A winter breath of fresh air

After days of self-isolating, my hubby and I made a break for it to my favourite botanical garden. The air was fresh and invigorating, but chilly; I had to stuff my hands in my pockets between photos.

Even in its winter-dormant state, the garden is a lovely walk. There’s a sculptural quality to the landscape and everything in it that’s revealed by the absence of leaves. Above, my favourite path winds into the distance under a coating of snow, framed by fountain grass, dogwood branches in their cold-weather glory, and the silvery bark of a bare tree.

I love this big urn, although I’ve yet to get a photo of it that I’m happy with. It looks very regal and imposing as it introduces an allee of trees, but it refuses to share that with my camera. I’ll keep trying πŸ™‚

At the big pond, I was fascinated by the formation of these white crystals on top of the layer of ice underneath. They remind me of snow-white winter birds, taking a rest between flights.

As the sun began to set, its light gilded the shape of this ice-rimmed opening above one of the fountains that spurt upward when the weather’s warmer.

Something had braved the ice on top of the pond when it was still soft enough to be imprinted with tracks. I believe these are rabbit tracks, although they’re rougher than if they’d been made in snow and harder to identify with certainty. Feel free to shoot me a comment if I’m correct or not.

I love taking photos of milkweed pods; an entire patch of them was looking very picturesque and textured in their winter state. By the time I finished taking multiple photos at this spot, my hands were freezing off, so it was time to head home for some steaming mugs of hot chocolate in front of our fireplace. We counted it a very good outing.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Bread of life

Today’s loaf of fresh bread — the Rapid White product

So, hubby and I are self-isolating for a few days. We’ve only been lightly ill; in any other year we’d just be treating this as a seasonal bug, and it’s strange to have to consider that we might have picked up the coronavirus. Provincial health officials stated a few days ago that anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness has a high probability of actually having the Omicron variant, such is its transmissibility.

I did a grocery run on Sunday, using all the proper precautions — surgical-quality mask, hand-sanitizer after I left every store, then washing my hands for 20 seconds when I got back in the house.

On Monday morning I started getting chills, aches, a headache, some coughing and possibly a mild fever. None of these are unusual for me by themselves (except the fever) — they’re just a fun part of having fibromyalgia. After popping Vitamin C and acetaminophen all day long, and waiting to see what might develop, by the next morning I felt substantially better. The Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period (as low as 2 days), but I had no other symptoms, so I put it down to one of my worse days with a chronic condition.

By Wednesday morning, hubby told me he was so achy he wasn’t going in to work. That is highly unusual; I can probably count on one set of fingers the number of times he’s stayed home over the decades. He spent most of the day wrapped up in multiple throw blankets. When he remained home again today, we decided to do the right thing and follow the province’s protocol to assume the worst and quarantine ourselves.

There’s no way to tell if we have the virus or not; we’re certainly not ill enough to go the hospital (not complaining!), but since we’ve had symptoms we can’t go out and get a couple of Rapid Antigen test kits to see if we even have the antibodies. So we’re ‘stuck’ at home, sitting by the fire with cups of tea and watching television — not the worst position to be in.

Fortunately we have plenty of the two most critical needs in stock: food and toilet paper πŸ˜‰ We were running low on bread, though, and as a result, today became the day my hubby must stop yanking my chain about how much each freshly-made loaf has cost us so far after we invested in a bread machine last fall.

I began thinking about getting an automatic bread-maker — even though we didn’t really need to add another appliance taking up counter space in our modestly-sized kitchen — after some of my favourite commercial breads started adding barley to their flour mix. For years I’ve had to read ingredient-labels on everything to avoid things like soy and sulfites, both of which give me nasty migraines; after several unexpected migraines I wasn’t happy to be forced to add barley to the list. Barley can add fibre and help the fermentation of the yeast. Neither of those benefits did me any good, and I started looking into making my own bread.

After talking to friends with a variety of machines and conducting online research into features and user reviews, and after hubby suggested we buy a machine as a Christmas ‘house gift’, I made the decision to go for the top-rated brand, the one with the weird name, Zojirushi. The brand has had some negative reviews on Amazon, although most were very positive. I’ve been using it at least once a week for about a month and a half now, and have no complaints at all.

I chose the Virtuoso Plus model for one crucial reason: it makes Sourdough bread, and even makes the starter. My hubby and I were introduced to great Sourdough in California on our first visit. It should be chewy and distinctively sour, and since it’s been hard to find good Sourdough in our neighbourhood ever since, that was the first feature I looked for.

Our machine makes a very good Sourdough. The whole thing takes about six hours: a little over two to make the starter, after which you must directly segue into making the bread itself, another roughly four hours. The bread has a nice crust, good toothsome-ness, and a lovely tart flavour.

I didn’t jump into that at the beginning, though. I tried the easy Italian bread, because it didn’t require dried milk, of which I had none on hand. Carefully measuring the ingredients and adding them to the baking pan in the order prescribed (apparently each bread machine has a specific order it wants you to follow), I keyed in the correct Course on the control panel and nervously pushed START.

When the machine beeped 3 & 1/2 hours later, I was rewarded with a perfect loaf of warm bread.

Here’s how an automatic bread machine works (at least the one I have): After washing and some assembly — basically putting the little beater bars in place inside the baking pan, which mix the ingredients and knead the dough — you put the ingredients in as listed in the handy Recipe Book. If you’re making one of their suggested breads, you enter in which one (with Zojirushi they’re all numbered) and push the Start button. That’s essentially it, until 2 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 hours later the aroma of freshly-baked bread fills your house.

The image isn’t the clearest, but this is the control panel of the machine for today’s bread: Course 9, Rapid White Bread, to be finished at 3:45pm

Some breads have added ingredients, like Raisin Bread; the machine pauses and beeps at you to let you know when to add the raisins. I haven’t tried every single standard recipe, but the Raisin Bread is very nice, pleasantly cinnamon-y and tender.

The machine will also just make dough for you, which you can then take out and shape into a number of other bread-based things, like bagels or dinner rolls. For Christmas Eve I found a recipe online for making buttery Parker House rolls using a bread machine, and they turned out perfectly despite the fact that I messed up and put double the amount of butter in. (There must be a saying somewhere that you ‘can’t have too much butter in a roll’, or there should be.) For the Parker House rolls, I used the “Homemade” course, which requires you to manually enter the timing for each cycle of the process by pressing the Cycle button: Rest >> Knead >> Shape >> Rise 1 >> Rise 2 >> Rise 3 >> Bake. Depending on what you’re making some of the cycles may be set to zero, i.e. they’re not being used for your bread type.

I don’t know what other brands have, but there are several things I like about my machine:

a) The Rest cycle, which the machine uses to bring all the ingredients to the right temperature. When making bread by hand, bakers have to be aware of the temperature of the room at the time, and make sure none of the ingredients are too warm or cold. My machine eliminates that.

b) The default setting for the crust is “medium”, which produces the lovely golden-brown crust you can see in the photo at the start of this post.

c) Although the manufacturer states that the machine gets quite hot during the Baking cycle, I didn’t find it too bad. I still pull the machine out from under the cupboard, where it normally sits, to use it (away from my wooden cabinets), and use oven mitts to remove the hot finished loaf, but otherwise I find it not much hotter to the touch than our toaster, and during the preceding cycles it stays cool.

The only suggestion I’d have for the manufactures is to light up the control panel; it’s hard to read without using a flashlight.

I’ve read that many bread bakers find the kneading process quite therapeutic. All I can say is that I find the simplicity of the machine, freeing you to do something else until the incredible aroma lets you know that your warm, fluffy loaf is ready, is very therapeutic — especially on days when you’re under the weather πŸ™‚

Here’s what the machine process looks like:

Choose the recipe;

Measure the ingredients, using the handy measuring cups that come with the machine, and place them in the Baking Pan in the order listed;

I dump my bags of bread flour into a plastic bin — much easier to measure the flour correctly

Place the Baking Pan inside the machine; mine has metal feet that click into place;

One critical tip: you must place the yeast (the darkest brown in the photo) so it doesn’t contact the salt – otherwise the yeast will be deactivated. I tuck the salt into the back right corner.

Close the machine’s lid and program the bread course that you want (as in the photo earlier in this post);

Take out your beautiful finished loaf!

Using oven mitts (the baking pan is hot when you take it out), you just turn the pan over and gently shake the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Then you’re supposed to wait for it to cool down, but I wanted to show you what the bread looks like inside when freshly cut:

A slice of freshly-baked, pillowy white bread

Your loaf will have indents on the bottom where it baked around the beater bars. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, but once you bite into the delicious bread, you won’t care.

Bite into a piece of this bread and then tell me whether you’re worried about how pretty it is πŸ™‚

For breads where you take the dough out, let it rest, and shape it (e.g. there’s a great Party Loaf recipe included where you cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and stuff the balls with something like cream cheese or chocolate), you can remove the beater bars before you put the shaped dough back in, or bake your dough in a regular oven (as I did with the Parker House rolls).

Our machine makes a two-pound loaf, which typically lasts us about a week. The bread is more delicious than anything I’ve ever bought in a bakery, even a really good one (truly). Plus, you can’t beat a loaf that’s still warm from the oven, but even at that our machine-made bread has taken several days longer to begin going stale than commercial bread does.

All in all, our investment has been an unqualified success. As long as I keep stocked up on a few basic ingredients, I can make us bread whenever we want, which will be delightful during our self-imposed quarantine. The machine will also make things like pizza dough, cake, and even jam, none of which I’ve tried yet, but I did order some whole-grain rye from Amazon to use for my sourdough starter, and I hope to try making a full-on hearty rye bread with caraway one of these days.

Today, since I had a turkey carcass left over from having made a turkey dinner on Monday, I decided a good turkey soup was just the thing to go with a fresh loaf of bread — healthy, cozy and nourishing. By my hubby’s cheeky calculations we’re probably down to about $50 a loaf now, but like any new toy the cost will go down the more we use it, and the pleasure we get from having this resource, as well as the comfort of knowing I can both control the ingredients so that I don’t get a headache and keep us well-supplied even as prices in grocery stores rise this year, have already paid for the gadget long before we reach that break-even loaf. And that will likely happen very soon!

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

Let’s make 2022 a thinking-outside-the-box year

A new year, but same old pandemic. We get our booster shot and continue to make the best of things, because that’s how we weather tough times.

This past Christmas, we actually got to have family over in small bundles — which meant days of cleaning up so many dust bunnies in surprising corners, multiple trips to the grocery store, and laying out a timetable for the entire final two weeks of December. It was all worth it, though, to be able to share some holiday time with the special people in our life.

The theme around our house was warmth and relaxation. Menus were unfussy, curling up on our living room furniture under lap blankets was completely allowed, an eclectic mix of holiday music played softly in the background.

Our nieces and nephews wanted to turn last year’s Christmas picnic into an annual tradition, so once again we took our hot air fryer to a nice spot in the vicinity to heat up a pot of Honey Mustard Sausages. We lit a fire in one of the barbecue stands that stay there all year (photo above), laid out all the food on a picnic table, and went back and forth between the food and the toasty warmth of the blazing wood. Apart from the sheer fun of doing something outdoors, one of the things that makes this occasion really special is the opportunity to just shoot the breeze among the six of us — something that doesn’t happen at big family gatherings. The picnic only lasts a couple of hours; once the sun starts to set the temperature drops dramatically. But it’s quality time that can’t be replicated in any other setting.

So, as we soldier on through more months of pandemic drama, find ways to create that kind of atmosphere — the kind that gives you a warm glow inside. Be mindful when you go out and about. Pay attention to other people around you; we’re all in the same boat and making life more pleasant all around will go a long way to helping each other get through these times. Turn grumpiness into kindness; it’s the best cure I know.

If you’re having trouble finding your inner kind person, I’d like to share with you two offerings by the organization Action for Happiness:

  1. Their Happier January calendar, with daily suggestions for small ways to feel better
  2. A special webinar, Wellbeing Skills – with Prof. Richard Davidson, on January 12th. It’s free and may give you some good ideas on how to manage your emotions these days.

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself while you’re at it. Nobody loves what’s going on, but we will get through it, just as generations before us have done.

Gifts for travelers – my most-used items over the years

Sacsayhuaman from a distance in Peru. Photo and rights by E. Jurus

Even though travel abroad seems really far away these days, there are always daydreams and wishes. People ask my hubby and I all the time about our next trip, and my answer is always the same: when the pandemic settles down enough that the main adventure is at the destination, not getting there or back home. We love unpredictability, but not from the governments πŸ˜‰

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for gift ideas for an adventure traveler for some future journey, here are a few things that my hubby and I have found really useful over the years:

  1. A lighted magnifying mirror. I’ve used it on every safari we’ve been on, trying to insert contact lenses in the pre-dawn hours in a dark tent; on every single other trip since I bought it, because hotel bathroom lighting is never good enough to apply some basic facial care, or get a fallen eyelash out of your eye; and daily at home. This is the exact mirror I have — it’s lightweight, has an unbreakable mirror (so far, in 14 years of ownership), and doesn’t drain the batteries (I typically replace them maybe once a year).
  2. A cordless flat iron. If you have hair that looks ridiculous when you get out of bed, this item is invaluable for looking presentable when your lodging has no electricity — like some safari camps. The one I have holds enough charge for a week’s worth of quick hair-fixing, assuming I don’t loan it out to all the people who usually ask me to borrow it. I’m not sure my brand is still made, but I found quite a few different other offerings on Amazon.
  3. A good day-pack. The one I have is called the “Healthy Back Bag“. What makes it so great are the myriad pockets both inside and out that hold an amazing number of essential items. On our first safari in 2007, post-9/11 anxiety was still high and airlines were only allowing a single carry-on item per person. I managed to stuff my HBB with all my travel documents, a small leather journal, several pens, all my medications, my camera with spare batteries and memory cards, travel-sized toiletries for the 1 & 1/2 days of travel just to get to Botswana, and a paperback book to read while flying — all neatly organized. When we were on the safari, I carried everything I needed for the day’s game drives and a bottle of water. The bag is incredibly durable, comfortable to carry and even has a slash-resistant strap. In between trips, I take use it when I’m out hiking.
  4. A synthetic base layer, aka undershirt. Even in Africa, the temperature variation from dawn to dusk can be significant, so a good base layer will help you feel comfortable in a variety of places. I bought mine at a local outdoor outfitter; a good fit is essential.
  5. A good pair of hiking shoes. Hard to buy for someone else, so you might need to do this as a gift certificate.
  6. Packing cubes/pouches. When you’re on an adventure with limited facilities, keeping your toiletries, underwear, medications and other such items organized and easy to find is invaluable.
  7. DK Travel Guides. I love poring through these detailed and beautifully illustrated guides when I’m planning a trip, or just need a little mental escape. If you’re planning your own itinerary, their information will help you whittle down your must-see list.
  8. Stocking stuffers: a) Spare camera batteries. I always carry three — one in my camera, and two fully-charged spares. At night I take out the one I’ve been using all day and charge it up. b) Spare camera memory cards.

Things we have but don’t really use:

a) Binoculars. They’re heavy to carry when you’re trying to travel light, and if I want to zoom in on something I use my camera.

b) Bug shirt. Yes, there were a lot of insects in the Amazon jungle, but they weren’t biting us. I use it more here at home on summer hikes in the humid and mosquito/tick-filled woods.

c) Money belt — we’ve never used them. They look silly and are blindingly obvious to thieves when you’re trying to retrieve your cash.

If you have a real traveler on your gift list, I hope my top picks give you some inspiration.

Cheers,

Erica

Fascinating factoids

Apologies for the late post. I’m laid up with a nasty migraine from something I bought at a new bakery yesterday — what the triggering ingredient was is yet to be determined. So in lieu of my regular post, I’m offering a link to some information recently released by “Visual Capitalist, a data-driven media site focused on making the world’s information more accessible“.

If you’ve ever wondered about our place on Earth among the staggering 8.7 million species that make up our planet, or even if you haven’t, the graphic in the article by Nautilus magazine, All the Biomass on Earth, will blow your mind. Humans comprise only a tiny portion, which will be an eye-opener to anyone who thinks we own the planet πŸ˜‰ Hope you enjoy the quick read, and see you next week, hopefully in better shape.