Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Planning a Kitchen Garden

Garden sign

In these last few days, I have been thoroughly immersed in planning next year's garden. Last year, I expanded the area of our yard planted to vegetables by moving azaleas and creating a garden bed alongside our front walk. This was quite successful, since I was able to take advantage of the sunniness of the front yard, and there was already an existing bed with defined boundaries. The one caveat was that, when the tomatoes finally really got going, it got a little difficult to walk up to the front door. Maybe slightly less leggy varieties are in order for the front yard.

Ahh, but it still wasn't enough! It was perfect for experimentation, for learning what kind of yield to expect from each type of plant, but in the end, I only got one eggplant. And it was beautiful and delicious... and I want more.

Pumpkin patch

So the plan for this coming growing season is to take a whole section of backyard, build four raised beds, and have a true kitchen garden. I want to see, if we plan well, how much of our own food we can produce. Of course, we still have those pesky HOA restrictions against chickens (grumble, grumble), so this experiment will be limited to fruits and vegetables.

I've chosen the site of my kitchen garden with several things in mind. For one, proximity to the kitchen! I can step out the back door of the kitchen, cross the deck, and pick some green beans. Also, in our largely shady yard, this spot is one that gets a bit more sun, as there is a small gap in the canopy of oaks. I can also keep an eye on it from the kitchen. And last but not least, it doesn't interfere with the more decorative landscaping in other areas of the yard.

One of the biggest investments we will make in our new garden is to fill the raised beds with good soil. To enrich the soil and keep it well-fed throughout the growing season, we hope to make use of our own compost for the first time this year. First, we have a traditional compost bin that has been happily working away at our leaves and kitchen scraps for several months now. We made it out of a big plastic bin, and have been very happy with how unobtrusive it's been. Easy!

But the compost I am most excited about will come from my very first livestock! They may prevent me from keeping chickens, or goats, or a pig, but they cannot take away... my WORMS! That's right, folks, I am the proud owner of a Worm Factory, currently home to 500 red wriggler worms, who are already hard at work processing our kitchen scraps and old newspapers into nutrient-rich castings. By summer, we should have a good regular supply of compost, including worm tea to use as liquid fertilizer!

The dead of winter is the perfect time for browsing seed catalogs. (If you have a favorite, please do share in the comments, I am always looking for new sources.) Once again this year, I will be using 100% organic seeds. In the past, my seeds have come from Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Change, both of which I have been very happy with. Choosing exactly which variety, narrowing down the range of what we will grow (from "everything!" to just "what will fit in our garden"), dreaming of what it will all look like and taste like... ah, this is what winter is for. And since we start as much as possible from seed, there's no time to waste -- some things actually need to be started in February! Before we know it, the dining room table will once again be covered in trays of seedlings!

A few new books have been well-springs of inspiration as I plan this year. The Backyard Homestead is full of practical gardening advice, as well as tips on preserving and extending the harvest (and lots of fun daydreamy projects like building a chicken coop... someday!). Also, I am loving The Family Kitchen Garden, a book I picked up a few days ago and have hardly put down since. So much wisdom about gardening with children, including great practical advice on companion planting. This is very useful, since this year I fully intend to be a bit less whimsical in my garden planning. For instance, I will not plant a melon right next to my eggplant -- I spent the whole summer pulling melon tendrils off the poor innocent eggplant plant, muttering things like "keep your hands to yourself, sheesh!"

In June, when I'm outside trying to keep the weeds and bugs away from my precious veggies, I may question my sanity for ever having such grandiose dreams of backyard food production. But for now, snug in my warm house with the seed catalogs and the gardening books, it feels right to plan and to dream.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Winter stirrings

The whole issue of Santa Claus raises some interesting questions about how to handle topics of ... that which is not strictly literal, with one's kids. I struggle with the terminology because ... well, is Santa make-believe? Magic? Religion? How do you categorize a tradition like this?

I know a lot of religious folks who are anti-Santa, because they see him as a symbol of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. I can certainly see that point of view. But, though I do celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday and not just an excuse for presents, I embrace Santa. Not every aspect -- my kids did not write letters to Santa with a list of gimmes, and we did not visit the "Santa" at the mall -- but we do hang our stockings, and the jolly old elf does visit our house in the wee hours of the night, bringing goodies for the stockings and one special gift for each child.

I know parents on the other side of the spectrum who insist on "not lying" to their children. They seem to equate believing in Santa with perpetrating a fraud upon their innocent children. This puzzles me greatly, since I wonder... do these same parents not play imagination games with their children? When their child exclaims, "Look, Mommy, I'm a kitty-cat... meow!" do these parents quickly correct them that they are not really kitty-cats?

Magic. Do you believe in magic? Do you believe in powers in the world that go beyond the literal? Do you believe that people sometimes act, not in their own self-interest, but in selfless servitude towards others? Do you ever close your eyes and feel something touching you besides the wind?

I do. I believe my life is richer due to the magic around me every day. Call it what you will. In this house, we will lay out cookies tonight for an ancient saint, who will bring us a little magic on Christmas morning.

Snowy wreath

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, in whatever way feels right to you, and a joyous winter season to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas panettone


What's a holiday without some outlandish baking project?

I got the recipe for this panettone from my trusty Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It seemed appropriately over-the-top. And while not quite as easy as my daily bread, it was a cinch as far as outlandish holiday baking goes. (You can find the recipe over at their blog.)

The dough smelled amazing, but was threatening to overflow my 19-cup-capacity bucket. Oops.

Chilled panettone dough

This morning, with the dough appropriately chilled, I scooped out a handful and tried desperately to form a gluten cloak. The recipe called for the usual shaping, pulling the dough around to the sides until a gluten cloak forms. This stuff was so sticky, the whole idea of shaping was a joke. It ended up just getting dumped in the molds, helter-skelter.

Dough in panettone mold

Then they're supposed to "rest" for an hour and forty minutes. When I do this stuff with regular bread dough, it rises during this "rest" period, especially dough that's in a loaf pan.

Before rising

But this dough hardly rose at all. So I was getting a little worried....

After "rising"

But the oven seemed to do the trick.

Panettones in the oven

And now... ta-da!

Full-height view of panettone

Full disclosure: I have not tasted this yet. But seriously, how could it be bad? They're gorgeous.

I can definitely see this becoming a holiday tradition. Lovely, lovely, lovely.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Feasting Season


I've been busy feasting. In more ways than one. It seems that sometimes, one is too busy actually living life to be able to take a step back and reflect on it all. Which is as it should be, truly. What else are January and February for?

Meanwhile, a glimpse of all of the various kinds of merriment that have been going on in these parts.

We journeyed to Maine, where we visited a farm, knitted, walked on the beach, and cooked yummy things:

The sheep at Wolfe's Neck Farm:

The headband I knitted on a cozy afternoon by the fire (bliss):

Popham Beach on Thanksgiving day:
November beach

Upon our return, we seemed to be thrust directly into the maelstrom of Christmas preparations. We have decorated, and shopped, and baked, and wrapped, and created... and of course there is much more to go! A busy time, but one filled with such delight.

And a brief pause to celebrate my birthday, amidst the holiday craziness. Speaking of craziness, my friends and family thought I was a nut for wanting to cook my own birthday feast. Thankfully, it was my birthday, thus I was able to do what I pleased. Spinach salad, with parmesan-encrusted broccoli and cauliflower croutons, sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage sauce, and a birthday couronne (just a wreath-shaped baguette, but it looked festive!).

Birthday couronne

Friday, November 20, 2009

Satisfaction, Thy Name Is Hat

Hat from above

My toddler has an enormous head. I mean, off-the-charts enormous. So enormous that when he was younger and had gross motor delays in addition to this gigantic and fast-growing noggin, they ordered an MRI to make sure all was well. It is. He just has a big head (and the gross motor delays appear to have been because of this enormous head he had to figure out how to balance on his little shoulders). But anyway, this means that hats are a problem. The "toddler-sized" hats don't even begin to fit him. I went through my whole box of hand-me-down winter gear, and could find not a single hat to fit him. Since next week we will be in Maine for Thanksgiving (and the last time we were there for Thanksgiving, it snowed!), I decided he simply had to have a hat. And not just any hat -- a hat custom-tailored for his unusual, beautiful, brain-filled little head.

I haven't knit anything in ages. A combination of busy-ness and worsening arthritis in my hands made me set aside the knitting needles for a while. Like, a few years. I never meant to actually quit knitting, I just thought I'd take a break for a bit. I did some sewing -- much easier on the hands -- but I missed the aesthetic pleasures of knitting. The portability of it, the ability to be sitting in a room, talking or watching a movie, and be able to interact and participate while also doing something so beautifully productive. The feel of wool in my fingers.

I wasn't sure if my gimpy ol' hands would still be able to do this, but I was determined to try. Two very important tips: 100% wool yarn, and wooden needles. The last thing I tried to knit was a shawl, made with acrylic yarn using metal needles. No wonder my hands hurt! So I made sure that the yarn I chose for this project was 100% wool (it has a give to it, unlike cotton or synthetics), and I even bought a new set of wooden double-pointed needles, even though I already had metal needles in the right size. It made all the difference. Yes, my hands hurt, especially the first day, but it actually got easier as I went along. And three days later, my little boy has a hat that fits his funny little head -- and that he adores!

Hat in motion

Many thanks to Amanda Soule over at SouleMama, whose recent posts about her knitting projects pushed me over the edge and gave me the courage (and envy!) enough to pick up the needles again. What a joy to have this back in my life.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Being Present

Lately I've been thinking about the million-and-one ways in which I am grateful that my husband goes out into the world and makes a living so that I can be home with the children. I love being with these little monkeys all day. I love following where they lead, seeing how their whims and interests will shape our day. While there is a loose routine, for the most part we are opportunistic, being ready for adventures wherever we might find them. Hmm, it's a gorgeous day today -- hey! let's walk to preschool! Someone's having a grumpy afternoon -- time for a baking project! The toddler spilled fish food all over the family room -- let's all help with the vacuum cleaner!

OK, some adventures are more fun than others.

But one of the things that is most special about being home, is that it is part of my job description to be fully present in each moment. It is my job to be paying attention, not just with a part of my brain, but with my whole soul. If I am to be what these children need, I can't just be here in body... I must completely be here. And if I start to drift away, if I allow myself to be scattered and distracted, they will let me know.

"Mom. Were you listening? Did you hear what I said?"

And once you are present, once you are fully, feet-on-the-ground present in your current daily life... you notice things. Not just all the million things that the children will point out to you if you give them the time and space to do so, but you start to see with their eyes. And you start to share their sense of wonder.


Today it was a bat in the window. A bat! In the window! We admired and studied it, marveled at its tiny feet. I laughed out loud. I smiled with all the muscles of my face. I felt their joy, their awe. I forgot about the to-do list, and was simply present with my children. And a bat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cure for a Dreary Morning

Rainy November morning

We woke up to another cold and rainy day.

So I decided to use the time while the little ones are waking up and playing, and I'm checking my email and making my coffee, to put some steel-cut oatmeal on the stove. I have had trouble selling the texture of steel-cut oats to the kids before, so I decided to set up a little fixin's bar to generate some interest.

Oatmeal fixin's

It worked like a charm. They both gobbled their oatmeal, and the five-year-old even had seconds. The joy of DIY strikes again!

Yum, yum, extra yum.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cultivating Wonder


One of my most important parenting goals is cultivating wonder in my children. I want them to feel awe and reverence when they encounter the natural world. I want them to be thrilled and amazed by science experiments. I want them to view education as a life-long pursuit that is its own reward.

Lately I am once again contemplating just what our schools are teaching our children. What values are being communicated? Where is the joy of learning when there is such pressure to teach to the test? First it was art and music that were being nudged out, then recess. Now even science and "social studies" are being pushed aside in favor of a single-minded focus on reading and math -- and not just reading and math, but the skill of performing well on reading and math tests.

Where is the wonder? Where is the joy? The world is full of so very many interesting things, there is so very much to learn, so many exciting discoveries to be made.

Much to ponder, as we consider the next phase of our children's educations.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Demystifying Pasta

Spinach and ricotta filling

Until recently, baking bread was one of those mysterious kitchen activities that I simply assumed, without giving it much thought, was beyond the skills of the average amateur. And then I discovered just how easy, and delightful, bread-baking can be. It is now something I do habitually, without looking at a cookbook or recipe, and with the easy, practiced movements of someone who is thoroughly comfortable with her enterprise.

Making pasta from scratch has a similar mystique about it, it seems. But I figured, if I can bake bread -- easily! joyfully! -- then surely I can give pasta a try. And as I read the recipe (in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, one of my favorite cookbooks), the process seemed more just time-consuming and annoying than actually difficult. As I become a better cook, I think the most important thing I have gained is confidence -- I see no reason to be intimidated by a mere recipe.

Pasta dough

The actual pasta dough is even simpler than my basic bread dough, and even easier to pull together. The toughest part was separating the eggs (I saved the whites and made meringues for dessert -- yum). It needs to be kneaded a bit (unlike my miraculous no-knead bread recipe), but it was easy and rather soothing to do. The dough really did feel amazing in my hands -- springy and lively. Then (just like bread!), the dough needs to rest a while before rolling it out.

Pasta dough, resting (shhh...)

I do not -- yet! -- own a pasta roller. I am so putting one on my Christmas list, though. Rolling the dough by hand was quite time-consuming and challenging. I was glad I had chosen to do ravioli, as oposed to something like linguini -- yikes! -- at least I only had to roll two big sheets. I made a spinach and ricotta filling (heavenly), and used a pizza cutter to cut out my little square raviolis. But then I still had all this filling, and all these weirdly-shaped scraps of pasta... so I made a ton more little "raviolis" of various sizes. I wish I had taken a picture of them all ready to cook -- they were like crazy mutant raviolis.

Assembling ravioli

Once made, the ravioli just needed to be popped in boiling water for a few minutes -- probably about 3-4 minutes. I tossed them with a simple pesto, paired it with some of my homemade bread, and served with freshly-grated Parmagiano-Reggiano. It was sublime. So many, many times better even than the "fresh" pasta you can get in the grocery store. Frankly, better than most pasta I've had in restaurants. So very much worth the time and effort.

Pasta, interrupted

I wonder what other dishes I've put on a pedestal? What other basics have I been outsourcing because I really didn't think I could possibly tackle them? Lesson learned: never underestimate the power of doing something yourself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Apple Deliciousness


I saw this recipe over at the blog for Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, and just had to try it. It is a coffee cake with layers of brioche dough, thinly slices apples and pears, and streusel topping. Not sure why mine doesn't look nearly as pretty as theirs, but it is delicious. I left out the pear and made mine with just apples, and I also made it in a springform bundt-type pan (thinking I would get all fancy or something). Will definitely make this again, but with fresh brioche dough (mine came from the freezer) and see if that helps it rise a bit better. Overall, another sweet success with the apples. I'd really better run out of apples soon, all this baking is not helping the waistline one bit.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Savory Apple Tart (Pizza)

Savory apple tart (pizza)

Oh my. So the authors of my beloved Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day have a blog. Oh yes. And it is filled with recipes! Using the dough that I already have on hand at all times! Yippee!

So yesterday when I saw the recipe for a tart (okay, pizza) using apples of all things, well I just had to try it. Verdict: oh so yummy.

And it got me to thinking... you can put a lot of things on a pizza! This one has sliced apples, blue cheese, and smoked ham. Can you imagine... sliced pears and goat cheese? ...sliced apples, goat cheese, and fig preserves?? The possibilities are endless. Yum.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halloween Fun With Chalkboard Paint


Last week, I saw this idea for blackboard pumpkins over at Ohdeedoh. (They're actually originally from Indie Fixx, to give credit where credit is due.) Anyhow, I thought these would be great for my almost-5-year-old's 5th birthday party, which is coming up this weekend. I had originally thought the kids could paint pumpkins, but I kept worrying that the paint would just get too messy. But -- aha! -- pumpkins painted with chalkboard paint can be decorated -- safely! mess-free! -- with chalk, and the kids can take them home as a favor and decorate them again and again. Neat!

So I bought a bunch of those adorable mini-pumpkins and started painting. But it turns out, a) it's really tough to paint small, glossy gourds, and b) it's really tough for little hands to draw on them with chalk without getting frustrated. Apparently there is chalkboard spray paint, which would probably be much easier. And regular pumpkins (not those teeny ones) would probably work fabulously -- and I'm definitely planning on doing some this year for sure. But I wasn't really up for buying 15 regular-sized pumpkins and then painting them all... whew!

Which led me to come up with Plan B: cardboard cut-out pumpkins painted with chalkboard paint. They turn into little chalkboards that work great, the kids can wipe off and decorate again and again. And the best part is, I already had a big cardboard box ready to go into the recycling, so the only real cost was the blackboard paint (which I had already purchased, on sale!). I love recycling!

Here's how to make these little cuties...

Step 1: Gather supplies. You'll need sturdy cardboard... I took a large shipping box and flattened it. You'll also need a cutting tool, like a boxcutter or X-acto knife. And... chalkboard paint! I went to my local paint store and discovered they now have tintable chalkboard paint, so you can get it in any color you like. I suppose that technically means you could do orange, but then I'm not sure how well the chalk would show up...? I chose black.

Cutting out

Step 2: Cut out pumpkin shapes from the cardboard. I found this easiest to do on the floor of my garage (so I didn't need to worry about damage from the box-cutter), kneeling on the cardboard to keep it from moving. I suppose you could also try to cut out the shapes with strong scissors, but I think my hands would fall off. About halfway through, I switched from the box-cutter (which was kind of dull and didn't lock so I was holding the blade down with my finger... ow) to an X-acto knife, which I found muuuuch easier. Word of caution, though: my X-acto blade was completely destroyed.

Pile 'o cardboard pumpkins

Step 3: Lay down newspaper, and paint your shapes! The paint dries on cardboard in about an hour, but each side really needs two coats for maximum coverage and wipability, so this whole process can take several hours.

Painting pumpkins

Step 4: Decorate your pumpkin! Then wipe off the chalk and do it again! Just remember that these are made of cardboard, so I wouldn't recommend using a really damp cloth! I've gotten best results from a paper towel or piece of cloth that is just *barely* damp.


I can think of dozens of uses for these little cuties. You could make holes in the stems of the pumpkins, and string them on twine for a garland of jack-o-lanterns. You could hand them out at the kid's school Halloween party. In our case, they're going to be a combination craft activity and take-home favor for my daughter's 5th birthday. Fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Apple Harvest


Hmm, what do do with ten pounds of gorgeous Stayman apples? They are lovely for eating -- as crisp as a Granny Smith, but sweeter. But they are also, apparently, great for cooking and baking. This week I am determined to make my way through these apples!

Half-eaten Apple Spice Cake

Yesterday I made an apple spice cake. It was insanely delicious. Like, I can't believe I just made that delicious. The recipe is from The 1997 Joy of Cooking, and I still can't get over how good it was. Interestingly, there are no eggs in the batter -- just flour, butter, buttermilk, brown sugar, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves. And of course, chopped apples! I hesitated about adding the 1/2 cup of chopped pecans, because I thought the kids might balk at the texture, but they were perfect. I topped it with a quick white icing, also found in the Joy of Cooking. Fab-u-lous.

Unfortunately, the 1 cup of chopped apples called for by the recipe only dispensed with ONE apple. Ahem. We're going to have to pick up the pace. Ideas for what to do with a lot of apples, besides apple pie?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gifts That Keep on Giving

Last Christmas, a dear friend who clearly knows me well, chose for me what was probably the perfect gift: seeds. Not just seeds, but seeds from Seed Savers Exchange -- gorgeous heirloom seeds for vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Unusual selections I might never have been bold enough to choose for myself, but were lovely to get to experiment with. And they say the best gifts are those that "keep on giving," right? Well, here it is October, and I am still harvesting the fruits of these seeds that I received and planted so many months ago! Who could ask for anything more?

Rossa Bianca Eggplant

The other night, I made eggplant parmesan (one of my family's favorite dishes) with the most gorgeous, adorable eggplant ever. And we grew it right here by our front walk! The variety is Rossa Bianca, and you can find it at Seed Savers. It was delicious -- zero bitterness, perfectly firm flesh, and beautiful to watch grow. There is another flower on the plant right now and I am just hoping against hope we might be able to get another eggplant before the first frost.

Moonglow Tomato

We are also growing these gorgeous heirloom tomatoes called Moonglow. They are orange, not red, when ripe, and are lower in acid than other tomatoes. Absolutely delicious. And the plants -- which we started from seed, mind you! -- have been the happiest, leggiest things. Taller than me, no blight whatsoever, and very productive. This year has been my experiment in zero feeding -- not only did I not use conventional fertilizers like Miracle Gro, I didn't even feed them with compost or organic fertilizers. Nada! They got watered, and that's it. Now, the soil was enriched with organic compost and manure before planting, but still. I am impressed.

Empress Bean

My green beans (these lovely Empress Beans) fizzled out earlier than they should due to neglect on my part -- I simply got busy, forgot about them, and failed to keep them picked. Too bad. The ones we got were crisp and lovely.


And finally, for a bit of beauty, the moonflowers are finally blooming. They were started indoors in February, but I remember from trying them a previous year, they are awfully slow growers here. Each blossom only seems to open once, at night, but I caught this picture very early in the morning. If you can't tell from the pic, these flowers are huge, bigger than my open hand. And amazingly fragrant! Too bad they are so fleeting, but I think that's part of their charm.

My friend also gave me zinnias (so tall! so bright! so long-lasting! I am going to plant so very many more of them next year!), several kinds of melon, and more. What fun! Now, hmm, what to put on my wish list for next year.....

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Staff of Life

Baggy baguettes

I've gotten a lot of questions lately about this whole bread-baking thing I've been getting into. So I thought I would share my process for those of you who think baking bread is, like, wayyyyy too much work. Because seriously, if it was really that hard, I wouldn't do it.

First of all, if you're interested in baking your own bread but really don't know where you would find the time, or are worried about all this rising and kneading business, fear not. Just go right out and buy a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. You can go buy it from Amazon right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Got it? Good.

Okay, so once you have this book in hand, you will discover that baking bread can actually be easy. And fast. And such a pleasure.

If you have baked yeast bread before (sorry, banana bread doesn't count -- it's awesome, but a totally different beast), or heard or read about it, you may have been somewhat intimidated by things like "proofing the yeast," and "a warm, dark place," and "punching down the dough," and "kneading until satiny." At least, those were the things that always kind of scared me when I would read bread recipes.

I remember trying to bake bread once in high school, and the result turning out something juuust a smidge softer than a brick. Then once in my twenties -- for a party! -- I attempted to make some Silver Palate recipe that involved yeast dough stuffed with some kind of sausage thing and baked in a bundt pan. (What was I thinking? Why do I always think a party is the perfect occasion to try something ridiculously complex and above my level??) The dough didn't rise properly and the whole thing was a disaster (although the filling was delicious and we all just picked it out and pretended all was well).

Anyway, after those two experiences, I was sufficiently humbled. I knew this bread-baking stuff was not for amateurs like me, clearly. But then I heard a snippet about Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day on The Splendid Table (one of my favoritest podcasts, second only to This American Life). It sounded so... simple. Could it be true? Could there be a way that even I could bake bread? Bread that was edible??

Oh yes. I bought the book, and read pretty much the whole thing, all the recipes, all the explanations, so I could understand the process. And then, having assembled my ingredients and memorized the basic recipe, I tried it. And have been baking bread about twice a week ever since. Sounds a little hokey to say it has changed my life, but in some ways, it really has.

Truth be told, I am a bread snob. I will frequently refuse to have a sandwich if the only available bread is some kind of soft, processed sandwich bread. I like my sandwiches on a good, dense sourdough, or on a baguette. By their very nature, these things don't keep -- you can't just have a good, fresh baguette on hand every day, especially when you try to only go to the grocery store once a week. Also, at least 50% of the recipes in my repertoire (maybe more, actually) should be served with "good bread." So I'd either be running to the bakery three times a week, or buying the "take-and-bake" artisan loaves in the freezer section... and quite frankly, spending a small fortune on bread. Good bread is $3 or $4, even at the local grocery store, let alone the good bakery. But come on, you can't have a good homemade soup without crusty bread on the side!

So, now I have bread whenever I want it, and it is some of the best bread I have ever tasted. For the full recipe and method, I'm afraid you'll have to buy the book, but here is my basic process, just to show you how easy this can all be.

Step 1: Assemble ingredients. For a basic boule dough, you'll only need four things: flour, salt, yeast, and water. Yeah, it's that simple. Can I just tell you how much I love knowing exactly what is in my bread? I buy the yeast by the jar and keep it in the fridge -- it's much more economical that way, plus I find the little packets annoying. I use unbleached all-purpose flour, kosher salt, and tap water. For me, these are all things I have around anyway, the only thing I had to go out and buy was the yeast.

European peasant dough

Step 2: Make the dough. I can now do this without looking at a recipe or really even thinking about it. I put the yeast and salt in the bowl of my stand mixer, pour in the warm-not-hot water, and stir it up a little. Then I dump in the flour cup by cup. Then, using the dough hook on my stand mixer, I stir it up. This whole process, measuring and stirring, takes about two minutes. You don't need to knead the dough with the mixer, just get all the flour incorporated into one big glob.

Dough ready to rise

Step 3: Let the dough rise. Here's where things get a little wacky. You put the big glob of dough into a big tupperware container. The container should have room for the dough to quadruple in size. Put the lid on, but not airtight, and let it sit on the counter or wherever for about two hours or so. No covering with a damp towel, no keeping it away from drafts, no searching for a "warm, damp place," wherever that may be. If you leave it longer, no sweat, it'll wait for you. I've left it for five or six hours with no apparent ill effects.

Step 4: Stick it in the fridge. Once the dough has risen (and the first time you do this, it will freak you out -- it really does quadruple in size and it is pretty dang cool), you can either bake with it right away, or put it in the fridge and use it... anytime in the next two weeks. (Hell, I once pushed it to three weeks and it was still pretty good, a little sourdough-y kind of taste.) It's like money in the bank. Every time I use up the last of my fridge-dough, I make another batch right away... I guess I've just become accustomed to the security of knowing, "I could bake bread at any moment!"

Rolls, resting

Step 5: Hmm, I think I'd like a baguette with dinner tonight.... Take dough out of fridge, and get ready for some fun. :) Dust the top of the dough with some flour to make it easier to grab a hunk of it, and take out a glob -- I use an apple-sized blog for a baguette, a bit bigger for a boule, and little plum-sized globs for rolls. Adding flour as necessary, make the glob into a ball in your hands. Now this is the only remotely tricky part of the whole operation: you need to shape the ball by pulling the dough around the sides to the bottom, then turn it 90 degrees and do it again, and keep repeating this motion until the ball has a smooth finish. I kept reading this part in the book and could not figure it out, but once you have the dough in your hands, it becomes obvious. This is really the only "kneading" you have to do, and it is actually quite lovely to have this smooth ball of dough in your hands. Anyway, if you're making a baguette you now need to roll it like you're making a play-dough snake, or if you're making a boule or roll, you're essentially done. The dough now just needs to rest a bit before going in the oven -- I put a little cornmeal or whole wheat flour on a pizza peel (one of those wooden paddles with a handle that they use in pizzerias for taking pizzas out of the oven), and set my dough on it to hang out while the oven preheats. Depending on what you're making, the dough needs to rest for 20-40 minutes usually.

Step 6: Prepare oven. First, I make sure my baking stone is relatively clean. (Note 1: You don't need a baking stone. I baked my first loaf on a regular cookie sheet with a silicone baking liner -- worked great.) (Note 2: If you do have or get a baking stone, "clean" just means you brush off the cornmeal from the last time you baked on it -- it will still be ugly and stained. Lesson learned there.) I put my baking stone on a rack that's relatively centered in the oven, and put an empty shallow baking pan on the shelf below it before preheating the oven. Then I turn it on.

Step 7: Bake. By the time the oven's preheated, the dough is done resting and is ready to go. Usually you need to slash the top of the dough -- you can get creative with this -- right before putting it in the oven. Slide it off the pizza peel directly onto the baking stone (or if you're using a cookie sheet, you can have it rest on the cookie sheet and then just put it in the oven). Now, really quick, you pour one cup of hot water into that shallow baking pan on the lower shelf, and then quickly close the oven door. That's going to create the steam that gives you a great artisan crust. Bake for the allotted time, use the pizza peel to slide the loaf out of the oven, and cool on wire cooling racks.

Peasant rolls

Ta-da! You have bread. No, not just bread... good bread. Bread that's as good as the crusty $4 loaves in the bakery of your supermarket. Bread that rivals the bread from the best bakery in your town. Bread that you didn't have to leave the house for. Bread that you get to smell while it bakes. Bread for which you know all of the ingredients. Good bread.

Now, this handy-dandy book I keep talking about has recipes for just about any yeast-based bread you can imagine. Sometimes you use the same recipe -- like the basic boule dough -- to make a bunch of different things, like baguettes, naan, pizza, etc. Or there are different dough recipes to make really different kinds of bread. I've made rye, whole wheat, brioche, even bagels. And once you have dough in your fridge on a regular basis, all kinds of things become possible. It's 6pm and you haven't thought about dinner yet? No problem! Grab some dough, roll out a pizza crust, slap on some toppings (surely you have some cheese in the house, maybe a tomato? some leftover veggies?), and stick it in the oven. You won't be so quick to call Domino's when you can have pizza that is ten times better at the drop of a hat.

It's such a simple thing -- to bake your own bread -- but for me it has meant so much. I just feel that much more connected to the meal I'm putting on the table, when even the bread on the side is my own creation. I feel that much more in control, knowing I can have my own baguette baking in the oven faster than I could get to the store and back. And for someone who does truly love bread, the experience of smelling the loaf baking in the oven, listening to it crackle on the counter as it cools... it all fills me with delight. A simple joy, a little miracle of chemistry, right in my own kitchen. Yum.

Chocolate-filled brioche