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 😉 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 🙂

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 🙂

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

Victory lap

Another November has wrapped up, and I’m very pleased to once again have achieved the 50,000-word milestone with Book 2 in my urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy.

This contest felt different than last year’s. I started Book 2 armed with the knowledge that I already have one completed book under my belt, so I knew i could finish before I even began. That’s one of the benefits of experience: you already know what you’re capable of. Next it’s time to find out how much you can grow.

I’d debated whether I wanted to start working on the second book before I heard back from all the beta readers for my first book. Maybe no one would even like Book 1. By the time I’d completed three edits, I was too close to the book to do anything other than email it to my test readers to see what their feedback was.

But Book 2 had lit its candle inside my head and refused to wait. This year, I found the first few chapters challenging in a way that I hadn’t last November: after the climactic ending of Book 1, how would I segue effectively into the next part of the story? Things heat up quite a bit in Book 2 — my protagonist has come to terms with her new life touched by the supernatural, but by the end of the first book she’d found herself in quite a pickle, and now more enemies are getting involved.

She has to think fast and evolve even faster, while trying to hold on to her own humanity. I’m having a blast writing Book 2, watching how my heroine handles everything that comes her way.

Last year I took a break from writing all through December and January, but not this year. I simply can’t lay the proverbial pen down this time.

My hubby has shared with me that he’s enjoying the book, even though it’s not his usual genre, but he’s saving more detailed comments until after he’s finished the entire thing. In between prep for the holidays, I’m waiting as patiently as possible for feedback from the beta readers, and I thank them all so much for devoting some of their precious time to help me.

I hope that all my readers are making some delightful plans for a little bit merrier holiday this year, while still staying safe and healthy. The pandemic hasn’t gone away — it’s evolving as well, so we must just keep plugging away as best as we can.

Diving in to my alternate reality again

It’s that time of year again, when published and unpublished writers dedicate the entire month to getting 50,000 words’ worth of writing toward a new novel. I’m working on Book 2 in my trilogy; Book 1 is going through one more edit for style, and I hope to get it out to my team of beta readers in the next few days.

It’s an interesting sensation, putting your baby out there for someone else to read — especially to beta readers, because you hope they enjoy it but conversely want them to point out whatever they didn’t like. I am incredibly grateful to the people who’ve volunteered to do this for me.

I read through the NaNoWriMo forums from time to time, and participate in a couple of groups. With one completed novel under my belt, I think I can now offer the following recommendations if you decide to join the fray and become a novelist:

a) Have an outline of your novel with at least all the main plot points mapped out. During the NaNo writing sprint, the challenge is to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page, but if you have no idea what should be happening, I’m not sure you’ll get very far.

b) Get into the head of your protagonist. Your story is going to put her/him/them in a series of challenging situations — you should know how they’re going to react (although on occasion they may surprise you).

c) Reduce distractions. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had the story concept for years but put off writing it out, so don’t waste more time by procrastinating. The NaNo writing month isn’t meant to create the perfect book, just the book that’s been in your head, even in rough form. Making the book better happens in the editing.

d) As I went along, I started a spreadsheet on which I noted ideas for what should happen next and later on in the book. As I was moving through the story, more scenes and events began to pop into my head. It didn’t take me long to have the story completely fleshed out. I don’t know how other writers do it, but this really worked for me.

e) Figure out what you want the ending of the book to be. This helps you determine what needs to happen in the protagonist’s journey to arrive at that point. It’s like a beacon far away, reminding you which way you need to be headed.

f) Just write. Nothing else happens until you write those words.

Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers!

Lest we forget — Remembrance Day November 11th

The little writer that could

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can write a novel…but I didn’t for a couple of decades, or more. Actually, I’ve been jotting ideas for a very long time. With every approaching milestone birthday I’d set that date as a deadline for writing a book, but it never came to pass.

You see, nothing new ever happens unless you take a chance, take that first step outside your comfort zone.

I have finally finished that first book, and I did pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. I typed “The End” on August 1, and thought I’d run out to get a nice new bottle, but as fate would have it, all the stores were closed for our Civic Holiday. Drat! I hunted through the stock of wine in our rec-room bar, and finally found one old bottle that someone had given us for a gift a while ago. It was dusty, and debatably drinkable, but it was the only option, so after dinner we opened it up, hoping for the best. Luckily, it was still potable, although I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t.

What really mattered, of course, was the achievement, and even if the book never gets published, the fact that I wrote it means a great deal.

I’ve backed up the files onto two separate portable drives, and am determinedly leaving the pages to rest for a while. It’s been surprisingly difficult to step away – I have so loved telling the story of my tarnished heroine and her adventures into the supernatural – but during the down-time I am getting caught up on quite a few chores that took a back seat for the past few months, so that’s a good thing anyway.

Editing will begin in a couple of weeks, coinciding with the return of kids to school at the beginning of September. I wonder if that may be fate; as a child I always loved restarting school each autumn. I may have grumbled about homework and occasionally day-dreamed about being outside on a beautiful fall day if I was bored in class, but I loved the atmosphere of learning.

Learning to me is one of the greatest gifts in our lives. There are so many fascinating things to explore about our world! Today is World Elephant Day, for example, and I just read that elephants have about 150,000 muscles just in their trunks, which are remarkable appendages that they use to drink with, breathe with while wading in deep water, and pick up food with – anything from small twigs to large fruit and grasses. When we were in the Okavango Delta of Botswana we watched one elephant rip up great hanks of grasses with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth.

I learned a great deal from writing my novel, and for anyone who thinks they’d love to write as well but are too worried about their ability to finish to even begin – as I was – I can tell you what guided me to that final page:

  1. I had a good idea of what my heroine’s journey was going to be – in other words, a plan. I would have found it virtually impossible to start cold turkey. Maybe some writers can do it that way, but I couldn’t.
  2. I was worried whether I’d have enough of a story to tell, but as the heroine’s journey went on, a lot of events fell logically into place. After all, every action has consequences, and I was interested to see them play out. Sometimes the results surprised me as much as they did the heroine, and that was half the fun!
  3. I wrote every single day throughout November to get to the desired goal of 50,000 words. That was really important to me – it was my barometer to decide whether I was capable of producing an entire book. Every successful author’s advice has always included one particular message: perseverance is key.
  4. Embarking on this project was a big leap of faith, but I didn’t want to reach the end of my life (some day in the far distant future, I hope) without having at least tried. At the beginning I worried about all the same things as other would-be authors, I’m sure: am I worthy, can I fill up an entire book, can I come up with believable dialogue… In the end, my journey was as intense as my heroine’s, and we both discovered new things about ourselves.
  5. Every big project looks intimidating at the beginning. The road to success consists of achieving one part of the big picture at a time. Writing that first chapter wasn’t too bad, and then the second, then the third…and one day eight months later the last.
  6. Finishing the book has given me an enormous confidence boost. If I can do it once, I can do it again – for Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy (for which I’m furiously jotting down ideas even now), and for a couple of non-fiction books I also want to write.

Goals and journeys are only ever achieved by taking that first wobbly step into the unknown. I’m nervous about editing my draft, wondering how painful/frustrating it’s going to be, but I forge ahead in the knowledge that I have a dedicated group of beta readers waiting excitedly to see what I’ve created, and I can’t wait to show it to them. I hope they love it as much as I do, even if parts of it stink and need revising. Then, like the Little Engine that toiled determinedly over the crest of the hill, I’ll be able to say, “I thought I could”.