Archive for March, 2010

From the archives: Helixes

March 31, 2010 @ 7:21 am | Filed under:

Originally posted October 8th, 2007

This time last year, I was driving through Kansas. It was our fifth day on the road en route from Virginia to California: the five kids and me. If you’d like to read about our trip, I’ve pulled all the posts together into one big page, here.

It’s hard to believe it has been a year. Hard to believe we are West Coasters now, decorating for autumn by plopping pumpkins alongside our portulaca. (This year I’ll know to keep watch against pumpkin mush.) We’re planting sunflowers in the back yard at the same time that we’re planning Halloween costumes. It’s a bit surreal.

We went to Balboa Park again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy, the body of a girl around fifteen years of age, possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man. She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach…

(—from “Tollund Man” by Seamus Heaney.)

And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a glass case, another golden-haired child perched on my hip in a sling. I didn’t see today coming even two years ago, even 18 months ago.

Rilla was born in April of ’06 and Scott got the job offer in June. I planted a cherry tree in our yard that spring, a gift from my mother. I wonder if the new homeowners got cherries this summer?

This day last year we rolled into Kansas, where the prairie “slices the big sun at evening,” to quote Heaney’s “Bogland.” Today we watched the frothy spray of the big Balboa Park fountain paint a rainbow on the blue canvas of the sky. We counted koi in the long lily pond outside the Botanical Building, their splotched orange-and-cream bodies undulating beneath spiky, ladylike blossoms and the notched round leaves that reminded us of Thumbelina’s prison and Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s raft. We peered inside the deep wells of pitcher-plant blossoms, angling to see if any hapless insects lay dissolving inside. How surreal, this eager scrutiny of death, the children chattering and lively in the moist green air of this palatial greenhouse, just as they had been in the domed, echoing hush of the museum.

How surreal to be pondering corpses while the children are laughing. Pondering the human bodies, preserved; the insects, acid-eaten, their final resting place the polar opposite of Heaney’s peat bog, where hastily buried bodies remained clothed and well-manicured for centuries, and

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.

Sometimes I think about how life is like the very DNA it’s made of, a set of intertwined spirals full of small stories. A girl dies in Mexico and centuries later is brought to another country, where a woman stares at her empty skin and remembers an Irishman with a rope round his neck, preserved through the long march of years by the tannic acid in the peat and the ripe syllables of a bristle-browed poet. A child leans out over a reflecting pool and joyously points at a fish the same color as the pumpkins she begged her mother to buy that morning. A man in Virginia wanders, perhaps, out into his yard, and plucks a withered, mummified cherry he missed during the summer harvest, while the hands that planted the tree are pushing sunflower seeds into gritty soil a continent away.



March 27, 2010 @ 7:31 am | Filed under:

People are sharing some good tips about the artisan-bread-in-five baking in the comments. I especially like the tip about doing the rising and baking steps on parchment instead of using cornmeal on a bread peel. (Or cookie sheet, in my case.)

I’m getting the hang of this. We haven’t bought bread in two weeks!


March 25, 2010 @ 12:09 pm | Filed under: ,

I’m getting into the groove. Baking every day, or every other day (two loaves) if tomorrow’s going to be busy. So far, only one tomorrow has been too busy.

We like the 100% whole wheat recipe best for everyday bread (sandwiches and toast). Yesterday I played with the light whole wheat recipe a bit—added some honey, and added more whole wheat flour, less white. Baked a loaf this morning and it’s lovely: light and fluffy, quite nice in sandwiches. But the crust was too, er, crusty. We ran into this yesterday with a round of the master boule recipe. It’s that step where they have you add steam to a pan on the bottom rack of your oven; that step is supposed to ensure a nice crispy crust and by golly it does! Too crunchy. Hard to cut. Tomorrow I’ll try omitting the steam and see how it turns out. I love the crusty bread with soups and sauces, but for sandwiches I’d rather a bit less crunch.

Also had my first real failure—due to a boneheaded oversight. I had a bit of dough left (whole wheat) from Sunday’s batch and stored it in a mini-loaf pan. It rose (in the fridge) to fill the pan exactly, so I just went ahead and baked it in that, after a rise on the counter. And totally forgot that meant the pan hadn’t been greased. It stuck terribly, and didn’t rise properly anyway. Lesson learned!

I’m seeing small buds and large leaves on the milkweed, so I expect the butterflies will be along any day. None sighted yet—but the Journey North monarch migration map tells me there have been a few sightings in coastal towns not far north of us, so there must surely be some monarchs here as well (since they move north from Mexico).

We had an Amazon gift card to spend, and here’s what we ordered—

The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, author of The Firelings

Skating Shoes, one of the Noel Streatfeild Shoes books we didn’t have

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, author of The Sherwood Ring

Other recent arrivals—

Flyaway: How A Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings by Susie Gilbert (review copy sent by the author, whose perusal of my archives suggested to her we might be interested, as indeed we are; Mental Multivitamin mentioned it as well)

The Year of Plenty, a middle-grade novel by Rebecca LeeAnne Brammer (review copy sent by the author)


Mr. Fleischman’s Wonderful McBroom

March 23, 2010 @ 8:00 am | Filed under:

Literary giant Sid Fleischman died on March 17th at the age of 90. I have loved his work since I was a little girl—the McBroom books are some of the first books I remember reading and rereading and howling over and collecting. Even today I can still rattle off a good WillJillHesterChesterPeterPollyTimTomMaryLarryandlittleClarinda!

The amiable Farmer McBroom’s surprising triumph over that lowdown dirty swindler, Heck Jones, who sold McBroom an 80-acre farm and after pocketing the cash revealed that the 80 acres were stacked one on top of another like pancakes—at the bottom of a pond, no less—is one of the most deeply satisfying events in print, period. (You remember the tale. Blistering Iowa heat dries up the pond, leaving an acre of soil so rich that seeds grow to maturity in minutes, and if you drop a nickel, it’ll be a quarter before you can bend over to pick it up.)

The McBroom books

McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm: Three Tall Tales
McBroom Tells the Truth
McBroom and the Big Wind
McBroom’s Ear
(Was this the one with the heat wave? So hot the corn was popping on the stalk?)

Here Comes McBroom: Three More Tall Tales
McBroom the Rainmaker
McBroom’s Ghost
McBroom’s Zoo (Sidehill Gougers! Teakettlers! Oh man, I loved this book.)

McBroom’s Almanac
McBroom Tells a Lie
McBroom and the Beanstalk
McBroom and the Great Race

Besides McBroom, my favorite Fleischman is By the Great Horn Spoon.

It was one of the first books I wrote about on this blog, back in early 2005:

I began reading this hilarious novel to the girls on a cold winter afternoon, but after Scott got caught up in the story during a coffee break, it became a family dinnertime read-aloud. At times, the kids laughed so hard I feared they would choke. We sailed with young Jack and his unflappable butler, Praiseworthy, from Boston Harbor all the way around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Along the way we visited Rio de Janeiro and a village in Peru. We panned for gold in California and made friends with half a dozen scruffy, optimistic miners. We found ourselves caring deeply about such oddities as rotting potatoes, dusty hair clippings, and the lining of a coat.

Caring about oddities, and making you care about them too—one of Sid Fleischman’s special geniuses.

Goodbye, Mr. Fleischman. We’ll miss you. Your imagination was as fertile as McBroom’s farm.

Memories of Sid Fleischman at Greenwillow Books (I especially loved the American Idol story).

Author Lisa Yee remembers Sid fondly in this touching post.

Lin Oliver’s moving tribute at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators site (Sid was a founding member of the SCBWI):

“In 2003, the SCBWI established an award in Sid’s honor, for humorous writing for children. We will continue to honor his legacy by granting the Sid Fleischman Award to one deserving book each year.  Sid was a great writer, a great friend, a great mentor to us all. His loss will be felt by all of SCBWI for a long time, but his work and his memory will survive.

Related post: Hoppers.

Dough Business

March 20, 2010 @ 12:50 pm | Filed under:

I know, I know, another bread post! They’ll taper off soon, I’m sure, or morph into notes on the other blog. But since breadmaking was the dominant theme of our week, I want to wrap up the week with my notes.

I can see the 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread recipe being our go-to bread for daily use: it has been delicious as toast and sammiches—when we managed to save some instead of devouring it hot from the oven. I’ve been cutting the salt way down and the flavor is perfect. Our whole wheat comes out moist and dense, almost cakelike. Which is to say: perfect. I like an airier crumb for things like rye and sourdough, but for whole wheat I prefer it quite dense.

I am consistently getting one less loaf out of a batch than the recipe says I should. I don’t think that’s because I’m making my loaves bigger than I ought—I’m baking the whole wheat in a standard size loaf pan and using the amount of dough the recipe suggests. Weird.

I mixed up a batch of the brioche dough this morning to try as cinnamon rolls tomorrow. I will probably freeze the rest in one-pound batches, as suggested.

If you’re itching to give the method a try, the authors have generously shared some recipes on the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day website. Here’s the Basic Master Recipe (with a photo walk-through).

Here’s a whole wheat brioche from their second book.

I really liked this older post from the blog of Zoë François, one of the two authors of ABin5. She answers loads of questions in the comments about specific problems people are having with their baking—kind of like “Car Talk” for bread. Actually, many of the posts on her blog and the main ABin5 blog are like that—excellent advice in the comments.

Our week in bread:

Monday—Scott gave me the book.

Tuesday—We tried the “light wheat bread” recipe.

Wednesday—Mixed up the 100% whole wheat recipe for the next day’s baking.

Thursday—It was to die for.

Friday—too busy eating bread to post. Dinner was bread and cheese and fruit. Heaven.

Today—turkey and Swiss on whole wheat for lunch; brioche dough in fridge.

Next batch of dough: I gotta try that olive oil bread for pizza crust. My friend Joann was tantalizing me with her posts yesterday; her family is “roadschooling,” traveling the country in an RV. They bought the ABin5 book for their Kindle this week and have made focaccia, bagels, and cinnamon rolls so far. In the RV. How cool is that?

From the Archives: The Firelings by Carol Kendall

March 18, 2010 @ 10:34 am | Filed under:

Originally posted in September, 2005.

I’m reading the girls a book I discovered at age ten or eleven and read with immense relish several times over the next few years: The Firelings by Carol Kendall. I’m enjoying it just as much this time around. And it’s one of those “oh please, just ONE more chapter” books for the kids.

The Firelings are a halfling people who live in the shadow of a volcano they call Belcher. The village legends tell of Belcher’s former life as a Sky Creature who danced a little too energetically one day and stomped a hole in the floor of the sky, through which he tumbled into a sea of his own brine. This misfortune, as far as the Firelings can tell, left Belcher in rather an irascible state. From time to time—dark times in Fireling history—he has required a tasty Morsel to prevent his crotchety temper from erupting with disastrous effect. And once, long ago (so the legends tell), a group of Firelings actually dared to attempt to leave Belcher’s sprawling body, seeking exit through the fabled Way of the Goat. Belcher punished them with a terrible Spewing, and ever since, the survivors have tiptoed very carefully, attempting to interpret Belcher’s wishes in the bubblings of mud near his Throat.

Now Belcher’s belly has once more begun to emit ominous rumblings, and his fiery tongue has been seen darting out of his mouth as if to suggest he is craving another Morsel…and in the whispers around the village, a certain name pops up with an alarming frequency. What will this mean for young Tacky-obbie and his friends Life, Trueline, Milk, and Mole Star? My kids are desperate to find out. I know, but I’m not telling.

Related post:

The Gammage Cup

How Rose Is Feeling

March 17, 2010 @ 11:58 am | Filed under:

…about this whole bread thing.

Today’s notes so far: Our Henry’s is closed for remodeling! I had no idea. Totally threw off my plans. No rye flour at the big supermarket, so today we went with the whole wheat sandwich bread recipe, which I was eager to try anyway. Has honey & oil, so: rich and sweet? Yum? The dough is rising now. Might bake a loaf this afternoon to eat with dinner, or may wait until tomorrow morning. We polished off the last of yesterday’s baking at lunch.

Midafternoon update: Aha! I think yesterday’s yeast must have been old. Or my water was a tad too hot (I was worried about that) and zapped some of the yeast. Because today, using a new jar of yeast, WOW. This batch of dough (a different recipe) has risen considerably higher than yesterday’s, and is indeed filling a 5-quart container.

Better Yet, Please Pass the Lemon Curd

March 16, 2010 @ 6:51 pm | Filed under:

We tried our first batch of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day today. I used the “Light Wheat Bread” recipe (a mix of whole wheat and unbleached white flours). It was supposed to make four loaves but we only got three out of it. This just means I get to try another recipe tomorrow.


—Very tasty bread, but a bit salty, we thought? I’ll reduce the salt in the next batch.

—Fabulous crust and a wonderful crumb. Very pleased with the texture. Just perfect.

—Would definitely double the recipe next time, since the point is to have enough in the fridge to bake a new loaf every day or so. A batch of dough should keep up to two weeks. I love the thought of the flavor intensifying over time, as the dough ages and develops sourdough notes.

The method was every bit as quick and easy as advertised. Took us all of ten minutes to mix up the big batch of dough (and half of that was ingredient-assembling—I need to restock my breadmaking supplies). You’re supposed to give it an initial rise of at least two hours, and then you can use the dough right away or put it in the fridge. We cut off enough for one loaf and enjoyed that with friends a couple of hours later. The rest went back into the fridge, and I sent a loaf’s worth of dough home with my friend and baked the second loaf for our dinner.

So good.

The dough was wet and sticky—deliberately; that’s part of the method—and I really thought the first loaf was going to be a flop because it spread out a lot during the short rising time. But then it baked up beautifully. Awesome oven spring. Quite thrilling, really.

I’m itching to try the peasant rye loaf and can see keeping batches of the “light wheat” (the whole wheat/white flour mix) and of rye in the fridge all week and alternating for each day’s baking. I’m also eager to try the whole wheat recipe and the brioche.

The possibilities for that brioche dough are intoxicating.

Oh, and I must say a bit of lemon curd countered the saltiness of today’s loaves quite nicely.

I may cross-post this at the old bread blog for easier reference (that blog used to be my breadmaking notebook, for collecting recipes and advice) but for now I’m going to post my bread notes here, too.


Please Pass the Butter
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day website (the videos are especially helpful)