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.)

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A delicious blur of pastries and studio time

Friday morning deserves mentioning simply because it was the last day of my uninterrupted art month. It required strong Oso coffee and a breakfast bun made by the gorgeous Rew (toasted croissant, scrambled egg, alfalfa sprouts, tomato, melted cheddar and Antoinette’s Salt Spring dip). I went down to the old brick building that was Ellison’s grain mill and is now Ellison’s Market, a general store for the health-foodie, gardener, pet owner and tea lover, to get cat kibble and vegetables. Usually I bring home a little food each day but working at home has meant the fridge running low, very low in between town days.

The rest of the day was a blur of silkscreening and sewing.

Oooh, I wish I could write that every day. The rest of the day was a blur of silkscreening and sewing. Yes.

I am happy to report there is a giant vat of walnut dye on my stovetop with a duvet cover transitioning through various shades of coffee over the weekend. With the lid on, it really smells okay.

Somehow during the afternoon I gained the audacity to finally print a few years worth of  poetry” which will make its way onto a screen and then merge with the leaves and birds on my fabrics.

All in all, it was a successful last day to my art month. I have loved my freedom immensely and will seek out more in the spring. For now I’ll squeeze my hemming and printing and various processing into the hidden moments between work and dinner and sleep.

Saturday was something else entirely. It was the birthday of wonderful Cor, and was fittingly devoted to baked goods. Wise girl that she is, she requested that all her guests bring pie. To start off the day on the right foot, I whipped up some raspberry peach chocolate muffins using a blend of prairie grown ancient grains, and coffee of course. Then I traipsed through the drizzly rain to Cor’s house and we talked baking over some more coffee and then we made a sour cherry-black cherry pie and an apple cake, drank cherry juice and flipped through recipes. Then the pies and celebrators began to arrive and we feasted. True to style, it was a glorious spread. Particularly of note was Gavin’s “Kootenay Lime Pie” which seemed to be a particularly excellent rendition of traditional key lime pie.

I think I’ve hit on a new technique for parents. You see, I ate nothing but baked goods all day and around seven o’clock was struck with a strong urge to eat salad. Hefty winter greens salad comprised of rainbow chard and lacatino kale, the kale “massaged” as I have been couseled (impatiently, however, so it was more of rough toussle). The intense greenness of the greens were balanced by sliced carrot, chopped roasted almonds and cubed rocky mountain cheddar. I like to make salad in my favorite metal mixing bowl, whisking the dressing in the bottom (olive and flax oils, crushed garlic, apple cider vinegar, nutritional yeast, tamari, maple syrup, grainy mustard, tumeric, marjoram, poultry seasoning and pepper). When it’s just me eating the salad, which it generally is around here, Jeremy’s reaction to kale being to give it to the mice, I will sometimes (read: yesterday, often) eat it out of the giant silver bowl. I will say in my defense, that it’s an excellent bowl, handy for not spilling salad when vigorously tossing it, also handy for washing dishes in, with the added benefit of chiming charmingly when clanged into something.

one of the kale munchers

a full month free from long scheduled days; more sky showing between tree branches

Sunwashed streets are whispering summer. The air outside is delicious today. A hint of a breeze lingers in high branches moving past sunning crows and rusty oak leaves. These and the glossy acorns on the ground remind me that it’s November. The snowline is so close I could hike to it from here, and touch the bluish trees in their finely chiseled white coats.

Inside, there are cats and coffee. Projects begun and projects that are but shapes in my head and scribbled notes.

I have neglected to write for so many reasons. Staying up late and waking tired, then sleeping more. Morning walks and the distraction of a good book (The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila). A lack of new studio endeavors that sound thrilling to the casual ear. I have been sewing, some. Ironing, lots. Printing a vivid orange swath of cotton from my onion skin dyepot and a lustrous straw coloured linen cloth that went into the onion skins after. I am experimenting with printing small line drawings – a dabbling in toiles that I have long considered, and am now working to incorperate into my usual freehand floral motifs. The walnut hulls are still lurking conspicuously in the kitchen. Each morning I strain out the dark liquid and add more water from my leftover onion skin bath, and heat the acrid sludge once more. I will keep at this until all the colour has been extracted or until I fill my largest dye vat. Both in efforts to increase the richness of colour and to hopefully overpower the strong walnut hull odor, I’m adding coffee grounds to the pot.

A full month free from long scheduled days has led to an interesting, though perhaps not surprising restructuring of my days. It turns out I’m useless in the morning at anything that disallows puttering. Afternoon and early evening are strong studio hours. A need for dinner and all things related inserts itself next, then the hours that follow tend to be productive and focused, but not always spent in the studio. Sometimes the household requires cookies, like the chocolate peppermint ones, but with orange extract instead of the mint. All of a sudden, the clock insists that it is very late and bed is essential if I really think I can wake up at seven thirty or eight. It’s a rough life, arting full time. I’m going to miss it.

A few small truths: I wipe my fingers on my apron when I’m printing. I don’t like to wear gloves. Back in school, I would come home splotched blue and yellow and red all the way up to my elbows. My favorite squeegee is a small plastic dough scraper. I don’t even own a t-square and haven’t done a registered repeat since the day I learned how. Sometimes I don’t remember how I made the colours I get because I add things after I write it down. It is an intuitive process, this printing of mine.

We have had the pleasure, this November, of experiencing nearly every kind of weather. There have been rainy days, which are good for sewing, and glorious warm days where shortsleeves are an entirely reasonable wardrobe option, then some exciting wind that kept us up one night and blew leaves into a thicker carpet on the sidewalks and left more sky showing between tree branches. On Sunday morning, we woke up to snow falling thickly. (This required a bike ride down a slippery, steepish trail, squealing disc brakes cutting into the blanket of quiet in the forest.)

My studio month is wrapping up yet I feel like I’ve just begun the process of making art in a much more real sense. This will continue.

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.