FIVE MORE THINGS NOT IN THE MEDIA

It’s been up and down here. Mostly up because I work at it, but with an underlying current of down that every so often threatens to suck me under. But then, nothing is 100%, nothing is forever, right? And things are better for me than for so many, so shut up Lif.

1) WEATHERPhoto of temperature gauge

It snowed last night — just under 2”. It got down to 1° below zero overnight and it’s not going to go above freezing today (the high on the gauge is yesterday’s high, todays was 30°) but the sun is shining and the wood stove is cranking out the BTUs. I’ll have to get my butt on outside shortly to haul in some more wood. The dogs will like that. They’ll figure we’re going for a walk. Sorry, pups — to the woodpile and back is it. Later I’ll go to the barn to feed the horses but no farther. The rest of today is inside time.

I plan to spend that time reading. I just finished Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which I very much enjoyed. I also just read Robert Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera, a book that I found annoying but strangely compelling. I’m currently reading W. Michael Gear’s Alpha Enigma; David Comfort’s The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead; and The Wonder Engine, by T Kingfisher. I like to read with Post-Its at the ready for any ideas I come across that spark my own thought processes. I don’t know how I survived before Post-Its.

2) WRITING

I sent a copy of my book, Evolution Device, to my writing mentor, Steven F. Havill,  Since he had given an early draft of the novel a firm thumbs down, I was unsurprisingly rather anxious about how he’d react to the published version. To be honest, when I saw he had sent an email with the subject line “Evolution Device”, I didn’t read it right away.

Steve Havill at book discussion, Round Valley Library, Eagar AZ January 2017
Trudy Balcom/The Independent

Let me explain something about Steve. He’s written a couple dozen books or more, but is also dedicated to helping new writers get going. He’s a former English teacher, junior high kids I believe, and gives writing workshops and talks about writing at book discussions (I’m in the photo on the end). I’ve tried to go to as many of his talks and workshops as I can. The mentor-mentee relationship has grown  to friendship. Am I lucky or what?

Steve provides unflinchingly honest, constructive feedback. He points out what he likes and why, and what he doesn’t like and why. It’s the “and why” parts that are so valuable. It took me a while to figure out what he was doing — my fault, not his. I was taking his criticisms personally and responding personally. Then I had a big duh moment, when I realized everything I was saying to him in my defense was stuff that should be in the manuscript – that is what Steve was telling me!

So I gave him a copy of the published book and he read it. When I finally steeled myself to face his email, I almost wept.

With joy.

He liked it! He liked it! Phew!

3) MORE WRITING

Related but this needs its own point: Getting from rough draft to published book is a trip — but what comes after is its own journey.

I’ve learned there is absolutely no point in second-guessing what I wrote. It’s too late now, the book’s out in the world. I doubt I will ever read Evolution Device again from beginning to end because of course I will find fault with it. I’m no longer the person who wrote that book. I’ve learned by writing more. My writing skills have grown (credit to Post-Its and writing mentors, not to mention Editors). There’s no reason to inflict myself with even more doubts about my writing than I already have.

I’ve learned promotion is hard. It’s a kind of bragging and I feel uncomfortable about it. I’m by nature a hermit. I don’t invite people to my home, I don’t socialize, and when I write about my personal life it’s curated. So to blab on about my work — I mean, promote it — it’s, well, embarrassing. And yet that’s what authors have to do. We have to not just sell our books but sell ourselves. Who wants to read books by an author who doubts her own work? People like to think that authors are like the characters in their books. Brave! Bold! Exciting! Intriguing! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! And able to overcome all obstacles by The End.

I’ve also learned that in this year of COVID the world of writing is even more daunting a place than it normally is. It seems everybody and their aunt is writing books. And they’re all writing great books that apparently are selling like crazy, or so the publicity would have one believe. Is there room in the world for another writer, — namely me? I sure hope so.

On top of it all, there is no end to stuff that isn’t writing but is necessary to be a successful author. I’ve got more books in the works, in different genres. Different genres means querying literary agents. Querying is a time-consuming, dreary, disheartening process that teaches an author to not care about rejections anymore because after a while they’re the norm.

4) EVEN MORE WRITING

Here’s the thing about writing a book that people enjoyed reading. Almost the first question asked is going to be when is the next one coming out.

Oh. My. Gods. I have to do this again? And again?

5)  THE BEST CHOCOLATE DESSERT EVER!

I learned a great recipe for a kind of chocolate pudding that’s actually healthy. I have to thank my friend Valorie for it.  It’s so darn simple to make, and it’s incredibly flexible (I’ve tweaked it already and it still tastes great). Here’s the recipe exactly as Valorie provided:

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN VERY RIPE BANANAS ARE STARING YOU IN THE FACE?

Here’s the recipe I use for our Cocoa/Carob/Cacao Banana Pudding.  We really enjoy this pudding!! If you like bananas and chocolate, we think you’ll like this dessert as well.

I especially make this pudding when I don’t want to heat up my oven and take the time to make Banana Bread.  This recipe is a fast and easy way to use up ripe bananas quickly.  It is also very forgiving so I do not measure bananas or dates.

Enjoy!

Valorie

Cocoa/Carob/Cacao Banana Pudding 

  Makes 4  – 1/2 cup servings  

Note:  Soak sunflower seeds ahead of time.  Dates as well if using Medjool dates.

Place all of the following ingredients into your blender and blend until smooth.
You may need to stir the ingredients a bit at first to get them moving and blending. Either turn your blender off or be very careful not to hit the moving blades.

2 cups organic, blended ripe bananas – for those who like to measure.  I use 3 very ripe medium/large sized bananas or 6 to double the recipe.
1/2 cup organic sunflower seeds soaked for 30 minutes or over night and drained *
1/4 cup organic cocoa, carob or cacao powder
1/4 cup organic pitted, chopped dates **
1 tsp. organic vanilla
pinch of salt

Once blended, taste for smoothness and sweetness and adjust by blending longer and/or adding more sweetener. ***

Pour into serving containers and chill for at least 2 hours before serving.  Enjoy!

* I have also tried soaked almonds and they were very good as well but I’ll probably opt for using sunflower seeds as they are less expensive.  I’ll save my organic almonds for other things where sunflower seeds just wouldn’t do.

** I use two (2) pitted, chopped, soaked and drained Medjool dates. I soak them in water for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes to soften them up as they are a tougher/denser date than many other types of dates and soaking makes them easier on my blender. Substituting 1 or 2 tablespoons of date syrup or maple syrup or honey would work well and probably give a bit of a different flavor.

*** Level of desired sweetness varies from one person to the next.  Remember that bananas get sweeter as they ripen so the riper the banana the less sweetener I tend to add.

6) BONUS

Read my post on Patreon.  It’s about critters that… well, go read it.

 

Bread

This.  THIS.  This is the bread I’ve been looking for.

You might recall that I’ve been trying to make the perfect loaf of bread for some time.  I started out decades ago wanting to duplicate the San Francisco sourdough I had gorged on for so many years.  It was a quest doomed for failure.  I didn’t have a clue about bread making, much less sourdough, and – as is usual for me – had no desire to read instructions first.  (If you are like me, then just jump to the recipe!)

I’m like that.  I like to learn by doing.  Jump right in.  This approach to life only works because I’m okay with failure.  It’s a reasonable price, in my opinion, to pay for not having to slog through reading (or worse, watching videos of) how to do things the way somebody else thinks is the way I should do whatever it is.  I get right into the doing.

Especially with bread.  I mean, come on. Humans have been making the stuff for thirty thousand years, give or take a few centuries.  Bakers on the go, running from lions and tigers and bears, oh my, didn’t have the luxury of messing around with measuring cups and gram scales.  Bakers in medieval kitchens had to churn out dozens and dozens of loaves a day to keep up with the needs of court for trenchers to eat off of.  They didn’t have the time to be kneading gallons and gallons of bread dough all day long.  Pioneers and prospectors wanted bread to take care of itself while they dealt with the realities of their dreams.

So I concluded that most of today’s bread recipes are modern inventions full of unnecessary and complicated steps that just get in the way of making a simple, ancient food.

Plus kneading bread is boring.  I never have figured out how much is too much or too little.  My dough has never ever felt or looked like what the fancy recipes describe.

Phase One: Sourdough

After moving to New Mexico  and a few years of bread failure, I searched online for a sourdough starter.  I had no basis whatsoever for my sole criterion, which was that it was old.  Why?  I can’t tell you because I don’t really know.  It just seemed like a good idea.  The starter I settled on supposedly came from the Klondike a hundred or more years ago and ended up on eBay, and what a long distance that was.  I read the ecstatic reports from various bakers and of course I had to order it.

It came, a small cellophane package of tan granules that looked suspiciously like commercial yeast.  But the package also came with charming instructions, which I glanced through and tossed aside so I could get on with the project

Two problems with sourdough.

First:  keeping the starter alive.  I reconstituted my eBay find.  That involved adding flour to the starter and throwing out some of it.  Or maybe the other way around – I forget.  But it doesn’t matter which because it was just plain wrong.  Innocent yeast was being sent out to the wilderness of my compost pile to die.  What a waste.  I did not like that at all, but I gritted my teeth and tried my best to make the survivors happy, ignoring the fact that baking was going to kill yeast anyway.

I told myself that regular bread-making would reduce the waste once the starter was up to strength.  Regular.  That word.  It’s the knell of death for anything I am interested in.  Keeping sourdough starter alive involves regular attention, which for me is like keeping a prisoner in Guantanamo.  It’s ugly.  I forgot the regular feeding all the time.  I had jars of icky grey liquid floating over water-boarded starter.  I became a yeast abuser and that was even worse than throwing starter out.

And then, when I figured the surviving starter was strong enough to make bread, the second problem arose: kneading.  Just because this was supposed to be sourdough didn’t mean I miraculously enjoyed kneading, no matter how many other people think it’s wonderful.  So what if the yeast was old and supposedly visited San Francisco at some point — that didn’t mean my wrists were happy with slapping dough around.  Okay, I know there’s no slapping involved.  It wasn’t Guantanamo, after all, but you get the picture.

I kneaded anyway.  I baked the first loaf of sourdough and got… yucky, boring bread that had no memory of San Francisco in it.  Not a bit of New Mexico or any other sour, either.

Back to Google.  Not to carefully read instructions, mind you, but to pick up a few tips that I could experiment with. [Note: the info I used when I started this project was not always the same as what baking experts say today.  I’m not the only one who learns more as time goes by]

I’m not going to go through all my attempts at duplicating the tang I remembered.  I’ll just say that it was never meant to be.  Yeast is not merely a leavening agent.  It’s not a chemical like baking soda or baking powder.  It is a living organism with its own needs and goals independent of mine.  Each of the one-celled life-forms, along with a whole bunch of like-minded friends, eats the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide.  Um.  Farts it out, so to speak.  The solid stuff of the flour – gluten – confines the gas, stretching as more gas is produced, and that’s how bread rises.

Don’t ask me how it works with gluten-free bread, I haven’t got a clue.

That said, it’s not the yeast that gives the sourdough its sour, it is the ambient bacteria, or rather the lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria that lives in the environment that the dough is made in.

Oh sure, I occasionally made a loaf that approximated the sourdough, but there came the day when I had to face the music.  Imagine my shock and dismay to finally realize that I was never going to make San Francisco sourdough unless I made it in San Francisco!  Plus it seems that the New Mexico bacteria that live in my house are not into sour.

Phase Two: no-knead

Seven years or so ago my friend Laura sent me an email telling me about an alternative that might appeal to me:  no-knead bread.  I glanced at the recipe and stored it for later.  I was at that time focused on baking bread on top of my wood stove.  As if somehow that would improve the sourdough flavor.  Mostly I just made hockey pucks for the next two years.  Even my dogs wouldn’t eat the stuff, though I tried to convince myself that I liked it.  Kinda sorta.

I gave up bread making for a while.  I didn’t kill off my yeast, but I did dehydrate it, figuring someday I’d want to use it again.

But the call of bread-making was too much, so a few years after Laura sent that first recipe I Googled no-knead bread.  It seemed easy enough, especially since the recipe was illustrated by photos of an eight year old kid making it.  And yet… what I produced was boring.

I kept making the bread, tweaking the recipes I used, adding rye, whole wheat, more salt, less salt, more yeast, less yeast.

In my poking around the web, trying to figure out how to make the absolute best, yummiest, sourest no-knead bread possible, I discovered a book by the guru of no-knead bread making, Jim Lahey.  My library got it for me and I studied it and tweaked my methods even more.

I finessed my technique till I could make the stuff in my sleep.  And I made loaf after loaf of beautiful bread.

But oh, so boring.

Then… THIS LOAF!  This lovely, crusty, slightly tangy perfect loaf of no-knead bread!

Fast forward to a couple days ago, when out of desperation I Googled “my no-knead bread is boring”.  I love Google.  You can find out just about anything you can imagine.  I was not disappointed in this search, either.

It turns out I was not truly understanding how yeast works.  I though more was better, but this is not true for no-knead bread.

Kneading strengthens gluten in flour like doing push-ups strengthens muscles in a human body (not in my body, mind you).  But no-knead bread means flabby gluten.  You can’t fix it by adding more yeast because that means means more carbon dioxide gets produced all at once.  Flabby gluten isn’t up to it.  The carbon dioxide leaks out.  The dough becomes a flat tire.

The solution is strengthening the gluten slowly – not by kneading, heaven forbid, but by folding.  Folding the dough after it has risen a few hours gently stretches and thus strengthens the gluten.  Folding 2-3 times during the raising phase instead of kneading is like doing lots of reps with light weights in the gym instead of power lifting 500 lbs.

Yeast also needs to breathe, not just to eat.  Just like us, oxygen goes in, carbon dioxide goes out.  During long fermentation (long rising time) the oxygen supply gets short and the poor yeast starts suffocating.  Yeast abuse!  Folding the no-knead dough several times during the rising releases some carbon dioxide and introduces oxygen into the mix and makes for happy yeast.

So folding the dough benefits the yeast and makes for better bread.  The gluten strengthens; the yeasts are happy campers because they get to eat and breathe more and longer, and so a loaf develops a nice rise and a beautiful texture, not to mention a perfect, chewy crust.

But wait!  There’s more!  Let’s not forget flavor!

Remember, my most recent Google search was about boring no-knead bread.  The answer wasn’t about yeast and gluten, but enzymes, which break down starches into sugar (yeast food).  You’d think it would be the yeast bringing enzymes to the table since they’re the critters eating the sugar, but no.  Enzymes come from the flour.  Wheat uses enzymes to break down the starch in kernels for energy to germinate.  Thrifty world that we have — yeast benefits from that same enzymatic action after the kernels have been ground to flour.

So finally we come down to the heart of the matter:  Flavor, lack of.  Why, after all this time, after all the experiments, the Googling, and the hockey pucks, was my bread so boring?

Sure, I had proven to myself I could make bread that rises nicely, that has nice texture, and that is oh, so pretty — but what’s the point if the bread doesn’t fulfill that yearning for something to replace San Francisco sourdough?

So here is my final and huge discovery: Less is more.  Boring bread happens when the greedy yeast eats more of the sugar than the enzymes can produce.

I did not believe it.  I had to try it.  So two afternoons ago I started another batch of no-knead bread, but this time I used a laughably tiny amount of yeast.  1/8 tsp.  My measuring spoons don’t even come in 1/8 tsp.  I had to eyeball it.

A tiny amount of yeast takes a while to get up to speed.  It took till the next day for the dough to get half again larger, and then I folded it.  It took hours for a second fold and more hours for the third.  But by the time the oven was hot and the dough went in to bake, I knew I had discovered something good.  It was clear by the texture and the yeasty smell that this was going to be a different bread.

The baking was done at midnight.  No-knead bread tastes best cool – talk about frustration, but there it is.  I had to wait till morning to try it.

This morning..

The first morning of the rest of my bread making years to come.  A perfect loaf of tangy, tasty bread.  Not sourdough, but way-outback-New-Mexico bread.  My bread.

I can’t believe it.  I think I had better have another slice to be sure.  Hey, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.


No-knead bread Recipe

2 3/4 c unbleached flour
1/4 c whole rye flour
1/8 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 c water, room temp

  1. Mix dry ingredients, then add water and mix.
  2. Ferment the dough at room temp 12-16 hours covered with plastic (amount of time depends on how your bread is rising).  Fold three times during the fermenting (to fold use a wet spatula, scrape from sides, lift & stretch dough to center, rotating around bowl for 8 scrapes each session)
  3. After 12-16 hours,scrape onto floured work surface, fold 8-10 times, rest 15 minutes.
  4. Shape dough into a round, place on parchment paper, proof for 2 1/2 hours more.
  5. PREHEAT oven 450° 30 minutes before baking, including Dutch oven
  6. Lift dough with the parchment paper, CAREFULLY put it in the VERY HOT Dutch oven and put the lid on.
  7. Bake 30 minutes covered, bake 20-30 minutes uncovered.  Tap the bread — when it sounds hollow it’s done.
  8. Cool before slicing.

Notes:

  • I measured the dry ingredients by dipping the measuring cup and then leveling with a knife.
  • I could find no info on when to do the folds — I just did them when it seemed the dough had risen as much as it was planning to rise.
  • This bread is meant to be baked in a Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven.  The Dutch oven and its lid need to be preheated along with the stove oven.
  • When you take the bread out of the Dutch oven to cool on a rack, put your ear close enough to listen to it crackle and pop.  I don’t know why it does it, but it does make those noises.

 

Past blog posts on my quest for the perfect bread