Bread baking

It's not the prettiest or tastiest loaf I've ever made, but considering the materials I have to work with (flour of unknown gluten content, no mixer, a toaster oven) it's not bad. Pretty good, in fact. Much more to our taste than the spongey bread sold around here (bread, we finally realized, which tries to approximate traditional steamed buns, with an unfortunately high degree of success.) The only problem--Finn and I can polish off half a loaf just for lunch, and have to seriously restrain ourselves if Matt gets to try any by the time he gets home. Thankfully, due to that wonderful no-knead method popularized in the NYT a few years ago, it's not a big deal to make some every day.

And that's not the only bread baking around here ... yes, we've got a proverbial bun in the oven. (Forgive the awful transition. And no, I didn't bake the bread just for the purpose of this announcement.) Thus far, the pregnancy has pretty much knocked me down flat, but I'm starting to find my feet (and my appetite), for which both Matt and Finn are surely grateful. (And the grandparents, too, given that we've got quite a backlog of photos and videos to upload. I'll get right on it.)

Due in October; no, we don't know if it's a girl or a boy; and no, it's not affecting our travel plans for the summer. That's about all we know. Oh, and this--we are excited and humbled and a wee bit scared to be starting this journey all over again.

Recipe for bread below. For the bun, you're on your own. 

(This makes one toaster oven size loaf. For a larger loaf, just double the ingredients and lengthen the baking time. Sorry to say I don't know how that will fit in a standard loaf pan. My gut says it might be a little big, but I could be wrong. I don't use a pan at all, but the dough is a bit on the wet side and it always ends up a little flat. I think that a doubled loaf, without a pan, would look like focaccia, but would still taste great.)

1 1/2 cups white flour (bread or strong, if you can find it)
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons whole wheat flour 
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
7/8- 1 1/4 cup cool water (this really depends on the kind of flour you have and how humid it is)

1/2 cup dried fruit -- raisins, dried cranberries, and apricots are all good 
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (or use all nuts or all fruit)  

Stir together the flour, salt, yeast and water. It should be on the tacky/wet side, but not goopy.  If you have bread flour it will take more water than all-purpose. Add the fruit and/or nuts, stir well, cover, and then let sit overnight, or for at least 8 hours.  That's right--no kneading! Time takes care of the gluten development. (This is why you want a wet dough rather than a stiff one, too ... it helps in the gluten molecule rearrangement.)

The next morning, the dough should be puffy and bubbly. Sprinkle some flour around the edges of the bowl, and use a spatula or dough scraper to scrape it down. Quickly shape it, with floured hands, into an oval, then place onto a baking pan or in a greased loaf pan. Cover and let rise again, until puffy, anywhere from 1-2 hours, depending on the humidity and heat. It won't double in size no matter how long you wait. Bake at 450 F until the crust is golden brown and sounds hollow (and the interior registers 205 F), around 40 minutes in my oven. Try to let it cool a bit before slicing into it--you'll get neater slices that way. But if you just can't wait, well, that's ok too.       


A tribute

Twelve years ago, in the fateful spring of a blossoming love, Matt brought me down the hill from St. Olaf campus, across the road, and along a winding lane to a magical fairy house on the banks of Heath Creek. The house was handmade, low-ceilinged, full of stone and books and cigar smoke. The owners, Howard and Edna Hong, served us too-strong coffee and homemade bread, and told us how they had moved the house from on campus to its present location, and I fell in love.

This was before I really knew anything about the Hongs, before I began working at the Kierkegaard Library, before I had read any Kierkegaard, or any of Edna's writings. It may have been an unusual method of courtship, but Matt took me back several times that spring and in the following years, for woodland walks, book discussions and cups of that too-strong coffee. We heard about Edna's engagement bike, learned how to age cheese, tried to follow Howard's rabbit trails of thoughts that always led exactly where he intended, and had our English questioned and corrected over and over.

We left those afternoons inspired and hopeful, refreshed in the knowledge (though never did we articulate this) that such a good life was possible for us too, and that what it required was not masses of talent or intellect or success (though the Hongs had all of that in plenty) but simply the willingness to think, to live thoughtfully and ethically, to act in accordance with one's beliefs, to be ever seeking clarity, to do, in Mother Theresa's words, "small things with great love" (and I would add--great attention as well.)

Last summer we drove down that lane one last time, bringing our son to visit Howard. We shuddered a bit at the stacks of books and papers covering the floor and every surface except our chairs, afraid of the damage our 16-month-old could do. The cigar smell and the coffee were the same, though, and Howard's eyes twinkled. We talked about Edna's death in April 2007, about our life in Hong Kong, about reading poetry aloud to Finn. 

(Heath Creek Gothic, we call it) 

I've tried to make sense of what it is about certain people that their success doesn't make me feel bad about my own life, its smallness or lack of success. Instead, remembering their lives, remembering time in their presence, I am both inspired (given breath) and encouraged (given courage) to attend to my daily duties with attention and care--working out both my humanity and my salvation in the stuff of childcare and chores, not getting lost or consumed in such dailiness but not inattentive to it either.

Howard Hong died a few weeks ago, on March 16. He was 97 and it was not unexpected. Reading the many tributes to him and listening to his memorial service has renewed our sense of privilege at knowing him and Edna, though we were but two of thousands who sought wisdom and coffee at their door. The legacies of their lives will surely play out in uncounted ways around the world. In our own, we have a pair of silverware given as a wedding gift, a wheel of Gouda aging in the back of the refrigerator, and a child who is lulled to sleep each night with the words of Frost and Eliot and Shakespeare. And more than that, we have courage--and when we don't have courage we at least have breath--for the living of these days.