what's the worst that could happen...

i once ate a slice of whole wheat bread and almost ended up in the hospital. true story. my tongue went numb, my throat closed up, and i found myself struggling to breathe for a short while. that was a decade (or so) ago, but it's not an experience one soon forgets. [there was a similar situation involving a seaweed-wrapped meat dumpling, but i was less bothered by the latter as it saves me having to explain my non-fondness for sushi]. with the hard-earned realization that my wheat allergy was magnified about a hundred-fold when faced with wheat germ (i.e., the "wholesome" part of whole wheat bread), i set out to avoid the stuff like the proverbial plague. fast-forward to the present, and we're watching the recent BBC three-part series Victorian Bakers, and there's bread... everywhere. i couldn't resist.

full disclosure: this bread is made with a mixture of whole-grain spelt and (regular) white wheat flours. while spelt is technically a subspecies of common wheat, it contains markedly lower levels of gluten, which makes it an acceptable wheat substitute for some folks who are looking to reduce the gluten content in their diets.   with my particular constellation of allergies, i can tolerate some foods containing white wheat flour once in a while, but i generally take a preemptive antihistamine in those cases or avoid those foods all-together if i'm already dealing with some other threat (like during that week or so in the Spring when all the Linden trees in the known universe decide to pollinate simultaneously, much to my dismay). i do, however, avoid foods containing whole wheat flour at all times as i rather enjoy breathing.

it should be noted that i absolutely love baking. cakes, cookies, pies and all the rest are okay, but making bread has always been a slice of zen in my universe. i don't own a bread mixer, and i don't want one. kneading dough the way my grandmother taught me to is a meditation i cherish. this is not an act of necessity (seriously, there is a killer French bakery three doors away from my building). bread making is pure bliss. however, there was a great deal of trepidation and changing of mind on this particular day. the intent was to combine white wheat and white spelt flours (the gluten in the wheat flour produces a more elastic dough than spelt flour alone, resulting in a loftier bread that is less prone to crumbliness than a straight spelt bread), but i mistakenly purchased whole grain spelt flour. cue concern, detailed instructions to my favorite animator (should it become necessary for him to rush me to the hospital), and a frantic search for my inhaler before i even begin to mix the dough. a saner person would have abandoned the whole idea at this point and settled for a piece of fruit or maybe a strong cup of tea, but that level of absurdity is not compatible with life around these parts.

what follows is my so-not-a-recipe approach to making bread. proportions, timing, and all the rest are approximate. grab a large mixing bowl (pictured next to the coffee press for scale).

there is always yeast in my fridge, as you never know when you need to make an emergency batch of raisin buns in the middle of the night. begin with 2 (8-gram) packets.

in a small bowl, combine 2 cups water, 1 cup milk (i used 2%, cause that's what we use for cereal and other such things), 1 tablespoon sugar, and a couple tablespoons of wheat flour.  sprinkle the yeast over the mixture and let it stand for a few minutes...

then whisk it together and set it aside for about five minutes. this magical process is called proofing the yeast, which ensures that it is indeed alive. you can skip this step with a lot of the quick-rise or bread machine yeasts, but i prefer to think of it as a way of kick-starting the leavening process before the dough is even mixed. the surface of the mixture should look light and foamy at this point..

 and there'll be lots of tiny bubbles.

at the same time, combine 4 cups each spelt and wheat flours in the large bowl and mix in a teaspoon of salt. make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture...

then drizzle in a couple tablespoons of olive oil.

grab a wooden spoon at this point and stir until you have a crumbly mixture. [it was a bit too dry, so i added some warm water, a tablespoon at a time until i liked the consistency].

then roll up your sleeves (i was wearing a tank top, but you get the point) and knead until you have a ball, then keep on kneading for several more minutes. this is the meditative part. i don't bother to break out the pastry board as the curved edge of the heavy bowl provides a perfect surface against which to knead the dough.

remove the dough from the bowl just long enough to drizzle in a bit of olive oil, then return the dough to the bowl and roll it around once or twice to coat lightly with the oil.

cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for at least an hour, but don't panic if you lose track of time for a couple-few hours. i stuck the bowl in the (unheated) oven, watched a couple episodes of some random show, then got back to it about an hour and a half later. because of the low gluten content of spelt, this dough tends to lose that rounded shape as it rises.

punch it down in the middle. i turned it out onto the pastry board at this point and kneaded it for about a minute to remove all the pockets of air.

divide the dough into two equal portions...

and shape each half into a loaf. this is were i depart from my grandmother's approach to bread-making, as she used to roll out her dough into a large circle, then roll it back up (pinwheel style) into a loaf. i prefer to lightly knead the dough into a shape roughly resembling a loaf, eliminating the need for a rolling pin. place each "loaf" into a lightly-greased pan...

cover very loosely with plastic wrap that has been lightly brushed with olive oil (i reused the wrap from the bowl). i can't stress enough the importance of both making sure that the plastic wrap is loose (you do not want to restrict the dough during the second rise) and that it is lubricated (there are few things in life as frustrating as trying to remove plastic wrap that has become stuck to bread dough... she says from experience). an alternative would be to dust the top of the loves with flour and cover with a clean kitchen towel.

forty minutes later...

while the dough is rising, adjust the oven racks so that there is one in the middle and one near the bottom.  place an ovenproof container of hot water on the lower rack and heat the oven to 400°F. carefully remove the cover from each loaf, and bake the bread in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes, until it has an even color. the test for doneness comes with experience. carefully turn a loaf out of the pan and tap the bottom a few times. it should sound hollow. place the loaf on a cooling rack (sans baking pan... i removed the pans right after i took the photo). repeat with the second loaf.

for best result, cool completely before cutting, but what are the chances that i followed that advice??? it has that lovely, nubbly texture you'd expect from whole grain bread combined with the nutty, slightly-sweet taste of spelt. one loaf went into the freezer and the other one... well, it was so very yum. and i'm still alive!

i also added a new tea to my "stop being crazy and go to sleep already" collection. Yogi bon sommeil (restful sleep).

in English...

this one contains most of the good sleep-promoting herbs, so i'm hoping it will be effective. now, if only they made a blend to cure the crazy.


en papillote...

we bought a mountain of fruits and veggies this week, which means lots of colorful meals in the near future. tonight's dinner featured one of my favorite cooking methods. snapper fillets in parchment packets. or... filet de vivaneau en papillote... cause i'm fancy like that!

but let's go back to the beginning. [DISCLAIMER: this is so not a recipe, as it does not include anything remotely resembling measurements. should you foolishly attempt to reproduce this  meal, i expect that you have some basic cooking know-how... and a fire extinguisher close at hand]. 

i went through the veggie bins and grabbed a bit of anything that would go relatively well with fish...

1. savoy cabbage 
2. red bell pepper
3. white mushrooms
4. scallions
5. carrots
6. fingerling potatoes
7. sugar snap peas
8. cilantro
9. thyme
10. garlic
11. ginger
12. lemon 

preheat oven to 425°F (for reasons that make zero sense, every oven i have seen in Canada seems to speak Fahrenheit). in a frying/saute pan, heat a splash of olive oil (or whatever fat you prefer) to med-high, add ginger and garlic, saute for about a minute, then add ingredients 1-5 from the list above. the objective is to saute them briefly, just until the cabbage begins to soften, about 2 minutes. add salt and pepper to taste, and remove the pan from the heat so that the veggies cool slightly while preparing the next step.  they should look something like this...

now we can move on to the titular ingredient. i'm using snapper fillets this time around, but any type of fish works. it's also a lovely treatment for chicken breast fillets (with appropriate adjustments made to the cooking time). remove any excess moisture from the fillets, drizzle with olive oil , add salt (i used my favorite seasoned salt blend), a pinch of dried chili flakes, and a generous dash of fresh ground black pepper. 

this is the dangerous part. you may want to wear safety goggles and a hard hat.  add some of the sauteed veggies to the center of a large piece of parchment (mine were each about the size of a standard baking/cookie sheet). this is as close as i could get to an action shot of veggies falling out of the pan, but you have to trust me when i say it's some really exciting stuff. 

place a couple lemon slices on the bed of veggies, add a fish fillet, and top it off with a few sprigs of thyme and cilantro. keep the frying pan handy, as you'll need it again.  

now it's time to turn this mound into a proper packet. if this is a foreign concept, search the web for instructions on making parchment packets (or, if you want to be fancy, en papillote... which is French for in parchment), but be forewarned that you're gonna find all sorts of instructions that involve heart-shaped pieces of parchment, as the French exist for the sole purpose of making the rest of us feel inferior about how we do everything. in the interest of sanity, i prefer to keep things relatively rectangular. first i bring the two long sides together and fold them over at least three or four times until the seam is resting snugly against the contents. the aim is to lock in the steam and juices as much as is possible. 

then fold the two short ends. i pinch the end seams very tightly, but they usually unroll a bit during cooking. (if you're worried about the ends unfolding too much, you could cheat and add a staple to each end). 

because this is a dinner for two, i repeat the process. notice that i place the packets the short way across my old baking sheet, as the ridge will help to control the tendency for those ends to open up as the steam builds up in the packets.  place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven for about 20-25 minutes. 

during the summer months, one of those packets would be plenty filling as a meal, but it is the middle of winter when the body naturally craves something a bit more substantial. enter potatoes and peas. while the fish is in the oven, blanch the (whole, unpeeled) fingerling potatoes in salted water for about 4-7 minutes (depending on size). they should be firm, but easily pierced with a small knife. add the sugar snap peas during the last minute of blanching. remove the potatoes and peas from the boiling water and plunge them immediately into a bowl of ice-cold water (add some ice cubes to the water if necessary). after a minute or two, remove from the water bath and drain completely on a paper towel (or just let them sit in a colander for a few minutes). slice the potatoes into bite-size pieces. heat the frying pan to medium, add a drizzle of olive oil (coconut oil, bacon fat... use whatever makes you happy), and add the sliced potatoes and a sprig of thyme. toss every 30 seconds or so, until the potatoes develop a light-brown crust. this should take about 3 minutes. add salt and pepper, then toss in the sugar snap peas and continue to heat, tossing frequently, until the peas are warmed through. 

i usually know the packets are done by the delicious smell of the fish mingled with the herbs and veggies, but that is pro-level cooking skills. when in doubt, err on the side of slightly over-cooking the fish, as opposed to under-cooking the fish... and spending the night in the hospital. the parchment tends to turn slightly brown and feels somewhat dry and brittle after the cooking process. if you want a really dramatic presentation, switch on the broiler for 30 seconds to a minute, just until the top of the packets looks like they're about to go up in flames. [DISCLAIMER: if your dinner (or home) is burnt as the result of following my foolish suggestion, you have only yourself to blame]. 

finally, it's time to eat. place a packet on each plate and add a helping of potatoes and peas. 

garnish with a wedge or two of fresh lemon and you're ready to go. 

the verdict? empty packets and happiness. enjoy!


Old Orchard...

[having survived the recent biological onslaught, i want to get back to my original plan of talking a bit more about the three yarns pictured in the first post of this year-long exercise in self-inflicted torture. enjoy!]

a strange thing happened on a recent trip to my local yarn shop. i should begin by saying that this is a shop much like similar establishments that cater to my people. once you step through the doors, even the most experienced fiberista can't help but feeling a bit overwhelmed by the magic of the place.  it's as if the whole world is suddenly filled with color and infinite possibility. your heart skips a few beats, and it takes the pulse straining against the side of your neck to remind you to breathe. seriously, it's that wonderful.

so, there i was, walking up to the register with an armload of yarn (cause i didn't already have enough of it at home to last at least two very long lifetimes). i deposit my items on the counter, and find myself face to face with the shop's proprietress, a woman who usually reminds me of my calico kitty as they both tend toward a demeanor that screams "we are not amused". however, unlike my cat (who's skill set peaks at keeping the arm of the couch warm), this woman is a walking encyclopedia of all things fiber-related.  you could enter the shop, describe a knitted item you saw in a random magazine, and she will not only know the name of the pattern and the designer, but she will walk you over to the section of the shop that houses the exact same type of yarn used in the sample, pointing out at least half a dozen alternatives along the way... all of that without having to look up a single thing. i'm pretty certain one has to master all 35 chambers of Shaolin before achieving this degree of prowess.  but i digress...

so, there i was, enduring the minute or more of silence while she sorts through my purchases (i don't do small talk, neither does she, so the silence suits me fine), when i recall the ball of yarn in my purse that i'd brought along in hopes of finding something that would go with it for a striped cardigan.  i start fumbling through my bag and absentmindedly pull out a different yarn that'd been lurking in the bottom of said purse for countless months and place it on the counter... then it happened.

it was as if all the universe came to a sudden halt.  she paused the steady rhythm of entering numbers into the register, gave a quick sideways glance to her assistant who was standing a few feet away, then both their gazes darted back to the yarn. "you dyed this", she asked, and i replied, "yes", my attention once again focused on searching through the crowded bag. i look up at this point and realize that she has my yarn in her hand, her assistant has drawn up to her side, and they are both studying it like one would a recently-unearthed treasure... and she's smiling!!!  and in that moment—in that fraction of a speck of time—it felt good to be reminded that i can occasionally get something right.

the yarn in question was part of the massive marathon of dyeing i did a couple summers ago.  i have a hard time letting go of my own yarns, so most of that fiber was either buried away in moth-proof packaging or put on display in my wall-of-cans. [the cans are currently packed away in one of the large boxes occupying much of the floor space in the studio, where they will remain until we get around to finally painting the apartment (which will happen as soon as we stop changing our minds about the color scheme), but that's a subject for some other day].  the colorway is Old Orchard—named for one of the streets that abuts our neighborhood park. i was undecided as to whether i should use that particular combination to dye pre-spun yarn or unspun fiber... so i did a bit of both. [the fabric they're laying on is destined to be made into cafe-style curtains for the kitchen window, which will happen once i figure out which box contains the sewing machine... and which one contains the collection of threads].

the yarn to the front/left is the subject of the above-mentioned shopkeeper's delight, while the one to the back/right was from the fiber i (finally) spun up a month (or two) ago and plied on Christmas Day (hey, how else was i supposed to test out the new jumbo flyer???). it's really fascinating to see how differently the same dye process behaves when applied to different fiber preparations.  the finer yarn may one day become a pair of socks, while the thicker yarn is almost certainly destined for life as some sort of neck-warming device... or they may end up displayed in cans for years to come, inspiring me to dye more beautiful things.

in other news, it is still cold.  after a couple days of above-zero temperatures, the numbers took a nose-dive back into the minus teens range.  the feels like temperature bottomed out this week at around -18°C (for my fellow-Americans, that translates to very cold, which is only one step down from stupid cold, which is anything lower than -30°C ). it's pretty much been life-as-usual around these parts. mama kitty is still working hard to keep that blanket warm...

we toyed with the idea of doing a meatless Mercredi [pictures are fuzzy due to tummy rumbling]...

but sanity prevailed, and it turned into wings Wednesday. in my defense, i only ate two of those wings, but they were all gone by the next morning...

and i found some pears and blueberries lurking in the back of the fridge, so i made an upside-down pear cake... with blueberries.  smiles and happiness all around.  cheers!


too many shades of grey...

it's the first full week of 2016, and i am not a happy camper. our household is in the grips of something resembling the plague... but most folks would call it the common cold (with some flu-like symptoms thrown in for good measure). the ailment is just one more layer of grey at this bleak and uninviting time of year. my favorite animator is working (slowly) through the discomfort, and i have ensconced myself in a cozy corner surrounded by the tools of my favorite addiction...

and a view that literally sends chills down my spine.

it's been so cold that the bedroom windows are completely covered most mornings with such beautiful, feathery arrays of frost, it's hard to believe that it's just ice crystals behaving as nature intended.

i made several feeble attempts over the course of the week at spinning. the spirit may have been willing, but the germ-riddled flesh was far too weak, so i decided to cast on a new knitting project. i wanted to make this one machine-washable (as hand-wash-only is sometimes hard to remember) and i was determined to using up some yarn from my stash, so i opted to triple up some thinner yarn to get the necessary gauge for the intended garment. in this case, i had twice as much light-grey yarn as the medium-grey, so i combined it in a 2:1 ratio (note the slightly darker strand closer to the bottom of the image)...

and ran them together through the ball-winder.

it looks relatively uniform...

but the slight tonal interplay lends an element of shadow and light to the knitted fabric.

it resides, for now, in a pretty purple project-protector procured from Fat Squirrel Fibers (home of my favorite fiber-related podcast), which is a wonderful dash of color against the mid-winter malaise.

in a brief moment of respite from respiratory torment, i attempted to take some photos of mama kitty sprawled out on the extra-cushy blanket...

but the effort was thwarted by baby bear's intense need to be the center of attention at all times (and her subsequent refusal to stay still long enough for me to get a clear-ish photo of the two of them together).

and, in yet another moment of something resembling physical soundness, i managed to mix up a mess of biscuits!!! not gonna lie... we ate half of them right out of the oven with marmalade and a pot of tea, and the rest were served that evening alongside bowls of leftover slow-cooker stew for a truly satisfying supper. hey... if you must suffer, you may as well have tasty eats.