Relearning How to Bake

5 December 2011

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Aside: Wow… I know I’ve gone since Tau Day (late June) without posting, but you know it’s been too long when you barely recognize the interface.  It’s going to take some getting used to…

I am the baker of my household.  My wife is the cook (with exemptions for breakfast, which is my domain, and one special recipe which comes from the Lebanese part of my heritage).  I cooked when I lived alone, of course, but without enthusiasm.  Baking, I love.

Between teaching, research, and family life, I don’t have much time to pursue my own interests, baking included.  But we are now entering the one time of year when I make time for baking, when I consider my privilege to push aside other commitments and timesinks in favor of baking almost absolute: the Christmas season.  It just wouldn’t be Christmas without baked goods filling the kitchen and surrounding area with the smell of the holidays.  If I’ve learned anything, it’s that Christmas spirit comes in through the nose.  There are pies to make, and cookies and cookies and breads and cookies and cookies and cakes and cookies and cookies.  I did say bread.  I make almost all the bread we eat around here.

Bottom line: I bake a lot, and I consider it an essential Christmas ritual to escalate baking to ridiculous levels in the immediate future.

Cut to Friday, when we learned that our son Gabriel (almost three years old, though that hardly seems possible) is allergic to egg whites, peanuts, milk, soy, walnuts, dogs, and shrimp.  (Yes, seven distinct things; this explains why it was to hard to nail down the one thing that was causing his chronic allergic reactions….)  Peanuts wasn’t a surprised, and we’ve been avoiding them for quite a while now (sunflower butter is quite nice).  But egg whites, milk, and soy?!?  In case you’ve never read ingredients lists, that’s not much different from outright being allergic to food.   (Dairy subsitutes, and egg substitutes, are almost invariably soy-based.)

So my wife has spend the weekend culling from our pantry and fridge all the newly excluded foods, and finding as many new, acceptable foods as possible (no small task, especially in small town Michigan).  Me, I’m thinking “but, cookies… how will I make cookies?”

And so begins my adventure into highly-constrained baking.

Before I get to cookies, though, today we ran out of bread.  Today I made my first attempt to bake kid-friendly, wife-friendly, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free bread.  The recipe I used is an adaptation of Brother Fitzgerald’s Basic White Bread from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking, an outstanding book by Rick Curry, which should be in every breadlover’s collection.  I had to make some substitutions, though.  What follows is my amended list of ingredients.

  • 9 tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 cups warm rice milk
  • 2 Tbsp salt
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • ~4 cups of bread flour
  • ~3 cups of pastry flour
  • 2 Tbsp Olivio coconut-based spread

I dissolved the yeast in 1 cup of the milk (the recipe called for just 1/2 cup at this step, but I couldn’t get all the yeast to dissolve at that quantity) and let it set for a little while.  Then half the flour, the rest of the dry, the frothing yeast monster, and the the rest of the milk go into my stand mixer bowl.  I mixed it for a total of about 12 minutes, adding the rest of the flour gradually.  (Without a stand mixer, I’d have to do a bunch of kneading at this point.)

I let it double, punched it down and kneaded a minute or two, let it double, punched it down and kneaded a minute or two, let it double, punched it down, put it into bread pans and let it double.  I have a warming oven, and I let it spend the latter two rises hanging out in there.

The recipe calls for an optional egg wash (apparently that’s how Brother Fitzgerald does it), which of course I had to skip.  I misted the loaf lightly with olive oil, which has worked for me in the past with other recipes.  Then into the 425° oven to bake for 40 minutes.

It’s baking as I type this, so it’s too soon to report on how well it goes over.  Fingers crossed.

My wife’s cousin Mouse sent me this banana bread recipe, which seems like a winner, so at least I can make one baked goods treat.  Time to go exploring for more.

The next thing I attempt (assuming that this bread is not deemed so disastrously inedible that I have to make up another bread recipe, pronto) will be toaster pastries.  Y’know, Pop-Tarts.  One of my son’s favorite foods.  Before we knew about the allergies, I made this recipe, which was fine (I thought they were tasty, anyway) but a lot of work.  Actually forming the individual rectangles and positioning the filling took entirely too long.  I bought a foldover press thing from Bed Bath and Beyond that should be a big time saver.  Again, we’ll see.

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Taking my daughter to Cedar Point

21 June 2011

I’m sitting here at my computer desk in Fenton, MI, and as I sit here looking back on the last seven hours of one of those days where working really feels like working (a lot of particularly tedious technical writing and some wrangling of Sage and Mathematica), it’s almost hard to believe that, exactly one week ago, I was riding Thunder Canyon for the seventh or eighth time with my daughter, dripping with icy water and mentally going over the symptoms of mild, moderate, and severe hypothermia.

(Note: Though I am posting this entry at about midnight, I actually wrote this post at 3 pm.  Please, nobody get the idea that I was sitting with my 8-year old in icy water in the middle of the night, after the park was already closed.)

It was  a special father-daughter trip, no brothers allowed, to celebrate the end of first grade.  Now that she has a two-year-old brother and a two-month-old brother (and that ticks over to three months in two days), my daughter and oldest child doesn’t get as much attention as she used to, and her life is, like her parents’, to some extent ruled by the whims of an infant and a toddler.  We wanted the beginning of her summer to be memorable and fun and all about her.  A whole day of just the two of us at America’s Roller Coast, a place I visited more or less yearly in my own childhood but she had never visited, seemed like “just the ticket”, as I might say if, instead of blogging this at you, I were sipping brandy and wearing a smoking jacket while discussing the trip with you in your parlour.

So the night before, we told her to pack up her bag for a trip with dad and my wife helped her pick out an outfit and a spare, etc.  We were gone by 6:15.

Digression that “just doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter”: In my own childhood, the official start-of-summer commemoration was the ceremonial watching of Meatballs with Bill Murray, especially for my sister.  Chants of “it just doesn’t matter”, or references to “Wudy the Wabbit” are pretty much guaranteed to be well-received in my family.  I did suggest to my daughter that she could have a tradition-movie like that, tried to explain how much her favorite aunt had enjoyed doing so.  She smiled and said she wanted to, but mostly she looked puzzled.  I guess, with the amount of television and movies she watches on a daily basis, the idea of getting excited by a movie every year has hard to make sense of.

I beat all the heavy traffic, and we got to Cedar Point before they officially opened.  There is a gate that opens at the official start time, and by the time it opens there are dozens and dozens of rows of people pressed against the gate.  We were in the first row, right against the gate.  I could tell that my daughter felt like one of the cool kids, getting to be one of the very first in.  When the gate opened, we headed to the back of the park and worked our way forward (that’s the trick, friends).  We started with the Maverick, an excellent ride that I’d never been on, because my daughter said she was brave and tough and all.  Apparently that drained all the fight from her, though, because after that she only wanted kiddie rides and the Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, Matterhorn type things.  Nothing with a roller coaster track, nothing with screaming, nothing with upside-down.

You might think that that would ruin a day at Cedar Point, but it worked out just fine.  There are more kiddie activities than I remember from my youth.  She made many friends at Camp Snoopy and Planet Snoopy.  We saw an amusing ice skating show.  She indulged my love of the paddleboat excursion.  And we spent hours at the water rides.  We bought ice cream and french fries and all the must-eats, and I had brought a bag full of sandwiches and tacos and snacks of all kinds.

We had more time to talk, and she had more interest in talking, than had been the case for a very, very long time.

Digression that makes mouths happy: When my family went to Cedar Point each summer, my mom would always bring a giant bag with all the sunscreen and bug spray and waiting-in-line candy ‘n snacks.  You may never have thought about this, but you have to make candy selections with a certain amount of care when you’re packing for a full day of standing around in the hot sun.  Melting is a problem.  The preferred candy: Twizzlers.  Sometimes Werther’s, sometimes other things, but always Twizzlers.  As I planned out the trip in my mind, the first thing I knew for sure is that I would be packing Twizzlers.  To this day, that weird waxy strawberry flavor just tastes like ride queues, summer, and childhood.

Lately I’ve been feeling unstuck in time.  Not the full-on Billy Pilgrim, and no Tralfamadorians, but unstuck in my mind.  I’m 30.  I can’t process how quickly my children are growing up.  Having a new baby boy puts in sharp relief how much my toddler boy has grown, but also makes me feel as though it were just last week he were a baby.  More and more often I’m dreaming that I’m talking to my children, all grown up.  My daughter is 8, but sometimes she acts older, sometimes much younger.  Under those circumstances, it was questionable planning to visit a place where I have so many childhood memories.  I spent a lot of the day flashing back and forth between what was happening and memories of the same places when I was a kid.  Back before it was Peanuts.  Back when it was Berenstain Bears.

Digression that never will kick that football: I was not expecting my daughter to be so enamored with the Peanuts stuff.  I had no idea that she knew the characters.  I was taken even more by surprise by how much of a hold Peanuts still has over me.  I read it as a child, of course (who didn’t?), and hadn’t really thought about it for quite a while, so I didn’t know how deeply embedded in my psyche those characters were.  The power is Schulz’s simplicity, the understatedness.  Who can’t relate to lovable loser Charlie Brown?  Who doesn’t have a Lucy and a Linus in their life?  And, when you take one of life’s twists and turns a little too fast, is there anything better to say than “Good grief!”?

Meta-digression. Speaking of the passage of time and things that are timeless, speaking of things that put in sharp relief that I am getting older, speaking of all-time wonderful comic strips. have you seen Hobbes and Bacon on Pants are Overrated?  The best commentary I’ve read is here, by Robert Krulwich.  Let me just say that they are toying with powerful forces.

My daughter is typically in bed well before 10 pm, so it was far from a foregone conclusion that we’d be able to stay the whole day.  But she got her second wind, and then a third and a fourth, and she was very much awake when we sat down just in time for the fireworks and laser light show.  I told her how much I loved her, how glad I was to have her as a daughter, how much I enjoyed spending this special day with her.  She told me I was the best dad and then we watched the show.  An American Portrait, it was called, and it was patriotism to the max.  It was pretty good, actually, but I confess that I miss the rock-and-roll-themed laser-light show from my childhood.  Every time I hear “What I Like About You” by the Cars, even today, I am teleported back into my own childhood, and it’s dark and I have spent a whole day roller-coastering, and I’m about to fall asleep in the car and roller-coaster in my dreams.

This time, of course, it was my daughter who fell asleep about three minutes into the return car trip.  I didn’t have that luxury.  My three-ish hour drive home was brought to you by three cans of cherry Nos (or, as I like to call it, the Drink of Ultimate Desperation).  I got home after 1 am, more tired than I’d been in quite a while, but also filled with that vague but satisfying feeling of having done something.

I don’t know exactly what I wanted or expected from the experience, and I don’t know what I got from it.  I know that I wanted it to be .. meaningful, and I think it was, but what exactly it meant .. to me or to her .. I couldn’t really say.  I have a slightly better-defined notion of what I hoped my daughter would get out of it, and though she talks happily about how much fun she had, you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head.  Not ever, really.  Not even your best friend or your spouse.  Not even your child.

Not even yourself.


Poetry for Children (with digressions into Upside-Down Pictures and the Land of Lost Socks)

16 February 2010

Who were your favorite poets when you were 6 or 7?

I don’t seem to remember being very enthusiastic about poetry when I was that age, though I could very easily be mistaken. The books I still remember, the ones that made up the mythos of my childhood, weren’t poetry (unless you count the little rhymes at the beginning of Berenstain Bears books).

Digression 1: Speaking of the books of the mythos of my childhood, you know what’s great about being a grown-up with access to university libraries? I was able to find one of the picture books from my childhood. I remember being so blown away by this book at school in kindergarten or first grade or so that I insisted that my parents find it so I could read it at home. The book is Round Trip, and it’s got a lovely gimmick. The story is of a child’s journey with his/her family from their small country house into the big, big city and back. The illustrations are all black and white, and when you get to “the end” of the book, you flip it over and go back the other way, with the pictures upside-down. The way that a daytime scene of travel away and a nighttime scene of return are the same, just upside down, is the kind of play with figure-and-ground that still makes me think “Cool!”, even as I close in on 29. The memory rattled toward the front of my mind sometime early last year or so, and I tracked it down so I could read it to my daughter. The feeling of recapturing a bit of the magic of childhood, even if it’s just getting your hands on a book once seen as magical, was a special one, made more so by my intention to share it with my daughter.

I like reading to my daughter, though it’s not always easy to find something to read to her. She has rather specific preferences in things, and very little patience for things that she doesn’t decide that she likes. But I do like reading to her, telling her stories. I prefer any bit of quality end-of-day time with her to just turning on a bedtime movie. Based I think on some positive response to nursery rhymes, I decided at one point to try poetry. I tried reciting some little bits of verse I happened to know from my adventures, and that went well. I got a book of poetry about faeries from the library (I know my audience), and some of those were good and some were boring.

The big triumph came when I heard a review of a book on NPR one weekend morning with Datura, and I headed to the library to snatch it up. The book was Flamingos on the Roof, by Calef Brown, and it consists of very short poetry accompanied by paintings. The content is pitched at small children and quite silly, but the real beauty is in what’s happening with the sounds, rhymes, and rhythm; it’s just a joy to have these poems coming out of my mouth. We had a winner.

Somewhere around this time I discovered that my wife owned the set of three books of Shel Silverstein poetry. She thought the set of big white books looked cool, and I read to her. Over many nights, over many months, I’ve probably read her more than a hundred different Shel Silverstein poems. She has zero interest. Zero.

Last night I went back to reading from Calef Brown’s Flamingos on the Roof (we read them all, most twice, and we sounded out the words in some of her favorites), and I reached, at long last, a conclusion. I need to get this girl some more books of poetry.

Digression 2: Why did Round Trip and Flamingos on the Roof both feature in a post today of all days, you ask? Because yesterday, when Susie was doing a heroic amount of housework, she uncovered, in the middle of Datura’s floor, both of these books. We have both spent long periods of time looking for these books on previous occasion. Flamingos on the Roof is my property now, but only becacuse I had to pay the library after being quite sure that I had lost it. Round Trip I’d been seeking for quite a white — hadn’t seen it in the better part of a year — and was steeling myself for owing the . Then they both appeared. Ta-da. They fell back out of hammerspace, or wherever it is that small children can lose your left slipper and a dozen pen caps in, and from whence they manifest candy and noisemakers. Where is that place? Is it Hofstadter’s Tumbolia? And is it the same place where all the dirt goes when a dog digs a hole? Have you ever seen a dog dig a hole? You get big holes and little tiny piles of dirt. The dirt would never even come close to filling the hole. Where does the dirt go?

I know there are some moms who read this blog, and I know there are some people with a background in education (and some overlap between these groups). So what do you think? Who are some good poets for early elementary children? Good illustrations, a plus. Words at a difficulty that it would be worI know there are some moms who read this blog, and I know there are some people with a background in education (and some overlap between these groups). So what do you think? Who are some good poets for early elementary children? Good illustrations, a plus. Words at a difficulty that it would be worthwhile for a beginning beginning reader to give them a shot, a superplus.thwhile for a beginning beginning reader to give them a shot, a superplus.

There are probably obvious answers, but I’m just not knowledgable in this area, so give me the obvious and the obscure.

Thanks in advance.