• the new bakery

    I am loving my new panadería. There’s more space. There are
    benches so the girls can sit down to take notes. There’s not a mouse infestation (yet). There’s lots of air, thanks to a wall of windows.
    We’re closer to the main kitchens, and we don’t have to hike up a whole
    mountain (just half of one) to get to our room.

    Then last week my husband put it over the top by installing a big
    blue pila (concrete sink). Running water in the bakery! It doesn’t get
    much more wonderful than that!

    (Except the pila leaks—oops—so we splash our way around the kitchen.)

    (It’s
    gonna get fixed, he promises, but right now he’s absorbed in his next
    bakery project: a large, stainless steel table that he’s making from
    scratch. That man!)

  • they’re getting it!

    About four months into our term, I wrote about the children’s language learning. Or lack thereof. The kids were picking things up, yes, but it was a lot slower than I expected.

    The older two children still struggle. Their classmates speak enough English that my children aren’t fully immersed. Also, they’re timid about speaking in public and making fools of themselves.

    Part of me is irked that they’re not chomping at the bit to acquire as much Spanish as possible, but the other part of me is like, Hey, they’re only kids! Lay off already, will you? It wasn’t their idea to pack up and ship out to another country for a year. Also, how come you are so take-it-or-leave-it regarding your own Spanish, huh? Huh?

    Even if the older two don’t get much of the language, at least it (language and culture) is soaking into their systems. And if they decide to study Spanish in the future, the learning process will be (I hope) that much easier for the months of exposure they’ve had.

    For the younger two children, however, it’s a whole different story. Right around the six month mark, their language learning took a sharp turn for the better. Suddenly they were busting out with complete sentences. It felt like nothing short of a miracle.

    It still feels like a miracle, most days. They butcher the grammar something fierce, but Spanish-speakers tell me they have no accent. I have been learning Spanish for more than half of my life (some years more aggressively than others), so the fact that my children sound like the real deal after only a few months here is wow huge. (Also, HEY! NO FAIR.)

    I like asking them how to say “dog” and “car” in Spanish just so I can hear them roll their r’s. They do it effortlessly—way better than I can. In the middle of a conversation in English, I enjoy telling them to repeat what they just said, but in Spanish—it’s fascinating what they come up with! Also, I get a kick out of listening to my younger son and his Spanish-speaking friend play together. They chatter constantly, and sometimes their voices blend and I’m not sure which kid is speaking. I tell you, it’s music to my ears. Music to my ears.

    Of course, there is a downside to all this: my husband and I no longer have our secret language. Even though the kids have a long way to go before becoming fluent (another year here would carry them over the hump, I bet), they get enough that we can no longer have conversations in Spanish with them present, boo-hiss.

    In fact, the other night at the dinner table, I told the whole family a story in Spanish. It was a story we had read in one of my tutoring classes that day, about two men in a hospital room that just had one small window. Every day the patient whose bed was by the window would regale the other man with tales of life outside—the parks, kids on bikes, weather, etc. Then the man by the window died and the other man asked to be moved to the window bed. He was eager to see the bustling world outside. But when he raised himself up on his elbow to see out the window, all he saw was the brick wall of the neighboring building. He asked the nurse what it was all about and she said that there was never a park outside that window. His roommate had been blind.

    That’s the story I told to my kids and they all understood it. My older daughter, the one for whom language learning is the hardest, recounted it in English, almost verbatim.

    And then we all high-fived BECAUSE MY KIDS UNDERSTAND SPANISH.

  • bezaleel scenes

    Sometimes I worry that I’ve painted a bad picture of Bezaleel. True, I sometimes get terribly frustrated and bored, but I really do enjoy the place. The students are friendly, the teachers jolly, and the days that I have something to do, time flies and I leave work feeling both energized and whipped—an ideal combination.

    So to prove that it’s not all walking through water, here are some pictures of how we spend our days.

    ***

    At the start of the second half of the year, there was a parent-teacher-staff-student conference.
     

    The director presented information and the parents voiced complaints and
    concerns, mostly around the areas of food quality (it’s poor) and cell
    phone usage. It’s against school rules for students to have cell phones,
    and at that point in the year, the office already had a stash of 44
    confiscated phones. Some of the parents wanted their kids to have phones
    and other parents were opposed to it as it will distract from their
    studying. No conclusions were reached, but it was interesting to see how
    people present (by standing up) and argue a point (with an excessive
    amount of words and lots of repetition).

    After the meeting, the parents had to sign the notes. For legal purposes, or something.

    Not everyone is literate, so there was also a ink pad for thumb prints.

    Afterwards, the secretary wrote their names inside their print.

    The disturbing number of thumb prints gives me the urge to quit my life in the States and travel around Guatemala teaching adult literacy.

    Okay, not really actually quit my life. (You can stop freaking out now, Mom.) Just a little bit really. Literacy is so liberating and exciting. I want everyone to feel the reading rush, you know?

    ***

    There are thirteen girls in my baking class, though only about eleven have been attending. (Hm, I wonder where the other ones went. Maybe I should be concerned?)

    One day while we were waiting for the cakes to bake, I told them I wanted a photo. They were happy to oblige.

    These girls aren’t the most industrious group of workers, I admit. In fact, some days I’m ready to whack ’em over the head with a rolling pin. But for all our problems—their beligerence and my strictness—we’re rather fond of each other.

    I ordered them to scrunch closer together for the photo.
     

    Now, look at Pascuala (green shirt) in the front left. See her? With her ankle poking out most fetchingly?

    Well. Guess what happens when I say, “Oh-la-la! Look at those legs!”

    They’re lucky they didn’t tumble down hill in their fit of glee.

    *** 

    This is Oscar. He’s one of the maintenance guys. He’s actually more of a janitor (he’s not really a fixer-upper type of guy), but he’s indispensable with his willingness to chip in and his positive attitude.

    He’s a friendly guy. Sometimes he calls my husband up, just to see how he’s doing. It’s sweet!
     

    Also, like many Guatemalan men, he’s touchy-feely with other men. He’s fond of plopping down alongside my I-need-my-personal-space husband and draping an arm around his shoulders. It’s pretty much hysterical to watch my husband struggle to maintain composure while internally wigging out.

    *** 

    This worker is taking a wheelbarrow load of grub up to the girls’ dorm.

    The girls don’t eat with the guys, so the food gets shuttled.

     *** 

    Here’s Mario hauling one of my ingredient boxes up the stairs to the bakery. (Stuff is always getting hauled: food, tools, books, picnic tables…)

    I have to keep my supplies down in the workers’ storage shed (my husband keeps an eye on it) because there’s a mouse infestation up in the bakery.

    Here, let me show you:

    Not chocolate. 

    When I open the doors in the morning, there’s lots of scurrying.

    The reason there is so much poo is because:

    1) the bakery is right next to the woods and the windows aren’t covered, and

    2) the weekend bakers don’t wash out the pans, sweep, or wipe off the tables.

    (What’s even worse, they scrape the dirty pans out onto the floor, and then wipe down the dirty baking trays—that have been sitting out for a week—with a greasy, filthy rag that’s tossed in the corner somewhere. Shudder.)

    So on the mornings when I come in, I have the girls sweep, wash all the pans, scrub the tables with soap and then disinfect them. One of my proudest teaching moments was the first time the girls did all that cleaning up without being told.

    Here’s my husband and Mario hauling a stove up to the baking room.

    See, the baking room is no longer the bakery—it’s the kitchen. The cooking instructor wanted a smaller room and I needed more space, so we flip-flopped. In the midst of the change, my husband discovered a perfectly good kitchen stove/oven (see above). The cooking instructor had been wanting one and here Bezaleel had one hiding out in some room the whole time.

    (This is supposed to be a positive post, and it is, but I can’t not say the truth: Bezaleel has a lot of stuff that’s been donated, and then, because of all the worker turnaround (a K’ekchi’ cultural thing), it gets forgotten. The stove is just one small example of this unfortunate pattern.)

    *** 

    My husband is all over the place, working on first one thing and then another. Here, he’s welding a leaky pipe. Or something.

    A few people gathered to watch, but within minutes the group had turned into a minor multitude.

    It’s not like my husband is that interesting to watch. He’s quiet and looks angry all the time. But in spite of this, people seem to pretty much adore him.

    *** 

    Feast your eyes, people!

    These five students are the results of weeks of pleading, cajoling, and, at the very end, lecturing (the director, no less).

    This group of first-year students struggle the most with reading. (I’m not even sure that one of them yet knows how to speak Spanish.) Until they came to Bezaleel in January, they probably only ever spoke K’ekchi’. In other words, they’re at about the same place my children are in school, in terms of second language acquisition.

    We spend our class periods working on reading, vocabulary, and comprehension, but they’re begging to do math, too. I think I’ll start them on basic subtraction tomorrow.

  • atop the ruins

    Remember that family that brought us all that food when we first moved here? The ones that knocked themselves out stocking our kitchen? Well, that family has been living here in Guatemala for the last twelve years (six of those as volunteers at Bezaleel with MCC). They have a house in Cobán and are building an ecological educational type place a few kilometers from our house. On Friday night, we went out to the farm for supper.

    Actually, my husband and son had already been there a couple times. This past week they spent two days on the farm, helping to put up the beams on one of the two big buildings that is going up. Several guys were down from Pennsylvania for the week, and my husband does love him a good work crew.

    On Friday, my husband took the two older kids out for the day and I stayed home and baked cakes for the evening meal: a double batch of banana bread and a chocolate layer cake with vanilla frosting. Our friend picked us and the cakes up after school and we headed out to the farm.

    The farm is on top of buried Mayan ruins. In different spots, the ground rises up in big swells where there are temples. There’s an enormous flat field that used to be the plaza, and a sacrificial stone set-up. There’s even a chicken head that they built into the foundation. (I didn’t see it while we were out there [because I don’t usually look for chicken heads in my foundations], but when my husband told me about it later, I scrolled back through my photos and found it.) With all that history underfoot, the place has an eerie, sacred feel to it, but in a not unpleasant way.

    See the chicken head poking out of the foundation? And the sacrifice stones?

    My kids were pretty much in heaven. There were dogs, horses, sheep, caves, rivers, and mud puddles. There was a bicycle grinder for the corn and a giant cumal and a grinding stone (so after the supper tortillas were made, they set about making their own tortillas). There was orange fruit (naranjilla) with prickly skin that is like a mix between a tomato and an orange, in both appearance and taste.

    While the men worked and the children played, I sat in the outdoor kitchen and visited with our host’s mother who was visiting from the states. She, the grandmother, speaks Arabic and French and told me stories about teaching the royalty over in some Mediterranean country. The grandfather (also present, though I never visited with him) is an archeologist and speaks Dutch, German, and Arabic. Sometimes it blows me away how fascinating people are, you know?

    Our friends have four children. Although they are in high school and college, the two younger ones graciously hosted my children, showing, explaining, and answering a multitude of questions. My kids pretty much adore them, of course. And they copied their every move.

    For example, they shucked their shoes and went everywhere barefoot (It’s easier to clean off the mud that way, the girl explained), and my older daughter even let her hair down so she’d “look just like her” hero.

    Supper was a feast: grilled potatoes and spicy sausages, beans, sweet potatoes, salad, pineapple, bread, and tortillas, plus the cakes for dessert. The meal for twenty was prepared and served in a campground-like setting—all the food cooked over fire and no electricity.

    Questions: how can you spot a former MCC worker (and/or a Mennonite)? 
    Answer: look for the drying plastic bags!

    Pulling off a culinary feat of that magnitude would’ve had me tizzied for days in advance, but not this family. They were as cool as cucumbers. To them, I tip my hat, repeatedly.

    And then they loaded us up with a variety of homemade preserves—two kinds of salsa and plum jelly—before sending us off down the dark trail and to the waiting pick-up truck and their chauffeuring son.

  • he got me

    This morning, my husband was at work, the kids were playing around the house, and I was puttzing in the kitchen when I heard a car pull up. I raced to quick brush my teeth and make sure I was presentable before who-knows-who walked through the door. When I stepped outside, enveloped in a Colgate cloud of minty-ness, to see who was waiting, there was Don Rigo standing by his taxi. He was holding a brown paper bundle. He handed me the long, lunky package, and I stared, puzzled, at all the pink and red roses peeking out of the end.

    “Don Juan sent you these,” Don Rigo explained carefully. “To celebrate your anniversary. Today you’ve been married for 17 years.”

    “Oh my goodness!” I shouted. “I totally forgot!” And then I laughed and laughed. So much so that my older son ordered me to stop.

    Don Rigo unloaded the groceries that my husband had sent along home and then bid an extra merry farewell.

    Still giggling, I arranged the roses in my tin coffee pot, and then sent my older two children to town to quick get the anniversary necessities: ground beef and chips for baked nachos and some junk (Snickers, Lay’s potato chips, Pringles) that I stuffed in a plastic bag and attached a scrawled note that read “I love you, too,” echoing the sweet little note he had tucked in with the roses.

    I never forget birthdays or anniversaries. That’s what my husband does. And then he races around trying to cover his forgetfulness tracks and acting all sorts of sorry and whimpery which just irritates me to no end.

    Now the tables are turned and he’s cackling like he won a prize.

    (Which he did, right? Meeeeeeee!)

    PS. Seventeen years of marriage but eighteen roses. “Because that’s how they came and it seemed a shame to throw away a rose,” my husband explained. “I figured I could say it’s eighteen roses for the number of years that we’ve known each other…”

  • stewed greens with tomato and chili

    Part One: The Sunday Kitchen

    On Sunday afternoon, I drug my husband into the kitchen and made him cook with me. I love to cook, but sometimes I just want another body in the kitchen. Someone who will do all the mindless jobs, like peeling apples, cubing bread, washing dishes, and scrubbing potatoes, so I can focus all my energy on being a kitchen goddess.

    My husband wasn’t too thrilled with the wrench I threw into his relaxing Sunday afternoon. But I called him my hermoso moso (handsome grunt worker) (which sounds so much better in Spanish than in English) (though no one ever uses that term in Spanish that I know of) and alternated between sulking and sweet talking until he eventually found himself standing in the kitchen while I buzzed around him and muttered incantations to myself.

    lost in a book, the hermoso moso

    In the course of two hours we:

    *scrubbed, boiled, and peeled the potatoes
    *baked an apple pie, zucchini cake, and banana bread
    *made a batch of chocolate cookies and baked one tray of them
    *snapped and cooked the green beans
    *made tuna salad
    *cubed stale bread for a future baked French toast
    *cut up peppers, cucumbers, and carrots for the supper’s veggie platter
    *washed several mountains of dishes

    wrong day (and minus the little boy), but similar mess 

    I love being bossy and I love cooking and I love my husband. My Sunday afternoon could not have been any more perfect.

    Except then I made everyone watch the first half of Napoleon Dynamite with me and I laughed like a hyena the whole way through. So I guess it did get better after all.

    Part Two (which has nothing to do with part one): The Soup

    I have a new favorite soup. It’s actually more just a mess of stewed greens than a soup, but I still call it a soup anyway.

    I’m the only one in my family who eats it. Which is fine with me. I like to keep a container of it on hand for quick lunches or for my portion of a supper of leftovers—

    Oh pooh, I’ll just go ahead and tell you the truth (not that any of the above wasn’t true).

    You know how everyone goes on and on about traveling to another country and getting knocked flat with diarrhea?

    Well, not me. I have the opposite problem. As in, diarrhea? Ha, I wish.

    Why do I tell you this? Consider it a public service announcement. Y’all need to know the truth about travel: it’s not all skitters, folks.

    So anyway, this soup (along with the prunes, bowls of fresh pineapple, mangoes, and plates of raw veggies—none of which actually work which leads me to believe that it’s my low-fat, low-dairy diet that’s the problem. Not only do I love and miss my butter and cheese, I neeeeeeeed my butter and cheese!) is one more method to combat my … problems.

    (Is this foreshadowing? Am I going to be that wizened old lady who carries a jar of mucilage—silage, Metamucil, whatever—with her wherever she goes, including into restaurants and other people’s houses, and then spends the better part of dessert discussing her bowels? Oh dear.)

    I have no idea if the soup is helping (nothing seems to), but it’s light, satisfying, nutritious, and knock-me-over delicious. So really, whether or not it is helpful doesn’t play into the picture any more. I eat it because it’s good, that’s all.

    PS. I once had a friend point out that I have a knack for writing about topics that don’t mix well. For, example, mice and Christmas cookies. And here I am doing it again. I’ve decided that this is, um, a talent, and so I commit to henceforth and hereafter honoring and cultivating it for the benefit of my adored readers. You’re welcome.

    PPS. Oh! I just remembered a picture I have of a friend of mine, who was visiting me in Nicaragua, eating pureed prunes straight from the baby food jar. See? It’s not just me!

    Stewed Greens with Tomato and Chili

    Here, I use squash leaves and stems, but any tough-ish sort of green will do. The chili sauce is an integral part of the soup. I made a homemade chili (still tweaking the recipe), but you can use sriracha or picámas or cayenne powder—whatever you have. In any case, your nose should tingle. And the soup really, really should be served with thick corn tortillas, too.

    I’ve been using Sopa Maggi as my soup base. Sopa Maggi is pretty much just chicken bouillon with little noodles in it. Back home, I’d use chicken broth (and I prefer the soup without the noodles), so that’s what I’m noting in the recipe.

    4-6 cups torn greens and chopped stems
    3-4 Roma tomatoes (or the equivalent of another variety), chopped
    1 onion, chopped
    1 quart chicken broth (or water and some chicken bouillon)
    Salt and pepper
    chili sauce
    fresh corn tortillas, to eat alongside

    Toss the veggies into a soup pot and pour in the chicken broth or water and bouillon. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer, lidded, for 20-30 minutes. Taste to correct seasonings. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, top with chili sauce, and pass warm corn tortillas.

  • the quotidian (8.19.13)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Unidentified fruit: it tastes like slightly sweet, watery styrofoam.
    THIS CAKE. 
    I have made it three times in the last week. 
    I think about it all the time. 
    I eat it all the time. 
    I’ve contemplated dedicating an entire blog post to 
    expound upon its glory even though I’ve already done that
    Seriously, people. 
    This zucchini cake, with its 100 percent whole wheat, puddles of soft chocolate, 
    and crunchy coconut cap, reigns supreme. 
    You. Must. Make. It. Period. Exclamation Point.
    !!!!!!!!
     
    Solution to an overly sunny hammock nest.
    Selling something. 
    (Psst! Hey kids! We live on a driveway, not a road!)
    Waiting to go to church and listening to Farmer Boy.
    Letting his freak flag fly: my Class-A Dork.

    A chipped tooth (the star marks the spot): what happens when your friend 
    shoots you in the face with a BB gun.
    (Also, shark mouth. I am so ready to resume his orthodontia treatments.)
    I made her let me play with her hair again.

    A copper crown for Sunday morning.
  • starfruit smoothie

    Recently, heaped baskets of starfruit, or carambola, have infiltrated the market. I never worked with starfruit before. And up until this year, I don’t think I had ever tasted one, either.

    perfectly ripe: yellow, firm, and tinged with brown

    We had starfruit smoothies in Masaya and were quite smitten by the sliver of starfruit perched on the lip of the glass. It lent a magical quality to the whole affair. Like maybe there were fairies hovering by the blender.

    Starfruit and pitaya: it doesn’t get more tropical than this.

    The smoothies were delicious, and the raw fruit garnish tasted good, too. Crisp, juicy, and clean. They say starfruit is like a cross between apples and grapes in both taste and texture. It sounds complicated, but it’s true. Take one bite and you’ll see.

    Since I was a novice at handling starfruit, I first watched two youtube videos—one on how to cut up a starfruit and the other on how to use it in a smoothie—before proceeding. I thought it’d be a tricky process, what with the five pointy sides. But it’s really quite easy.

    First, wash the fruit.

    Second, chop off the ends as you do a cucumber.

    Third, run a knife along each of the five ridges to remove the peak of each strip. You can eat the entire fruit, but that part is a little on the tough side.

    Fourth, slice the fruit into rounds, er, stars.

    Fifth, using a knife, poke out the seeds. The seeds are edible, but we’re aiming for a creamy smoothie, so out they go.

    Once you have a cup or two of stars, you can eat them straight up or toss them in the blender with any combination of fruit. I did a simple smoothie—bananas, starfruit, sugar, and milk—but there are so many wonderful options. Use coconut milk or yogurt in place of the milk. Or add in a mango, strawberries, or fresh pineapple.

    The starfruit gives the smoothie some tang and a boost of light brightness. And, according to wiki, lots of good stuff like potassium, antioxidants, and vitamin C. (Oh, and wiki says the fruit tastes like a mix between apples, grapes, pears, and citrus. In other words, it’s an entire fruit salad unto itself.)

    I want to purchase more carambola and use them in cooking…though I’m not sure how. Do any of you have experience working with this fruit? Any good recipes to share?

    Starfruit Smoothie

    2 starfruit, prepped, seeded, and sliced, several slices reserved for garnish
    3 bananas, frozen
    2-3 tablespoons sugar
    1½ – 2 cups milk

    Dump all ingredients into a blender and whirl until smooth. Divide between 3 or 4 glasses. Garnish each glass with a fruity star, pop in a straw, and serve.

  • from market to table

    Friday morning, my husband and I walked into town. It was raining. We were both wielding umbrellas which made companionable walking a bit of a challenge. No one lost an eye, though.

    Once in town, we went our separate ways: him to pick up a box at the bus station and me to squeeze my way through the market and juggle money, list, umbrella, and big heavy bags of produce.

    Fridays have become my main market day. We stop by the market for necessities on a daily basis, but even so, by the end of the week the refrigerator is pretty bare. All the vegetables and fruit that we eat come into our home in raw form and only as much as we can carry comfortably in our hands or haul in a taxi. In other words—and I’ve said this before—there is no stockpiling bushels of potatoes, canning up jars of spaghetti sauce and peaches, or freezing bags of broccoli and blueberries.

    This means there is nothing to pull from when making a meal. You want a green vegetable? Then buy a pound of green beans, snap them, and cook them up. Some fruit to round out a meal? Get a pineapple and chop it up.

    It’s taken me about seven months to get used to this new form of buying and cooking. I think I’m finally catching on.

    Wednesday and Thursday are busy days at Bezaleel, leaving me with hardly any time to cook, let alone forage for food. So come Friday, the market is a priority.

    Here’s what I picked up last week: 9 oranges, 3 pounds of potatoes, 4 pounds of apples, 1 bunch of squash leaves, 1 pineapple, 1 pound of onions, 2 pounds of tomatoes, 2 starfruit, 1 bag of tostados, 2 carrots, 1 cucumber, 1 bunch of cilantro, 10 mandarin oranges, 3 limes, 2 tree tomatoes, 3 peppers, 1 pound of green beans, 4 peaches, 1 tayuyo, and 1 ounce of dried chilis,

    After the kids got home from school, I spent the next several hours getting the food a step closer to being edible. I made a chili sauce, cut up a carrot for the kids’ snack, stewed the squash leaves into a soup (more on that later), cooked a pot of rice, and roasted some onions, peppers, carrots, zucchini, and a giant head of broccoli for the supper’s stir-fry. I also made a zucchini cake.

    Saturday morning, the cooking storm continued with bread, a big pot of dried beans with onions, garlic, and dried chilis, pie crust (so an apple pie is just that much closer to being a reality!), and starfruit smoothies. I also put away the granola I had started the morning before. Oh, and there were breakfast pancakes, too.

    There is still a lot of work to do to finish readying the market purchases for consumption: cutting up the pineapple (a simple task, but one I hate), that pie, snapping the green beans, and figuring out a plan for the potatoes, peaches, cilantro, limes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. But at least I’ve made a dent. The new week will begin with a well-stocked refrigerator—full of both cooked food and produce—and an overflowing fruit bowl.

    For sure, I think longingly of my freezers back home. Two big ones filled with containers of soup and pesto, bags of broccoli and peas and corn, jars of meatballs and roasted tomatoes, boxes of strawberries and applesauce! Just thaw, heat, and eat! What a novelty! What a luxury!

    However, when I leave here I’ll probably miss the abundance of fresh food and the simplicity of having all my cooking options laid out right before my eyes on the concrete patio floor, no secrets, no surprises.

    Neither style is easy. Both take work. In Virginia, my summers are crammed with growing, harvesting, and putting up. In Guatemala, I do it from scratch (minus the growing, thank goodness) on a daily basis.

    What’s your method for getting fruits and veggies to the supper table? Do you buy lots of produce on a weekly basis, year round, cooking it up as you go? Or do you prefer to stockpile for quick meals?
  • easy french bread

    Five years of blogging and I have never posted my favorite basic bread recipe. I am chagrined. Woe, woe, and more woe.

    This is the recipe I turn to when I’m teaching newbies, when I want bread fast (it takes three hours from start to finish, BAM), and when I want something to impress guests. Because there’s nothing like thick slabs of fresh bread with lots of butter and homemade jam to wow the masses.

    bread making, in Virginia

    I had each of my older two children make this bread when they stayed home from school last week. My older daughter has made this recipe on several different occasions, but my son, I was scandalized to learn, not only had never made it before, he had never kneaded bread before. Woe!

    His bread didn’t turn out that great. It didn’t have enough salt (my fault—I wasn’t watching him measure), and then it was underbaked (again, my fault). (But, you’ll be proud to know, I exercised restraint and didn’t jump on it.)

    My daughter’s bread turned out fine. She made half the dough into butterhorns and was quite pleased with herself.

    This semester, we are tackling yeast breads in my baking class. This is, of course, the first recipe I taught them.

    Up until now, they’ve had no idea what yeast was nor had they ever kneaded dough.

    For being complete novices, the buns (for that is what we shaped the dough into) turned out marvelously. We sold out in mere minutes.

    mock French bread loaves from my Virginia kitchen

    Lately, I’ve been making this recipe almost daily. Mid-afternoon, I mix up the dough and set it to rise. Towards suppertime, I shape the dough and then let it rest while I pull together the main dish. While kids are showering and the table is being set, the rolls bake. We eat one pan of rolls with our meal, saving the second pan of rolls (or loaf of bread) for the next day’s lunch sandwiches.

    Easy French Bread
    Adapted from The More-with-Less Cookbook.

    Confession: it bothers me that this recipe is called “French bread” because I think of French bread as crusty on the outside and chewy with lots of holes on the inside. This is not that French bread—it’s just a good, simple bread. That’s all.

    The recipe is flexible. Some of my common changes:

    *doubling the sugar (shh!)
    *subbing some of the white flour with a couple cups of whole wheat
    *adding leftover cooked oatmeal
    *using milk instead of water
    *using honey (or brown sugar or molasses) in place of sugar
    *tossing in some flaxmeal, wheat germ, or wheat bran
    *instead of oil, using butter or shortening

    This bread is best eaten the same day it’s made, though leftovers work fine for sandwiches, toast, grilled cheese, French toast, and baked French toast. Lots of French cooking going on around here…

    2 tablespoons yeast
    ½ cup warm water
    pinch of sugar
    2 tablespoons sugar
    2 teaspoons salt
    2 tablespoons oil
    2 cups water (boiling, if melting butter or soaking oats)
    7-8 cups bread flour

    In a small bowl, combine the yeast, the half cup of warm water, and pinch of sugar (to make the yeast ecstatic). Set aside for about five minutes or until frothy.

    In a large bowl, combine the two tablespoons sugar, salt, oil, and the two cups of water. Stir well and, if using hot water, let it sit until lukewarm so as not to murder the ecstatic yeast. Add the yeast and a couple more cups of flour. Stir, continuing to add more flour until the dough is stiff enough to be kneaded. Don’t add too much flour, though! The trick is to keep the dough a little wet and supple—too much flour and it turns into a rock-hard, unyielding lump of frustration. (My daughter added too much flour this last time and I had to knead in water to loosen it up. Not fun.)

    Knead the dough until smooth and elasticky, five to ten minutes worth of arm exercise. Dust the bottom of the still-dirty bread bowl with flour and put the dough back in it. Sprinkle with a little more flour and cover with a cloth. Let the dough rise until double—this should take 45 minutes to an hour.

    Shape the dough as desired (see below), let rise until slightly poofy but not doubled (or it will collapse in the oven), and bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown.

    Options
    *Basic loaves: divide the dough in half, shape into loaves, and place, seam-side down, in two greased loaf pans.
    *(mock) French bread loaves: divide the dough in half and shape into long loaves, about 12 inches long. Place seam-side down on a greased baking tray, leaving 3 or 4 inches between the loaves. Sprinkle the tops with flour before making 4 or 5 quarter-inch slashes in each loaf.
    *Dinner rolls: shape into 24 rolls and place in greased baking dishes. Beat an egg together with a tablespoon of water. Brush the the tops of the rolls with the egg wash. Sprinkle the rolls with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, rolled oats, etc.
    *Butterhorns: divide the dough in half. Roll out one of the halves into a large circle between 12 and 16 inches in diameter. Brush several tablespoons of soft butter over the dough. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 12-16 pizza wedges. Working with one wedge and starting from the wide end, roll it up. Place the butterhorn, pointy tip underneath, on a greased baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining wedges and dough. Immediately after pulling the hot rolls from the oven, brush the tops with melted butter. 
    *Et cetera: such as cloverleaf rolls and emergency sweet rolls, yum.