Friday, January 20, 2012

Give Us This Day

From one hot mess to another
It was three years ago, in the very small kitchen of our Shrewsbury apartment, that I stood poised at the counter with pen in hand, ready to write the secrets to my mom's bread recipe. I was so excited to share my childhood treat with H, memories of getting off the school bus to a slice of warm, fresh bread slathered in butter and jam filling my head.

Until this weekend, each time I made the bread was an epic disappointment. It always started out with so much promise-a dough that was sticky but not too sticky. It rose nicely and then smelled amazing in the oven and then, without fail, what came out of the pans were two bricks with a middle that was doughy, and outsides that would have burned had I left them in any longer.

I should have known that taking the recipe over the phone from my mother, who was probably not reading it from her well-loved card, but playing spider solitaire and absentmindedly rattling it off to me, was not the best idea. But I lived across the continent and it felt like the perfect cure to my homesickness, so I went against my instincts and transcribed her words faithfully.

After the second dose of yeasty failure, I was reading my friend's blog in which she was posting about making bread. I stopped at one point, re-read with a sinking feeling and then immediately called my mother. Without so much as a hello I blurted 'MOM! Are you supposed to let the bread rise TWICE?!'

Mom: Of course.

Me: That would have been a really nice piece of information to share IN THE RECIPE YOU GAVE ME.

Okay, deep breaths. Now that I knew the secret, I'd give 'er another shot. After penciling in LET RAISE A SECOND TIME on the recipe page, I busted out my flour and yeast. The second rising did add some loftiness but, alas, bricks with doughy centers. The original recipe makes four loaves, but I had been cutting it in half. Good thing, or I'd have now produced a dozen loaves of bread that were only partially edible.

Feeling defeated, I continued to purchase quite tasty and edible bread from the supermarket and local bakeries, too scared to further deflate my baking ego. I feel like I'm pretty handy in the kitchen so I could not figure out what I could possible be doing wrong. Everything else about the recipe was allegedly correct, so what was I doing wrong? After answering the same questions to 'helpful' people; yes, I was using fresh yeast, yes my water was hot enough, YES I had good flour, I just felt dejected.

My mother-in-law came for a visit and I asked what she thought. She saw one thing right away; for the amount of flour I was using (for the full yield of four loaves), there was no way that two teaspoons of yeast would do the job. Also, she thought that using all whole wheat would be too dense. Since I knew that my mom had always used all whole wheat flour, because I watched her mill the wheat into flour (Yep, I have a lot to live up to) I knew it must be the yeast. Another friendly call and another pencil mark on the recipe, and I still didn't have the heart to try again.

Which leads me to this weekend. I pulled out the battered recipe page and told J that he was my witness; if I couldn't get it to turn out this time, I was waiting until Fancy Nancy could get over the mountain and prove that this recipe actually works. I had just been at my mom's house and was lamenting my inability to reproduce her bread, so armed with her in-person confidence boosting I felt ready.

I also decided that this time, I'd go big-all four loaves, baby! I dissolved the yeast into water that was 'hot enough that you'd take a shower in it, but not so hot that you wouldn't wash your face or hair in it' (thank you Our Best Bites for that perfect description!) and a splash of honey to make the yeast work better. 2 TABLESPOONS of yeast, that is. I measured out the first seven cups of flour into the mixer and added 5 cups of hot tap water and watched it mix away. So far, so good. I then added salt, oil, honey and continued mixing before adding another cup of flour and then the prepared yeast mixture. Everything was working so well, I was starting to get a little giddy.

The mixing bowl was a little full, yet I still had '4-5' cups more of flour to add. What the...? I added one careful cup, and almost half of it swished out of the bowl and onto the counter, but I was not deterred. I  raised the arm of the mixer, got the flour back into the bowl and let the hook work the flour in a little and then tried to gingerly add another cup. After the majority of that cup not only fell onto the counter, but onto the floor...I took a deep breath and picked up the phone.

My cute dad's voice answered the phone and I asked through clenched teeth if mom was home. Trying to bend over and sweep up the mess of the flour I'd already stepped through twice trying to get the mixer to cooperate, I snapped upright when her unsuspecting hello rang into my ears. 'MOTHER, I'm about to throw this bread dough across the room. How in the world do you make the whole batch at once?! We have the same mixer!!!'

Mom: 'Oh, honey. That was with my Bosch. With the Kitchenaide I have to cut the recipe in half.'

Me: (deep breath, swallow bile/tears rising in my throat) 'I now have a blob of dough that is not nearly flour-y enough in my mixer, and enough flour on the floor to make another loaf...HELP ME FIX THIS!' This said while I narrowly avoided falling on my backside, due to a nice sheath of flour on my slippy-slidey flip flops.

To her credit, she remained polite and talked me down. A quick smear of vegetable oil on the counter, I put the whole sad blob on the counter and hacked it in half with a knife. I returned one half to the mixer, then hand-kneaded the second half, adding a good amount of flour. I have to say, the hand-kneading was very soothing, even though I'd never done it before, and wasn't sure I'd know how. I was probably a lot more accurate with the flour, by hand-kneading, because I could feel when I'd added enough instead of just guessing. I did the same with the other half, then let them rise in greased and covered bowls for about two hours, until they were doubled in size.

I then divided them into four loaf pans, punched down the loaves and let them rise again until they were about a third larger (about 35 minutes), then baked them at 350 for 35 minutes and turned them out immediately.

I cut into the first loaf with trepidation and breathed a sigh of relief. It was beautifully crusty on the outside, completely done on the inside and with butter and honey, oh-my-God-perfection. It was even good enough for me to share a loaf with the neighbor.

So, there you have it-my tale of dough woe all tidied up after three short years, and many conversations with dear old mom. And, without further ado-here's the 'Fool Proof' Honey Whole Wheat Bread that Fancy Nancy's been a'making with success for years.

NOTE: This recipe yields four loaves, if you have a smaller mixer, do one half at a time in order to fit.

1. Combine 5 c. hot tap water with 7 cups of ww flour (I used about 3 cups of 'better  for bread' flour and 4 cups WW) in the bowl of your mixer and mix on low speed.

2. In a 1/2 c. of very warm water, stir in 1t honey, then sprinkle 2T(ablespoons) of yeast.

3. To the flour and water in the mixer, add 2T salt, 2/3 c. oil and 2/3 c. honey-continue to mix until well blended, then add 1c. flour to the mixture.

4. Add the prepared yeast mix to the mixer and blend thoroughly.

5. At this point, you can either a)add 4-5 cups more flour and knead in the mixer with the dough hook for about 10 minutes, or b) turn the dough out onto a greased countertop and add flour in as you hand-knead it for about the same amount of time. The dough should be slightly sticky. Be careful not to add too much flour.

6. Place in a greased bowl and cover, allowing to rise until doubled in size. (approximately 2 hours depending on the temperature of your house)

7. Divide and place into greased pans, poke with your fingers to punch it down and let rise until another 1/3 in size is added (about 35 minutes).

8. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes until the sides have pulled away from the pan. Turn out immediately. Attempt to resist urges to eat the entire loaf with butter and honey on the first day. Cool completely and store in bags on the counter.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mile High Club

I'm sure you've all been waiting with baited breath, but I think it's taken this long for me to think about the second half of the flight to Aruba as anything bordering on amusing. Because we lived across the country from our friends and family for so long, my kids have flown a lot. I feel like I'm a fairly seasoned mama flyer to date, so I've got a pretty good system in place. I knew what to pack, what wasn't necessary, and kind of what to expect from my kiddos.

Since we planned to stay at the hotel for the duration of the trip, we decided to forego lugging the carseats around the airport and just see how wonderful our little cherub could perform in only the confines of the seatbelt. Could they make those things any easier to unlatch? Sure, it's great if you're in a plane crash, but when you're trying to contain a three year-old? Not so much.

After driving four hours to Portland, we had dinner with the fam, bathed the kids there and put them in jammies in preparation for our first leg, which was a red eye to JFK. The check-in process could seriously have not gone any more smoothly, and before I knew it we were settled on the plan and both kids had fallen asleep-a state in which they remained for the duration of the flight. I'm not a stupid person, but it honestly hadn't dawned on me that when we landed at JFK at 6am, it would really only be 3am. I gathered a sleeping C in the sling and started to carry him through the airport. Of course he didn't stay asleep. We had a very tight connection and had just enough time to squirt some Stonyfield yogurt tubes down their throats and take a quick trip to the potty before they were boarding our second flight. And that's where it all went downhill.

Being awoken in the middle of the night isn't much fun for anyone, but it's aparrently really not fun for Charlie, and he wasn't afraid to let us know. For the next five hours, J and I alternated between sitting next to H, who was strangely and almost concerningly content for the entire 5.5 hour flight, and sitting next to a child who I was sure at any moment would spin his head around and vomit all over everyone. If you've met Charlie in real life, you'd know he is not a quiet child. Between trying to physically retrain him from climbing all over the seats, quiet him as he screamed in proportion to my growing frustration, and nursing my split lip that was the result of him head butting me-I finally just had to let some tears roll down the ole cheeks and pray for this part of the trip to be over.

Crazily, we didn't get the stink eye from anyone and when we landed, Charlie magically turned into Sir Charming, and had the couples in front and behind of us laughing. I was not joining them. I am a grudge holder, and he wasn't my favorite person just then.

We made it down the concourse in one piece and proceeded to customs. Trying to keep the kids still after sitting for almost 12 hours was super fun, and my shining moment was when I looked over at the adjacent (empty) cubicle to see Charlie standing in a customs officer's chair, getting ready to tap on the computer keys. They were not amused. Luckily, we were still allowed in the country.

We exited into the humid air and glorious sunshine just as a taxi pulled up to the curb, and I could feel my tension lift. As we pulled up to the hotel, our bags were collected and held to the side while we went inside to see if, please God yes, our room was ready for early check-in.

We were arriving several hours before my sister and her family, and she'd told us that they should have the room ready for early check-in, but if not it wouldn't be long...she lied.

As my feral children ran circles around me on the slick marble tile, I waited patiently while they explained that our room wasn't ready, but it should be in about an hour. We decided to sit and have some lunch, where J and I sucked down frozen concoctions laced with alcohol and the kids enjoyed a virgin version of the same. When we walked back to the lobby, we were notified that our room wasn't quite ready yet and we had to go through several people in order to access our bags, because we figured we could at least spend the extra time in the pool, instead of crying a river of self-pitying and pathetic tears. Being tired is not pretty on me.

J is usually a very practical person, but he stood rifling through his bags in his flannel shirt which was by now soaked with sweat. Flannel is very practicaly for the Pacific Northwest, but not so much when you know when you're flying to the Carribbean.

Blissfully ensconsed in the pool, we immediately forgot that we'd been sticking to our clothing just moments before, and almost forgot that our kids had been acting like total jerks. I kept trying to remind myself; You're in paradise. Stop being a baby. But really, all I wanted to do was lay down in a bed and sleep. I checked back at the front desk an hour later and was told that our room would now not be ready until after the actual check-in time. Seriously? Did Metallica stay in our room and trash it?

Not happening. This is when it came in handy that someone had witnessed my stellar parenting, because another hotel employee came over and asked if I hadn't been in there with the two little boys. Yes, yes that was me. We've come from the west coast, we're exhausted and I'm trying to be nice, but I'm really tired.

With a couple clicks of the keyboard, we were moved one room over to a clean room with everything else the same and I went to collect my children...I really just wanted to go up to the room by myself, but I'm pretty sure J would have divorced me.

Showered and changed into island appropriate attire, we settled the kiddos down for a nap, and I promptly fell into a coma next to them. I awoke a few hours later to the sounds of my sister and her family arriving, along with delivered pizza. It wasn't even good pizza, but I didn't realize how hungry I'd been until I started eating. Sherrific and I then caught a cab and went grocery shopping for our week. The next morning, it was as if the flight had never happened. We were all extremely well-rested and ready to face the biggest decision of our trip; beach or pool, pool or beach? Don't worry, we did both.

It was blissful. Perfect temperatures, wonderful water, and spending time with my sister which is a rarity now that she's decided that she's a mid-westerner at heart for seven whole days. Henry loved being in the water and Charlie had a ball with his cousin, who was equally as wary of that liquid stuff that kept encroaching on their personal space. Yep, they were the edge clingers.

The only blip came when Charlie threw the biggest tantrum of his life on our next to last day. Sheer exhaustion caused him to bust out his only curse word, buttface, which he used approximately 700 times in a three minute period, mimicing a fantastic tourrettes episode. He was spitting, screaming, yelling, kicking and biting me for almost thirty minutes before I finally 'swaddled' him in a beach towel and rocked him to sleep. It was a tantrum of epic proportions and I couldn't help being a little impressed by his stick to-it attitude. The kid is nothing if not willful. I kept waiting for the knock on the door from a security guard saying they'd heard a child being abuse in the next room, but it never came, I stayed calm and all's well that ends well. He awoke three hours later with no memory of his terrible behavior. Which I guess is good?

Too soon, we were pakcing our bags again and I was terrified that we'd have an encore performance of the previous flight, but alas-they were exhaused in the best way. Seven days of sand, sun and water had created the zen they needed to be angels. I'm not being sarcastic. Henry was in heaven since the only kid show playing on the TV was Sponge Bob, so he finally got to partake in the wonder of the little creature who lives in a pineapple under the sea-and Charlie was content to play with stickers. We arrived in Portland tanned and happy, settled into our hotel and drove home the next day just in time for H to attend his class Christmas party.

Both J and I agreed that, beautiful as it was, it'd be a long time before we fly that far for a beach again. Hawaii's just a short flight away, and we've yet to explore Mexico...lots of beautiful beach vacations await!