Good Bread

One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread.  I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores.  Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.

Obviously, the pandemic changed that.

I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me.  Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.

Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project.  Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.

I started with French baguettes following this recipe.  While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation.  I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before.  I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven.  Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter.  I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.

Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here).  With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out.  It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years.  The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.

The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors.  Bread feels like it should be baked for people.

There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill!  Collective trauma!  Optimize your life!  It’s okay to not be productive!  We can figure this out!  We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span!  Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me.  It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows.

It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities.  Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well.  One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry.  The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up.  It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now).  Trying to find ways to fill the time.  It could be better.  It could be worse.

I miss people.  It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit.  I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline.  I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over.  I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you!  And also with you.  And also with you.  And also with you.  The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.

Perfecting recipes feels like faith.  Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.

At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.

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The ciabatta loaves.

Raspberries and Chocolate

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One of my great pleasures in life is good food.  I’m a decent cook and I like baking, but I also really enjoy going out to eat.  There are simply some recipes too fiddly (even if I know the technique) and ingredients/equipment too expensive to buy for home.  Unless I’m entertaining or have a special occasion, I’d rather pay for the occasional dessert out than buy a spice I’ll only use once in a while, an ingredient that will mostly go to waste after I use the small quantity required in the recipe, or spend hours on a single creation.  Not being able to dash over to the fancy grocery store down the street and grab a mille-feuille or fresh fruit tart from the bakery every now and again is one of the smallest, extremely first-world problem things I miss right now.

I do, however, make a very low-fuss but excellent chocolate mousse involving a basic simple syrup, high quality melted chocolate, and whipping cream.  It’s something I tend to keep the ingredients for on hand as it’s a quick, delicious dessert to whip up either when we’re in the mood or I have surprise company (in the time before social distancing).

Taking stock of the freezer the other day, I realized I had some chocolate cupcakes and raspberry coulis I’d made and frozen last month.  This represented some possibilities.  I chopped up the cupcakes, made the mousse, and thawed the raspberry coulis, layering them to make a parfait or trifle sort of dessert.

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It’s not going to win The Great British Baking Show for presentation, but it’s as good as anything I’d have bought in The Time Before.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or submit your own, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

A Slow Burn

One of my more visceral memories from childhood comes from when I had chickenpox.  Age-wise, I’m among the oldest Millenials and I got it before the vaccine was widely given.  Mostly, what I remember is the incredible itching.  I had gotten a full-blown case, spots everywhere with fever, but no major complications.  “Don’t scratch,” my dad told me.

“But it ITCHES!” I wailed.

“You don’t want to get infections and scars, especially on your face.”

“I DON’T CARE IF I GET SCARS!”

“You will when you’re 16.”

As I grew up, though, I read more about diseases like polio (author Peg Kehret’s Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio is a well-written, YA-level account) and mumps and measles.  I shivered at the horrific accounts of the Spanish Flu and did high school reports on the Black Plague.  I was glad that I never had to experience them, and even as my belief that medical science could conquer almost anything faded quickly, I felt fairly secure.  I rejoiced when the girls got their chickenpox vaccines, that they wouldn’t have to know even a week’s itchy misery, let alone the more serious complications.

~*~

After E got home from the NICU, we were under quarantine for a year.  I was allowed to take her to medical appointments and occasional shopping expeditions (where I kept her covered in her car seat and sanitized virtually everything we touched).  Arthur went to work and did everything he could to stay away from illness, as did I.  I had an elaborate routine post-shift of changing at work, washing any exposed skin from my shift, my scrubs sealed in bags and washed separately with the washer bleached afterwards.  E and I didn’t go to church, and after his second job ended in the early fall (before cold/flu season), Arthur didn’t either.  We didn’t go to gatherings (with the exception of my brother’s memorial service, where the worry E would catch something added to the general awfulness of the situation).  I used to take E for walks in the fresh air when it was nice, social-distancing ourselves by at least 3 feet from other people before the term entered the lexicon.  We had hand sanitizer stationed all around the house and my hands were often dry and cracked from washing.

All this to say, these precautions aren’t totally new to me.  The fear isn’t new.  The isolation isn’t new.

It’s a deep breath and the slow burn of anxiety as we wait in ways I never thought we’d have to do again.

~*~

In my house, we are all low-risk as possible for the serious complications and doing everything we can to be responsible citizens to prevent the virus spreading/complying with social distancing.  I know the virus can be severe in younger people as well and we are not by any means taking that potential lightly.  Strangely, I’m less anxious about working in health care than I would have thought – but, then, I’ve known since long before going to nursing school that communicable diseases were a risk I had to assume if I chose this field.  Obviously will be following all guidance closely and extremely careful complying with all personal protective equipment/isolation requirements (as always).

I am definitely worried about my parents, friends, my last surviving grandparent, all the elderly/immunocompromised and what happens next.  Reading about Italy’s current situation is almost overwhelming in its awfulness and the decisions that I suspect we will shortly face in many other places.

I know that experts have long modeled and predicted pandemic scenarios, but in day-to-day life, it’s felt easy to rest secure.  There are so many things to worry about just in a normal course of existence.  This one really didn’t make the cut in my head.

Yet here we are.  I gave blood on Monday – one tangible thing I could do as someone who’s eligible, currently healthy, and has a blood type in high demand.  Now we take the precautions recommended by the experts, comply with public health recommendations, check in with people by internet/phone, and wait.

Waiting, as I think we all have experienced in various ways, is far tougher than most people give it credit.

One Step at a Time

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When we decided to repaint the finished section of our basement, we knew we had to do something about the steps.  The entire basement was painted a blue-grey that just felt dark in a space with no windows, but the steps were an even darker shade of grey with an unpleasant texture. We tossed around the idea of replacing the treads entirely, but realized fairly quickly that this was going to run us more money, time, and trouble than we wanted to spend.  That left us with sanding and painting.

Steps Before

About halfway through the project.  The original paint felt really dark.

It took us a couple of weeks to get the steps patched with wood filler and sanded.  Then we realized we didn’t want to lose access to the basement for 24-72 hours at a time for painting, so we wound up painting every other step during one round, then doing the second batch (that way, if we were careful, we could get step over the painted steps and still reach the bottom).  It took three coats of paint on most steps and four on a couple to cover the dark grey.  We ran out of paint with one coat on six steps left to go and had to buy another quart.

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Finished with the paint!

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Treads on.

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Sea-glass green risers to match three of the basement walls.

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From the basement, the sea-glass green walls and cream wall visible.

It’s nice to have that project finished.  Next comes saving up and eventually replacing the carpet with vinyl plank flooring, but that will probably not happen until fall.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want more or to join in yourself, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Depends On How You Define The Term

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For years, I’ve told people that I am supremely un-athletic.  When I say I’m uncoordinated, I’m not being modest or downplaying.  I just really don’t have a great sense for where my body exists in space (or which side is my left vs my right).  Once, during a softball game, I managed to hit the ball so that it bounced into fair territory but had so much backspin that it flew back up, hit me in the face, and tagged me out all at the same time.  It’s a talent, but not the kind that gets you endorsements and ad deals, more the kind that gets you 15 minutes of infamy as a meme or gif.

I also never had a standard gait.  As a child, I literally skipped just about everywhere and when I did walk, teachers and other students would remark on how odd it looked.  While today I would most likely have gotten physical and occupational therapy for the gait itself and the sensory issues that underlay it, back in the 80s when I was a kid, that wasn’t so much a “thing”.  I never particularly enjoyed being active, hated gym classes deeply, and when getting bitten by a dog plus developing bursitis in both hips put an end to my short-lived running habit in high school, I stopped doing much physical activity for quite a while.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and started as an aide in a physical therapy clinic that I started getting back into fitness.  Funny thing I discovered when I started working there: people who do PT for a living tend to like athletics and activity.  My coworkers gently helped me retrain my gait so that it’s far more normal (bonus, when my gait got better, I got rid of the bursitis) and, because there happened to be a fitness center attached to the clinic where we all got free memberships, encouraged me to consult the personal trainers there and develop a program – and continued to encourage me when I did that.  The positive feedback worked and I managed to get into the habit of activity that has continued to this day.

I’m still not coordinated, I still don’t have any athletic talent, I still trip over my own feet, I have a chronic back issue that flares up on and off, and my grand plan for winning any kind of race is to get into my 90s and win my age category by dint of being one of the only ones in that age bracket doing the race.  But I get out there, jog lightly, walk, and strength train around 2.5-3 hours a week, and find that it increases both my mental and physical well-being.  I’ve often said that I’m bookish and nerdy (true), but I suppose at this point, I can’t honestly say I’m un-athletic any more.

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

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It’s weird how time passes – the minutes or hours often seem long, but then suddenly, I’m in the middle of a new week or a new month.  What I’ve been doing with those minutes and hours is a mishmash:

  • Finished painting the basement. I have cream paint down the stairwell and along one long wall, then a sea-glass green to the other three walls (Benjamin Moore Windswept and Robin’s Nest if you’re curious).  It feels much lighter and airier than the blue-gray color that was there before and while I was a little worried – as always – that I wouldn’t like the colors, I love them.  I had wondered if my “anti-accent” wall would be too much (and thus should paint the whole basement in the sea-glass) or if the three colored walls would feel oppressive (and thus should paint everything cream) but the balance turned out nicely.
  • Now we’re on to the basement steps, which involves sanding the rough lumber that’s there. I’m pretty sure these were originally carpet-covered, but for some reason the carpet was removed and a dark blue paint slapped down. Not great looking and, because I have some sensory issues, I hated the texture on my feet.  The trick now is to sand enough to make them feel decent underfoot but not so much that the paint doesn’t stick.  We bought stair paint in the same cream and sea-glass green as the rest of the basement.  The steps themselves will get the cream, while the risers will be sea-glass.  Then we’ll throw some thin microfiber treads on the main part of the steps.  Hopefully it will look good (at least better) once it’s done.
  • I read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply and Sarah DeGregorio’s Early: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What it Teaches Us About Being Human. Both made me tear up for different reasons, both were excellent, and I’m hoping to delve into these with a more in-depth review here soon! (Content note – Levy’s memoir involves a stillbirth and DeGregorio’s also delves into neonatal loss.)
  • Started the paperwork to register E for kindergarten. This is awesome and honestly, pretty emotional.  Kindergarten was the thing I used to hang onto in the hospital and the NICU and as we went to specialist appointments and PT/OT/ST sessions, as in “someday, she’s going to be in kindergarten, we are going to make it…somehow”.  I’d picture her getting ready for her first day, beyond the terror that a simple cold would kill her, beyond the bradycardia episodes, and the monitors.  I really cannot believe we’re now so close.
  • Managed to finish a project for work on condensing some “good points” from continuing education course I did for the rest of my unit. It’s not a huge thing, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
  • Confessed to my choir director some long-term and (to me) embarrassing deficiencies in my music reading abilities. He was totally non-judgmental and basically told me that if we don’t admit what we don’t know, we never learn.  I’ve been meeting with him to remedy those and I’m excited because I’m actually learning how to do some of these things now!
  • Because we bit the bullet and went for the Dis.ney+ subscription service, Arthur and I decided to start watching the Marvel/Avengers movies as it feels like a lot of people talk about these. Have now seen “Captain America”.

What are you up to these days?

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or participate yourself, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Good Gracious, It’s 2020

After a decidedly mixed-bag Christmas (a post for another day), I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten the lift in spirits I sometimes get in January.  Some of that probably has to do with the daylight getting slightly longer, but this time, the somewhat arbitrary “life reboot” of New Year’s Day fits well with my needing to move into a new phase of life.

  • In the last month or so, I’ve stepped up my gym routine. I started with classes back in July, but also had a foot out the door mentally because of the FET in October.  However, I’ve realized how much fertility treatments, bed rest + various activity restrictions, and c-sections/surgeries have destroyed my core and abdominal muscles.  I’ve spent the last several years with an old back injury flaring up regularly because of my lack of core.  In August, I noticed after doing class for about a month, I was having a bit less pain.  Since the FET fail, I’ve worked on adjustments to my workouts to continue that progress.  While I still don’t have the rock-solid abs and core I’d love to possess, I’m definitely noticing that my back is better yet.  Hopefully that progress will continue!
  • Arthur and I made plans to turn our spare room into a craft/quiet/art/music room for the kids. Crib will become a desk and changing table a set of shelves to store art supplies.  It’s nice to figure out a way to re-purpose these items in a way that fits our lives now instead of having them sitting in the room, a silent ache every time I walked past.  E graduated from physical therapy (hopefully for the final time).  Plan is to step up preschool to three days per week once the school has an opening to prepare E for kindergarten in the fall.  Both girls are taking low-stress/strictly for fun gymnastics lessons for the next couple months.
  • I finally spackled the place on the kitchen ceiling that had an ugly water spot. I resealed the upstairs tub over a year ago, suspecting this was the problem, and since I did, no more dampness to that area.  Definitely time to repaint and make it look nice!  I also broke down and sprang for good re-chargeable batteries to use in the flame-less candles in the living room.  Put them on a timer so that they come on around 4 pm daily and it’s rather amazing how much that simple change makes me smile every time they light.
  • For Arthur’s Christmas present, I got him a short-term subscription to a box that sends ingredients + recipes from some of the top bartenders working currently for custom cocktails. It makes a good “stay in” sort of date night, allows us to try some different things without committing to large/expensive bottles of ingredients that might only get used once, and is just good fun.  We made “Pommes Bandes” last night (pineapple juice, lime juice, allspice cider syrup, Angostura bitters, and rum on the rocks with a garnish of candied ginger).  Definitely not something I would have made for myself normally (or picked off a menu at a bar/restaurant) but absolutely delicious.
  • Journeys and quests (hmmm) have been the theme of the last couple of books I picked up. Finished William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land, a re-telling of “The Odyssey” set in Depression-era Minnesota and absolutely loved it.  I also read the four books of “The Raven Cycle” by Maggie Stiefvater (credit to Jess) and enjoyed those as well.  As a little bit of a departure, I was able to pick up Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the 19th Century Home by Lucinda Hawksley from the library (another Jess pick) – totally fascinating.  As someone whose favorite color happens to be rich emerald to forest greens, I am pretty sure that if I’d lived in the centuries where arsenic dyes were in widespread use (apparently not just in wallpaper, but in clothing/textile dyes as well), well…I don’t know that I’d have much expectation for longevity.

 

  • Pommes BandesPommes Bandes and a good book – perfect way to spend an evening!

Happy New Year, all!

Wide Open Spaces

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When Arthur called an end to our efforts on trying to conceive, I found myself in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis.  I’m not sure why this surprised me – I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to get pregnant and then stay pregnant in ways that were invasive, emotional, time-consuming, and expensive.  One of the things that happened along the way between infertility and NICU was that other parts of life fell by the wayside.  It’s hard to make plans or get involved in other activities when you’re at the whims of the RE’s office or in quarantine.

Time to begin the small steps of moving forward.

~*~

To that end, I decided to rip off the band-aid last week and start the process of cleaning out all the pregnancy/baby items cluttering the basement.  I don’t want to start the new year with that particular task looming large.

I started with the hardest part: the maternity clothes.  I fought so hard to get to the point where I could wear them in my fourth pregnancy – after three pregnancies without much outward sign.  I tossed them into totes and tubs and took them up to the consignment store where I watched as the employees evaluated and sorted.  “Donate whatever you don’t take,” I told them.  I walked out with the empty containers and some cash.  I made it to the car before bursting into tears.

~*~

I recently was invited to participate in an advanced adult choir.  For years, I’ve listened to recordings of British composer and choir master John Rutter directing the Cambridge Singers in both his own compositions and other choral classics.  It has long been a dream of mine to get to sing some of the music on those albums, which are full of tricky a cappella pieces as well as what I’ve termed the “floating sopranos” – the top part and descants just lightly flow over the top of the other voices, impossibly soft, controlled, and high.  This is my chance to do just that.

It’s a reminder that there are other dreams to follow and so much beyond the narrow confines of trying to conceive.

Choral music

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or participate, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Baking

Flour.  Salt.  Yeast.  Water.

I found myself pulling out the big stoneware bowl today.  Measuring, stirring, watching as all of it blends into crumbs and then into something more cohesive.  Turning the dough onto the counter, sprinkling it with dusting more of flour, starting to work it, pressing my fingers deep into the sticky lump.

Knead.  Fold.  Turn.  Repeat.

It’s a sort of miracle how the dough stretches and becomes elastic, fragrant with the yeast and the rosemary I added for flavor.  Kneading is a soothing rhythm, something I’ve done since childhood when I first learned the secrets of baking.

I suspect there’s a reason so many cultural and religious traditions center around food.

My father-in-law called yesterday to let us know that Arthur’s grandmother passed away.  We saw her at the beginning of October.  Even at 101, she was steady, sharp, and engaged.  It was a gorgeous day, we all went for a walk around the swan pond, she gave the kids ice cream, candy, and cookies, and we had a lovely visit.  The day before, I’d had my start-cycle appointment.  The day was bright with literal sunshine and a lot of hope.

One of the things I’ve grown to detest about the early stages of grief is the howling numbness, the void where something once belonged.  The holes, as it gets further away, don’t disappear, but there’s something around them, substance that grows into something steadier.

I can’t do anything particularly practical other than basic adulting right now, because it’s not mine to do, it’s already done, I’m physically exhausted, or I just don’t want to today.  We wait for word on the funeral arrangements.  I think about the pile of baby stuff in the basement.

So, I’m baking bread.  Because it’s what I can do.

I anoint the dough with oil.  Throw it back in the bowl, cover it, put it in a warm spot.

Rest.

Rise.

Rising to the Occasion

I sat down after the cycle failure last night and took inventory of all the myriad emotions swirling through my head.  There was one discordant note that stuck with me: that this ending had come with no final input from the RE that really has been excellent through so much of this process.  It seemed so out of character.  I was so jarred by it that two o’clock in the morning found me awake, staring at the ceiling, aching and angry.

Most of the overall situation is fairly inevitable and unfixable – I cannot change the outcome of the cycle, I cannot change the past seven years, and I cannot change the fact that big decisions lie ahead.  Infertility yanked the illusion of control out of my hands when it comes to reproduction and really, most of life.

But I could hunt down this one small loose end and try to tie it up.  I could express my feelings – bewilderment, sadness, shock that this final phone call with the nurse was the end of the relationship with the clinic and doctor who had really seen me through so much.  I called, spoke to the office manager, and (surprisingly calmly) used my words.

I’m very glad I did.  My RE called me back this evening and we had the discussion that I wanted to have, needed to have at the end of this part of the story.  I’m grateful to him for being open and honest about the various reasons things went down the way they did yesterday and getting the chance to close things on a truly good note.  It was the compassion I deeply needed to hear.

I would be lying if I said I don’t tend towards cynicism far too often in life.  I’m not great at faith or hope or trust in anything from medicine to science to churches to myself to other people to G-d Themselves.  Every now and again, though, I’m surprised and I get a small glimpse of something good.

This is one time where, I’m happy to say, my hope was rewarded and my RE rose to the occasion wonderfully.

I don’t really believe in “closure”.  Like so many other griefs, resolving infertility will be an ongoing process.  Even when we’ve finalized the last of the decisions, I suspect there will be pangs that pierce me at the most strange and random moments for many years to come.  Infertility will no longer be one of the major, ongoing parts of my life, but it will always be a part of my story.

That being said, on this one part, I was able to have a moment of genuine resolution.

Right now, for me, that is a victory.