"Things won are done,
Joy's Soul lies in the Doing."
- William Shakespeare

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cheap Therapy

I've got a confession to make.  Sometime around the end of last summer, I kept hearing about and reading about this pasttime...this hobby, if you will.  It wasn't like I'd never heard of it before, I just never thought much about it.  In fact, I may even have thought it was a little bit lame.  A wee bit uncool.  But then, I kept seeing it everywhere...I mean, everyone was doing it, and really seemed quite stoked about it.  I'd even tried it once before, about 10 years ago, but just wasn't down with it then. 

But here's the thing.  It is cool.  Super cool.  Knitting, that is.

Where did you think I was going there?  Get your mind out of the gutter, people!  Sheesh.

Anyway, not only is it cool to be able to take these two sticks, and this ball of yarn, and actually watch as you create a fabric - right before your very eyes, people, with your own two hands! - it is also incredibly relaxing.  And shamelessly addictive.  I've only been in on this gig for about 6 months or so now, and every time I come across a yarn shop, I turn into this psychotic, touchy, feely weirdo...stroking every skein of yarn that catches my eye, rubbing it on my cheek to see just how soft it would feel to wear it...yeah, baby.  My stash has gone from a few skeins of yarn for projects that I am currently working on, to multiple skeins for projects I have in mind to start soon, to the present, where I just can't help but purchase something with no intended plan for it...just because it's calling my name.  "Nécole!  Buy me, take me home where nobody will judge you for stroking me whilst purring like a cat..."

Not to mention the storage issue.  Especially with a new kitten.  Hm.

I may have developed a problem here.  But the thing is, I'll bet that nearly everyone else who has the knitting bug has the same problem, so whatever, it's fine.  Just fine.

That photo above is a work in progress, The Simple Yet Effective Shawl, pattern for purchase on Ravelry.  And it is going swimmingly.

Here's why the whole obsession is justifiable, folks.  It is, as I mentioned above, incredibly relaxing.  Once you get the rhythm down, a little knit, a little purl, you slip into a sort of meditative state of mind as your needles go clacking along.  And meditation does not come easy for me.  Well, it really doesn't come at all.  Ask my wonderful friend and yoga instructor, Jamie, of Moon Yogis, and she'll back me up here.  A mere five minutes in Shavasana has me developing an insane eye twitch while I'm trying to "relax my face and let me eyes fall into the back of my head."  I giggle at the sounds people make while breathing...I open my eyes to smile at Jamie as she walks around the room, giving everyone a little massage.  Oh, that, and I simply cannot shut up.  My mind goes a mile a minute, when it's supposed to be empty.  Ha.  I'm hopeless.

Or maybe not entirely.  Because once those needles get going in my hands, I find myself so much calmer, and also so much more present.  (This helps tremendously with kids, by the way.  Somehow, I find myself listening better to their wildly imaginative stories, and being ever so much more patient with them.  And I am not, by nature, especially patient.)  Meditation is happening here, my friends.  I may not be chanting Om, or sitting cross legged on a lotus, with my eyes falling to the back of my head, but I, good people, am getting somewhere.  And it's a pretty peaceful place.

Except, of course, for when I screw up.  Which definitely happens.  A fair bit.  Another lesson:  Forgiveness.  Letting it go.  Rightio, then.  Below, that's being ripped out.  My math skills leave plenty to be desired, and I underestimated, thereby ending up with a teeny baby size hat, when it was meant to be a small adult size hat.  Oh well.

My sister, Tasha, who also has taken a shine to knitting, and I were chatting a while back about this very subject.  The gals in my family carry some highly uptight genes, let me just throw that one out there, since we're being all therapeutic and confessing stuff.  Anywhoo...we started advising each other, in times of stress, to "knit it off."  Isn't that funny, and just a tiny bit cheesy?  Damn cheap therapy, I say.  Never mind the cost of yarn that you're beginning to horde...I'm quite sure it's still cheaper than real therapy.  And at the end of the day, you might get lucky and get to see a completed project that you're proud of.

I'm pretty proud of those kids wearing the hats too.  I made them as well.  Aren't I the talented one?  (And humble.)

Now, just imagine this scenario:  Thanksgiving at the airport, flights are delayed due to weather, or maybe the dreaded, unclaimed package has been discovered near a terminal.  Nobody's going anywhere.  And the airline employees, ticket desk folks, whatever they're called...they're chock full of holiday cheer, as usual.  And the guy next to you is hogging the armrest and smells remarkably like cat chow.  And he breathes heavily.  And you forgot your book.  And the TV has that Poltergeist grey fuzz thing going.  Get the picture?

Oh, but wait a second!  What have we here?  A pair of needles and some yarn...try a little knit, a little purl...knit it off.  Oh, wait another second!  Everyone has a pair of needles and yarn?  No way!  (Never you mind that they probably consider knitting needles a dangerous weapon in airports these days.  This is my fantasy.)  And there's a rhythmic click-clacking happening, almost musical, as all the stress melts away (except for that one dude over there, he will always be stressed).  People are actually smiling quietly to themselves.  Oh, and check that out...people are speaking to each other?  Politely?  Asking to check out that yarn there, and where did you buy it, and oh how lovely.  Nobody's bothered about the delay, because hey, they've got knitting to do.  I'm telling you.  The world could be a better place.

And that unclaimed, mysterious package?  Don't worry, it was just some needles a few skeins of yak wool.  Peace out, airport people.  I'm going to go get my knit on.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

All in a Morning

Sweet Sunday.  Especially sweet when Monday is a day off.  And while we always have it planned that we'll sleep in for a change...6:30 rolls around, and I'm wide awake after hearing the cat try to climb up and visit, chatting away at (not to, he's not ready to be awake yet) my husband.  And so, the day begins.

Not even 10:00 am yet, and already we've had a full morning.  All at our own pace.  Lovely.

There's been a little didgeridoo going on, round these parts.  And I can tell you, this kid's pretty good.  Not that I'm biased or anything.

And a little bit of Didg-as-Microphone from this gal.  Who aims to be a rock star when she grows up.

There's been a bit of knitting, finally beginning a hat, actually a Christmas gift...just a wee bit late.

A cuddle with our new family member, Vincent.  (I do believe Tyler was helping distract him from my knitting here, actually.  Pretty tempting stuff for a kitten.)

Even a post-breakfast dance party, a la Xavier Rudd radio on Pandora, which is the perfect choice for a sunny Sunday morning.  Rock it out, kiddos.

But let us not, friends, forget one of the best parts!  Breakfast, most important meal of the day, some say.  I say they're all important.  Why should one get special treatment over another?  I want it ALL to be good.

Ah, the humble potato.  Sure, it isn't really anything extraordinary, merely a root that we dig out of the ground, right?  Oh, no, there you'd be wrong.  Is there any other vegetable that is such a chameleon, that shifts it's texture and taste, and so readily adapts to any recipe?  It can be fluffy and comforting in a dish of mash potatoes.  Elegant and sinfully delicious as a cheesy gratin.  Or it can be crispy and browned on the outside, while buttery and creamy on the inside, the perfect duo of texture, as a simple dish of hashbrowns.

My husband said, with the first forkful on the way to his mouth, "This may be my favorite breakfast ever."  I hope you agree.

Hashbrowns  - adapted from Williams-Sonoma Complete Outdoor Living Cookbook
serves 4 rather large portions, or 6 modest ones

3 lbs potatoes, shredded (use either a food processor with grating disc, a mandolin, or box grater)*
1 small onion, grated (or half a large one)
4 Tbs butter, divided
salt & pepper to taste (Potatoes really suck up the salt, so do be a bit generous, 2 tsp pleases our family, as does using half celery salt, and half salt)

*Russet or golden potatoes work best, as they form a nicer, crispier crust.  I've used red potatoes, and the result is still good, but doesn't quite have the right texture.*

In a large bowl, combine potatoes, onions, and seasoning.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed frying pan over med to med-hi heat, you may need to adjust if your potatoes are browning too rapidly.  Melt 2 Tbs butter in the pan then add the potato mixture, pressing it down firmly with your hands, to form a sort of cake.  Cover with aluminum foil, then top with an upside down plate, to seal in the steam, which will cook the middle of the hashbrown into a lovely, creamy consistency.  Cook for 12 - 15 minutes, until the bottom is nicely browned and crispy.

Carefully remove the plate, then foil, from the pan, using oven mitts, or potholders.  Steam will escape so angle the foil away from you, as you remove it.  Put the plate back over the pan, upside down as before,  and again wearing your mitts, hold tightly to the plate and pan and flip it over, so the plate is now on the bottom and pan on top.  At this point, you may be feeling some serious heat, so set that plate down quickly!  Return the pan to the burner, and melt the other 2 Tbs of butter in it, then slide the hashbrowns back in, browned side up, and re-cover with the foil and plate.  Continue cooking for another 10 minutes, or until nicely browned.

And voila!  Simple, satisfying, and easy to make.  This is perfect served with fried or poached eggs, with the yolks running into the potatoes, making a creamy sauce.  Delicious.

Not bad for a morning's work.  And we're all still in our pajamas.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sources of Joy

It has been a fairly decent couple of days, I must say.  How could it not be when yesterday began with this? 

And continued on to this:

Not bad, not bad at all.  This is a seriously beautiful bit of the world to call home, isn't it?

And, while clouds may have rolled in a bit today, and I may have forgotten I was baking granola this morning (oops), and I wasn't able to find any good leeks anywhere (where are all the good leeks!?) to make the recipe I had planned to share with you fine folks...things worked out just fine.  As they usually do.

Let me just say, Dorie Greenspan, you are a culinary goddess.  I've been hoarding her book, Around My French Table, which I borrowed from the library (my sincere apologies to anyone who has it on their hold list!), because it is absolutely, completely marvelous.  This is my kind of food.  Simple, yet elegant.  Nourishing, but a little bit sinful (butter, baby, it is French after all!).  And just so not fussy or awkward.  The kind of food that you sort of drool over (again, apologies to you library folk who use this book after me!) while you read the recipes.  The kind of food you sort of sigh over while you plan your meal.  The kind of food that makes you smile when you take that first bite and think:  Oh yes!  I'm getting giddy all over again just thinking of tonight's dinner.

Gougeres.  Can I tell you that I am in love with french words?  I don't speak French.  The only words I know are food words, and it's quite possible that I'm making an utter shambles of them when I speak them.  When I come across a french word in a book, often a recipe book, I catch myself mouthing it, and sometimes even quietly saying it aloud, savoring it.  Which is rather embarrassing in public.  I can't help it.  It's all just so delicious, isn't it?

Right, focus.  Tonight's treat was gougeres, these heavenly cheese puffs, airy and holey and so, so cheesy...and I'm so not hungry right now, but there they are! Just sitting over there on the counter...yum.  As it was my first time making choux pastry, I wasn't sure how it was going to go, and on top of that, I didn't have whole milk, but hey, what's life without a bit of risk?  I went for it, and I am so glad I did.

The only fiddly thing about this was spooning them all out, quickly, onto baking sheets, because the recipe does make a fair few.  Really though, it's easy peasy, and while Dorie recommends champagne with gougeres, I figured since it's Thursday I'd better not open that bottle just yet, so instead, had them with the Pamplemousse, that Molly recently posted on Orangette, and which pretty much is the best thing I've had in a while now.  Next to these gougeres.

Gougeres (adapted from Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan)
makes about 36

1/2 cup whole milk (I used 2%, but I imagine whole milk would be even better, if that's possible)
1/2 cup water
8 Tbs butter (one stick), cut into 4 pieces
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar (I used New Zealand cheddar)

Preheat oven to 425 and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Bring milk, water, butter and salt to rapid boil in medium saucepan over high heat.  Add flour all at once, turn heat to medium low, and stir energetically (Dorie's word) with a wooden spoon.  The dough will come together in a big ball and a light crust forms on the bottom of the pan (don't worry).  Keep stirring - with vigor - (Dorie's word again) for another minute or two to dry the dough, which should be very smooth.

Turn the dough into a bowl of stand mixer with paddle attachment, or large bowl with a hand mixer (which I used), and let it sit for a minute.  Add eggs one by one and mix in completely before adding the next one.  Beat until thick and shiny.  The dough may separate as each egg is added in, but will come back together as the last is incorporated.  Once the dough is made, it needs to be spooned out, onto baking sheets, immediately.

Use about 1 Tbs of dough for each gougere, leaving about 2 inches of space between for puffing room.

Slide into the heated oven, and turn heat to 375, bake for 12 minutes, then rotate pans from top to bottom, front to back.  Continue baking until gougeres are golden, firm and puffed, another 12-15 minutes.  (My oven is highly tempermental and it took about 20 minutes more, so just keep an eye on them.)  Serve warm, or cool on racks and serve at room temperature.

These are delicious, your belly, your family, your friends, whoever, will be oh so grateful!  And have someone else do the washing up!

And, to make a good day even better, I just ordered my very own copy of the book, so the lovely folks at the library can have theirs back!  And I will definitely be posting a few more of Dorie's recipes on here, because it would just be greedy not to!

Good day, indeed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Work in Progress

Initially, I had envisioned this first post entitled:  "Resolved."  This vision, however, occurred in early January, a time when New Year's Resolutions are flying through the air with wild abandon, assaulting our guilty consciences with their unrealistic grandiose intentions...And here it is, well into February.  Oh well, I never really buy into resolutions anyway.  Thus, "Work in Progress," because isn't that truly what life is all about?  Working it out as we go along, and hopefully enjoying the ride.  Which I invite you to do here with me, ride along as I work this whole blog realm out, and maybe, just maybe, I will discover a voice...preferably one that entertains and makes a few of you smile.

I have been gently encouraged, pushed, and recently, nagged (in a kind way) for nearly a year (I'm rather slow on the follow through, folks) by my husband, Stuart, and dear friend, Monica, to get this blog up and running.  My first protests had to do with fearing technology and whatnot, and isn't everyone already blogging?  Those issues resolved, I, in a likely whiney (and possibly wine-y) voice complained to Monica:  "But what if I have nothing good to say?!"  And she, ever-supportive:  "When has that ever stopped you?"  Well said, friend.  Indeed.  So, here we are.

I'd like to share a little recipe I've been having some success with for some months now, for bread.  I've been playing around with ingredients and techniques, and have come up with a good, tasty, and somewhat healthy loaf.  Think rustic, free-formed, kinda ciabatta-esque.  I've tried it purely from scratch, all the kneading done by yours truly, and phew!  That is a work out for which I honestly don't usually have the time, or the inclination.  It does feel pretty cool to say afterward, "I made this with my own two hands."  However, the sheen of sweat on my brow may deter you from tasting it.  And so, after receiving a new bread machine for Christmas (thanks Mom), I do the kneading cycle in the machine, saving myself a heck of a lot of work, and time.

If you're interested in making bread from scratch, there is an incredibly marvelous book:  The River Cottage Bread Handbook, by Daniel Stevens.  I learned a heap of useful stuff from this one, especially how to form the loaves, and let them rise properly, ensuring that lovely, crisp crust on the outside, and light, airy core.  Yum.  Serious yum.

Also, I should preface this photo with the disclaimer that I possess a fairly rubbish camera at the moment.  So bear with me, or just close your eyes and picture a beautiful loaf of bread.  Because this photo, my friends, does not do the bread justice.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Here's the recipe, and feel free to play around with it.  Bread, like life, is a work in progress.

My Go-to Loaf

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 Tbs olive oil, melted butter, or vegetable oil
1 tsp sugar, or honey
2 tsp fine sea salt 
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (bread machine yeast will do, as well)
*2 1/2 OR 2 3/4 cups unbleached bread flour ( I use King Arthur) plus
*3/4 OR 1/2 cup whole wheat flour

*You want a total of 3 1/4 cups flour, so with 2 1/2 cups bread flour, use 3/4 cup whole wheat flour, etc.

Place all ingredients, except the flour, in the pan of the bread machine, give it a gentle stir, and leave for 5-10 minutes, until the yeast begins to look frothy.  Then, in goes the flour into the bread pan, and the pan into the machine, cycle set to Dough.  And, have a break! (Or, for those of you who like the workout, go to it the old fashioned way.  I admire you.  Seriously.)

Once the Dough Cycle is complete, and your bread has done it's rise in the machine, gently remove it from the bread pan, and let it rest on a lightly  floured board, covered with a large bowl, for 15 minutes.

Using either a large, sharp knife, or a dough scraper, cut dough into 2 pieces, and shape into rounds.  (Here's where River Cottage Bread Handbook comes in handy!)  Basically, you want a nice, tight skin to hold things together.  I gently tap the dough into a flat round with my fingertips (you don't want that first rise to be wasted, so go easy.)  Then, take a "corner" of the dough, and fold it in to the middle, pressing down with your fingertips.  Turn the dough, and do this all the way around, until you have done a full circle.  Now, flip that baby over, and with a hand cupping each side of the dough, begin  making a quarter turn clockwise, while sort of twisting the dough with a little pressure, on the lightly floured board.  Continue on, going a quarter turn, over and over, around and around.  The idea here is to form that skin, and seal up the folds you made on the bottom.  It takes some practice, and I am possibly not explaining the most eloquently.  But you will get this.  And it is very worth the effort.

After you've shaped both loaves into rounds, you want to flour them and cover them to keep in the moisture, so the bread doesn't dry out.  Lots of people use a tea towel, spritzed with water.  I like Daniel Steven's suggestion of using a garbage bag over both loaves (leaving room for them to double and not touch!), tucking the bag around the edges of the board.  Leave in a warmish place, possibly near a heat source or fireplace, or just in a warm room, around 70 degrees (not too hot, or your yeast will get a little too excited too early, and we know how what a let down premature excitement can be!), until doubled in size.  This usually takes around 45 minutes to an hour...but it all depends, so just check in periodically.

Here's where you get to play around.  You can either reshape your dough, just as above, and let your bread rise again, which will give you an even lighter, airier loaf, or if you absolutely cannot wait, set your oven HOT, at 500 deg, about 1/2 an hour into the above rising.  Five minutes before you're going to bake your loaves, put a baking stone or sheet in the oven to preheat.  Get a water bottle ready to spritz the loaves, and if you like, put a roasting pan in the bottom rack of the oven and set a kettle to boil water.  (This is an extra step that may be viewed as a pain, but the steam does give the crust some serious depth and texture, if you can be bothered.)  When you're all set up, and the water has boiled, pull your baking sheet out of the oven and very gently transfer your loaves to it, quickly slash with a very sharp, serrated knife, diagonally a couple of times, 1/4 inch deep, to allow more expansion; spritz with water from the water bottle and get it in the oven; pour in about an inch or so of boiling water into the roasting pan, and shut the door.  And heave a sigh of relief, because that was A LOT

After 10 minutes, check in on the loaves, if they are browning like crazy, turn the oven down to 325, and continue baking for 20-25 minutes more.  If they are still very pale, turn the oven to 400, and continue baking for 20-25 minutes.  And, since there is just SO MUCH variation in bread, if they're just lovely and golden, turn the oven to 350, and bake on for yep, another 20-25 minutes!

The loaves are done when they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  You can always stick it back in the oven for another 5 minutes if it doesn't seem quite there.  The crust may be quite brown at this point, or it may just be golden...it all depends on your oven, your ingredients, the weather...But it's best to slightly overcook a loaf, than to undercook it, because the inside will be all gluey and stodgy.  Which is still quite forgivable considering you just made this yourself, so hello!  Pat yourself on the back, regardless how it turns out...this is a work in progress!   Common bread wisdom at this point says that you must let your bread rest and cool for 20-30 minutes before slicing, and it's true, it is best that way.  But by this point, even if your loaves are not perfect, your house will smell absolutely heavenly, your stomach (and/or your family) will be grumbling for a taste...and sometimes, you just can't wait, so do what you must!  And enjoy.