Comfort Food: Pumpkin Bread

Everyone has their own ideas about comfort food. I know I certainly have my old stand-by’s, dishes that I gravitate to when I need that little something extra. Often those are the foods of our childhood, but now and then we find new ones. Risotto is one of our faves for its rich, creamy texture, though it takes lots of stirring before it’s done.

Today, though, Aidan and I made what may become another of those special dishes: pumpkin bread. The recipe was fairly easy — a lot like zucchini bread or banana bread, but with pumpkin we had baked a few days ago (in a pan with an inch or so of water in the bottom). It was a big pumpkin, so we’ve made pumpkin risotto, pumpkin pasta, soup with pumpkin, etc. The bread is one of those true comfort foods, though, and that’s probably because of the spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove (or alspice, but we were out).

The recipe comes from one of my favorite websites: Pick Your Own. I’ve gone here to find local u-pick orchards and to find recipes for anything you can pick in one. They usually have good ideas, and their pumpkin bread recipe, though basic, is great (they even tell you how to cook a pumpkin and what kind to select — we ignored most of that advice because we had already bought the pumpkin for a jack-o-lantern that never got carved, and I had already baked it the way I had heard to do it before).

I did alter the recipe, based on experience and the comments on their site. A couple people mentioned using apple sauce, and I remembered that in any carrot cake, quick bread, etc. recipe, you can usually substitute 1/2 the oil with the same amount of apple sauce. It’s a great way to make a low-fat recipe out of something fairly decadent, and it works great. I also cut the sugar, though not as much as some people did. I used 2 cups instead of the 3 that the recipe calls for or the 1.5 that many people used. (I kept some more sugar because the pumpkin we started with wasn’t too sweet to begin with, and we wanted to give one of the loaves away.)

You don’t even have to eat it to enjoy this bread. Just the aroma is enough, though once you’ve had a whiff of it, you won’t be able to not eat any! It’s less decadent than pumkin pie, and is easier to put together, but the taste is almost as good. So next time I have some pumpkin around (canned will work, too) and am in the need of a little extra warmth in my life, I know just what to make.

Happy Holidays….

A few thoughts on eBooks

A student in one of my classes has started bringing a funny little book to class — her Kindle. She loves it, and I can see the allure (especially given the weight of most students’ backpacks), but we’ve come across a problem. Her Kindle editions don’t include the original page numbers! So how can she cite her source?

If I had known before she bought her device, I might have recommended against the Kindle, and not just because the name sounds too much like my own (and makes no sense — though the iPad name has been criticized as well). I would have recommended an iPad because it does so much more than a Kindle and because I’m an Apple fan, though I do like the e-Ink screen on the Kindle.

Page numbers are the biggest issue, though, when reading books in an academic setting. They are a feature that should be possible to turn on or off, in my opinion, depending on how and why you want to read. When searching for a solution, I came across a GoodReads post that suggested book clubs might want page numbers so everyone can know if they are on the ‘same page.’

That search led me to what may be the solution (or a partial solution) for Kindle owners. The eBook format by ePub does include original page numbers. It is the format used by Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the iPad, and several other e-Readers. Naturally, the Kindle doesn’t support it, but there may be a work around.

Fortunately there is an ebook management program called Calibre The software is open source and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and it will convert your ePub eBook file to the MOBI format that the Kindle will read.

I haven’t tried this, but here is how I assume it should work. If you want to read a book for academic purposes (or to have page numbers that correspond to an original print version), BUY the ebook in ePub format or another format that has original page numbers. Keep a copy of that formatted file on your computer. You can use Calibre to read it as a reference for when you need the page numbers. Convert the file to a copy in MOBI format and sync this with your Kindle. Now you can read the book anywhere on the device of your choice (the one you own) and still have access to page numbers.

If you haven’t bought the ePub version of the book, then I recommend you either do that, buy a cheap used copy in print, or borrow someone’s print copy when you are ready to look up the page numbers. This will be painful, but it’s what you need to do in order to properly cite the page in a paper. (On an exam, I may allow references to chapters, though that is only useful when the chapters are relatively short.)

If you don’t own a Kindle, then I would recommend against it for use in college or any other setting where knowing what page you are on would be useful. Look into other readers like the iPad, the Nook, etc. that do give you access to the original page numbers (not the page of the book when you’ve formatted it for viewing on your screen — some formats will give you this number based on the words that fit on a screen as formatted, not based on the original page number from another physical edition of the book).

If you like the Kindle best as a reader, then you should look into ways to access the page numbers from a standard edition and then purchase a ebook formatted with that information so you can access it somehow — even if you read it on the Kindle or other device that doesn’t support page numbers. I will agree that finding the page number on an electronic format of the book is probably easier than locating it in the physical book (which is why I want the true page number in your papers!) because you can search for the quoted passage.

For better or worse, eBooks will likely become a part of academic life more and more in the near future. Dealing with the issues of citation is something we will have to do. It may be that someday eBooks will be so ubiquitous that we don’t need to reference pages anymore, but for now when the printed book is the standard format, it still is a necessary requirement. So before you buy your eBook reader or at least before you buy your next eBook file, look into the format and whether it has all the information you need, like page numbers, especially if you need to use the book for a class.

Depending on where you buy your eBook file, though, there may be DRM (Digital Rights Management) software that keeps you from converting the file to another format or from playing it on another type of player. I haven’t tried this or researched it enough yet to know for sure. Do look into that before you spend money on an eBook or a reader. If I learn more, I may post a follow-up here.

Finding Myself

One of the joys and pains of authorship is finding yourself in print. Of course, it is a joy when you have slaved over a manuscript and seen it through to publication. Nothing compares to the moment a new book comes out or a poem appears in a magazine.

But is it vain or is it just necessary to occasionally search for yourself? I mean when you get that itch to Google your name. Is it a bad thing? Today’s experience tells me it is necessary, and this isn’t the first time this has happened to me… The good news is, I found myself. I just didn’t know where I had gone.
On a happy note, Google Books came up with a reference to my translation of a poem by Paul Snoek that is quoted in A Literary History of the Low Countries. You’ve got to love that. Not only does it help promote Paul Snoek, whose collected poems I spent many years with and would still like to publish more of in translation, but it is a scholarly use of my book Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. Now who could complain about that?

It was a little more unsettling, though, to find two of my translations of poems by Luke Gruuwez and Charles Ducal on a blog that I didn’t know about. On the one hand, I’m honored to have been included. On the other hand, this is use of copyrighted material without my permission. Now, since I wouldn’t expect to be paid for a blog publication, and these are not translations of poems that I am actively trying to publish elsewhere, I simply wrote the publisher of the blog to request that they ask for permission before they make an further use of these or other translations of mine. I thanked them for considering my work, and suggested some other poets whose work I have translated, so perhaps something good will come of it after all. And it is nice to see my name in print (or pixels) and be recognized as a translator.

Still, it does give you pause. If you are a writer and you have published work, it may not be vain to Google yourself. It is probably a habit we all need to get into, if for no other reason than the protection of our copyright. Of course, in this case, I’m more concerned that there was a publication that I didn’t know about than with any loss of value. However, if I were trying to publish these poems in a magazine, then publication online might make that impossible. An author or translator needs to be informed when his or her work is being used (unless it is fair use, such as quoting a passage).

I’ve heard horror stories of poets who have found their work plagiarized — published under someone else’s name. Maybe we should all Google more than just our names. So the next time you ask me if I Google myself, don’t be surprised if I answer: “Yes, as often as possible!”

It Could Have Been Music

As I turn from grading exams and essays back to getting ready for this year’s Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, coming up in less than two weeks, I am thinking about this year’s theme. It could have been a musical theme, at least judging by our poets.

Shirlette Ammons’ book includes an extended play CD with music from her group Mosadi, which has played with bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Known as a stellar performer, Shirlette is bound to give a great reading on Friday morning.

Mitchell L. H. Douglas has dedicated his first book of poems to the legacy of soul legend Donny Hathaway. His book Colling Board is formatted like an old LP record with two sides and alternate takes of poems that retell events of Hathaway’s life from different perspectives.

Sean Hill also uses musical call and response in his rendition of life in the twentieth century African American community in Milledgeville, Georgia. And Beth Ann Fennelly has been influenced by blues and rock and roll, according to a critic writing for Booklist.

Front Row Happiness

My internal geek is happy. I finally found the solution I’ve been looking for, and it’s been right there all along — an overlooked piece of Apple software, Front Row. (Click on the icon to see what Apple has to say about it.)

When we first bought the Mini, I knew it came with FR, but didn’t really give a hoot. After all, FR is primarily billed as a way to run iTunes or watch Apple’s iTunes video, using a remote control. Big deal, right? We use Netflix for streaming movies and don’t want or need a lot more. Internet video (Kim and Aidan are enjoying ESPN3 which we get through ATT DSL service, since they watch Alabama football), and we watch some movie trailers or youTube videos now and then. None of that works with Front Row (or at least it won’t work without some tweaking).

But what we do have that I was looking for a better solution for viewing are personal videos — lots of them. Aidan takes fiddle lessons, and we record every song as a short video clip. I had been making VCDs of them, but this took many steps, lots of time, lots of disk space, and quite a few CDs and DVDs to store them on. I was running out of both time and disks and really wanted to use the computer to play them, as long as it’s connected to a TV. Makes sense, right?

It worked, but it was ugly and challenging to use QuickTime to view the video. We had to open individual files by clicking on them, and this brought up the biggest limitation of connecting the Mini to a TV as the monitor — the type on screen, when viewed from the distance of the couch (optimal for watching movies) is too small. We’ve worked around this for web browsing, but using the Finder to do much is a pain. Certainly, I didn’t want to click through the Finder to get to each movie, then expand it to full screen mode, and finally play each song.

So I was looking for a viewer like iTunes to help me organize my content, and I couldn’t find much of anything for a Mac that would work. That usually means one of two things — I want to do something few other people are interested in OR Apple has already invented it. I tried a few programs that might work: iTunes wouldn’t play our video format, so I would have had to convert every file (one step I was trying to avoid). QuickTime won’t browse a folder. iPhoto might have worked, but seemed counterintuitive to me, and I wasn’t sure about formats.

Then I happened to see Front Row and realized I might give it a try. As it turns out, it will play any movie (in a QuickTime format, I suppose) in your Movies folder, as well as playing online content from iTunes or content in your iTunes library. Better yet, it recognizes folders within the Movies folder, so I can organize movies by date or by groups of lessons, keeping the newest ones on top, but allowing us to go back and review older songs and find them quickly. If I want, I can put subfolders within each main folder to hold different versions (we tape slow versions, and some versions of the difficult fingerings, as well as a couple of different versions that his teacher plays on different days or with variations to the melody, but after awhile Aidan doesn’t need all these slower versions, since he’s learned the song).

The best features are that the interface is simple and intuitive. We can use an Apple Remote or the keyboard, and we just use arrow keys and enter to go from directory to directory or from song to song and choose what we want. It’s easy to get out of when we’re done. The text is big enough to read (white on a black background, so it’s very visible), since it’s designed to be used with a TV as the monitor. And finally, the movies play at full screen automatically.

Front Row would work well for any kind of personal video — home movies or whatever. I’ve seen people who use it to play their DVD libraries that they’ve ripped to the hard drive (something I don’t imagine we’ll ever do). I need to look into using it to play Netflix, but I don’t think that’s available yet. I have heard that Boxee does something similar, but haven’t tried it out yet. For now, I’m happy to play with Front Row for awhile and organize our personal video files for easy viewing.

Since Front Row is so simple to use, and it won’t take me long to organize the songs into folders, maybe I’ll have time to actually learn a few of the songs Aidan can play!

The Real Point

I’ve been thinking about my last post, and though I’m happy with what I wrote, I do feel I fell into the trap that most educators get caught in when talking about the value of what they do. We tend to think of the future. We educate students so they can go out into the world and use their education. We hope that they will have productive careers that will benefit themselves and society, so we base our value judgment on the future. The future is very hard to judge because the causal relationship between education and any future success is nearly impossible to prove. Luck plays a role. Drive plays a role. The economy and other bigger forces play roles that affect our students lives as much or more than we can. What we give are tools. Our students, as they go out into the world, are responsible for how they use those tools.

So it seems to me that a better place to look for the point to teaching creative writing (or at least an equally valid place to look) is in the present. Teaching creative writing in a university setting has value because the work that students produce while they study creative writing has value.

When we go to see a performance of a college play, we don’t ask how many of the cast will ever end up on Broadway or in Hollywood. (Or at least I sincerely hope we don’t!) We applaud the students for their effort, which often has resulted in very good performances. Could all those students survive and present equally good performances every night, given the rigors of professional acting? Probably not. Will all of those students have the drive and good fortune to be successful in a drama career? Probably not. Yet they have come together to create a performance that moved an audience. They have bonded together as a cast to create a work of art.

The same could be said of a musical performance or of a gallery exhibition. So why do we hear this argument so infrequently in relation to undergraduate (or graduate) creative writing?

Last year, my colleague Bridget Pieschel and I worked together to put out a retrospective issue of the Dilettanti student literary magazine for Mississippi University for Women’s 125th anniversary. As we went back through the past issues (including previous incarnations of the magazine as Ephemera and Oh Lady!), we found many pieces of merit — more than we could use — including, of course, some the early writings of Eudora Welty. Yet there were many other writers within those covers who never went on to fame. Their work was equally inspiring, perhaps more inspiring because it was not overshadowed by later, greater works.

A student literary magazine is a great document of the history of a writing program, of course, but it is not the only thing we produce. Every final portfolio has merit and is a milestone for the student. In producing a magazine, taking part in a writing club, organizing a reading or a conference, or taking part in a workshop, students build a community of writers. With any public performance or publication, students add to the community experience of their university. Though these community building skills will serve them well in the future, the value of those activities is felt in the present as well.

In other words, when a student comes to me and says she wants to be a writer, my job is to help her become a better writer now. I hope that the seeds I plant will take root and will help her later in life, whether or not she does become a professional writer. Yet even if the only value she gets out of her education is what she accomplishes that semester or in the four years in our program, that experience ought to be valued. Education, especially for creative writers, is not just about what we will become, but it is about who we are and what we produce today.

What’s the point?

At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes stop to wonder what is the point to this education thing, especially for undergraduate creative writers. Often at AWP conferences, panels bemoan the number of writing programs out there (usually MFA programs but it applies to undergrad as well) and lament the prospects for their students. Some go so far as to wonder whether they should even allow their students to take their classes (though they do). In this day and age, when college tuitions continue to rise and when students are increasingly practical in their choices of major (or believe they are), how do we justify what we do?

On the one hand, it is tempting to simply justify it because it exists. Poetry has been around for thousands of years, and fiction as we know it for nearly as long. Creative writing has been part of human culture since humans learned to write, before that there was storytelling and oral poetry, so there should be no need to justify teaching it. Oh, that life were so simple.

Students (or their parents) want careers. Actually, many students don’t want careers, or if they do, they want exciting careers, and ‘famous writer’ is right up there with ‘film star’ for some of them. Yet if that were the promise we held out to students, then I might agree that teaching creative writing is unethical. Rare is the student who will go on to a career as a writer, though they do exist and I know several of our alums who are well on their way. Even rarer is the student writer who will someday be ‘famous,’ though that may depend on how one defines fame. So I am looking for something a little more practical in what we teach.

Ultimately, it boils down to two things: self-awareness and expression. Really, aren’t these the hallmarks of a liberal arts education? They may be developed in many fields, but no fields are more appropriate to this than the creative fields of writing, art, music, and theater.

Most students seem to take creative writing classes because they have a desire to express themselves. In order to do this, they must by definition, know themselves, and the process of creative writing involves considerable exploration of the self. Though it is not psychoanalysis — there is no analyst in the room — the creative writing class provides this opportunity, as any art class might. This clearer understanding of the self may be more beneficial to the student in the long run than any professional education, even if it is never directly applicable to a career. It may help the student choose a career or decide when to change careers, who to marry (or not), what to do in her/his ‘spare time,’ etc.

Certainly, creative writing classes can not take credit for every decision students make in the rest of their lives, but there is value in fostering a thoughtful self-awareness. Of course, many students may still make a mess of their lives (who doesn’t at some point) and cope with their messes for better or worse, and this is an aspect of learning that is impossible to grade or assess. Some of those ‘messes’ may lead to brilliant works of art, for which we also can not take full credit, anymore than we can be blamed for a lack of brilliance.

So I usually come round to fostering expression as the main value of what we do as teachers of creative writing. If anything, I hope we teach (and can grade and assess) care with language. Creative writers should pay more attention to how they write what they write. The language of a poem should be beautiful (or intentionally and beautifully ugly), even if the subject is not. A paragraph of prose fiction should be musical as well as informative. Writers should choose the word that is right in a given context, not just the most expedient word, but the word that means, sounds, and feels right. Syntax matters for the patterns it creates (not just grammatical correctness), and paragraphs, poems, stories, even essays are developed with a structure in mind, though that structure often arises out of the material rather than being imposed from outside.

This attention to detail and care for language carries over from writers’ creative works to all their writing. Emails from a writer ought to be better written than most others. In an age of information, when we are flooded with ‘communication’ vying for our attention, the messages that are well crafted will stand out from those that aren’t. There may be more need for poets and writers than ever before, and more need to develop the skills of a writer for those who do want to stand out and make their mark, whether that is with a book of poems or novel or with a memo or blog or tweet or whatever the next technological innovation will bring.

Let’s face it, most creative writing students aren’t hell bent on a career. They may end up in a closely related field, or they may end up doing something completely different from what they studied in college in order to make a living (which is true for students in any major), yet the skills students develop in a creative writing class will stand them in good stead no matter where they go or what they do.

Muscadine Sherbet

I’ll admit it; I really ought to measure when making up new recipes, but I rarely do. Today was no exception.

Having some muscadine grapes from the farmer’s market that really needed to be used, I decided to boil 2-3 cups of them in a cup or less of water. I filled a pan half full of grapes and about a quarter full of water, picking the grapes that were a little softer than the others, so we’d have a few to eat raw, the way we love them best.

I boiled these with a little lemon juice for about 5 minutes, just until the skins started to split, and then let them cool for awhile, long enough to do a little cleaning. Then I ran them through the sieve on our Kitchenaid stand mixer. Though we don’t use it too often, the attachment set we got for this as a wedding present (hoping to make baby food some day, which we did briefly) has come in very handy over the years. There is a screw that pushes the fruit pulp through the sieve, and all the seeds and harder parts of the skin come out the end, making quick work of seeding grapes, among other things.

I put the resulting juice in the refrigerator for a few hours until it was cold, then added 1/4 cup powdered sugar (based on a recipe tip) and some honey, after thinking better of the sugar idea. Next time, I’ll probably just use honey.

I briefly waffled between making sorbet and sherbet, but after estimating how much liquid I would need, I decided to go the sherbet route by adding a little buttermilk. I poured it in until I had the color I wanted (just a little creamy, but not too light). Tasted to be sure it wasn’t too tart, then poured it in our ice cream freezer, and turned the paddles now and then, according to the instructions. After 20 minutes or so, out came some beautiful and delicious sherbet.

The grape flavor was intense, sweet and tart with that typical muscadine edge that is hard to describe, a little bitter perhaps, almost metallic. It was an excellent finish to our dinner of butternut squash and basil risotto, topped with toasted garlic and Jerusalem artichoke slivers, but that’s a recipe for another time, perhaps.

Basic Bread

I have been baking bread for over a quarter century, so it always comes as a bit of a surprise when people talk about how difficult it is (though it shouldn’t surprise me by now). There is a mystique to baking bread, and yet it is one of the most basic and essential foods. And it is easy! Well, it is easy in the sense that anyone can do it, but it does involve a little labor and time. My guess is that most bread ‘failures’ come from trying to rush the process or from following an overly complicated recipe — the kind of thing to try when you have gotten the hang of the basic process of baking bread, not when you are just starting out.

Here is my most basic recipe. Take water, flour, yeast, and salt, mix it together to form bread dough, knead it, let it rise, bake. What could be simpler?

Of course, it does help to know some proportions, but as you’ll see they can be quite flexible. And it can help to add a few things: a little oil helps the texture, and an egg makes for somewhat a lighter loaf. Neither is absolutely necessary. Sugar helps the yeast start rising, though it isn’t really necessary either. I usually use a little molassas (for iron) or honey, rather than sugar.

Milk, often called for in recipes, also helps the texture, but can cause problems, so I usually leave it out. Enzymes or bacteria in milk kill the yeast unless the milk has been heated to over 100 degrees. Heat also kills yeast, so putting yeast in milk that is too hot will also kill it. One solution is to use powdered milk. It has the same effect and doesn’t need to be heated. But I don’t keep that on hand, so I rarely use it. I wonder about today’s super-pasturized milks and whether they might be safe. But I haven’t experimented with them yet.

I’ve been baking bread at least once a week for about as long as I can remember, and I’ve made nearly every mistake in the book and never made bread that was inedible (to me). So, if you give up on the notion of ‘perfect bread’ and learn to live with and even enjoy the bread that comes out of the oven for what it is, you will learn from your mistakes and eventually reach a level of consistency. But even then you’ll have the occasional mishap, like the times the oven has been turned on while the bread dough was rising, making it potentially too hot for the yeast to survive — I’ve rescued a few batches like this, sometimes adding more yeast after cooling if necessary. But usually bread is resilient enough once it’s in a dough that it will bake up reasonably well regardless.

The only times I haven’t baked bread have been when I’m traveling and when I’ve lived in Belgium, where I didn’t have an oven (only a stove-top to cook on in a tiny apartment) and where there is a good bakery around nearly every corner. I don’t believe in bread machines for two reasons: one, the word machine in the title scares me, and two, I would miss the process of making bread if I left it to a contraption.

There is something inherently satisfying in making your own staples and being close to food that sustains you. That is why I don’t mind the fact that bread takes work. I try to approach it more like a ritual than a chore.

First you take water. I like to start with cold water straight from the tap (not refrigerated but also not warm, which many recipes call for). Warm water speeds up the process, but if it’s too warm you kill the yeast and ruin the bread, so take your time and start with cool water. Another advantage at our house is that our cold water is filtered, so it has less chlorine.

2.5 cups of water will make two nice loaves of bread. 2 cups, and you’ll have two small loaves. 3 cups, 2 large loaves or 3 pretty small loaves. I usually use 4 cups to make 3 loaves for our week, but I would start with 2-3 cups if I were just learning to make bread. (1 cup is a good amount for a pizza dough.)

Add good powdered yeast. Keep it in the refrigerator to keep yeast fresher longer. A couple of tablespoons usually will be enough. Too much, and the bread will rise too fast. Too little, and it takes a little longer. Better to err on the side of too little until you get used to it. Add a little molassas, honey, or sugar to help the yeast ‘proof.’ You can let this sit for 5 minutes, if you like (I usually don’t) to let the yeast dissolve and start to grow.

Next mix up a sponge. Add flour to the mixture a handful at a time, stirring as you do. You want the mixture to get thick like mud but still be able to be stirred. I stir with a wooden spoon. Stir at least 200 times. This is one place where there is some work involved, but it is important to stretch the dough. If you don’t want to do this by hand and you have a good stand mixer, turn it on with a bread hook, and it will stir the dough for you. You want to act like you are the bread hook, if you’re doing this by hand. Stir it so air gets in the dough (to help the yeast grow) and so the dough stretches. You are forming gluten, the stretchy stuff that makes bread rise the way it does. The more you work it now, the less you’ll have to kneed it later.

Let the sponge sit, preferably in a warm (but not too hot–100 degrees is about the limit of heat) place for about 20 minutes or more. Cover the bowl with a wet cloth, so the sponge won’t dry out. You’ll see bubbles when you check it (these also help form the gluten–you’re letting the yeast do some of the work for you). Now it’s time to make the dough.

Add a couple teaspoons of salt, a tablespoon or two of oil. You can also add an egg, nuts, oatmeal, or anything else you want to mix in the bread at this point). Begin adding more flour a handful at a time, stirring as you go. As you stir and the dough thickens up, you will start to push the ball of dough around the bowl instead of cutting through it.

You’ll notice I haven’t said what kind of flour to use. Bread flour is nice (it has high gluten), but all purpose flour will work fine, too. I prefer organic flour, and usually mix white and whole wheat to get the texture I like. Rye and other specialty flours can be added. I also haven’t said how much flour to use. Make sure you have plenty on hand. You’ll know when it’s enough when the bread has the consistency of dough.

After awhile, it will become difficult to push the ball of dough around the bowl with the spoon. (A bread hook can be used up to this point, if your mixer is powerful enough.) Clean the spoon by dusting it with more flour and scraping the dough off with your hands. Start kneading in the bowl by pushing the dough around the bowl with your hands. As this gets difficult or as you use up most of the flour in the bowl, roll the ball of dough out onto a floured surface and continue kneading by hand.

To knead, use the palm of your hand to push the bread down onto the surface, flattening and stretching it, then rolling it back up. The dough will collect the flour. If it is sticky, add more flour. When it no longer sticks to the surface, continue kneading without adding flour.

If you have too much flour, you can add water to the bowl (once the dough is removed) and form a paste that can then be kneaded back into the dough (or you could save the flour for next time if there’s a lot). If your dough gets too firm, it’s not the end of the world. Bake it like that, and you’ll have pretty dense bread, which is okay by me. Or add a little water to outside of the ball of dough and continue kneading until you’ve worked enough water in that the dough is pliable. (This is a little messy — kind of like making mud pies — but works.)

Kneading the dough takes some getting used to. You’ll get the feel for it after awhile, and it is a quite enjoyable experience. Put your weight into it, and it’s not that much work, especially if you don’t overdo it on the flour. A lighter dough can be a bit stickier but is easier to handle in the long run. I tend to make a pretty hearty loaf, so it takes a bit of work, but I enjoy it.

Let the dough rise in the mixing bowl, covered with a wet cloth. Usually I use two risings of about an hour each, though a lot depends on the temperature of the room and the amount of yeast. Between risings, punch the bread down to get rid of the built-up carbon dioxide. This will help the yeast continue to grow. The rising time is why baking bread takes awhile, usually all morning or all afternoon, depending on when you start.

I used to use a method where I started the dough the night before and let the first rise happen over night. This makes a really good loaf, and it saves some time. You can let the dough sit as long as you want (within reason) because the yeast goes dormant after awhile until the dough is punched down again. If you want your fresh bread early, you can get up in the middle of the night and punch it down a couple of hours before you want it done. Or you can just leave it all night and take a little longer in the morning. I’ve even skipped the second rise if the first rise was long enough, and the bread turned out all right.

Once the ball of dough is ready, it needs to be made into loaves. Cut it in half and fold the cut end of each half over itself, so the uncut part of the bread is what is on the outside. Pinch the edges of the cut side together and put that side down. Pat (bang, hammer with your fist, don’t be shy about it) the dough into the shape you want. Do this again with the other loaf.

Put it on or in the pan you want to bake it on or in. Loaf pans are great if you want a more uniform shape. I never used to use them, though, until our son had to take a lunch to school, and then the square sides fit better in a sandwich bag. A round or oval loaf works just as well. Grease a cookie sheet and sprinkle with a little corn meal or flour, then place your loaves on the sheet. Oil or grease a loaf pan, if you use those, and press the loaves of bread down so they fill the bottom of the pan.

Let the loaves sit for another 20-30 minutes to let them rise. Then cut slits in the top (to let the steam escape when baking), and bake for about 35 minutes in a 425 degree oven (or 40 minutes at 400 or an hour at 350). Take out of the oven and remove from the pan. Cool, covered with a dry towel, for 15 minutes (or as long as you can wait), and enjoy.

Writing it all out, I can see how it might seem complicated, but really the steps are pretty easy once you get the hang of it, and bread can be pretty forgiving if you allow yourself a few flops. As long as you don’t completely kill the yeast, it should be edible, and even if you do, it’s edible, just very chewy.

I first learned to bake bread from my good friend George Ulrich. Later, Ed Brown’s aptly titled Tassajara Bread Book became my bible because of his no-nonsense approach to the whole process. After awhile, I stopped using a recipe and learned to adapt my methods to the situation. A few tricks like warming the oven in the winter help speed the process along when necessary, for instance. Otherwise, setting the dough in the oven or on top of the eye with just the pilot light burning on a gas stove (or the light on in an electric one) can help a lot. I’ve tried making sour dough or fancier recipes (we love hot crossed buns at Easter, for instance), but always gravitate back to this one basic recipe.

The bread turns out a little different each time it is made, but that is because it is a growing, living thing. As you stir it and knead it, you feel it taking shape in your hands. There is a kind of meditation to the labor of making it that is soothing — and if you’re frustrated, punching down a ball of dough does no harm (unless you miss).

Yet the greatest benefit to baking your own bread is the bread itself. When you eat from the first loaf fresh out of the oven and still warm, it is heavenly. And when you continue to eat off the loaves, the bread is much more filling and satisfying than store-bought bread (and less expensive). Give it a shot, and you might get hooked.

Peach Frozen Buttermilk

Recently I stumbled upon this concoction that has become our favorite desert. It is incredibly easy to make and tastes delicious. I know many people don’t think buttermilk is edible if it’s not baked in something, but I use it in all kinds of things, such as adding it to a cream sauce for a little tartness. We usually have it around for pancakes, scones, or biscuits (though sometimes we substitute yogurt and milk in a pinch). It’s fairly cheap in the half-gallon cartons, so we hate to buy the little containers that are nearly as expensive, and therefore we often have some I want to use before it gets too old for anything but baking.

That’s all prelude to explain why I decided to try making a frozen dessert with it. We didn’t have yogurt, and I didn’t have the time or energy to make ice cream, but we did have lots of peaches that needed to be eaten and lots of buttermilk on hand.

Here’s the recipe:
4-5 fresh ripe peaches (depending on size)
1/2-3/4 C buttermilk
3-4 tablespoons of honey
a dash of salt (optional)

Puree in a blender until smooth. Pour into small 1 quart or 1 pint ice cream maker. We have the kind that you keep in the freezer and crank by hand. Turn the crank periodically for about 20 minutes until frozen. That’s it!

We like this recipe because it’s less fattening and easier than ice cream and it’s less tart than frozen yogurt. It makes enough for 3-4 servings, which is perfect for us. Refreezing usually doesn’t work too well unless you give it time to thaw a little, so we like to make just enough for one night.

Adjust the amounts to your taste and the number of people or size of freezer you have. Try it with different fruits or sweeteners.