Nov 18, 2009

Book Review: 200 Fast and Easy Artisan Breads: No-Knead, One Bowl

I asked for a cookbook to review, received it in the mail the next day, and then I had to review the thing! That means shopping, cooking and then writing. Hence the mysterious gap in my blog posts.

I chose 200 Fast and Easy Artisan Breads, by Judith Fertig. Remember when Mark Bittman published a no-knead bread recipe in the New York Times? It created a sensation, and since then everyone has been falling all over themselves to produce and publish recipes for such a bread, including Jim Lahey, the baker Bittman wrote about.I made his bread, but I gave it to a family who had just had a baby, and never heard how they liked it. Plus I burned my hand because I baked the bread in a Dutch oven and grabbed the handle right after I took it out. Which I totally knew I would do. Anyway, Judith Fertig doesn't have you using a Dutch oven. She has you use a hot pizza stone, onto which you slide the dough via a peel or a cookie sheet.

The basic principle of no-knead bread is that it uses more water in the dough, and needs a longer time to rise. "Fast and easy" is a bit of a misnomer here. Just because you don't have to knead this bread doesn't mean it's particularly easy, but it is fairly simple, and the best part is you can make a dough and bake it later, in two separate batches, even. You just need room in your refrigerator for a big old 16-cup bowl of dough. Get ready to clear most of one shelf.

The part that I find a little nerve-wracking is the moment when the dough goes in the oven. Because the pizza stone is preheated in the oven, you need to transfer the dough quickly. A half cup of cornmeal acts like little ball-bearings, as she says, for this very wet dough. You sort of jerk it onto the pizza stone and it skootches right over onto it. I'm sure you can imagine this confident gesture. I can, too. I just haven't actually summoned up the nerve to do it because, in my pessimism, I imagine it flopping onto the rack and sagging down to the bottom of the stove. O me of little faith! For me, this is the culinary equivalent of skydiving, but it isn't Judith Fertig's fault. Nevertheless, my timidly pushing the blob onto the stone worked fine. And the bread was great. Nice air pockets and blistered crisp crust.

I made the most basic recipe as well as the extra slow version using a "biga." I think she needs about a half cup more water in the biga and a half cup less in the rest of the dough, as I couldn't possibly mix the biga with the amount of water she gave..

She has many more versions, mainly variations on a few simple master recipes. Her recipe format is very consistent and easy to follow. Please don't skip the initial explanations in the beginning of the book. I wish there were pictures of a biga that's ready to use, as her verbal description left a lot to the imagination, and mine deflated and I had to throw out my first one. Fast and easy? Hmmm. After some trial and error. I don't mind, really. That happens when you learn something new, right? It's that objectionable title. And fast? Hmmph. Given that "slow" is a word with some cachet now in the food world, she could just as well have said "Slow, Easy Breads." I'm sure Orwell would be laughing, if he ever bothered with such important domestic topics instead of fretting about little old totalitarianism.

I'm happy to have this resource and will explore the other variations later. I don't object horribly to kneading, either, and will do that when the mood strikes me. It's always helpful to have another trick up one's sleeve, though. This offers a completely different time frame and that's what's helpful. Remember, it's slow. Not fast. Dang these tricky words.

Disclaimer: My payment for this review was the copy of the book.

Nov 2, 2009

The Life and Death of a Seattle House: 700 West Kinnear Place

A woman, a man, and a teenage girl are eating homemade vegan burgers, sitting on floor pillows. The man and the girl,who are guests, pretend to like the burgers. He forces one down, but she hides hers in a napkin, asks to be excused, and flushes it down the toilet. The girl is enraptured by the house; she had murmured "sweet," as she and the man had climbed the steps to the porch, where they could see the Space Needle, most of Seattle's downtown, and even Mt. Rainier. The woman had loved the man in a previous life, and the man is feeling sad about several things. The girl has been recently traumatized by violence and betrayal. The subtext of the scene is rich.

But it's all artifice: The three people are the actors Lili Taylor, Peter Krause, and Lauren Ambrose. And those are the first and possibly last vegan burgers to ever be served in that house, 700 West Kinnear Place. My Uncle Fred was the real homeowner, and his idea of dinner was a steak with pat of butter melted on top.

Uncle Fred had told me back in 2000 that the house had been filmed for an episode of Six Feet Under. Finally, last year I started sporadically watching the series. Because it's the best TV drama I have ever seen, I had almost forgotten about 700 West Kinnear's role. But there it was, turrets looming into Season 2, "Driving Mr. Mossback", its fading yellow paint and brown-trimmed windows a tribute to the last of Queen Anne Hill's shabby gentility, the already lavish Seattle view pumped up needlessly with a telephoto lens.

This was no passing shot of a house in order to establish a sense of place, it was the place itself. It was the house that Nate, Peter Krause's character, had lived in before his father died and he had to help with the family funeral home in Los Angeles. Lili Taylor plays an old flame, Lisa, who remains deeply in love with him. She still keeps his shirt in the closet.

My grandmother's family moved to this house in 1906 from Syracuse, months before Uncle Fred's birth in the only bedroom without a view. The family attended Plymouth Congregational Church, often walking all the way down the hill and back every week. My great grandfather was a banker, full of Protestant rectitude, back in the days when thrift and modesty were virtues. The house was big, but with four children, three of them boys, and maiden Aunt Laura and my great grandmother's mother also living there, it was full. The children walked every day to Queen Anne "grammar school" and then Queen Anne High School, and all of them attended either Oregon Agricultural College or University of Washington, or some combination thereof. Fred grew up to become a lawyer. A stint in the Army during World War II was the only time in his life he did not live at 700 W. Kinnear Place.

The house served as a refuge for my grandmother after she divorced during the Depression and was taking care of my mother, born in 1929. I have many old faded pictures of my mother as a baby in a wicker baby carriage on that airy porch, as a toddler playing with a dog, as a gawky young girl under the apple trees. I visited with my mother and grandmother when I was in high school, then on my own in the mid 1980s, with a friend in 1990, and with my husband in 1998, when we were newly married.

To me, 700 W. Kinnear held the past together, and served as proof of my family's rootedness despite two later generations of military life. The house still ran on the knob and tube electricity rigged up by Uncle Fred and his brothers in the 1920s. Fred didn't drink much or clean out his liquor cabinet often; I found a bottle of some kind of hard liquor that dated from 1918. Quilts my great grandmother made, old radios that had names of Pacific Northwest radio stations on the dial, books owned by three generations shelved companionably together in barrister bookcases; whenever I visited, I inhabited the place, breathed its memories, and made it mine.

In 1998 my husband and I made a special dinner for Fred. It was more gourmet than his buttered steak, involving fresh pasta and gorgonzola. We bought everything, including the wine, at Pike Place Market. At some point during this dinner we offered to renovate the third floor and live there. We would help Fred maintain the place--he was 93 by then and still fixing the roof himself--and John would get a tech job easily in Seattle. I told Fred how much we loved the house and what it meant to me. He wrote me a sweet letter later, saying he thought not. He lived in the house until 2001, when he sold it and moved to a retirement community. The last time I saw Uncle Fred was that year, when he flew East to attend my grandmother's 101st birthday party. At the party he said to me, "I should have agreed to get that house historically certified. Because I sure do hate what this guy is doing to it."

My grandmother died in the spring of 2002, and then Uncle Fred on July 4 of that year. He was an all-American, self-effacing, pragmatic guy, dispensing painfully firm handshakes and bear hugs into his nineties. He was a trial lawyer and a gentleman, a dying breed. When my friend Karen and I were browsing his bookshelves we found a book turned backwards with the spine inside. It was The Joy of Sex. He had been long widowed by that point.

My brother Dan and I flew out for his memorial service, but I stayed longer to get a sense of Seattle as a place that had meant home to me. I wandered up Queen Anne hill to see the house. The windows were boarded up, and a huge semi was parked in Fred's rose garden, which had been unkempt for a year. This was not a house. It was a corpse. I walked under the old apple trees, and saw that his blackberries were ripening on the vine. A clawing grief took hold of me. I pulled myself together and rang the doorbell of a neighbor, who gave me old pictures of the house that she had saved. She said the next owner was moving the house several feet so he could subdivide the part of the yard with the apple trees. She gave me tea and we commiserated together, and celebrated Fred's life.

The house is for sale again, a house made so luxurious that no one can afford it, a house made so huge that no one can fill it. After moving the house, renovating down to the studs and finishing all the raw spaces, then adding a gluttonous new porch and a kitchen no one will cook in, the owner is moving on, perhaps going broke. The attic, with its dusty books and old family things, is now a vast beige space covered in carpet. The once-utilitarian basement, with all Fred's ancient tools, is also covered in this viral beige carpet and "finished." I don't recognize the house any more, its soul surgically removed. Its austerity and restraint are gone, which is what made the view so full of grace.

No one living here will tinker with tools in the basement, fix their own roof, or mow their own lawn. No film companies will impute Bohemianism to this new place. But one thing makes me take heart. Nobody can stop blackberries from growing like weeds in Seattle.