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

A thankful Thursday

A short post after a crazy week has left me with a few things to be thankful for.

On Monday my laptop battery stopped recharging. I spent all of Tuesday afternoon trying to resolve the issue, which turned out to be a defective charger. The solution seemed simple: buy a universal charger — which Best Buy didn’t have in stock. The unusually tiny prong on the tip that gets inserted into the laptop port was an extra complication.

I won’t go into all the tiresome details of running around to four different stores, but a big shout-out to our local Staples techies, who opened several packages to help me find a tip that fit — not perfectly, but enough to do the job. I really like my Acer SSD laptop, but seriously, what’s with the non-standard charging tip?!

Since then, I’ve been pushing hard to finish my NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words of my second book by the end of the month. Today’s chapters were a challenge. My protagonist and a companion spent some hazardous time in Ukhu Pacha, the Inca Underworld, and I wasn’t sure how they were going to get out of there alive when I started writing. They did, of course, since the book hasn’t come to a dead end, and I’m happy with that pun and with the solution.

Yesterday hubby and I took advantage — along with several of our neighbours — of what looked to be the last mild day for a while to put up the exterior holiday lights. They look beautiful, and though we’ve barely had any snowflakes in our area so far it is starting to feel Christmas-y.

Our new bread machine showed up several days early — I have sensitivities to barley and some other ingredients in store-bought bread, so I’ll soon be able to produce my own loaves of bread in only two hours. The machine makes sourdough as well — our favourite 🙂 I’ll let you know about the results!

This Saturday is Tree Day, something I look forward to every year and my hubby enjoys once we’ve gotten our fresh evergreen securely in its stand. A little help putting the lights on it, and then he can chill while I pull out the boxes of decorations we’ve collected over the years, many during our travels. They tell a story of our life together, from highlights (great moments abroad) to low-lights (the black and gold hearts that represent our beloved dogs who are no longer with us).

I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to our family and friends in the U.S., and hope that all of you have something to give thanks for today.

Carrying the torch

Maple leaves in autumn, by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada. Officially it commemorates the ending of hostilities in World War One, also called the Great War. Very few people from that time period are still alive today, and the impact of that event on the world is fading. We have to read a history of it to comprehend how terrible it was — over 8 million soldier deaths, and up to 100 million associated deaths, including the infamous ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918 that originated in an American military facility. It spread around the world quickly through troop movements and public events like the Liberty Loans Parade held in Philadelphia to promote war bonds (an outbreak from that event killed 12,000 people alone). As bad as our current pandemic is today, I don’t think we can in any way understand what the world went through during that time.

For a lot of Baby Boomers, World War Two has more presence in our consciousness. My mom was a nurse in Europe during the war, and some of her stories of holding her post in a surgical theatre while bombs were falling are hair-raising. Even though both my parents survived the war, it’s impact never left them, whether via deep emotional scars or medical fallout from food rationing and years of stress. My dad never talked about the war much; his outlet was to write novels about it, which I suspect weren’t entirely fictional, but I imagine it was easier to write as if it all happened to someone else.

And of course there have been veterans of many more conflicts, localized but just as terrible to go through. I have a friend who served as a Peacekeeper for a time; what little he’s told me about it sounds traumatic in a way that those of us back home will hopefully never experience.

The poem written by Dr. John McCrae after a friend of his was killed in the trenches in Belgium during the spring of 1915, less than a year into WWI, has become an icon of that first global battle. In Flanders Fields is deeply moving, as the dead who sacrificed everything to preserve freedom ask us to carry the torch they’ve passed through generation after generation.

Today we’re engaged in our own global battle, even if it hasn’t been given a name. We live in a world of amazing technological and medical advancements, but we’re still fighting greed, selfishness and prejudice — governments and corporations that are destroying the environment for profit, people who put their own desires over the greater need to prevent COVID from causing many more deaths, and people who treat badly anyone different from themselves.

So we carry the torch, continuing the fight against fear, ignorance and oppression a century later. We can’t let our lives be defined by fear, whether it’s of a viewpoint or way of life that’s different from ours, or of an incredible medical advancement that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccinated against the most devastating disease of the 21st century to date, or of doing the right thing, even when it’s challenging. Take up the torch, each of you, and let’s continue the fight to make the world a better place. Together, we can do it.

Lest we forget!

The rich heritage of our Indigenous citizens

In Indigenous culture, staghorn sumac has been used for a number of medicinal remedies, dyes and tobacco blends

In Canada today, September 30th, is now officially the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It was chosen to coincide with an earlier commemorative day begun in 2013, Orange Shirt Day. It’s a step towards our country’s acknowledgement and reparation for of the awful legacy of our Residential Schools.

I began learning about the Residential School system through presentations by the Indigenous counselor at the college I was working at. As time has passed, more and more information has come out, including the grim discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children who disappeared through those schools, after the kind of suffering that makes its way into horror movies.

It saddens me that so many lives were damaged by that reprehensible period in our history, but also that the rich culture of our Indigenous people has been rejected, a way of life that is close to nature and could teach us a lot about respect for the world around us. I was introduced to a little of it at the seminars.

One thing I particularly remember is a lovely daily ritual of gratitude to the Earth and its creatures. I found this document online which sounds like what I experienced, if you’re interested in finding out more (Source: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian).

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) has released a Indigenous Culinary Directory of places in Canada offering Indigenous culinary experiences. As the directory states, “We want to make it easy for the world to find and fall in love with our Indigenous culinary community.” Scrolling through the PDF, I can say that the food looks amazing, and I’m only sorry that the seven locations in Ontario aren’t anywhere close to us, but hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to try one out some time.

You can learn much more about Indigenous history and culture on the Government of Canada’s website dedicated to today’s event.

I wore an orange top on my hike today in honour of the event, and I saw a smattering of others doing the same; in future years I hope the practice will have much wider support.