Tag Archives: Baker’s Almanac

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A Baker’s Almanac: The Moods of March

A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.  After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.  We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.  In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring. 

If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens of moss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.  This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.  The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.

In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.  The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.  It is a more somber environment.  I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.  I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.  This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,  a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.  The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.  The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.

This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.  The festivities of the season also reflect this.  The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.  Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.  But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.  The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.  Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.

A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.  Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.

As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.  The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.  These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.  Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.

One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.  As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.  I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.  Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.

Irish Soda Bread

All Purpose Flour     4 cups

Baking Soda      1 ½ tsp.

Salt 1 tsp.

Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.

Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)

Raisins 2 cups

Buttermilk 1 ½ cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  This recipe comes together qickly.

Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. 

Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.

“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.

Stir in the raisins.

Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.  Stir until it just comes together.  It will resemble a shaggy mass. 

Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.

Transfer to cookie sheet.  If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning

Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.  One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.  Cool slightly then eat copiously!

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Winter Wheat

Winter in Kentucky is slowly becoming my favorite season. Like most people, I find the cold intrusive, the bulky clothes annoying and the gruff transitions from inside to outside and back again disruptive, but once I commit myself to being out in nature, a walk in a park or even around the neighborhood, I find the starkness revealing.

One of my objections to this land is one of its strongest traits: an almost strangling fecundity. The woods in the summer are so verdant and lush, seeing the forest for the leaves becomes difficult. But in the fall, and especially the winter, the trees reveal their stately countenance. The naked profile of a leafless tree against a snowy backdrop reveals the character of the tree, the story of the tree. In the gaudy greenery of their springtime finery, the trees glow with youthful frippery. But come winter, when the over mantles are cast off, we are left to wonder at the limbs, the heart, the bones.

In the neighborhood next to mine live some trees that are literally hundreds of years old. The architect who purchased the land and first started building houses in the area in the mid-30’s designed the road to wind past the towering Chinquapin Oaks that had settled in that spot long before the coming of us. And they dominate the land even today. Gnarled, broken, they stand in grand testament to perseverance and flexibility. Around them are their newer neighbors: Pin oaks and Sycamores and Tulip Poplars, all stripped to the bone of leaf and flower, all revealing their skeletal structure. I used to feel the trees looked sad, vulnerable in their winter sparsity, but now I see the bold strength, the history, the tenacity of their quest for light, for moisture, for growth. From a distance, the trunk and branch look like the vein pattern of an individual leaf. Up close, the vast strength and solidity of the years is revealed.

So too with the creeks. The record volume of water that has fallen this past year has highlighted their presence, the channels forming on the floor of my leaky basement standing in sodden testament to this. More and more I see how this land is intimately shaped by water. The little and big creeks stitch together the landscape like veins on a leaf, like branches on a winter’s tree. And through the sparse foliage of winter, I am discovering the hidden convolutions of the waterways of the Bluegrass.

On one of the many fine, beautiful country roads which wrap around Lexington, there is a bridge I like to stop at, the intersection of land and water, man and nature being gently revealed. As I step from my car to briefly revel in the gentle glory, I am struck by how accessible the peace of nature is to us here. Today as I walked up to the bridge, at the convergence of two creeks merging to form the Elkhorn, the sun seeped through the clouds and the insistent current seemed to pull the wan sunlight downstream with it. Glassine pillows of water flowed over submerged rocks to fall in a jumble at the bottom of the slope. Heretofore hidden feeder creeks emerged, the gauzy shroud of summer shrubbery dropped to reveal the moist gullies beneath. As I stood there, letting sound and air wash over me, I felt sedation, a slowing of space.

There is a pulling back, a pulling in that comes with winter. The trees stand resolute, their strong, intimate branches revealed in their grand, naked gavotte with gravity. Squirrels shroud themselves in the shawls of their tails. Birds puff up like dandelions, maximizing the insulation of their elegantly efficient feathers. Even our cat is around more, enjoying the warm bath of air from the heater more than his solitude. It is a slower, more languid time; it is a good time for baking bread.

Baking bread at home is one of the most basic and sensuous of pleasures. The smell of the flour and yeast, the sticky texture of the initial mass giving way to the smooth firm ball of properly kneaded dough, the warmth of the oven, the perfume of the baking loaf, all transform a cold winter’s day into a celebration of hearth and home. It is a personal activity which gives richly to all lucky enough to be in the space. And it is easy; with care and patience the alchemical transformation from base ingredients into culinary gold is always achievable, though sometimes with better results than others. And the results keep giving.

The usual recipe for bread gives two to three loaves, allowing for inhalation of the first warm, redolent loaf and the slower consumption of the next over the following days. Like any activity, more practice leads to better results. And in this time of pulling in and nesting, exercising and resolving, it is one which will lead to a greater sense of peace and fulfillment.

Jim’s Recipe for Winter Wheat Bread:

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour

3 cups White Bread Flour

1 packet Instant Yeast

1 tablespoon Salt

2 tablespoons Sorghum or Molasses or Honey

Generous 2 cups room temperature Water.

Combine all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add sweetener, then water.

Stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass is formed.

Turn out onto counter or bread board and knead about 5 minutes, until a smooth, taut ball is formed.

Place ball in oiled mixing bowl, cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Punch down and divide into 2 pieces.

Form into balls and place on cornmeal covered sheet pan, or place into greased bread pans.

Cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, 45-60 minutes. (Preheat oven to 375)

Place into oven and bake 30-35 minutes.  When done, the bottom will ring like a drum when thumped.

Remove from oven.  Let cool as long as you can.  Eat with your favorite soup or spread.

When fully cool, wrap other loaf, if you still have it, and store for later use.

Enjoy!