I'm feeling pretty good about things right now. I've been working overtime so have a big paycheck coming my way. Jer has been in the kitchen a lot lately, making us gourmet dinners, and at the moment I'm writing this, has strawberry vanilla ice cream chilling in the freezer. My elderly cat and my dentally and directionally challenged rabbit have both been improving by leaps and bounds, and it is beyond heartening to see them looking healthy again. When I left work on Thursday, the wind had picked up and was whipping around me as I crossed the bridge. The walkway was almost empty on the way home and the fullness of the wind hurt my ears and wrapped around my legs as I walked. I came across a toy dog staring devotedly at an older man on a bench with a twist-dial radio playing crackly old French music and I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Amelie. 

The next morning was clear and sweet and summery, blue sky vaulted high and the sea calm. Rose petals, blown by the wind, were scattered all through the dry grass, red on sun-bleached gold. 

A family of Canada geese swam by, the goslings fluffy with soft down. I also saw an otter, frisking about on the point. 

This week I made herbed cheddar bread; I am so looking forward to having more spare time for baking projects. For now, bed. 


the quiet passage of time

Over the past couple days, I have done almost nothing. In a way, that's a huge relief. I've just been lazing around the house, mostly in bed or at the kitchen table with my feet tucked up on the heater. I've been reading this, and looking for DIY wedding ideas here. My cold/flu is waning and I am gradually feeling stronger. I braved the mild spring air for a brief walk to our local bakery for milk (being home sick without milk for coffee was too dreadful a prospect), and somehow while I was lying with my eyes closed in the grey half-light of a room with curtains closed in the afternoon, with the cries of gulls punctuating the quiet passage of time, the next stages of spring were unfurling outside. I walked outside into a street full of cherry blossoms. At the bakery, it seemed silly to just buy milk so I bought sourdough spelt sandwich bread too, which is delicious. The excellence of our neighborhood's  wood-fired, sourdough, local-grain-using bakery has resulted in my own little sourdough culture languishing in the fridge. I feel guilty thinking about when I last fed it, or longer ago still, baked with it.

While I've been writing this from my customary blanket on the floor with the rabbits roaming around, one set of headphones were the sad casualty of one rabbit (Zephyr, of course) being left with our computers while we intervened with and separated a catnip-ed out cat (Michette - who had until this point been on her best behavior) and a naive and curious rabbit (Seven, naturally). Now, J and I are going to practice dancing- a kind and patient friend is teaching us and we are hoping to show improvement at our next dinner and lesson together.

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On cold days and sourdough

Hello winter, I like your chickadees and tiny snowflakes. The trees are all dark criss-crossing lines now, as though all colour was whisked away in the night.

Friday seemed like the sort of day for falling asleep on the couch with a pile of books. I will admit to feeling a little trapped by snow falling on slippery sidewalks.

A modest, buttery proposal: let's have a cookie party. Gingersnaps, tassies, shortbread... get in touch with me if you want to help bake and put away much more than I can consume and make my house smell good.

Now let's talk art vs. craft. While it may seem like an age old debate, I believe it was, like so much today that is concerning, propelled by the industrial revolution. The shift from individual craftspeople making our every day objects to a mechanized, cheapened process not only gave us more uniformity and sometimes lower quality products, but created a shadow that still looms over craft today. We expect our utilitarian goods to be cheap, because after all, we can get them cheap. Art on the other hand, is just art for art's sake so it's okay if it's expensive. I agree that artists should get paid for what they do, but this vast canyon of separation between art for the wall and art that say lives in your kitchen and gets used every day (craft), that's just silly. Thanks.

This week I learned something new about sewing machine needles. Maybe everyone already knows, but I guess it didn't seem important to me until my machine started skipping stitches like crazy. There are three main types of needles: sharp, universal and ball-point, and then all the specialty needles. Sharp is designed for woven fabric and is particularly good for straight lines. Ball-point is for knit fabrics and universal is a combination of sharp and ball-point that will work on both knit and woven but not as ideally as sharp or ball-point. I've been sewing a lot of straight lines on woven fabric using universal needles; it's time to switch to sharp needles.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: does anyone, anyone at all in the Kootenay area want some rye sourdough starter? It's very nice; I started it myself last summer but can't quite keep up with it. Most recently, some of it went into a 66% sourdough rye bread with caraway, that very sadly got overbaked by about 15 minutes. The bread is good, but requires a strong hand with the bread knife. Next time I will check on it sooner... In the meantime, stollen with homemade marzipan should redeem the sourdough and my baking reputation quite nicely.

Outside on Saturday, the snow was melting off the roof in great slumps and dripping wildly in a way that could make spectacular icicles. The sun was shining in full force after illuminating pockets of snowy mountain, trees and glacier surrounded by heavy mist in the morning. I've been hoping for a clear, cold snowy day to photograph my newest teatowls on the clothesline before we move. Today could be such a day; it is beautiful out. Yes, we're moving in December and there are collections of empty boxes scattered around the house. I've agreed to try an alternative packing technique this time round, of packing all the important stuff first and sorting through what's left, culling. We have a few weeks crossover in both our houses so we can afford to do this, but the important things are still in use and I really can't bring myself to put anything in a box just yet. Hopefully I'll come around later this afternoon and at least pack the wineglasses and some dishes.

Yesterday morning, my boyfriend walked in the door with a KitchenAid mixer! Love, love, love him! Oooh there will be a lot of baking happening for him to sample.

66% Sourdough Rye

adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's book "Bread"

Plan on this bread happening the day after you begin...

First, the starter (this requires a ripe sour)

3 1/2 cups (12.8 oz) medium rye flour (I used whole rye flour)

1 1/4 cups (10.2 oz) water

2 tbsp (0.6 oz) mature sourdough culture

Mix these and cover. Let sit to ripen for 14 to 16 hours at room temperature or 70° F. It will be a stiff dough. If you need to add more water, only add enough to hold it all together.

Then, the final dough

1 1/8 cups (8.3 oz) medium rye flour (again, I used whole rye flour)

2 1/2 cups (10.9 oz) high-gluten flour (I used white spelt, but certainly a bread flour helps with volume and structure)

1 3/4 cups (13.8 oz) water (not cold, maybe a coolish lukewarm, warmer if your house or your flour is cold)

1 tbsp (0.6 oz) salt

1 tsp (o.1 oz) instant dry yeast (this is different and superior to the little packets of active dry yeast, and contains about 2/3 more live cells so if you're using active dry then you'll want to use up to 3 times more and do that warm water thing. The instant can be added directly.)

1 lb 7 oz sourdough (all of above minus 2 tbsp)  (The 2 tbsp is for your ongoing sourdough culture to keep it going, though if you've already fed it then I think it's optional.)

Mix with a dough hook or knead... Maybe 2 1/2 minutes on 1st speed and 4-5 minutes on 2nd? I kneaded it by hand for at least ten minutes. When the dough is tugged, you should be able to feel a bit of gluten strength from the white flour, but the overall dough strength will not be much.

Cover, possibly in a clean, oiled bowl and let rest for 30 to 45 minutes.

Divide and shape into 2 loaves, then cover these and let ferment 50 to 60 minutes at 80° F.

Bake at 460°F for 15 minutes with normal steam (can be created by pouring cold water onto a hot pan on bottom rack, and/or mist the walls of the oven), then lower the oven temp. to 440°F (removing the steam pan at this point) and bake 30 to 40 minutes more.

Ideally, the baked bread should rest for up to 24 hours before slicing to improve its eating quality. (Sourdough rye bread is one of those things that, to a point, improves with time.)

The hazards of walnuts on a sunny day

I have a walnut tree in front of my house. The tree is often filled with crows cawing and flapping around and flinging walnuts at the street. I love it. Up until now, I've watched passers by gather the nuts. My favorite is the elderly couples who bring shopping bags. They're all welcome to these walnuts. Walnuts are messy. I also have a hazelnut tree, in the backyard, and these nuts are scattered in the grass under the tree in delicately toffee striped shells. Gathering them is like finding easter eggs. Not walnuts. The ground beneath the walnut tree is a mess of slimy black hulls in various stages of clinging to or detaching from the shell, green hulls which are hard and harbour many small maggots, yellow leaves, and a scattering of walnuts which have miraculously freed themselves from the hulls. Now, I enjoy walnuts in the kitchen, and the hulls make a good brown or black dye but I don't particularly like maggots so I had not planned on harvesting these. And then, after seemingly weeks of rain and drizzle, the sun rose bright and full Monday morning on Nelsontown, making everything a thousand times more beautiful. And the walnut tree called to me. How could I spend a day like this in the studio, when it might rain tomorrow? Why not do something studio related, outside? Because I work with large amounts of fabric, it takes a lot of dye stuff for one dyebath. Here were a lot of walnut hulls, mine...

I would like to begin with a small appreciation of gloves. They allow us to imagine that we're not actually touching the things that they touch. For that I am very grateful. So, on this beautiful sunny day, I clambered around beside the road, collecting bits of black slime to fill my dye pot. I also brought a bag for walnuts, also slimy. I scraped off maggots with the stem of a leaf and ditched some of the more infested hulls. Maybe in drier autumns, walnuts are more manageable. At some point maybe two-thirds of the way around the tree, I got to wondering what this foul concoction would smell like when I cooked it up. Right, terrible. Not motivating. Around the same time, a neighbour passed by and mentioned that the nuts are a little bitter. If so, I will be leaving presents outside for the crows all winter.

I will be simmering walnut hulls today, making a nice dark brown dye, and baking chocolate peppermint cookies to mask the smell. The house also smells a bit like roasted almond and prune bread, which is very nice indeed. While it is not raining, nor is it spectacularly sunny, so I think I can comfortably spend the day in the studio, with the sewing machine and hot peppermint tea. I have a lot of tea towels to hem this week, as well as some more printing to do. The peppermint tea is a constant. I may have mentioned my love of coffee, but this tea is what fuels the greater part of my day.

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

Recipe adapted from La Patisserie Cookie Press & Decorating Set booklet

3/4 cup butter (room temp.)

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg (room temp.)

1 1/2 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 tsp peppermint extract

1/8 tsp salt

1/4 cup cocoa

1 1/2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar, beating until light. Add egg, vanilla, peppermint and salt and beat until light and fluffy. Add cocoa on low speed and mix in. Blend in flour. Press in cookie press if you have one (they really are fun and make pretty cookies). If not, form into small balls and flatten them or roll dough into a log and refrigerate it until it is firm, then cut into discs (1/3"-1/2"?). Cookies can be spaced 1" apart. Bake at 375 for about ten minutes or until they are firm to the touch.

Roasted Hazelnut Prune Bread

Adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's wonderful book "Bread: A baker's book of techniques and recipes". This is my favorite bread book.

This recipe does call for a sourdough culture. If you live in the Kootenays, I would be very happy to share mine. If not, they are fairly straightforward to start or you can ask a local bakery.

Be prepared for this bread to take all day, or begin it the night before. You can do other things while the culture works.

Part One: Stiff Levain Build

6.4 oz (1 1/2 cups) bread flour

3.8 oz (1/2 cup) water

1.3 oz (2 tbsp + 1 tsp) mature culture

Mix and then cover, let sit for 12 hours at room temp. I cheated here and added another 1/2 cup water then let it sit for only about 6 hours, in a slightly warmer location.  A stiff dough ferments slowly.

Part Two: Final Dough

Roast the nuts ahead of time, while you're waiting on the levain.

1 lb, 1.6 oz (4 cups) bread flour

8 oz (1 7/8 cups) whole wheat flour

1 lb, 1.3 oz (2 1/8 cups) water

1.6 oz (3 tbsp) butter, soft

.17 oz (1 1/2 tsp) instant dry yeast (this is different than active dry. Instant has about 3x as many active cells so much less can be used. )

10.2 oz (all less 2 tbsp + 1 tsp) levain ( I used all the levain as my sourdough had already been fed and is rye only. Save this only if you wish to keep a sourdough culture on hand. Put it in the fridge and use it within a few weeks. Let it sit at room temp before you use it. )

4 oz (7/8 cup) hazelnuts, roasted and skinned (I used 1 cup almonds and skinned them slightly but not thoroughly)

4 oz (5/8 cup) prunes, coarsely chopped

Add everything except the nuts and fruit to a bowl and mix. Be prepared to adjust the water so the dough is soft. I added more. The nuts and prunes will take up some of the moisture. Mix with a dough hook if you have one or knead for maybe 10 minutes. When you can gently stretch a corner of the dough and it mostly holds together and gets a little translucent in the middle, stop mixing. That is the windowpane test. Incorperate prunes and nuts and put in a lightly oiled, covered bowl. Let sit for 1 1/2 hours. At the 45 minute mark, turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and flatten, or degas it. Fold the bottom 2/3 of the way up, then one side 2/3 over, then the other side 2/3 over (these will all overlap) then the top 2/3 down, then put back in the bowl for another 45 minutes. Folding gives the dough a great deal more strength and structure. It is a small step that is very worthwhile.

When the bulk fermentation is done, turn the dough out onto a floured surface again and divide in two. Shape the loaves (flattening and rolling and pinching and tucking) and put them in their pans, or if free form, you can put a round loaf upside down inside a floured bowl, leaving room for it to expand. Cover and let sit for an hour.

Bake at 460 degrees for 15 minutes, with steam. A hot pan on the bottom rack of the oven works for this. Carefully pour cold water onto the pan when you put the bread in the oven. Lower temperature to 420 degrees after 15 minutes, carefully removing the pan of water (hopefully most will have evaporated. I usually dump some of what's left onto the oven floor for one last burst of steam) and bake another 25 to 30 minutes, or until loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.