Pas Contente

We had an exciting day yesterday. Among the incidents of note was the mud wasp nest we found in one of the bookshelves in the living room:


We’ve had a bit of a wasp issue this summer and can’t really figure out the source. We even climbed up on the roof of our building to see if there was a nest above our living room window (we live on the top floor) but there was nothing, and so we haven’t been able to do anything to rectify the problem and have just had to deal with the half dozen wasps that meander into our apartment on a daily basis. Last night we were sitting at the table eating dinner, minding our own business, when Alvaro remarked that he thought there was a wasp stuck behind one of the paintings on the wall next to us. “I’ve been hearing buzzing from around there all evening,” he said, and I agreed. He got up and listened around the paintings, then moved toward the bookshelf and declared it was coming from there. “What do we do??” He stepped away (insect phobia). Just shove the books toward the back of the shelf, I said, it’ll either get smashed or fly out. He wasn’t keen to do it, so I did it myself, and out flew a wasp. It flew straight out the window and I felt quite accomplished, until Alvaro cried “Holy shit, there’s a nest!” A nest, what are you talking about, I said, and moved the horizontal books to one side to see, and yes, there was a nest. It looked like all but two larvae had already hatched so we scraped everything off into a trash bag while screaming and hopping from one foot to the other. That was the end of dinner. Life lesson learned: we need to dust/move our books around more often.

Another exciting thing was that I had a spectacularly messy bread failure yesterday. I haven’t been doing much sourdough lately because it’s been too damn hot to bake anything, and also I’ve been a bit of a lazy baker so when I’ve felt like bread I’ve been doing Irish soda bread (which is a quick bread, no yeast). The day before yesterday I suddenly felt motivated to prep the starter for baking, and then yesterday morning made the dough. I recently saw a video of a guy shaping dough no thicker than pancake batter — really — into perfect loaves, and even though I’m really bad at shaping wet dough I decided f it, I’m going all the way this time. I mixed my wet dough, gave it a few turns throughout the morning, and then let it rise for the rest of the day. The other half of my big bread plans was to cook it in this beauty:


… one of the random cookery items that had been stocked at my parents’ place since I moved overseas ten years ago. I thought this copper baking dish would work as a stand-in for a lidded cast iron pot, which bread blogs all over the internet swear to be the closest in-home approximation to a proper bread oven. I’ve looked for a cast iron pot but they don’t seem to be a thing here, so when I unearthed the above from the cobwebs in my parents’ basement during a visit last month I decided to bring it back with me and try using it for bread.

Only yesterday I didn’t get that far, because once I’d decided that the dough had fermented enough, I turned it out onto a floured counter and it immediately spread out and just kept going, a bubbling, liquidy mass of something that in no way resembled bread dough. I’m still pretty happy with my emotional response to this: instead of yelling and swearing at it, I stared down at the dough in mild disbelief (mild, because somewhere not so deep down I knew that this would happen) and laughed, and called Alvaro in to see my mess before I scraped the whole thing back into the bowl. I added more flour, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise for a few more hours before putting it in the fridge for the night.

This morning I baked it in the copper pot, but I won’t bother with a photo because it was nothing to write home about. It’s flat, with a dull colored crust, and I just had a piece of it and am not crazy about the high level of sourness. It’s fine, edible, but my copper pot is not magic after all so I won’t be trying that again. But what’s that self-helpy thing they say? Perfect is the enemy of good enough. And I’ve decided that this bread is good enough to bring along for sharing at the outdoor concert we’re going to with some friends tonight. These guys:

I’m anticipating a fair amount of leftover bread, but it’s fine, as I’ve come to accept my role as human garbage disposal of my sketchy kitchen concoctions.

Back to bread and other fermented things

My sourdough starter turned one year old at the beginning of April. I can’t calculate the date exactly of course, so I chose the date of what I thought was more or less its birthday the way I celebrated my shelter cat’s birthday on February 2. (By celebrate I mean just saying “Happy birthday cat” and letting her gorge herself on cat treats — I wasn’t the sort of human companion who baked birthday cakes for my cat.) My sourdough starter didn’t get any special treatment, just its usual morning dose of fresh flour and water, but I did sing happy birthday to it as I gave it a stir. And now I’ve gone and embarrassed myself.

I haven’t kept tabs on the number of loaves of bread I’ve made with this starter in its first year of life, but I can guess at something in the two hundreds, and it’s also been split off and shared with a number of friends. Mas got some, as did the people who came to the Trade School classes I did. I gave some to Patti and Bron as well, twice, since they killed the first ones (like I’ve done, many times). Patti also managed to bring some over to the US, by putting a small amount in a travel sized jar in her toiletries bag. TSA was none the wiser. This was a good thing since the authorities generally don’t like cross-border transportation of microbial life. Stefan Tiron (an artist who comes to visit Plantopic regularly) ran into some issues once when traveling with his nukazuke. The customs agents were suspicious (maybe understandably so) when they unearthed from his belongings a Tupperware of fermenting rice bran and Stefan tried to explain, but it’s nukazuke! They weren’t impressed but eventually he got it through to Geneva, and I wound up getting a bit of it to start my own (which I killed).

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Clay casserole bread #3

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Thanks to stuff that went wrong with clay casserole breads #1 and #2, I’ve learned a thing or two and was feeling pretty good going into #3. It didn’t disappoint. Pat on the back in order. My bread quest will never be complete and I will never stop experimenting (and failing), but I think I’ve got a pretty decent formula and (very flexible) routine down now. This makes me feel happy and capable, and I believe this clay casserole thing was the clincher in the whole game. Bread #3 is basically my standard bread that I’ve been making for a while without the casserole, and with different hardware it comes out way, way better: soft and light on the inside with a thin, very crispy crust. I wish I’d gotten the casserole sooner, but then maybe this discovery wouldn’t be as gratifying.

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Craft and gardening and all that? It’s officially considered Work

Busily transcribing the interview I had this morning with a recently retired International Labour Organisation statistician. Her area was work that has not historically, culturally, statistically been considered “real” work, nor factored into GDPs, i.e., “invisible” economies of goods and services that the ILO as of last fall refers to as “own-use production.” Its recently adopted resolution on work statistics very openly declares own-use production to be considered work. With “own-use production,” we’re talking homesteading, housework, even, to use one of Sophia’s examples, knitting a sweater. With this resolution the International Conference of Labour Statisticians has redefined productive work in a literal sense — as not just production that leads to growth on paper, but also growth in communities, growth in families.

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One of the best loaves of bread I’ve ever baked

This may look like a bread failure:


But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.

You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.

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New bread toy

Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)

When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.

Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.

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The 400-year-old oven


Last Friday I went to a bread baking party on a rural hillside outside Bern, which began with a speech by a historic building preservationist about what I had already assumed was a pretty old oven that we would be using. He was speaking in Swiss German dialect, and I was understanding every eighth word plus getting occasional whispered translations from a woman next to me named Katrine, so I was only following about half of what he was saying. Then I thought I heard him say something like “the year 1650.” I turned to Katrine: “Did he just say the oven was built in the 1650s?” Yes, Katrine replied. This is when I understood that I would be baking bread in what was, indeed, a pretty old oven.

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An article, a story, a video and some updates

An article:

Guerilla gardening, Freecycle and swap till you drop: how to live for free. An article from The Guardian, a couple months old. It’s absolute crap, written in a cheery voice that, as one commenter put it, “has the feel of someone who thinks they’ve slummed it at some point. Look at what the proles do to survive! How quaint.” I’m all for mainstreaming sustainable living practices, but not like this. I am posting it here solely to point you toward the comments, the majority of which are all sorts of hilarious.

A story:

A Descent into the Maelstrom,” by Edgar Allen Poe. Discovered thanks to Sandrine Teixido & Aurelien Gamboni.

A video:

Some updates:

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Wayward experiments with durum flour

I decided to debut Olivier’s flour in sourdough bread made for a dinner following Sandrine Teixido and Aurelien Gamboni’s presentation on Wednesday of their research project Maelström. Olivier had warned me that the flour made for a sticky dough, and ohhh he was right. I didn’t take any photos of the mess it created, hands being covered in dough and all. It was chaos.

Things started out fine. Shaped small loaves:

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This I did because I could already tell as soon as I started working the dough after its proofing that my novice hands would never manage to shape such a big, unwieldy mass into one loaf. But as the dough rested it expanded in size with an alien speed — I feel like I turned my back for all of five minutes and it was already creeping off the sides of the pan. And by the way, I recognize that the pan was way too small, but I’ve always been one of those people who does dumb things like put too much bread dough on a too-small pan in the name of getting it all done at once; similarly I always try to carry too much stuff in my arms at once and then wind up dropping half of it along the way. “Make two trips!” my mom used to say. (Actually, she still says that.)

I threw the six loaves back into the mixing bowl and started reforming them into a bunch of little rolls, but instead of dividing them onto two pans, I put them all back onto the same pan. I’m not sure what law of geometry I was trying to break there, but I didn’t succeed. I put the pan in the oven, and five minutes later my friend Hannah squatted down to check its progress and shrieked. “Kate!! Is it supposed to do that??” No, no it wasn’t. The rolls had nearly doubled in size upon meeting the heat of the oven, but with no crust formed the ones along the edges had started to drip off the sides and onto the oven rack and floor. I swore profusely as I struggled to yank the tray from the oven. Then I was standing there with a burning hot metal pan in my hands and six people packed around me in the tiny kitchen, but somehow I managed to scoop the dough back into the bowl without burning anyone. I wasn’t really sure what to do next, so I did what one does in situations like these: open a beer.

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My first jam

My friends, I have reached a milestone. I have made jam, and canned it.

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We’ve just started getting semi local strawberries here — they’re from farther south in France, so it entailed a little bit of transportation to get them to us in the Rhône-Alps region, but they are very definitely real strawberries that smell and taste as such, not watery and flavorless like the ones you get when “strawberry season” hits the big chain grocery stores in late February. I will never understand why people buy strawberries so far out of season. There is no pleasure in a winter strawberry.

If I had to pick one food to survive off of for the rest of my life, putting aside questions of whether or not that food contains all the essential nutrients, I would pick strawberries, no debate on that. And because I will not buy out of season strawberries, I am only able to enjoy my favorite food ever for one short window of time throughout the course of the year, and so of course I take full advantage of their presence, i.e., I gorge myself on them — straight up raw, mixed with yogurt, paired with scones and whipped cream, whatever. We bought two kilos at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and they were all gone by Sunday night. (I had help. Some.)

I also picked up some rhubarb at the market, but an off quantity of it, not really enough to make crumble, which is the only dish I know to do with rhubarb. The only other thing I know that involves rhubarb is strawberry-rhubarb jam, which my grandmother used to make and which I ate directly out of the jar with a spoon when I visited her place as a kid. She was a child during the Great Depression, and my mother has a theory that Grandma’s food preserving and hoarding of everything from plastic bags to bulk dry goods is a direct psychological response to that experience of deprivation. At my grandparents’ old house, the one my mother grew up in, they had four refrigerators, one large industrial freezer, and an entire basement room lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with canned everything. My cousins and I used to go in there and play a game called Who Can Find the Oldest Preserves. If I remember right, the winner was Apricot Jam, July 1972.

So my grandmother was a thrifty woman, but the canning thing didn’t get passed on through my mother to me. Mom has never canned anything to my knowledge, and in general seems kind of wary of the practice — botulism and whatnot. Because of this I’ve always had a fascination with people who can, imagining them to have some sort of wizard-like capacities to be able to toe the line of bacterial food poisoning without falling on the wrong side. I also assumed a laboratory full of fancy equipment was needed, and that plus the botulism thing had scared me off trying it, until now.

Alvaro’s mom came for a visit last month, and one day putzing around the apartment she decided to sterilize a half dozen of the old glass jars she found at the back of one of the cupboards and put up a batch of tomato sauce. I met up with her and Alvaro that evening for a St. Patrick’s Day beer and when we got home I discovered her afternoon project cooling on the counter top. Needless to say I was astounded. I’m always kind of astounded by her. If you merged the homesteading powers of Alvaro’s mom and my mom, it would create an unstoppable Force of Mom that would no doubt rock the very foundations upon which our culture stands. I asked her how she had managed to do all of that canning without anything in the way of fancy equipment, and she clucked at my naivety and explained putting up produce in a way that suggested it was really not all that magical.

Since her visit I’ve had nothing in the kitchen crying out to be canned, until a couple of days ago when the strawberries plus rhubarb put me in a nostalgic state for my grandmother’s jam. I decided to just go for it. That’s what you need to do sometimes. I sat down and read everything about canning in my Joy of Cooking, and read up on boiling water canning on Food in Jars. This was also supplemented by what Marisa (Alvaro’s mom) told me, namely that per her instructions I reused old jars that had once held corn and peanut butter (not together). JoC says to always use new lids, but Marisa didn’t see this as being particularly vital, and since no one in her family has come down with canned tomato sauce-induced food poisoning I decided to take her word for it. Besides, food preservation using this method has been going on for generations, and I would hazard a guess that not everyone had access to brand new canning lids and so they would just reuse the old ones. (I’m not a professional so don’t take my word on this.)

Thus I began. First with two cups of chopped rhubarb and two cups of sugar, mixed together and left in the fridge overnight.

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The next day, with the rhubarb good and soaked in the sugar, I brought it all to boil in a wide pan and then added a quart of washed, hulled, and halved strawberries.

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I stirred it constantly while it simmered for fifteen minutes, until it had thickened up and the mass of foamy, liquid bubbles had subsided into a mass of tiny, gooey ones. Then I transferred it to a glass Tupperware, loosely covered, and put it in the fridge overnight again to plump up.

This morning I took it out and began heating it back up to a boil:

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In the meantime, I washed several old glass jars in scalding hot, soapy water, rinsed them, and set them in a soup pot filled with rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes. I used a metal spaghetti strainer to lower them into the water, and once the sterilization time was up I pulled out the jars one by one, filled them with the hot jam, leaving about a quarter inch of space at the top, and screwed on the lids. Then, full, they went back into another boiling water bath. I took them out after ten minutes, and as they cooled off a vacuum was created that sucked all the air from the jars and sealed the lids.

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And there you have it, three jars of my strawberry-rhubarb bounty preserved for future toast. I can’t quite believe that this actually worked, but it seems to have done just that — the lids are on tight and don’t pop up when you press in the center so they are apparently good to get stored away in the pantry. It was a fair amount of work for three jars, but it was a fun sort of work that carried with it no small amount of joy in learning something new. I feel rather accomplished. And while the jam jars were boiling I mixed up a leaven (prepared last night) with flour, water, and salt, and right now it’s hanging out in the kitchen for its bulk rise before baking later today. Tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be the best in history.

(Note: If you’ve never done this and are interested in trying it, please do your research before leaping in full throttle. What I’ve shown here was the general process, not a detailed recipe, and there’s a lot of important information, precautions and terminology to get down first if you don’t know what you’re doing. Food in Jars is a great reference, as is the canning chapter in the Joy of Cooking.)