Sunday, December 26, 2010

Comfort & Joy

Last weekend, I made my very first loaf of real bread. Oh, sure, I'd made quick breads--banana, zucchini, etc.--but never anything requiring yeast.  I decided to try the no-knead bread from the New York Times, which is perfect for the lazy. It requires only flour, salt, yeast, water, and about 20 hours rising time, in a room that was at least 70 degrees F. This presented the only obstacle: our 1927 farmhouse does not have central heat, is not well-insulated, and is rather drafty. We use the woodstve in the fireplace and lots of down comforters to stay warm. There are small space-heater-like units in the wall of each room, but none of these is capable of getting and keeping the room at a balmy 70--except for the one in the bathroom.

Cat and dough enjoying the warmth

Yes, I know: food in the bathroom. Ewwww. But, I reasoned, it's in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and I'll put it up on top of the hideous, laminate cabinet (bathroom was sadly "renovated" in the late 70s/early 80s--all 20s charm is gone, gone, gone). With the door firmly closed, it was possible to keep the windowless bathroom warm enough for the yeast to do its thing. My bread got a little more than 18 hours rising time, because I got confused calculating times and started the bread at 9 AM, which gave me a choice of getting up at 3 AM, or letting the bread rise for a few extra hours--you can guess which I chose. The extra time didn't hurt it at all, and it baked up beautifully in my cast iron Dutch oven. I was so proud and excited you'd think I'd discovered penicillin. The bread was enjoyed with soup, and the remnant used to make the "Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good" on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, date of the Winter Solstice and lunar eclipse, was our first wedding anniversary. The rainy weather on the west coast made it impossible to see the eclipse, which was huge disappointment, and a family illness put a bit of a damper on anniversary festivities. We decided to wait and celebrate on the 22nd, when the loved one was out of danger. My dear husband bought me books because, as he noted (to my amazement), the traditional gift for a first anniversary is paper.  I, jumping inadvertently ahead to the traditional fifth anniversary wood gift, got him a wooden cutting board made by the farmer from whom we buy our vegetable out of wood from a white oak on his farm. We had dinner at the wonderful Bistro Maison, a marvelous French restaurant. The rain stopped long enough for us to walk there and back--a great way to justify the calories consumed in the baked Alaska we had for dessert.

As I've noted previously, Christmas is not my favorite time of year and I try to ignore it as much as possible. My grinchy-ness was alleviated somewhat this year by a number of examples, some local, some far away, of generous and unselfish giving that offset the annoying orgy of consumerism I associate with the holiday. I made it through five hours(!) of Christmas music on Christmas Eve before I snapped and started throwing things. And on Xmas day, though I lost my ambition to make the full turkey/dressing/cranberry sauce dinner I'd planned, I did manage to roast a turkey breast and make a ginger-pear upside-down cake while recruiting my ever-indulgent husband to make the sauce, mashed potatoes and green beans with almonds.

We even had a minor Christmas miracle: two members of the household managed to catch fire Xmas day, and neither of them was the accident-prone moi! My husband was sitting on the hearth in front of the fire, watching a basketball game online, and I was in the kitchen peeling pears. Suddenly, I heard him shout "Fuck!" and I ran to see what was wrong. A couple of sparks from the crackling fire had landed on his fleece pullover which, being basically plastic, promptly began to melt onto his skin. I helpfully observed, "Oh, you're on fire," as he wrangled his way out of the smoldering, smelly mess.

Later, we were sitting at the table, candles lit, when our long-haired cat Baxter (pictured above) decided to saunter across the table to see if any stray turkey might come his way. Sadly, his magnificent fluffy tail brushed against a candle, causing a shower of sparks and the ever-so-appetizing smell of burnt hair. Kitty was luckily unharmed, although he kept looking at his tail and trying to figure out if it was the source of the extremely unpleasant odor.  As my husband said, it's not a successful party until someone catches fire. And so another Christmas is survived--this time with the comfort and joy of a partner who is understanding of my neuroses about the season and who will turn off the music when I just can't bear another note.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bah, humbug

Just enough room for kitty to rest his head. Apple is so thoughtful.

Today I bought my very first pair of long underwear. I've had thermal long-sleeved tees before, but never a real set of long johns, for very good reason: I've never needed them. If it was that cold outside, them obviously the right thing for me to do was to stay indoors where it's cozy and warm.

So why now? Because I need to walk every day, and I won't be able to force myself to get up and do it if I'm going to be cold and miserable. Yes, it's true, I'll admit it: exercise makes me feel better--not just physically, but mentally. Happy, every know-it-all doctor I've ever had? You were right. God, I hate saying those words.

Since the rainy season started a month ago, my walks have been few and far between, and I definitely feel the worse for it. Here's hoping the thermal undies can help me overcome my reluctance to leave a warm bed to walk on a cold, dark morning.

So, only three weeks until the horror known as Christmas is behind us for another year. I don't know about you, but I can't wait. I despise the Christmas music everywhere, the orgy of consumerism, the waste, the forced cheer. Now, I'll admit that I don't have warm, fuzzy memories of wonderful childhood Christmases--the one that stands out most is the time my grandfather, drunk by noon on Xmas day, ran over a dog on the way to the big family dinner and didn't even slow down--and perhaps that colors my feelings for the season.

To the extent I can, I ignore it. I don't decorate at all, and I only buy gifts for the children in my life. It helps enormously that we don't have a TV and I only listen to public radio, so I'm not overwhelmed with commercials. I stay away from stores as much as possible, and give thanks that I live in a town without a shopping mall.

I made slice-and-bake cookies for the first time in years this weekend. I grew up on Pillsbury slice-n-bake cookies, the only kind my grandmother ever made. The ones shown above did not come from one of the dough boy's neat round tubes, however. They are maple-pecan sandies, and they're an odd shape because I couldn't get the log of dough very round. The recipe calls for them to be dipped in melted bittersweet chocolate, but I can't decide whether to do this or not. They're really good plain. Probably should test a few more before I make up my mind.