Spring Equinox!

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What happened this week that stopped me from writing here? Who knows? I mean, sure I was working, but I could have carved some space out. Could it be the business end of March bringing me to a creative standstill that only waiting out will fix?

Sometimes my problem is that I’m a daydreamer. I think that’s why I like to cook and garden in the relaxed (read: imperfect) style that I do. It keeps my hands busy while I space out and think about things. Not that I’m formulating anything great, mind you. I find that a good portion of my daydreaming is useless filler. I do have a few good thoughts but I’m always too far from a computer to log it down–for example, when I’m just about to fall asleep in bed. I’m sure you know this feeling. Or, while I’m out walking. To be fair, I’ve tried to making short recordings on walks to write down later on. I’ve noticed though, that when you revisit said brilliant thoughts they suddenly seem less than scintillating.

I know daydreaming is good for you–it’s where so many inventive ideas come from! But you know, you have to balance that daydreaming with some actual work, right? It’s not unlike people who point to photos of Einstein’s messy desk and proclaim their genius because they too are messy. Hmmm. Not really.

The garden, still frozen, is a far way off–though I have gotten a chance to do some pruning. And cooking starts to get so uninspired! Will it be soup tonight? Or stew? Comfort foods now feel heavy and suffocating, and crisp new green things have not yet brought about that feeling of lightness. I am watching the freezer thin and the pantry shelves become populated with empty jars.

But we are getting close, friends, close! As I stepped outside this morning on the back porch, everything covered with the few inches of snow that fell on the first day of spring, I still could hear the loud gathering taking place at the pond down the hill. Redwing blackbirds, their buzz and trill unmistakable, are gathering already. They know what time it is, despite the snow.

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On Doing Without

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Quite a long while ago, back in January, our little toaster oven died. Rest in peace, dear one! It was a Black and Decker that we bought at a yard sale for two dollars. Man, did that toaster oven pay for itself many times over. Let’s just say there was a lot of burnt cheese in its crumb tray. I started looking for a new one pretty quickly. No toast! Whatever shall we do!? I was looking at this Panasonic Flash Express, which sounds crazy, like something I played my Haircut 100 tape on in eighth grade. It actually has a lot of good reviews for a toaster that’s sort of a step up from the run-of-the-mill models but not some Breville craziness. I’m not going to spend $200 on a toaster, for goodness sakes.

As it happens, I ended up sort of letting the toaster oven thing go to the back of my mind. I have commitment issues and buying new products always makes me freeze up. I’d rather not deal with it. So I didn’t. And you know what? It was OK. In fact I still don’t have a toaster oven. I’m not sure if I will. A friend of mine hasn’t had a toaster for as long as I’ve known her, and I always thought: whatever!  But she was on to something.

I started toasting my bread in my cast iron pans, which are always on the stove or hanging nearby anyway, perfectly seasoned with a light sheen of oil. I use an old ceramic lid as a weight. And you know what? Best toast ever. Of course. What was I thinking? Sometimes I’m naughty and pour a guzzle of olive oil in the pan before I cook some nice sourdough toast up. You don’t even need an egg with this toast. It doesn’t even take that long, but just beware of walking away and forgetting you started some toast…

So, I’ve been going with this “doing without” thing. How far can one push it? When we moved into our house ten years ago, there was an old dryer left that worked. We used it for years, until it died. Secretly, I was thrilled: we get to buy a new dryer! When the delivery people came to remove the old one, we looked for a date on it. It was from the late ’70s. The guys laughed, “You’ll never see another dryer this old!” Har, har, but so true, mon frére! The dryer has been pretty much out for a few weeks now. We’ve been drying our clothes on a rack in the basement. (We try to dry outside in the summer as much as we can, but the winter is another story.)

You know what? It’s not that bad! My clothes are wrinkly, so if you have to look acceptable this might not be a good idea. But for my grubby lifestyle, it suits just fine. We will probably get a new dryer, but it’s nice to know that even in the winter we can get by without it. But I’m not sure I’ll be getting a toaster oven too soon! Maybe if I see one at a yard sale…

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Sourdough Sandwich Bread

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I think the reason I don’t make perfect sourdough boules is because I’m always too concerned about the amount of starter discard I have created. I’m so worried about using up this “waste” that I focus on recipes that use it up, instead of recipes for the bread itself. I’ve made pancakes, waffles, crackers, rolls and bread with the aging discard that lives in my fridge. It’s an opportunity for me to be creative and to use something up at the same time, which is one of my favorite things to do. I’m not sure what that says about me, but whatever.

Over the years, I’ve really honed my sourdough starter skills. I have a nice vibrant starter that, when fed, bubbles up so nicely that I myself puff up with pride. I knew it when it was just a weak little pup, I beam (and no, I haven’t named it). I feed it regularly, unlike the way I used to treat it in the past, neglectfully leaving it in the fridge for weeks. I store the discard from the sourdough process (that’s the part of the starter that you remove each time you feed it) in a separate container in the fridge. Soon it is so full that I have a quart of floury goo.

I don’t prefer making pancakes or waffles with the leftover starter. I’m just not a sourdough pancake person, and neither is my six-year old son (who is also the reason I make pancakes regularly). Crackers are a good way to use up sourdough starter, and this recipe from King Arthur in particular is a nice one. One of my favorite uses for these leftovers is this recipe for sourdough dinner rolls, which is both amazingly delicious and really easy. I have tweaked it a bit and will post about it at a later date.

My very favorite use of the weeks of starter that have been languishing in the fridge is actually for bread! Who knew? With a little bit of yeast you can turn all of that very flavorful fermented flour into two nice loaves of sandwich bread. The starter imparts the flavor of sourdough, but not the lift of a fed starter, of course, so you want to give it a bit of a boost with the yeast.

Sourdough Sandwich Bread (using your sourdough discard)

Yield: two standard loaves

Start with 3 to  4 cups of unfed starter you have stored in the fridge, if liquid has separated and formed on the top (known as hooch; oh, bakers are such a funny lot) you can pour it off

Add it to a large bowl with 1.5 cups of warm water in it

Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of dry active yeast

Whisk a little and let sit for about five minutes for the yeast to activate. Mix in enough flour to make a very sticky dough, about 3 cups of all purpose flour. [Note: You will not think this bread will work. It’s so wet and sticky. Never mind. Soldier ahead.] Cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge over night, for at least 12 hours, up to 18 hours. It should double in size.

Take it out and let it sit, covered, for about two hours. Add 1 cup of flour and stir with a scraper or spatula (so sticky!!) You will probably have to add another cup of flour. And two teaspoons of salt. When it’s somewhat manageable, cut it in half (I do this in the bowl) and quickly, deftly transfer it to a very well-oiled bread loaf pan. Shake it around a little so it settles. It’s very sticky, but still–don’t fret! Let it sit in a warm place, covered with more plastic wrap (which you may want to oil because it will stick when it rises). It will rise to just above the pan rim. When it’s almost there, turn on your oven to 450 degrees, and once the temperature has been reached, bake the two loaves for 30 minutes. They should reach an internal temperature of 205 degrees, or sound hollow with a nice crunchy golden exterior.

Those sesame seeds you see look very pretty, but they actually all fell off when I went to cut the bread. Seed at your own risk!

Note: You can also let the bread rise at room temperature for the first rise, it will take about 3 to 5 hours. Then shape it and let it rise to bake. You can also make additions when you cut the dough into two loaves; a good addition is walnut pieces and dried cranberries.

Tidbits:

I’ve been seeing this making the rounds: Efficiency in the Kitchen to Reduce Food Waster from the NY Times. Right up my alley.

PSA: Local folks experiencing S.A.D. (and if you are not, I can’t understand you at all) go to Adam’s in Kingston before March 8th and check out their garden show. You can smell dirt! And see flowers!! And it’s cozy and humid in there. Ahhh.

It’s hard but I’m focusing on the garden right now. Hudson Valley Seed Library, anyone?