Day 10: Bread Making

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In my list of things I wanted to learn I included the very broad category “bread”. Until I started doing research to try to find good recipes to begin experimenting did I realize I need to narrow down what type of bread I wanted to learn how to make. It funny when you know nothing about a topic, you can’t imagine how broad it is until you start understanding it.

Based on the recipes I was finding, the first thing I needed to define was whether I wanted to make bread used for sweet, savory or no specific purpose. Then I had to pick a between kneading or no-knead bread. I could have gone for simple white no-knead artisan bread baked in a dutch-oven, but that would have taken the anxiety away from the experience. So, in typical Andrea fashion, I decided to go sweet and try my hand at some cinnamon swirl bread.

A little context before I continue to describe my first experience with making bread. At the time, Emma, our puppy was 12 weeks old and we were potty training her, which meant I had to drop everything as soon as she stepped by the front door to take her to the grass. We were also living at the end of a very long (and creepy) hallway in DC, on the 4th floor, opposite to the buildings entrance. You can imagine what the rest of this story is going to be like. Now back to the baking.

As a firm believer in beginning any kitchen project by setting all ingredients and equipment in place (mise en place), I set out the eggs so they could be at room temperature when I needed them, weighed the yeast, butter, flour, sugars, salt and cinnamon, and placed everything in separate bowls. Then I measured the water and milk and placed those in different containers as well. This is a method I highly recommend, especially if you have a lot going on in your life. There is no forgetting what ingredients you have put in or how much flour you still have to add to a batter. Plus, if you use stackable bowls, by the end you have only one stack you can easily move into the sick and out of your way, liberating real estate and eliminating the potential for spills and burns.

As I was pouring the warm water onto the yeast, Emma fell asleep on my feet, so in an attempt to maintain the peaceful status quo, I stood there, watching yeast activate in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes. Not a single sound or movement. Finally, it was time to combine the ingredients into the bowl of proofed yeast. Slowly I reached and poured until everything was in the same bowl. Emma still on my feet. In 10 minutes I would be able to move and be ready in case Emma needed to use the bathroom.

But, as life would have it, as soon as I started the KitchenAid, as if on queue, Emma got up and stood by the door. All I needed was ten minutes. Could I make it all the way down to the street and back? We were told not to rush the dog when it was first getting used to using the grass. What if I rushed her and scarred her forever. Would she ever want to use the bathroom again? What if I made her wait but her tiny bladder couldn’t hold it? I didn’t want her to think she could use the carpet as a bathroom. So, I did what anyone in my situation would have done, grabbed the dog and a pair of shoes, set a timer on my phone and sprinted down the hall towards the elevators, I harnessed her on our way to the lobby, put her on the grass, waited until there were 2 minutes left on the timer ran all the way back to stop the KitchenAid, exactly 10 minutes after I had started it. I don’t know if that adventure slowed down Emma’s potty training, but she used the bathroom and I was able to get back to the bread. Anyone who saw me probably thought I was crazy, but without the crazy neighbor what would people talk about, right?

After the KitchenAid (and Emma) did it’s thing  I washed my hands and began to knead the bread by hand. Once the texture was “as soft as a baby’s bottom,” which I had to imagine since I have no children of my own I could use to compare, I set the dough in an oiled bowl and let it rest for an hour.

Sleeping EmmaEmma and I played the whole time. I though about taking her for a walk before the next step, but she had fallen asleep hoarding her toys under her paws, who could ever disturb such precious slumber. So I left her by the couch, only to be fooled again. As soon as I had divided the dough and was rolling it out, she stood by the door again. This time, with sugar and flour on my hands I brought over the doggie gate and corralled her and her toys into the kitchen with me. Once I was done rolling out all three loaves I did the whole run out to the street thing again while the oven preheated. When we got back I filled them, set them in the loaf pans and into the oven they went.

As the smell of cinnamon and butter rose from the oven and made its way into each corner of the house, the stress of the experience melted away and I decided to not make bread again until Emma could hold her bladder for a few hours straight. But then I cut into a piece of bread fresh out of the oven and new that in a few weeks, once all three loaves were gone, I would break that promise.

Since that day, I have made the same recipe multiple times, recently modifying it to achieve a gooier filling. I have also made multiple berry-swirl breads with some encouragement from a Joy the Baker + King Arthur Flour bootcamp and self-picked berries from a local farm. Slowly but surely I’m adding some more recipes to my repertoire, some more successful than others, but the one thing I have learned through it all, it enjoy it and laugh when things don’t work out.

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Day 9: The Garden Experiment

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When attempting to make the best tasting food you inevitably find yourself looking for the freshest and best tasting ingredients. In my life, one quest leads to another, so obviously learning about new cooking methods led to learning about new food growing methods, which led to growing food in my backyard.

I grew up in tropical city, so growing anything other than flowers was out of the question space and weather wise, and unless I wanted to fill the backyard with sugar cane, my options growing up were very limited. Plus, we had a gardener, so gardening and tending to our yard was never a thing. Once I came to college in the US, I realized families here devote a considerable amount of time out in their yards and take pride in the colorful displays that adorn their lawns come spring and summer. I realized I wanted to join them in that age-long American tradition. But, after college I moved to DC and then Santiago de Chile, so space was still scarce and with my travel schedule, I left a few herb graveyards behind.

Now that we are back in the midwest, I decided there is no excuse to not have a nice garden. Thanks to the Tippecanoe Public Library, I devoured books and books about gardening techniques, soil quality, local planting time frames and hardiness levels. People at Lowe’s and Home Depot probably though I was crazy (a common theme in my life) when I came by with a list of questions about watering and drainage and pot sizes. There was even one lady that said to me, “This is Indiana, all you need is dirt, seeds and water. Things will grow.” Well, after the dead herbs all over the world, can you really blame me for being meticulous (aka obsessive) about making this work?

As soon as the eternal winter started to fade away, I began stashing supplies: Seeding mix, organic fertilizer, organic seeds, organic soil (bags and bags of it), planters in all sizes, burlap. Once my handy garden calendar said it was time to start seeding I came out in full force and planted a 6 spinach plants, 3 types of lettuce, basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, chives, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and marigolds. That doesn’t even include all the transplanting we did in the flower bed!

Either Indiana soil is truly magical, or I have mad skills. Things started sprouting left and right and now we have a jungle of tomato plants and a “Little Shop of Horrors”-like cucumber plant. Not to mention all the other stuff that has populated each and every inch of the planters. The only thing that didn’t work out were the chives. I blame the Indiana soil. I’ve got skill.

There is something amazing about clipping herbs right before you need them, or picking tomatoes one minute and having them in your belly the next. It has given me confidence and somehow validated all those hours spent taking notes (yes, I took notes) about gardening, and even the frantic e-mails I sent our local farmer about patching up the tomato plant after a bad storm.

As I continue to experiment with recipes from all over the world, its great to know that if I ever need a sprig of thyme, I can just walk out to the yard and pick it myself.

 

Day 8: Introduction to Learning

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When you are a child, you are encouraged to learn, praised if you learn and master things quickly, and admired if you are curious and like to discover new things. Somewhere between 1st grade and being 28 things change. When you attempt to tell people at Ivy Tech you want to register for a horticulture course that starts at 7am just because you want to learn, everyone gives you a quizzical look. Then try adding that you already have a degree and submitting your transcript from Notre Dame. [Looks intensify]. The interesting thing is that once I reach AARP-age, I will probably be encouraged to “keep my brain engaged” and “try to learn a new skill”. Why is it so hard to try to do the same thing now?

One of my friends, fed up with me talking to her about this, suggested I just tell people I’m signing up for classes because I’m a bored housewife. Another one suggested I just say I’m changing career paths. I refuse. None of these things would be true: a) I’m definitely not bored at home; b) I’m not really changing career paths; and, c) I like learning. So I stick to my story and tell people I like to learn and put up with the looks. Many years from now it will be acceptable again.

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Not satisfied with simply learning a new skill, I go all out. I don’t just learn how to drive and park, I learn how to parallel park in between two cars in a space 4 inches longer than our car.

Making a country loaf of bread would be too easy, so I try to master a cinnamon-swirled, berry-filled brioche braid. It’s the competitive side of me. If I’m going to delve into the dark arts of domesticity, I will be the best at whatever I do. There is no professor to grade my progress, no council of housewives to judge my performance (although I’ve heard once you have kids, everyone judges your parenting skills), just crazy little me still trying to hold myself to impossibly high standards. It keeps me on my toes.

As the days go by I’ll share some of the new things I’ve been learning about and post pictures of the growing vegetable plants, flower beds and sewing collections. Don’t stay away too long!