Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bread Bender

I spent a lot of time reading in the months after I was hit by a car. It began slowly; as a result of my skull fracture it was weeks before I could fully focus my eyes. But once I repossessed control of my mind and my sight, I camped out in a makeshift bed in my mother’s living room—my knee encased in bandages and a hefty metal brace, broken pelvis aching, wobbly crutches nearby—and surrounded myself with books.

It was a time rife with solitude. The days were long, with my mom at work and my friends scattered around the world. I was largely alone; it was easy to imagine that no one had ever felt so shattered.

I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking straight through in one rust-colored afternoon. She wrote it in the year after her husband’s sudden death, while their only child was severely ill. It is a narrative of her grief, written in language simple yet utterly evocative. Her “magical thinking” came in the vice of believing her dead husband would return, just as I—lying there with a long noxious bruise running down the side of my face and neck, monotone nothingness where my sense of smell once was— believed that my life would be the same once I could move again. As I read, I didn’t feel so alone.

Those months of recovery feel like a very long time ago looking back, though it was only a year and a half. Now, amid the oft-overwhelming clutter and crowd, the fast-paced movement of my life in New York, solitude is something I miss. I’ve never been good at finding the median.

But when I saw that Joan Didion had turned her book into a play, with Vanessa Redgrave playing the author, I immediately bought myself a ticket. I took myself alone on a Monday night after work.

It is a one-woman production: Vanessa Redgrave sits majestically in a wooden chair alone on stage for an hour and a half monologue. Her voice is rich, melodious. Her white hair pulled simply back from a chiseled face. She embodies the language of Joan Didion perfectly. I sat in the back corner of the dark theater, and found myself struck with memories of when I first read the book, in that time surrounding the accident. Things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

At one point, Didion/Redgrave speaks of being with her very-sick daughter in the hospital. She wanted nothing more than to take her back to the hotel, to sit by the pool and get manicures together, to have her daughter’s hair washed in the salon. Then, at least, she would be doing something concrete to take care of her.

I suddenly remembered my own mother, who, soon after I returned from the hospital last year, brought me to the salon to have my hair washed. My body ached as they rinsed last vestiges of the accident off my skull. It hurt my broken pelvis to sit in their hard plastic chairs. I didn’t want to tell my mom, though; she was taking care of me.

When I left the theater that night I was immediately surrounded by the neon lights and the raucous throngs of people in Times Square – the night air felt stale and my shoes were cutting into my heels. But despite that, I took a deep breath and felt, for the first time in a while, that I had given myself the time and space to process what was going on around me, undistracted by people or work.

It is easy to get caught up in the ferocious movement of New York City. But ever since seeing the play I have been actively trying to give myself more space.

And this is my meandering transition to the culinary. As part of my “more time to think” campaign, I have been on a serious bread-baking bender.

There is no hurrying bread. Baking forces me to slow down; I take my time in the kitchen. On Saturday mornings, when I haul out my Kitchenaid mixer, my apartment is filled with light. The yeast bubbles softly in warm water before I add flour. The dough goes from sticky to supple as I knead it on my counter. My mixer is bright red and my apron has three little buttons the same shade of brown as the rising dough. The oven is warm and the tea kettle leaves a faint mark of steam on the nearby window. The corners of the bread pan are perfectly pointed. I let my mind wander.

And as the bread bakes my apartment is filled with a nutty, sweet perfume. It is a scent that my ravaged olfactory neuron can now detect—perhaps not in its entirety, but enough to feel its coziness.

Peter Berley’s recipe for a plain, white loaf was my most recent success.

Basic Yeast Bread: The Straight Method
Adapted from Peter Berley’s The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/3 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
3⁄4 cup whole wheat flour
3 cups white, unbleached bread flour

1. In a large bowl, combine yeast, water, and sugar. Stir to blend and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in oil and salt.
2. Add all of the whole-wheat flour and enough of the white flour to form a ragged mass of dough. Scoop out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Wash out the bowl and clean and dry your hands.
3. Knead for 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic
4. Lightly coat the inside of the bowl with oil. Turn the dough over several times in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap
5. Refrigerate the dough for at least 12, up to 48 hours
6. Remove the dough and let come to room temperature, about two hours
7. To shape the dough, gently press into 1-inch-thick circle. Fold down the top third and up the bottom third, pressing the seam together with fingers. Place in a lightly greased bread pan seam side down. Cover with damp towel. Let sit one hour, until has risen a bit more.
8. Uncover and brush with oil or a bit of melted butter.
9. Bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees. When it comes out, a thermometer stuck to its center should read 200.
10. Let cool before slicing

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Toast to Onion Soup

Sitting in LaGuardia airport on a recent Friday night, I finished reading Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast.

I was on my way to Ann Arbor to visit Becca for the weekend. My flight, however, was delayed for three hours due to the confusion of an “illegal flight attendant.” There was a cacophony of screaming babies, constant robotic announcements on the loudspeaker, and a middle-aged woman wearing a pink velvet track suit—obviously drunk—wandering back and forth in front of me, slurred and muddled and trying to find men with whom to flirt. My time spent waiting, curled up in a hard plastic chair near the window, didn’t bother me though. (Shocking, I know, as I tend towards grumpiness). But I was too lost in my book.

Nigel Slater writes about his childhood in poignant, culinary-centric vignettes. His language is simple yet descriptive, his voice captivating. It is, after all, the narrative behind food that I am most interested in.

On the first page he writes: It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.

And sitting by the gate—a mug of airport-style tea (weak) and packet of Skittles (hate the purple ones) by my side—I thought about toast. My mom used to make it for me when I got home from school slathered in butter with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on top. I loved its warm crunch. I had forgotten about that.

With the topic of childhood food I am often bogged down with unctuous memories of take-out Chinese, Dominos pizza, and frozen TV-dinners. But reading Mr. Slater’s lyrical book reminded me of the other moments. And as I waited for my flight, actively avoiding eye contact with pink-velvet drunk lady and moving the pages of Toast at a rapid clip, I kept my little moleskin notebook flapped open on my lap and found myself taking notes on childhood food.

My mom made a killer meatloaf. I always watched her in awe as her bare hands squished the gurgling raw meat mixture together in a big metal bowl before molding it into a log to bake. It was topped with a red river of Heinz ketchup.

I loved the plop of bread hitting the cinnamon-speckled egg mixture while she prepared French toast; my preschool teachers used to say that every day I came to school smelling of maple syrup.

Her strawberry rhubarb pie was bronzed and crusty, the deep red innards succulent. And the huge, chocolate-pecan “whopper” cookies—still made every year without fail—are to this day lengthy topics of conversation among my high school friends, especially around Christmas time.

The best, however, was onion soup. Every year, smack in the dead of the New England winter, mom would break out the special ‘onion soup bowls’—ceramic with squat little handles and the deep hue of chocolate. And the soup: slow cooked and filled with the earthy, brothy brown of caramelized onion, topped with French bread and oozing broiled cheese. The scent of onion soup signaled school’s winter vacation, sleds skidding down the hill of my backyard, my dad building fires in the fireplace, puffy jackets and itchy hats, icy wind on my face as I went skiing with my little brother. I had forgotten about that soup; I wonder where those bowls are now.

When I was a sophomore in high school my parents divorced and there was not much onion soup – or much cooking of any kind, for that matter – afterwards. How fitting then, I thought with a smile as the nasally voice of the flight attendant suddenly began to prepare us for boarding, that while I was visiting home for Presidents Day Weekend my mom and I made onion soup. With a recipe from Nigel Slater’s own cookbook, The Kitchen Diaries, even.

The soup was easy to make, nothing like my mom’s classic and lengthy previous undertakings. But after a long walk in Boston’s bitter cold (the wind had cut through my hat; even my hair felt numb) it was perfect. We cooked together in her cozy, warmly lit kitchen. And as I sliced the crusty baguette for the topping, I could smell the earthy sizzle of the onions roasting in the oven. I could smell the rich salt of the butter melting in the pan and the nutty gruyere I grated on the counter. There isn’t much I can’t smell, at least a little bit, these days. And this soup carried a definitive scent of school vacation.

By the time I actually boarded the plane in LaGuardia that Friday I was exhausted. I fell into a mottled sleep as soon as I sat down and didn’t fully wake up until I arrived in Detroit in the early hours of Saturday morning. The intoxicated lady in pink velvet was tired as well. I know this because the gods of air travel seated her right next to me. She, too, slept the entire flight. Often with her head lolling about on my shoulder.

Nigel Slater's "Onion Soup without Tears"
adapted from The Kitchen Diaries

4 medium onions
3 tablespoons of butter
a glass of white wine
6 cups vegetable stock
1 small French loaf, or baguette
grated Gruyere, about 1.5 cups

Preheat the oven to 400F. Peel the onions and then cut them in half from tip to root; lay them in a roasting pan and add the butter, salt and some pepper. Roast until soft and tender, with some dark spots. Cut them into thick segments and put into a saucepan with wine and bring to a boil. Let the wine bubble until almost gone and then add the stock. Simmer for 20 minutes. Just before serving, cut the bread into slices and toast lightly on one side under the broiler. Remove and top with grated cheese. Ladle soup into bowls and then float the crouton on top. Place bowls under the broiler until the cheese melts. Eat immediately.