A recent article in Condé Nast Traveler, entitled "The Case for Getting Rid of the Holiday Travel Calendar," certainly gave me food for thought. The author basically takes the opportunity to advocate for our being creative and flexible and pragmatic around the planning of pandemic family holiday get-togethers. The actual day--or even the month or season--of Thanksgiving or Christmas isn't as important, author Noah Kaufman asserts, as our commitment to get together when it is most safe and practical.
I get it. Makes sense to me.
Our family has done our absolute best to keep each other safe and sane during this crazy year. One son is currently away, having a safe (and shortened) college semester; the other three of us are here together in The Brogue, working daily to achieve a balance between care and normalcy. We keep in touch with the rest of our extended family through weekly Zooms, texts, and emails. As the year-end holidays approach, we certainly all understand that it will be the spirit of the season which matters, more than the ability to all hold hands around a feast table.
This weekend, we had the wonderful opportunity to put this flexible celebration model into practice. My beloved father, who used to live here on the winery "estate" with us in The Brogue, came and spent a wonderful (and carefully socially-distant) time with us here, taking advantage of a beautiful harvest weekend. We ate together outside, shared pantomime hugs, and enjoyed happy hour together by the fire pit. It was really great to be together--a cause for true gratitude.
I'd known, as I planned for his visit, exactly what it would be: Thanksgiving. Yep, it's not November. Yep, the rest of the family couldn't join with us this time. But four of us would be carving out a special time for fellowship, and I can't think of a better name for that than "Thanksgiving."
It makes me think of the Grinch's epiphany moment, upon realizing that Christmas is more about the spirit of the thing: "It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags"...yep.
So we did it. I happily added the trappings and trimmings of the season, spending a happy day preparing traditional Thanksgiving foods (much to my dad's surprise and delight): the turkey, the stuffing. Potatoes and cranberry sauce.
What really mattered, though, was knowing that the most important part of the tradition had already been achieved: Wherever, however, whenever, we'd honored our time together with conscious gratitude. Amen.
In a recent conversation, my friends and I talked about our methods of making bread dough. Some (including me) opined that we mostly use a dough hook on a stand-up mixer when kneading. My friend Linda chimed in that, for her, the physical act of kneading bread dough by hand is actually an essential part of her process. It's a large part of why she makes her own bread in the first place, experiencing a comforting set of sensations, from turning the ingredients into a soft dough under her own palms to the scent of the bread baking, which is honestly just about the most wonderful sense experience in the world.
Our lives are topsy-turvy. We live in isolation and under stress. "Normal" things seem to be lost to us, while fear and divisiveness seem to have become "the new normal." So many people are struggling right now.
Some days I can't seem to put all of my thoughts together in the right order. Ever since March, I have learned to diagnose this fuzzy-brained overwhelmed condition. It's not new to me, by now. I often prescribe myself an activity to offset some of the negatives. My favorite go-to activity: baking.
Baking is formulaic, but also creative. It's an act of self-care and care for others. It is built for sharing.
After thinking some more about our dough conversation, I decided to turn this week's breads into hand-kneading activities. Rather than plug in the ol' mixer, I used my hands. It was interesting how my hands always just know what to do, how much flour to add, what gestures to make. I definitely felt more connected to the process, just as Carl does in the winery when he takes on the harvest chore of punch-downs (which I wrote about in yesterday's post).
My first bread project of the week was a favorite of my son's: hamburger rolls. I use King Arthur Flour's beloved "Best Burger Buns" recipe, which makes a lovely buttery roll. It was great with burgers, but also in an egg-and-bacon-and-cheese breakfast sandwich the next morning. it was easy to knead by hand, ready for proofing in almost no time.
My second project, chosen in anticipation of an Indian feast, was my Pocket Bread. This dough felt entirely different than the bun dough--whereas that one featured butter, this one includes milk and whipped-smooth yogurt, making for a tighter, more refined feeling. Again, the kneading process was quite easy, and that dough hook remained idle.
I was actually disappointed that my next bread project of the week requires no kneading at all. This is a fascinating recipe, for several reasons. It's the New York Times recipe for "Simple Crusty Bread." It has only four ingredients--yeast, salt, water, and flour--and stays very loose, going through the proofing phase after being simply stirred together. The dough keeps well in the fridge, but takes on a life of its own when being shaped or moved--it's like some sort of living creature that can't help but permanently attach itself to everything it comes near. Whereas I couldn't wait to get my hands on the other doughs, this one can't wait to get ahold of me. Making it always becomes a slapstick routine.
Other than its sticky nature, this bread is really easy to make, and very versatile. This time I baked two of the four loaves right away, and they are destined to be in the stuffing of a special Thanksgiving-in-October meal that I'm working on.
My bake week's final recipe was a new one to me: a recipe for Angel Biscuits which I just saw in the Thanksgiving edition of the Food Network magazine. It was my first time making this hybrid of biscuits and yeast dinner rolls, and what drew me to the recipe was its hands-on components. Not only is it hand-kneaded, but no rolling pin is needed for forming and shaping the biscuits. The resulting biscuit/rolls, topped by flaky sea salt, are really wonderful: buttery and soft, while still layered and light.
My friend Linda, whom I have to thank for my hands-on breadmaking this week, spent her career teaching young children, and she made bread with those little ones time after time after time. She expresses what a wonderful activity it is for them, to knead the dough and experience all of the feels and smells. It really is an act of pure goodness, something we can definitely all use a taste of these days.
I'm pretty good at a lot of things. I can carry a tune, make art with pastels, drive across the country, order another beer in German. I tend to hold myself to a pretty high standard with most things I do, which of course can also keep me from taking part in other activities which I'm not particularly good at: gardening, running, parallel parking.
I love to cook and bake and have definitely gotten much better at these endeavors ever since a year ago August, when I made a decision to increase the quality of every bite I take/make. I can make an authentic curry and a (finally) a pancake which is memorable for all the right reasons.
I don't often fail in the kitchen.
This is probably why yesterday's bread experience came as such a shock.
I thought I had done everything just right. The intention was to recreate The Pioneer Woman's Homemade Cinnamon Bread recipe, in anticipation of our older son's quick visit home from college. The recipe has always seemed a bit odd to me, in terms of its time-frame, but I have learned to allow more time than printed for preparation, and to be rather sceptical of its 4-hour (!) rising time. I heated the milk, cooled the milk, mixed the ingredients, kneaded the dough, supervised its first long rising, shaped it into beautiful cinnamon-sugar-filled rolled logs, and put the pans in the slightly-warmed oven for a second rise.
Then I headed off to the grocery store, to gather piles of my son's favorite snacks. Maybe that's where things went wrong?
As my errands grew to take more time than anticipated, I called home to ask my younger son to take the rising loaves out of the oven and turn the oven on.
After a couple minutes, this is what he sent me:
We've debated ever since exactly what it was that I did wrong, and there are many theories floating around. It was likely some combination of time, temperature, and that Saran Wrap.
Whatever the cause, there it was: what the kids used to call an "epic fail."
Success and failure are, of course, matters of perspective. Sometimes a bigger "fail" can be more satisfying than a little one. A big blob-monster of dough might be better than a potato soup which ended up being just a little too salty or a quiche which didn't quite get set in the middle. In AJR's song "100 Bad Days," perhaps we can all relate to:
"...Maybe a hundred bad days made a hundred good stories
A hundred good stories make me interesting at parties..."
A friend on social media once recounted the story of her pickle of a morning. Rushing around, working to deal with family needs while getting ready for her work day, she somehow knocked an entire. Huge (I'm imagining Costco huge). Jar. Of ginormous dill pickles. Pickles. And brine. Out of the fridge, to shatter on the floor.
For some reason, her response to this catastrophe (which caused no cuts or bleeding), as she stood there, splattered in green pickle vinegar, pickles swimming around her feet, was to have the presence of mind to decide she basically had two options: She could either melt into a puddle of despair right along with the gherkins, or she could laugh like a madwoman. As I recall, she chose the later.
I guess this story has stayed with me because, reading her story, I'd hoped that I, too, would chose to laugh rather than to sob. I'm not much of a sobber, but...
In a world gone rather mad, some well-intentioned loaves of over-risen cinnamon bread certainly don't rank high on the list of the world's cares. Still, I do like to be able to predict success in my endeavors. And I did want to serve my "kids" the most delicious cinnamon toast comfort food the following morning.
But no matter. There I sat in the grocery store parking lot, looking at the photo. I called Dylan back. "So..." I began, "about the bread," and took a breath. "What the hell did I do..." And then I laughed, and then we did, together.