Archive for October, 2010

posted by Amy on Oct 14

I’ve been making all my own bread for several years now. My staple bread is whole wheat sourdough sandwich bread. It is easy. It is very forgiving about rising times. It is inexpensive. It is delicious.

I got the idea of using sourdough starter in sandwich bread from reading the label on some store-bought bread. One of the ingredients was “cultured” or “fermented” wheat flour (or something like that.) Then I read a recipe for whole wheat bread that said to put in some vinegar, and included a comment that whole wheat bread seems to taste better with a little tang to it.

I’m not very scientific about measurements and times, so I won’t try to say exactly how I make my bread, but I will share a few things I’ve learned.

  • “Sourdough” isn’t actually sour unless you let it ferment for a long time. It’s just a yeast culture that you keep alive by renewing its food, water and oxygen supply periodically.
  • Recipes say to feed (refresh by adding more water and flour) your starter once a week. It can actually wait about a month, maybe longer. It will get a dark liquid on the top. That’s just alcohol, and not needed for bread making. Drain it off.
  • Some recipes say to leave the starter in an open container in your refrigerator. In light of the molds and other organisms that live in refrigerators, I disagree. For many years I have kept my starter in a small glass jar with a tight fitting plastic lid. I leave a few inches of headroom, so it will have air. It doesn’t need much.
  • Joy of Cooking says you can freeze sour dough starter. No you can’t, or at least not if you want to keep it alive. The ice crystals cut up the cell walls of the yeast beasties, which kills them. If you have the technology to flash-freeze, like they do on deep-sea fishing boats, go for it. Otherwise, just feed it often enough to keep it alive, even if you aren’t baking with it all that often. Alternatively, you could try drying some starter to preserve it. Spread it out thinly on sheets of plastic wrap, let it dry well, then seal it up in something airtight. This could be insurance against someone mistakenly thinking that weird-looking stuff in your fridge is spoiled and needs to be thrown out.
  • Joy of Cooking says you can’t make good bread with only whole wheat flour. This is also incorrect.* You have to knead it enough, and give it a long enough time to rise, but you can definitely make fantastic bread with no white flour in it.
  • Given that “sourdough starter” is just yeast, you can make “regular” bread with it. If you use milk, sweetener, and butter or shortening, you’ll get a nice sandwich-bread texture, not too chewy or dry. with good keeping qualities.
  • Dough made with sourdough is stickier than dough made with fresh yeast. Just keep on lightly flouring it as you knead and/or keep washing your hands to get the sticky stuff off.
  • Most recipes say to add active dry yeast to sourdough recipes. If you are in a hurry, then do that. Otherwise, you don’t have to.
  • Sourdough rises/ferments at room temperature (or colder). Start by making a sponge in a glass or ceramic bowl with equal parts flour and warm water (approximately) and the sourdough starter that you’ve been keeping in the refrigerator. Beat it well. Use about one cup water for every loaf you want to make, plus a half cup for the starter culture. Let it ferment for around 4 hours. If that’s not convenient, or if you want a more sour taste in the final product, you can let it go longer. It’s ready when you see a lot of bubbles, and when it’s noticeably lighter when you stir it than it was at first. At that point, it’s all starter. Take out about a half cup for next time, and put that in the refrigerator.
  • Then make your dough with the rest of the “sponge.” Use warm milk, honey, Kosher salt, and shortening or butter. (Use your favorite recipe to gauge how much of these ingredients you want to use.) Stir in enough flour to make a stiff dough, knead until smooth and elastic (about 15 minutes by hand), and put into a large greased bowl. Cover with a towel. At this point you can give it a warmer environment for rising (such as the oven, with a pan of hot water in the bottom).
  • I let the dough rise twice before shaping loaves. The first rising takes 90 minutes or longer. The second rising is faster, and the dough rises more than it did the first time. (It won’t be as impressive as dough made with fresh yeast, but sourdough puffs up in the oven. It has its own rising behavior.) Punch it down, cut it into pieces, and knead each piece in a circular motion, like winding a clock, to get the big bubbles out. Form the pieces into smooth balls, and let them rest for 20 minutes.
  • After the rest period, lift each dough ball with two hands and gently push your hands together to elongate it into a loaf shape. Set the loaves into greased bread pans and let rise. This will take another 90 minutes or so.
  • Preheat the oven to 425. Put in the loaves and reduce the oven temperature to 350. Bake until done. (190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.)
  • If you can’t hang around the house for all the time it takes to go through these steps, you can just do one rising before forming the loaves, and then cover and refrigerate them until you have time to bake them. You should finish the baking within 24 to 36 hours. I have tried waiting longer than that, and it develops an unpleasant sourness, not the nice, yeasty sourness of good bread. Take them out of the fridge about 2 hours before you want to bake them. You can also freeze the dough. (This doesn’t kill the yeast. I don’t know why.) Flatten the balls and seal up in plastic bags. Thaw in the refrigerator, form loaves, let rise, and bake.

*Joy of Cooking is one of the best all-around cookbooks ever, but not for bread.

posted by Amy on Oct 7

In Denial; A Memoir of Terror, Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor, Guggenheim Fellow, and expert on terrorists and terrorism, tells the story of her own childhood trauma. When she was fifteen and her sister was fourteen they were raped at gunpoint in their former stepmother’s house. The police did not believe the girls when they said they did not know the perpetrator, and dropped the case four months later when Stern’s father told police that she and her sister seemed to have forgotten all about it.

The rape case was reopened after more than thirty years, and Stern researched the crime, the perpetrator, and the effects of the crime. In the process she found out how much she has in common with other people with post-traumatic stress disorder, including war veterans.

Without self-pity or rancor, and with a dogged commitment to learning and telling the truth, Stern digs through layer upon layer of denial, and of suspected or confirmed trauma in the lives of people connected with the book. Her research assistant has such a story. Predictably, so does her deceased assailant. So do many others, including the author herself.

Although the rape and its aftermath were defining events in her life, she learns more about what led up to that afternoon when she and her sister were left alone in an unlocked house, and she insightfully explores how all her childhood traumas shaped her. She finally asks her father questions that had previously been taboo in their family: about her mother, who died when she was three years old, about his decision to finish out the business trip he was on when the rapes occurred instead of coming right home, and about his own experiences as a young Jewish man in Nazi Germany. She talks to people who knew her rapist, including a woman who was also raped. She learns that at least forty-two children and teenagers between the ages of 9 and 19 may have been raped by the same man. She says, “This is the alchemy of denial: terror, rage and pain are replaced with free-floating shame.” (145)

Stern has distinguished herself as an expert in chemical and biological weapons and in terrorism. She studied violent men, and fearlessly traveled to meet them and interview them. In poetic, rich language Stern doesn’t just tell us what she finds out about the reopened rape case, but also tells how the work affects her: she gets lost when she tries to go to nearby locations to interview people, she can’t bring herself to read the case file that the police detective gives her, she suddenly immerses herself in household tasks when she is supposed to be going out to collect more clues.

Stern is unusually strong, brave, competent, intelligent and accomplished, but she is also, at times, vacant, bumbling, and vague. She dissociates. She’s faking it.  On her way to an interview with someone who can help her piece together the story, she says, “A cage floats down from the heavens, encasing my body in glass. Chet does not see the cage. He thinks I am with him in the car, but in fact I am alone in a parallel world. I look and sound relatively normal, but really I’m only half here, half alive.” (95)

posted by Amy on Oct 1

Since I am no longer attending a Baptist seminary in Pennsylvania (but have transferred to a United Methodist seminary in Boston) I needed a new tagline. In my previous entry I said, “Fearful people are like the trapeze artist who won’t let go of one trapeze and jump out to grab the next one. They stay on one trapeze, refusing to let go, thinking it’s safer that way. Maybe it is, or maybe they’re just refusing to do their part in the show.”

Every one of us has a part to play in the show. What we do, think, say, and pray about affects everyone else. Many Christians today see salvation as a matter of personal piety and individual redemption. The idea that salvation is more like family history than individual biography seems peculiar to us. But thinking salvation is a one-at-a-time thing, “Jesus Christ as my personal Savior,” is a modern, Western distortion of the gospel. Jesus came to redeem nations and tribes–collectively.The first century personality did not, could not, conceive of itself apart from family and society.

Since every human being belongs to the family of God, I have a responsibility to my brothers and sisters as well as to God, to be an active part of our family history. Each person is one unique, irreplaceable, precious expression of God. If I am cruel, insensitive, demeaning, hateful, or dismissive–of anyone, myself included–I am doing that to everyone. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and went on to say that the second commandment is like the first, to love my neighbor as I love myself. That’s really three commandments, all held together with love–love God, love my neighbor, love myself. My relationship with God and with my fellow human beings is important. I have a purpose. I have a part to play in the show.

Love everyone. Love everything. Love, and thank God for, the bad times as well as the good, the dark night of the soul as well as the shining moments of that mysterious peace that passes all understanding. This understanding of salvation as collective also means that evangelism is a lot more than getting people to say a specific prayer or make a one-time decision. It is to be changed fundamentally, to see Christ in everyone else, and to love others as Jesus loved. The best way to convince people that I am telling the truth about Jesus is for them to see how I have been changed.

The broad arc of salvation history has a part for me to play–on behalf of my biological family, the friends who have become a chosen family, and even the people who don’t know me. And that is true for you as well. Choose light.

What do you love? What motivates you? Fear or faith? Are you stubbornly clinging to the trapeze you’ve been hanging onto for dear life since who knows when? What would happen if you let go of it and reached for the next one, or for the hands of your partner waiting to catch you? Just throw your heart over the bars and your body will follow.

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