was cheese-less), and quite a laundry list of other things (I'm so tired of reading labels), I finally sussed out two valuable pieces of hard-won information.

1. My skin is allergic to a particular kind of preservative found in a lot of liquid soaps, laundry detergents and shampoos. If interested, here's a website that discusses the issue and alternatives, though this is a tangent that doesn't get us any closer to the recipe, or the food. And I am all about the food.

2. During my gluten-free phase, my skin problems continued. So I added wheat back into my diet. Skin and immune system, ticked off again, flared more intensely. Next I eliminated yeast from my diet. My skin improved, and I was bereft. Because yeast is the reason for so many of the foods-- wine, beer, cheese, bread-- that I love, this depressed me more than I even care to admit. Then, after I got my skin to a relatively stable point, I decided I'd rather be miserable and itchy for awhile than eternally pizza-less, and I made a pizza with my own home-made dough.

I didn't have a reaction. Nor did I any other time that I ate home-baked goods. Or cheese or wine or beer.


I went back to my internet research, and considered what was left. While I don't know for sure and there can be many overlapping factors in allergic reactions, I concluded I'm most likely allergic to some common preservatives or shelf-stabilizers in commercially baked breads and similar products. There are so many of these types of ingredients, often listed together in a single product. I decided it wasn't worth trying to narrow it down further. I've just started avoiding store-bought bread and baked goods. Things are going much better-- my skin doesn't look like raw hamburger.

I've always done a lot of home baking because I enjoy it.  Now I'm doing it because I am trying to avoid those preservatives. Do not think, however, that I now have become some baking-all-the-time type person. I'm not that crazy. I work full time, and I have other things that need doing, as well. Like laundry and blogging.

Despite the relief that my allergies don't appear to be gluten- or wheat-related, it's better for me if I don't have wheat and white flour things all the time, anyway. As I get older I'm trying to stick more and more with meat and veg. If bread is something I have to bake in order to have it at all, it means that I eat it less often, and it's a bit of an event. Something to savor and celebrate. If it doesn't cause an allergic reaction, so much the better.

One of the recipes I make a lot is this one for buttery white bread. The recipe developed gradually over the years from a multitude of other white bread recipes that were not quite completely right, so I kept experimenting. I fiddled with more and less sugar, more and less butter, eggs and no eggs, until I came to this buttery loaf. This one is simple, not too sweet, and has enough fat in it that it doesn't go instantaneously crumbly and stale overnight. It is divine as buttered toast, with jam or honey. It is also a good sandwich bread. Since September is here and the weather has cooled down enough to have the oven on, I thought I'd share it with you.

Buttery White Bread
  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole milk. Don't use skim milk, because you want it to taste good!)
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup, or 8 tablespoons) of salted butter (Don't use alternative fats. It will give your bread the sads.)
  • 1 Tablespoon or 2 packages active dry yeast (Don't use quick-rise for this recipe)
  • 3 T white sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt (if using salted butter) or 1 tsp kosher salt (if using unsalted butter)
  • 6- 6 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, but I've also used grocery-store brand unbleached all-purpose when on a budget, so that is fine too.)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375° F. Pour the two cups milk into a large mixing bowl. Chunk up the stick of butter and put it in the milk. Microwave the milk for 20 seconds, and then check the temperature with your finger or thermometer. Microwave in 20 second increments until you get the milk feeling nicely warm but not at all hot to your fingertips, with the butter chunks beginning to get melty and soft, but not completely liquid. Depending on your microwave, it takes about a a minute, maybe a little more. If you've got a cooking thermometer, you can check that you're in the 105-110° F range, but it's okay to just do it by feel. It should look like this: 

Step 2: Add the yeast and sugar. Stir once or twice to blend, and then let it set for about 10-15 minutes. It will get foamy, but still have chunks of butter in it, and look like this: 

Step 3: Measure flour by scooping it into the measuring cup and leveling off. Measure four cups of flour into the bowl. Add the salt. Using a sturdy spoon, mix the flour into the liquid until the dough is a rough, sticky batter that mostly clings together, though you may have a few clumps or bits that are not fully incorporated. At this point you may still see some lumps of butter, but they are beginning to incorporate into the dough.

Step 4: Sprinkle a clean countertop with flour. Stir the 5th cup of flour into the bowl, but don't worry if it's an even rougher mass of clumps. This is where it all starts to come together. With clean hands, dump the dough out onto the floured countertop, and knead it by folding the dough in half toward you, and pushing it away from you against the countertop with the heels of your hands. It's messy, but will start coming together as you work it. Flour your countertop lightly if it starts sticking, and sprinkle the dough with flour lightly while you knead, but don't use more than the upper limit called for in the recipe. In cold, dry weather, you'll use less flour. In hot humid weather you'll use more. Keep kneading, for about 8 to 10 minutes. By the time you're done the dough will have completely absorbed the butter, become smooth and elastic, and will form a ball like this:

While many recipes call for putting the dough in an oiled bowl, I admit I'm too lazy to be bothered with this nicety. I scoop the dough back into the bowl I mixed it in, cover it with a clean dishtowel, and set it aside. Let it rise until double in size. This takes anywhere from about an hour and a half (in warm weather) to up to three hours if your kitchen is pretty cold in the winter). Go somewhere else and have a cup of something hot. Fold some laundry. Answer some email. The time will go faster than you think.

When it has doubled in size, dump the dough back out on the counter and knead a few times to get excess air bubbles out and get it feeling smooth and elastic again. Divide in half. Shape into two loaves, and place in two oiled 9X5 inch bread pans. Cover with the dish towel, and let rise until the dome of the loaf is just barely an inch above the rim of the pan. This time, keep a closer watch, as it should take as little as twenty minutes for this step, and if the dough rises too much now it won't rise as much in the oven.

Bake at 375° F for 30-35 minutes, until the loaf is well browned, not just on the top, but down the sides that are in the pan. A good way to tell if it is done is to gently shake the loaf pan. If it's nicely brown down the sides and on the bottom, it will shake loose from the pan without much trouble. If it seems tightly stuck in the pan, it probably needs another five to ten minutes to bake off a bit more moisture and to brown up the crust. Remove from the oven, and turn the loaves out onto a rack to cool. Don't leave them in the pans; this steams up the crust and makes it soggy.

Store tightly wrapped, and remember that since this is fresh bread without any preservatives, it will go stale in about 3-5 days, even faster if the weather is warm and humid. In warm weather I store mine in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage. It will freeze unsliced for about a month.

Happy toasting!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Acts of Rebellion

I grew up believing that acts of rebellion were large and spectacular and often involved young, extremely idealistic people who smelled like patchouli, belonged to "movements" and crowded public streets to chant and wave signs. I also knew that it often involved violence and destruction. The 1960s were just beginning to hit the history books when I was in high school, and those pages showed things like the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Vietnam and U.S. cities that convulsed with rage during the "long hot summer of '67."

That, paired with my upbringing, which insisted that I be polite, quiet, cooperative, responsible, and well-behaved, meant that rebellion didn't fit my or anybody else's idea of who I was then.

Now at 51, I'm a whole lot less enchanted with cooperative and well-behaved, but I'm still mostly quiet. Patchouli is one of the worst smells in the world to me, and it's really not in my character to march about with signs and shout about injustice. To be clear, I'm not criticizing those things in other people (well, except for the patchouli. I'm going to criticize that no matter what.)

It's just that my introversion and quiet make me a bad bet for those loud, crowded, and strident demonstrations of resistance. On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option for me in these turbulent, frightening times. Pretending everything is okay is a luxury increasingly fewer people have. Pretending everything is okay is exhausting to an even half-aware soul. Pretending that everything is okay is giving away my own power in situations where what I really want is change.

I decided that my definition of rebellion needed some reframing.

Which is why the photo accompanying this blog post is of my kitchen compost bin. It's an old lidded enamel container that sits to the right of my kitchen sink, and it's where I throw all our plant- and paper-based refuse.

It was a new practice as of this year, to reduce the amount of food waste going to the landfill, to provide fertilizer for our small backyard vegetable garden, and to create a small but self-supporting environmental circle between our table and the soil.

So was buying cotton mesh produce bags for carrying home fresh produce from the grocery (we already use cloth grocery bags), and my switching to solid bar shampoo instead of using bottled, to reduce the amount of plastic our household consumes.

So was turning over a little extra territory in our yard this year, expanding what is already a Monarch Way Station, to continue providing habitat for pollinators-- not just monarchs but other butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps that are so vital to the production of the foods we eat.

So was continuing our experiment in vegetable growing this year, trying out carrots, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus for the first time.

In the context of these times, I believe them to be acts of rebellion. Not the sign-waving, marching-down-the-street kind, but the kind that reflects upon one's own behavior, and quietly resolves to do things differently. Differently enough that it subverts the status quo.

Composting is a rebellion against waste.

Reducing my plastic use, even a little bit, is a rebellion against the kind of consumerism that encourages convenience at the expense of the environment.

Planting vegetables and eating what I grow is a rebellion against corporate agriculture, and returns control over the quality and kind of foods I eat to me.

Planting flowers instead of lawn is a rebellion against wide-spread use of the insecticides and herbicides that harm our ecosystems.

Is it perfect? Oh hell no. My zucchini crop failed spectacularly this summer, I still need to grocery shop, I can't avoid all plastic, and I'm not a big enough hippie to go into subsistence farming or veganism (or wear that danged patchouli). Is it enough? Also no. No one person is enough. Is it better than nothing? I think it is, especially if my acts of environmental rebellion, however quiet and small, are being repeated by others across my city, state, nation, and world. That's how the needle moves.

I'm not likely to rebel by protesting. I'm glad other people are out there who do a fantastic, loud, noticeable, sign-waving, yelling, First Amendment with a capital F and a capital A push-back to those who are doing harm. We need that volume right now, for the environment and a long list of other enormous concerns.

The rest of us need to bring our gifts, whatever they are, to an increasingly difficult situation. My gift is growing things, and I can use it to address the threats our environment is facing. For that, I consider myself a rebel.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Stranger that Dwells Among You

Every time I see photos or read the news about the separation, imprisonment, abuse, and death of children at the U.S./Mexico border, these are the words that come to me. While I was raised Lutheran at a time when that meant having a good bit of the scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, pounded into my head through memorization, repetition, and (yes, I'll just say it) fear, no one would consider me exactly a practicing Christian these days. You'd think I'd find other ways to express my moral outrage.

And yet these are the words that are given to me. My brain won't let go of them. They are unbidden by my conscious, more agnostic mind, but I don't think they are appearing out of rote memory or deeply buried piety, either. I think it's way beyond that.

It's deep in the human evolutionary bones, isn't it? The idea that the stranger, the foreigner, the person from beyond, the other, is so unlike us that it is bound up in our DNA to perceive them a potential threat. And the fear that arises from that gets us progressively more comfortable with anything ranging from avoidance to racism to cruelty to outright murder and genocide.

Almost as ancient, though, is the exhortation to be better than our biological wiring. The most ancient of religions on this planet contain some version of the Golden Rule. Somewhere early in the existence of humans, empathy also dawned, and realized that all of us, some how, some way, could be "strangers" in a foreign land, whether that foreign land was the next neighborhood over, or a continent half a world away-- lost, vulnerable, in flight, away from the only place they've ever known as home.

It may seem as though I'm oversimplifying a very complex issue. So I am. Because all I know is that when the human race has been able to live by its better nature--to take care of the stranger as one born among us--all of the beautiful, worthy and just things in history, known and unknown, have happened. Because I am done arguing this through a political lens, a policy lens, an economic lens, or any other lens that puts something between our eyes and the essential fact of what is happening right now.

Once you have decided to forcibly separate children from their parents, put them in cages, and neglect to feed, clothe, and attend to their hygiene and health, I don't care what you think about the politics surrounding that fact.

I don't care what your  political affiliations are. I don't care what your stance on immigration is, whether you want more or less. I don't care if they came here legally or illegally, by definition of current U.S. law, your opinion, or some other standard recently invented by anyone. I don't care if  they "shouldn't have come."

It is wrong.

The American Civil Liberties Union

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)

The Texas Civil Rights Project

The Florence Project

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Can we find a better word than 'staycation,' please?

I've never been that crazy about portmanteau words, and out of all of them, 'staycation' is one of the most annoying. I mean, for most people, if you are not at work, aren't you on vacation?

I took a week and half of vacation, but stayed in town. Current family finances are tight, so it seemed better to stay home than to make thing more stressful by adding travel expenses to the equation. Instead we hosted some of our kids over the Independence Day holiday/weekend, and then I spent a week doing nothing much really.

I don't feel the least bit sorry for myself. It was the first time since I was in junior high, when I was too old to be babysat and too young to have a job, that I had something like those long and lazy summer vacation days. I got caught up on my sleep and my laundry. I picked berries and made pies. I walked at the local botanical center, and around my neighborhood, and at parks.

It is high summer on the prairie. It's one of the most beautiful things about living in Iowa.

I also worked in my own garden. We expanded the front yard perennial beds a bit, and I spent a day transplanting hostas, mulching, adding pavers and river rock, and building a very short retaining wall.  That deck you see in the background in the photo below is on the short list for next projects around here, but we'll wait until at least fall to start. 

Together, Tom and I cooked up an idea for a discarded floor lamp he found. It's out in the backyard right now, scaring the bunnies and amusing the neighbors. It's intended to be yard art, but it's not quite done yet. I'll write more about it later when we've arrived at its final state. It's still in the middle of the creative process. And there tends to be a lot of middle to my creative processes. Messy middles. We'll see what happens. 

One of the fortunate things about my job is a very generous vacation policy, but for the most part I haven't always taken advantage of that. When I do, it's because family is visiting for the holidays, or we're leaving town for a destination trip of some sort or another. What vacation time I do take, I tend to spend on engagement. 

Engagement is great. It's how you meet new people, discover new places and experiences, embrace the breadth and depth of your relationships both local and distant. I love that part of vacation. 

This, however, was a vacation of disengagement. I stayed home. I slept in. I read books and let my bare feet get dirty in the vegetable garden and I didn't always comb my hair. I took walks alone. I thought about people in my life, some of them pretty hard, and I wrote some, too. 

All of this was deeply calming in a way I didn't expect, but suspect I deeply needed. Vacation so often implies the expectation of a strong "woo-hoo!" factor, knocking things off the bucket list, fulfilling a dream itinerary in a dream location, seizing that day or weekend or week and stuffing every last bit you can into it. 

Instead, this vacation seemed more like an act of self-care, of stepping off to the side of life for a bit to let my own thoughts bubble up to the surface. I'm surprised how long and calm and beautiful the vacation seemed, and yet I have very little to report from the experience. No woo-hoo, anyway. Maybe more along the lines of a-ha. We'll see what comes out of that messy creative middle, as well. 

I still don't have any better word to replace the annoying "staycation." I just know I'd enjoy more of them, more often.