• Biscotti: part two

    This was my first successful biscotti recipe; it’s one that I have been making for a good three or four years, at least.

    The recipe is scrawled on the bottom of a jaggedly-torn piece of paper, both back and front of which are covered with biscotti recipes. None of them were any good, except for this one. Actually, it can’t really be called a recipe because all I have written down is:

    1 T. grated orange rind (more?)

    dried cranberries?

    I can tell, for no other reason than just because I can, that I’m supposed to follow the above recipe for Anise Biscotti, which I made the other day and accidentally left out half of the sugar, which caused the biscotti to end up tasting like that sand-coated popsicle stick I spoke of earlier, which, by the way, I have never tasted (the sandy popsicle stick, not the biscotti), which— Okay! I’ll stop!

    Um, where was I? Oh yes. The non-sandy biscotti.

    In this recipe, the classic combination of orange and cranberry won me over from the get-go. The dried cranberries add a sweet-tart chew that compliments and counters the citrus-y dryness. Mr. Handsome, not one to fawn over biscotti or any other dry Italian cookie, thoroughly appreciates this one. So, without further ado, I present to you…

    Orange-Cranberry Biscotti
    From my recipe file, kind of miraculously deciphered from my cryptic chicken-scratch

    1 cup sugar
    ½ cup butter
    2-3 tablespoons orange zest
    2 eggs
    3 ½ cups flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ cup dried cranberries

    Beat together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and orange zest and beat some more. Mix in the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the dried cranberries.

    Divide the dough into two parts and on an ungreased cookie sheet shape each half into a log, approximately three inches wide and ten inches long. Bake the logs at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, cool for 10-15 minutes, slice, and re-bake, this time at 325 degrees for 15-30 minutes, turning once. (For more thorough biscotti-baking instructions, go here.)

    Store in an airtight jar.

  • Suiting my tastes

    I love whole-milk Stonyfield yogurt, the kind that has the thick layer of cream on top. It tastes like candy, not even needing any jam to sweeten it.

    On the other hand, my homemade yogurt is tangy-tart, almost too much so for my tastes. The rest of the family loves it, not seeming to mind its strong flavor, but I have to add an extra scoop of jam if I want to enjoy it.

    I’ve had a niggling idea that I could replicate the Stonyfield version, but for some unclear reason I just never attempted to. Until a couple days ago when, instead of measuring out the standard four cups of milk, I replaced a half cup of so of the milk with cream from the quart jar that sits on the top shelf of the fridge. I proceeded with my normal yogurt-making routine, the only change being that I occasionally stirred the milk as it cooled in order to prevent the cream from rising to the top and creating a gummy skin—I wanted the cream to be as incorporated into the milk as possible.

    The final product was an altogether different animal from my standard yogurt—satiny, rich, mellow. It set up faster, tasted less acidic, and even had a little layer of cream on top (though not as defined as the layer in the Stonyfield containers). I labeled the container “creamy” and then stored it off to one side in the fridge, reserving it for my consumption only. I’ve been eating it for my breakfasts (feeding French toast, eggs, or oatmeal to everyone else) and for my bedtime snack.

    I made another container yesterday and now I’m wondering how it would turn out if I used one part cream to three parts milk. Is it possible to create a yogurt that is even better than Stonyfield’s? Is it possible to use too much cream?

    The milk/cream mixture is heating up as I type these words and in a few short hours I will determine whether or not I am to become Stonyfield’s next stiff competitor. To be continued…

    (Yikes! I was so absorbed in wording that last sentence that my milk/cream boiled over!)

  • Non-foist-able biscotti: part one

    I didn’t like this recipe when I first made it. I thought the biscotti insipid, and since the recipe made an enormous quantity, I quickly went about handing them out to family and friends.

    Isn’t that awful? Giving away baked goods that I’m not crazy about myself?

    However, it appears that no harm was done—the biscotti were reportedly consumed and enjoyed, or so the gracious recipients claimed (I do wonder if they might just be taking a gamble: figuring that one of every three or four food items I send their way will be tasty, they praise them all and then hope for the best), and over the next few days, I changed my mind. I kept wandering over to the jar and fishing out another one. And then another. There was something about them that made me keep coming back for more. Was it the rum? The big chunks of crunchy almonds? The anise seeds? Whatever it was, it was addicting. I stopped giving them away.

    In retrospect, the reason I didn’t fall in love with them immediately was probably because I was biscotti-ed out. I had been on a biscotti kick for a week prior, turning out a variety of flavors, pumpkin, anise-lemon, cinnamon-sugar, and orange-chocolate, in the same fashion that I turn out babies, bang-bang-bang. And maybe the flavors didn’t ripen until a couple days post-baking.

    Anyhow, I definitely like them now. The recipe is a keeper, passing my biscotti-taste tests, of which I have had many. See, it’s hard to find a good biscotti recipe. I ought to know. While there are all sorts of biscotti recipes clogging up cyberspace and cookbooks—fat-free, chocolate-dipped, maple syrup-sweetened, whole-wheat, nut-and-fruit-studded—sadly enough, not many of them are actually that good. Some are too hard, others are too crumbly. There are the ones that are overloaded with goopy stuff (if you are after something that sweet, just make cookies) while others resemble a popsicle stick that has been used to adorn a child’s sand castle at the seashore. Some never seem to be able to get hard all the way through (resembling a soggy sand-coated popsicle stick), and so on.

    But! Do not despair! I have been doing the dirty work of experimentation, for you. (That’s a lie. I’m doing all this work for myself and no one else. I’m a true-blue selfish woman, one who loves her biscotti.) My goal is to have a broad repertoire of biscotti recipes at my fingertips, all of them flavorful and crunchy and deserving of the time that it takes to turn them out.

    Which brings me to my next point. Before you start making biscotti, you need to understand a couple things.

    First, biscotti is easy-peasy, requiring that you master a simple process that involves mixing up a cookie-type dough, shaping the dough into logs, baking the logs, slicing them, and then baking the slices again till they are toasty brown and dried through.

    Second, biscotti is tricky-wicky, mostly in regards to the baking process. Sometimes it’s hard to get the logs of dough baked all the way through before they get burned at the edges. Or, if you let the logs cool for too long before slicing them, you may end up with a mess of crumbs. Over-baking the sliced biscotti (don’t do it!) can cause it to, believe it or not, get too dry. While it is fine to mix up the biscotti dough and then refrigerate it until later, make sure you have allotted yourself enough time for the baking process. You will need a minimum of two or three hours—do not rush.

    After baking cookies, I almost always put them directly into the freezer—rarely do I store cookies in a cookie jar since they are so quick to lose their freshness. But biscotti is a different story. Because it is dry it keeps for weeks in an airtight jar—when it is placed in a ribbed, heavy glass jar and set on the kitchen counter, it becomes an attractive insurance policy against an ever-possible-but-not-likely (at least in my kitchen) dessert drought.

    Furthermore, its dry constitution makes it the ideal item to ship (in a pretty jar, of course, wound with a curly ribbon ‘bout its glassy neck) to a faraway friend. If these are the biscotti you choose to send through the mail, your friend will not, I seriously doubt, feel foisted-upon in any way.

    Nana’s Anise Biscotti
    Slightly adapted from Epicurious (Tim Mantoani, Bon Appétit, April 1995)

    The original recipe called for brandy, but I didn’t have any so I used rum instead. The large chunks of almonds added a lot of character to the biscotti—I would argue that it would not be wise to substitute with sliced almonds.

    2 cups sugar
    1 cup butter
    4 eggs
    4 ½ cups flour
    4 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/3 cup rum
    1 ½ teaspoons anise extract
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 cup almonds, roughly chopped and toasted
    2 tablespoons aniseed

    Cream together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and beat well.

    In a separate bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In small bowl mix together the rum and extracts. Add the dry ingredients and the flavorings alternately to the creamed butter. Stir in the almonds and aniseed.

    Grease two cookie sheets. Scoop one-fourth of the dough to the cookie sheet and, using fingers that have been slightly wetted with water to prevent the dough from sticking to them, press the dough into a log about two inches wide and twelve inches long. Repeat with the remaining dough (to clarify: you’ll have two logs on each pan).

    Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, or as long as you can without them burning. (It’s important not to under bake them because then the biscotti will be heavy.) The logs should be golden brown and cracked on top.

    Allow the logs to cool on the cookie sheet for five to ten minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. Let them cool for another ten minutes and then slip them on to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, slice them into 3/4-inch thick slices. It doesn’t really matter if they are a bit thinner or thicker as along as they are all about the same size. If you prefer longer biscotti, cut them on the diagonal; for shorter, stubby biscotti, cut them straight across.

    Place the biscotti back on the cookie sheet, this time laying down on their sides, and return the cookie sheet to the oven (the temperature reduced to 300 degrees) for another forty minutes. After about twenty minutes, turn them over so they will brown more evenly. Allow them to cool completely before storing in an airtight jar on your kitchen counter.

    Serve with a cup of tea or coffee.

    Note: If your oven is at all cantankerous like mine, you will probably want to bake only one cookie sheet at a time. This makes the whole process take that much longer (twice, to be exact), but it’s better then charring the goods.

  • Ode to the Titty Fairy

    For ten long years you blessed
    my scanty boozums
    How wondrous to fill
    out my dresses and shirts
    and to, for the first time,
    justify wearing a bra.
    For the duration of your visit
    my body swelled and
    four times in all.

    My uterus has ballooned
    for the final time,
    never to distend again,
    though I will appear
    four months pregnant
    every time I eat too much.

    My baby,
    my seca leche
    (milk dryer-upper),
    is three-years-old next week.
    You are no longer needed,
    so you have pocketed your fairy dust,
    packed your wand and flitted away,
    stripping my chest of its curves.

    Just because you aren’t needed
    does not mean you aren’t wanted.
    Did you know that?

    I miss you.

  • Another use for

    Okay, here’s another Way-To-Use-Sourdough recipe: Baked French Toast. Of course it wouldn’t have to be made with sourdough bread (it would be really good with a cinnamon-raisin bread), but since I make it with sourdough, it belongs here, on this blog.

    Baked French Toast is kind of like a bread pudding, but much better—more eggy and breadier (I’m afraid that didn’t make much sense since bread pudding is made of eggs and breads, but, oh well), and the top gets crunchy and crusty from the cinnamon-sugar that you sprinkle over it before baking. It’s another one of my favorite breakfast recipes because it requires a soaking period, making it perfect for assembling the night before and then popping it into the oven after you blearily scuffle your way downstairs in the morning. And it’s fancy enough for company. The leftovers are delicious, too, only requiring a brief re-heating in the microwave.

    I have found that it is important not to use more bread than the one pound that the recipe calls for. I have often made the mistake of trying to add extra bread to the recipe, thinking more is better, but in this case it is not. A surplus of bread makes the dish too dry, so don’t do it.

    The original recipe called for an entire eight ounces of cream cheese, but it works fine with just four to six ounces of the cheese. Also, if you want to gussy it up, you can experiment by adding different fruits: fresh cranberries (first simmered in a sugar-water solution) with some orange zest are tasty, as are frozen blueberries (this last time I made three-quarters of the pan with blueberries and one-quarter without, for Yo-Yo). I suspect it would also be good with chopped apples (first sauteed in some butter and sugar), raspberries, dried dates, cherries, or raisins. And you could sprinkle some toasted pecans or walnuts over the top…

    Baked French Toast
    Adapted from The Grand Matriarch

    1 pound stale bread, cubed
    4 ounces cream cheese, in small cubes
    12 eggs, beaten
    1 ½ cups milk
    1/3 cup pure maple syrup
    3 teaspoons sugar
    ½ teaspoons cinnamon

    Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

    Grease a 9 x 13 pan and place half of the cubed bread on the bottom. Sprinkle half of the cubed cream cheese over the bread. (If the cream cheese is too mushy to chop, set it in the freezer for about fifteen minutes to harden prior to cutting.) Repeat.

    In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, and maple syrup. Pour over the bread. Tightly cover the casserole and put it in the fridge to soak for 8-24 hours (and I think you could get away with letting it there even longer).

    Right before baking, sprinkle the reserved cinnamon sugar over the casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until puffy, golden brown, and set (poke it in the middle with a knife to make sure it is no longer runny).

    Serve with maple syrup.

  • Gripping the pages

    If you read my sidebar updates, you know that I was reading Louis Sachar’s Holes to the children. I had read it to myself a year or two ago, but I didn’t consider reading it to the children because I thought it would be over their heads. But then a friend gave it to us for a Christmas present, causing me to reconsider. My brother teaches the book in his middle school English classes, so I called him up to get his opinion on the matter. He thought it over for a minute and then pronounced it a good fit. We had our next read-aloud.

    Once I started reading the book, we couldn’t stop. Or maybe I should say I could not stop. I didn’t even give the kids a chance to beg me to read just one more chapter—I simply plowed right through, ignoring the fact that there even were chapters. Needless to say, the kids were delighted; they found it hilarious that I couldn’t stop. We read the book in just a few days, reading some nights upwards of one-and-a-half hours.

    Holes introduced the children to a new genre of literature. The story isn’t your classic straightforward story, such as Ramona Quimby, Heidi, and Tom Sawyer. It’s a mixture of fairy-tale and real life, drama and mystery. I could practically see the wheels turning in their heads as they struggled to fill in the holes (the book could not be more appropriately titled).

    I found myself gripping the book extra tight during the scary parts and sometimes pausing to silently read ahead because I was too darn impatient. Other times the story line was moving so fast that I had to pause to give myself a chance to catch my breath. At one point Miss Becca Boo had to get up from the sofa and go stand in the doorway to put some distance between herself and the story—it was just too intense for her. However, despite the scare-factor, she adored the book, carting it around with her and showing it to anyone who walked into our house.

    We finished the book about a week ago. I was sorely bummed; what a letdown. After being on that high, I didn’t think there could possibly be anything out there that would be half as interesting to read, so we didn’t read anything—for a whole week. A couple days ago I forced myself to go dig out a book, any book, because we were missing our story time. The kids and I settled on Miss Hickory, which is a respectable book and one that the children enjoy. Even so, it leaves me feeling rather empty and unsatisfied. It’s just not Holes.

  • A premature indulgence

    I never baked a Brie until this past Sunday. I had eaten baked Brie at Christmas parties and on other special occasions, but I had never done one myself. I assumed they cost an outrageous amount of money, and baking one just to learn how seemed rather excessive, like stuffing and roasting a whole turkey just for me.

    But then, just a couple weeks ago, I went to my girlfriend Kris’s birthday potluck. As one of her contributions to the meal she had made a baked Brie topped with her homemade pear chutney and some almonds. Once I ate that, I couldn’t stop thinking about Brie.

    A few days after the party while on my last spend-what-I-want shopping trip, I took my traditional trek through the deli section where I spied some little rounds of Brie nestled cutely on one of the shelves of the little cheese island. The half-pound rounds were small, perfect for just a couple people, and cost four-and-a-half dollars. Hmmm, I thought. Why not? The expiration date wasn’t till spring—it would be the perfect specialty item to hoard, awaiting the time when I could bear it no long and simply had to consume something exotic.

    My plan would’ve worked just fine except that it’s hard to ignore Brie when it’s sitting on the shelf in your refrigerator, because despite the fact that it’s small and dainty and unobtrusive, it has a commanding presence. Come to think of it, anything with a high concentration of cream is virtually impossible to ignore, no matter where you hide it in the fridge.

    That’s how I found myself, just a week into our spending freeze (if I can’t make it more than a week without special eats, I’m going to be a basket case after the next couple months) calling up my brother and his wife and inviting them over for a Sunday evening dinner of snacky foods. There would be bean dip and tortilla chips, I promised, as well as fresh bread and Brie. They said they would come.

    So on Sunday afternoon I began the ceremonial act of preparing a Brie. I’m not joking when I say it’s a ceremonial act. It is. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me. There is something pure about a Brie—all that soft white creaminess, molded into a chaste little round, encased in its exquisite downy-soft paper. So unassuming, but yet so complex. Handling such a delicate cheese, I discovered, makes you feel kind of elevated and clean; therefore, it is an appropriate activity for a Sunday afternoon.

    First, I removed the cheese from its box and set it in the pie plate. I had to pause in my cheese prepping ritual to call up Kris. “What do I do with this paper stuff that’s all over the cheese? Do I cut it off?” I asked.

    “Oh no! It’s all good,” she said. “You can eat the whole thing.”

    “Oh. Okay. Well, that’s good,” I said. It certainly couldn’t get much easier, I thought as I hung up the phone.

    Second, third, and fourth, I caramelized an onion and mounded it over the cheese, drizzled apricot preserves over the onion, and then baked the Brie. I also toasted a few slivered almonds and sprinkled those over the cheese immediately before serving.

    I do not have a picture of the finished Brie in all it’s gooey glory because it was already dark when the cheese was finally ready to eat and I’m afraid of taking pictures at night—that’s something I do not know how to do. Besides, I was stuck with a kind of single-mindedness once the cheese came out of the oven: Cheese is ready; eat cheese now.

    I ignored the other foods that we had for supper, opting instead to feast on the ethereal blobs of creamy cheese. I slathered it on my bread, delightedly snatching the bread crusts that my kids rejected (they were shocked, accustomed as they are to the standard rule of You Must Eat Your Crusts Period), using them to scoop up more of the onion-y, nutty cheese. Oh, it was divine! Food for the gods. Blissssss.

    The Brie served it’s purpose, albeit a bit prematurely, of numbing the slight sense of deprivation I had been experiencing. For the entire course of that meal and several hours afterwards, I felt spoiled, contented, and filthy rich. A little sad, too, because the cheese was gone. But mostly I felt smug—I had learned that I can, in a snap, turn out something that is simultaneously wickedly delicious and simply divine. And that, my dears, is quite comforting.

    Baked Brie
    Adapted from recipes I read on Epicurious, as well as from talking with my girlfriend Kris

    A small round of Brie, about 8 ounces
    one medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced
    1 tablespoon butter
    2 tablespoons apricot preserves
    2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted

    Remove the Brie from its box and wrapper and set it in a pie plate, indented side up.

    In a medium-sized skillet on medium heat, fry the onion with the butter and a sprinkling of salt until the onion is dark golden brown, about 30 minutes. Pile the onions on top of the cheese.

    Drizzle the apricot preserves over the onions. (To make thick preserves more drizzle-able, heat them in the microwave for a few seconds.)

    Bake the Brie at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until it looks relaxed and a little bubbly. Don’t be alarmed if the cheese oozes out and puddles on the plate—it will all taste good.

    Before serving, sprinkle the almonds on top. Eat while still warm.

  • Capturing the moment

    I’m forever fussing about the chaos, the noise, the activity, the filth, the intensity of the goings-on in my home. You’re aware of that, right? Go ahead and admit it—you’ve been reading this blog, hand over your mouth, gasping at the dangerous antics of my progeny, and wagging your finger at what a negligent slacker of a parent that I am. Yes?

    But let me share with you a secret: approximately once every three months, everything, all the bits and pieces of my immoderate and insane life, comes together. This coming together probably has less to do with me and more to do with some cosmic force of nature, such as the stars lining up in some precise mathematical formation. And then when that happens, all the world smiles at us and everything is perfect and happy and peaceful—good karma, peace on earth, yin and yang, etc. Granted, the reprieve only lasts for about ten minutes, but let’s not knock it, okay?

    Yesterday we had one of these moments. It was the first day of a new routine with a new rule: If the kids get all their morning chores done by 8:30, they get a candy corn. Yep, just a candy corn. But it’s a powerful candy corn, mind you, stronger than me, the loud-mouthed nag that I am, because it inspires them to make their beds, straighten their rooms, brush their teeth, comb their hair, bring in the firewood, empty the compost, feed the animals, pick up the shoes, and take their medicine, all without saying nary a word. Amazing stuff, candy corn.

    However, I am a smart mama, thank you very much, and when I realized the power of the common candy corn, I promptly harnessed it, like any good environmentalist.

    So yesterday morning at 8:30, I doled out the corn, one kernel per child, and then commenced to read to Yo-Yo and Becca Boo for the next hour and ten minutes at which point they took a fifteen minute break to fly Yo-Yo’s brand new, remote-controlled helicopter than he bought with his own money. Once the allotted play time was up, I assigned each child a task. And—KA-BOOM!—that’s when It Happened. The pressure changed, the air lightened, and I heard angels singing. I glanced about and realized my life was perfect, just perfect.

    Now, let me ask you: What does a smart mama do at a moment like that? She grabs her camera and documents the moment, yes indeed, that’s what she does.

    First, here is The Baby Nickel hanging up the socks, undies, and rags on the drying rack.

    He was pleased as punch to have been given such an important task, and he took me very seriously when I reminded him to shake out the clothing.

    So shake he did.

    Second, here is Sweetsie washing the dishes.

    She’s young enough to still swell up with pride when I tell her it’s time to do the dishes, but she’s old enough to mask her Proud Puff with a steady stream of whining.

    And she’s still young enough to play when she washes the dishes (come to think of it, none of my other children have outgrown that phase yet).

    Third, here is Miss Becca Boo scrubbing the shower.

    She likes to pull the shower curtain closed so she can splash water all around.

    When she does that I cringe inside, but I don’t say anything as long as the job is done to my satisfaction.

    And finally, here is Yo-Yo hard at work doing his independent studies, the little helicopter by his side.

    In the course of these photos he yelled at me, dropped his pencil on the floor, got up to look out the window (he mistook the cat for a skunk), and caressed the helicopter repeatedly.

    (There is a chance that the good moment was more a result of the new toy and less a result of the stars’ alignment…)

    Are you listening closely? Can you hear the angels?

    Shortly thereafter things deteriorated somewhat. The Baby Nickel dumped plant dirt all over the rug in the quiet room and on the floor in the hallway. The kids got cranky because they were hungry. Later on Sweetsie smashed a book into Nickel’s eye, transforming it into a purple-swollen-and-red-gashed, fancy-looking peeper.

    BUT! The angels did sing. We can pull it off and give the illusion that we are The Ideal Homeschool Family Complete With Well-Trained and Hardworking Children. So what if it doesn’t happen but four times a year? So what if we fall apart afterwards? The moment did happen, and whether it was due to my lucky stars or the candy corn or the helicopter is irrelevant. It happened, and that’s what matters.


  • On not wanting

    A couple years ago I read a post (January 24, 2007) on Cindy’s blog that was titled “I Don’t Want Anything.” I was intrigued, challenged, and inspired, all at the same time.

    Not want anything? Now that was a novel idea! I have always known that I don’t really need anything, but to take it one step farther and say I don’t want anything? Could that possibly be true? Could I make it be true?

    I pondered the matter for about five seconds and then I got up from my desk, marched over to the table where Mr. Handsome was reading the paper, pressed my stomach up against the table, and slapped my hand over his paper so he would have to look at me. When he finally looked up, clearly irritated (I’m notorious for bothering him when he sits down to read the paper), I calmly stated, “I don’t want anything.”

    He looked at me, blankly.

    Speaking softly and enunciating each word to the best of my mush-mouth ability, I said, “I bet I can go longer without spending money than you can, because,” and I smiled tauntingly, “I don’t want anything.”

    Of course Mr. Handsome rose to the challenge. We drew up the rules:

    Non-acceptable expenditures:
    *Tools, building materials, etc.
    *Entertainment: eating out, movies, plays, childcare
    *Certain groceries: no cereal, fresh fruits/veggies, ice cream, meats, gourmet and soft cheeses, snack foods, sodas, candy, alcohol, rice, beans, pastas (maybe)

    Acceptable expenditures:
    *Standard bills, household items such as laundry detergent, tampons, toilet paper, and medical costs
    *Gas and travel: we didn’t usually go anywhere anyway, and on the off-chance that we decided to go visit my family, we would go.
    *The advance fees for certain activities for the children, such as camp, a local wilderness activity, etc.
    *Birthdays would proceed as normal.
    *Certain groceries: standard grains and flours, sugar, oil, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, milk, butter, eggs, basic cheeses and spices
    *Garden seeds

    Mr. Handsome kept saying things like, “This is so funny,” and “You always spend more money than me,” and “What are you, crazy?” and “I can’t believe you are doing this to yourself.”

    I think we made it several weeks, maybe even four, before, eh-hem, Mr. Handsome lost the bet. He had ordered some hardware for the kids’ swing set. “But it was for the kids!” he argued in a last ditch effort to absolve himself.

    “It was money,” I said. “Period. I won.”

    The next year we planned ahead for the game, making sure we were fairly well outfitted for our spending drought. The kids had enough clothes, Mr. Handsome had some ideas for projects to work on (and the supplies necessary to complete them), and I had my stash of chocolate. We made it for about two months, maybe a bit more, before, eh-hem again, Mr. Handsome lost. I cannot, though, remember the losing purchase—was it the solar panel do-hickey for the chicken fence? Anyway, whatever it was, I won. Again.

    A week and a half ago, on January 12, we started the bet once more. It’s not really a bet, my sister-in-law pointed out. There are no stakes, so to speak. Unless you include our honor and integrity. Those stakes are compelling enough to make us stand up straight and do our best. See, whoever spends money first is the loser and the winner, well, the winner has right to flaunt her favorable position, most likely by doing a little skippy dance and chanting something loving and kind such as “You’re a loser! A loser! Nana-nana-boo-boo!” And then the loser gets mad and sulky and declares that the rules weren’t fair in the first place and this is a stupid, stupid game. So maybe it is a bet after all?

    At first glance you might think the purpose of the game is to save money, and while that is Mr. Handsome’s goal, it is certainly not mine. When I read Cindy’s post I realized that I spend an inordinate amount of time buying things, thinking about and making lists of the things I want to buy next, and finagling childcare so I can go buy those things. What if I didn’t want anything? What if it was pointless to spend time thinking about spending money because I couldn’t spend money? Wouldn’t that free up an awful lot of space in my head and time in my day?

    Whenever I make the trip into town I’m forever racking my brain, attempting to remember if there is anything, anything that I need to pick up. It is the prudent thing to do, you know, optimizing a town trip. So I’ll be driving by Dollar General and I’ll think, “Do I need another hairbrush?” Or going past the bagel shop, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have bagels for breakfast tomorrow?” Or on my way by the thrift store, “Do I have time for a quick run-through, just to see if there are any good deals?”

    But what would it be like to drive through town and not need to stop for anything because I didn’t need, didn’t want, anything? If I wasn’t allowed to stop for anything, then I would have more time to think, to look about me at the trees and the oncoming cars, to listen to NPR (or Calvin and the Chipmunks, heaven help me), or to yell more energetically at the kids when they start spitting fireballs at each other.

    Anyways, I’m always fussing about how I have so much stuff on hand. A fast from spending would force me to use up what I have, and maybe, just maybe, become a little bit inventive. What about all those unlabeled boxes up in the attic? I bet I could find all sorts of treasures up there if I needed something—kids’ clothing, old lamps, dishes. Of course, there’s the trusty downtown library for good reads, movies, and music. And, if I got desperate for chocolate, I could always barter.

    So, in a nutshell, the real purpose of the bet is to take a rest from idle consumerism.

    The hardest thing for me, by far, is the restrictions on my grocery shopping. I love buying novelty foods and cooking new dishes. I get bored with beans, potatoes, and bread. I miss the convenience of fresh greens, fruit, cereal, and snack foods. It’s crazy, I know. I have so much food in this house…

    I must confess, I did do a little pre-bet shopping. But it was just a wee bit. I bought a small round of Brie cheese, a few boxes of basic cereals, some more chocolate chips (and a couple bars of chocolate that, get this, Mr. Handsome seems to think he has the right to consume—what ails the man?), a couple bags of pretzels and some tortilla chips, that lettuce from the farmer’s market, a lot of pasta, some lemons and grapefruit, and some nuts.

    So, that’s the game. We’ll see who wins. (And even if Mr. Handsome wins this round, I will still have won two out of the three games, so that makes me the overall you-know-what.)

    In the meantime, we will rest … while we crave cereals, save money, and try to remember that we don’t want anything.

  • With Which To Wow

    Back to that bread, the five-minute, no-knead, there-is-no-way-it-can-be-any-good bread.

    It is good and I recommend it, but, blast it all, it confounds me! It has made me feel unstable, like my world has been turned upside down and all the truths I hold dear are no longer worth two cents. But here it stands, a delicious bread, happily disregarding the most sacred of bread-baking truths. It is a bread so simple it makes me feel stupid.

    That said, this bread, though quite excellent, is not the be-all and end-all. I will continue to make the standard knead-and-rise yeast breads. I will still make my sourdough breads, probably within the next couple days.

    Because despite the fact that this bread is called an artisan bread, it doesn’t strike me as being totally authentic, and even though the flavor is pleasing, it doesn’t have the depth of integrity that I associate with sourdoughs. Although every loaf of sourdough doesn’t necessarily have an overpowering sour flavor, they do have a strength about them, a presence, if you will. Kind of like a wrinkly old lady who makes a kick-butt chow-chow, dons a floppy sunhat and a pair of men’s oversized rubber boots when she works in her gardens, and decorates her kitchen with a simple bouquet of wild flowers stuffed haphazardly into a mason jar. Reassuring, uncompromising, able-bodied, and earthy—that’s sourdough.

    The five-minute bread is like a Birkenstock-wearing, soy-milk-drinking, Peace Corps volunteer living in West Africa, just a few anemic cacti lining the edge of the dirt yard.

    Um, whatever.

    Bread personifications and personal bewilderment aside, this is the ideal bread for anyone who breaks out in a sweat and starts biting their nails when they hear mentioned the word “yeast”. It’s a good bread for kids to learn with. It’s a good bread with which to wow your guests. It’s a good bread with which to wow yourself.

    So now, go forth into the world, ye Bread Bakers, mix up some dough, with a spoon, yea verily, and do not knead it. Yay.

    Five-Minute Bread
    Adapted from the article in MotherEarthNews.com, emailed to me by my girlfriend Laurel.

    For the first few batches of dough, I recommend using all white flour and then gradually adding the whole wheat so you have a bottom line from which to deviate.

    I have not detected a sourdough flavor, though I have yet to keep the dough in the fridge for the full two weeks.

    It takes a long time to bake, as in 40-60 minutes. Don’t be afraid to get the crust a nice dark brown color—the inside doesn’t seem to dry out at all. And the bread is best when it’s had a chance to cool for at least thirty minutes; otherwise, it is so moist it’s almost doughy.

    A lump of dough makes a spectacular pizza crust. (Update, March 17, 2009: This is now my favorite pizza dough. One batch of this dough makes three large pizza crusts. I like to make two large pizzas for supper and save the leftover dough in the fridge for when I want to make a fast breakfast pizza, or a simple focaccia for an afternoon snack or a lazy Sunday supper.)

    3 cups warm water
    1 ½ tablespoons yeast
    1 tablespoon salt
    6 ½ cups white bread flour

    Stir together the yeast and water and let rest for about ten minutes. Add the salt and flour and stir until incorporated. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the dough rise till about double. At this point you may bake if you wish, or you may put a shower cap over the container and set it in the fridge, for up to two weeks, cutting off hunks of dough when needed.

    (Do not wash your bread bowl when you mix up the next batch of dough; simply stir the leftover bits and pieces of the dough into the new batch—that’s supposed to help it to get a deeper flavor more quickly.)

    When you are ready to bake: Cut off a hunk of dough, whatever size you wish, roughly lump it into a ball and set it on a bread board, or cutting board, that has been heavily sprinkled with cornmeal. Sprinkle flour over the loaf, slash it a couple times, and allow it to rest uncovered for 30-45 minutes. (It may be better to slash it immediately before baking, after the rest period, but I’m still testing that one out.)

    Place your baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is hot, spritz it heavily with water, slide the loaf from the board onto the hot stone, spritz the oven again, and shut the door. Spritz the oven two more times in the next five minutes, and then keep the oven shut for the next fifteen minutes at which point you can check the loaf and rotate it as needed. Continue baking the loaf for about a total of 45-60 minutes, or until it is dark brown all over.