Good afternoon, friends! Merry Christmas Eve, and a happy whatever-holiday-you-celebrate-this-time-of-year!
I'm writing this from my girlfriends kitchen in Haddon Heights. Her mother is sitting and listening to NPR while knitting, while my girlfriend has just recently un-banished me from the living room where she is wrapping presents.
I'm also typing this while I wait for my focaccia dough to proof, and debate what dessert I can make for us all to have this Christmas Eve (perhaps something to go with the boozy eggnog we currently have sitting in the fridge?)
It's been a while since I really had an experience like this around the holidays. I've spent the last few months in a frantic haze- finishing school, baking cakes, arranging my schedule and so on- so this quiet, meditative moment comes as a welcome relief. The fact that I am feeling this meditative lull while baking bread is not lost on me, and reminds me of one of my favorite baking quotes-
"[Breadbaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells... there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread." ~M.F.K. Fisher
In my previous post, I expressed my feelings about how the holiday season can encourage us to treat others. Baking bread, I feel, is a perfect example of how this holiday season should encourage us to treat ourselves.
Breadbaking is at once a simple and complicated business. A time-consuming activity that provides a lot of down time, an enterprise in which one person works and orchestrates, but all can share.
Sitting a few feet from me, my dough proofs. The work was mine. The thought and planning for it were mine. This rest I enjoy while my dough does it's thing is also mine- but the results will be shared with everyone.
As easy as it is to get wrapped up in getting for others, giving for others, buying for others, doing for others- every part of that can (and should) consist of just a little wholesome selfishness. My girlfriend and her family will love the focaccia, but I will also have enjoyed baking it, and this quiet peace as it proofs. There is another saying that I love- "An artist earns themselves three blessings- the first is in the work, the second is in the completion, and the third is in giving it away."
To all my friends out there, I wish you a splendid holiday season. I wish you happy baking, happy work, and happy results.
Stay warm, and
Good afternoon, all! As I'm typing this, I'm camped out in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, PA. It is biting cold outside, so I'm nursing a hot cup of Earl Grey. After I ordered, the barista smiled and said, "You're an adventurer."
"Adventurer? How do you know?" I asked with a bemused smirk.
She shrugged, "You just give off that air, and you ordered an Earl Grey."
Off-topic? Not exactly.
This was more than kindness and levity with a customer- it was humanity. Especially around this time of year, whether or not one celebrates any holidays in particular, I've noticed people start to either compress and disguise their humanity or they put it out on display.
Perhaps it's the chilly weather of this time of year, reminding some primitive, animal part of us of the necessity to huddle together for warmth.
Perhaps in the proximity of New Year's, and we band together to recognize the incessant march of time- whether we see it as having survived another year, having lost another year on our way to the grave, or- in the best case- we see it as having lived another year and grown one year wiser.
As I hopped on the PATCO train into the city, I got one with a group of quiet fellow travelers, all of us keeping very much to ourselves to the next stop. At the next stop, a massive group of travelers came on board, including at least 6 very loud children and 5 very loud and excited adults. They were apparently on their way to a light show- a family tradition for them this time of year. At once, I could have imagined that most of my quiet companions would be irritated at the sudden raucous noise. Instead, as I looked around, I realized we were all showing the same knowing glance and smile, silently saying "Awww... what a happy family, traveling all together. It's like a Lifetime movie!"
Chance smiles and words create warmth. I never met any of those people before, and probably never will again- but for 10 minutes, we were companions.
The title of this entry is Hebrew (written as "הכנסת אורחים.") It is one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments enumerated in the Torah,) and literally means "inviting guests" or, colloquially "hospitality." The commandment came from a time when companionship and kindness from strangers was not just something mannerly, it was vital to survival. It was no unusual act of kindness to give a stranger aid, or food, or a place to stay the night- it was a fact of civilization, as much of a commonplace rule as stopping for a red light.
This time of year, time, weather, mortality, religion, and society tries to nudge us toward remembering this. I've said before and again that feeding people is more than nourishment- it is a social interplay, and a meeting of humanity. As my great grandparents would say, "Hospitality is a form of worship."
This time of year, in between the movie marathons, Road Warrior on the highways trying to get home, and last-minute dashes to engage in an orgy of gift buying- stop somewhere, sit awhile, and just have a kind word and smile for people.
And mean it.
See what happens- you'll love it.
Good afternoon, dear friends and gentle readers! Happy Thanksgiving! Here's hoping your meal was festive and sating- gustatorially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I apologize for the radio silence of the last few weeks- the past month has been pretty crammed with events personal and professional.
As amends, I offer- what else? Food porn.
I'll give you a few minutes to finish drooling.
There we go.
Apart from Thanksgiving festivities, the month has had me rather distracted with finishing school and filling the odd order here and there (by the by, holiday season is upon us! Take shelter and order a pie!)
Experimentation time has been cut somewhat since school has started, but there's opportunity everywhere if you know where to look. I happened to look directly at my awesome friend Joe when she opened her house for a pub night.
My friend Joe's house, affectionately called the "Pub House", is a beautiful little 1920s manor tucked in one small corner of a fiveway intersection. Over the course of years, Joe slowly converted one small wing of the house into her own private pub which she opens up to friends periodically, making a wonderful impromptu salon of an evening. Her friends include travelers, gourmands, homebrewers, bicycle shop owners, musicians, qi-gong and reiki healers, historians, and others.
And, of course- one baker.
As important as the skill set for being a good host, is the skill set for being a good guest. You call ahead, you according yourself appropriately, you do not invite yourself, and you never come empty-handed. In Joe's case, it is understood that donations of food and liquor to the bar are always welcome. So what could I possibly bring on Friday night besides beerbread?
Inspired by the season, this beerbread was a marvelous experiment in flavor, texture, and spice. A wonderfully simple recipe, this bread took advantage of Magic Hat Brewery's 2013 seasonal, "Seance"- deep, malty, with warming spicy notes and a little hop bitterness appropriate for a autumnal beer. From there, the use of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and a tablespoon of liquid barley malt lent their warming, complicated flavors to the bread. Using brown sugar over white leant depth, color, and a chewy interior with a crispy crust.
This recipe, however, is not the be all and end all. Basic in the extreme, it is one of the few formulas I know by heart:
Yield- one loaf
1 12oz. bottle of beer
3 cups AP flour
1 tbs salt
1 tbs baking powder
1/2 c sugar
Extra ingredients as you see fit
2 tbs butter (optional)
1. Combine all your dry ingredients in a large bowl. Preheat your oven to 375 F, and grease up and 9" x 5" loaf pan.
2. Pour in beer and mix well. The mixture will form more of a thick batter than a dough. That is a appropriate, since this is a quickbread (similar to a muffin.)
3. Pour batter into loaf pan and bake for 55 minutes. If desired, melt the 2 tbs butter and brush on to the top of the loaf with 3 minutes remaining.
4. Let cool briefly in pan, then remove. Serve the same day if possible.
This recipe is marvelous because you can do almost anything you like with it. My suggestion is to start by tasting some of the beer and look for particular flavors, then add spices or ingredients that could play off of them. Just be careful not to overload the bread!
That's about all I've got for today. What would you all like to see here in the future? More recipes? Small business know-how? Dining philosophy? Cat pictures? Leave a comment, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always,
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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