Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bread of Angels

Isn't it gorgeous? It's Gubana, and you should definitely make some.

          Since he's retired, K has taken over the bread-baking. And it has been wonderful.

          Now, I like baking and I'm good at it, but I fail at the consistent and regular production thing. There are many things going on besides bread that must be attended to, and sometimes I forget to make the bread. There are shiny pretty objects to distract me and cause me to forget to make the bread. There is the post-vacuuming collapse that causes me to postpone the bread-making until tomorrow, when I'm strong enough to face it, and then subsequently on the morrow I forget entirely to make the bread.

          But K—K is consistent. We never run out of homemade bread. He is precise. He uses a scale and grams and percentages and for all I know pipettes and petri dishes.

          In addition to the crusty delicious everyday country loaf he makes, he makes an extraordinary special holiday bread. It is the food that angels eat, in addition to that fluffy white cake stuff, and it is far, far better.

          It is loaded with butter and mascarpone cheese and hazelnuts and dried fruit soaked in Marsala. I will give you the recipe because I can see you drooling from here. You can also find the recipe where K found it, on

Chock full of yummy goodness.


(Holiday Fruit Bread)



1 3/4 cups warm (110º to 115ºF) water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons malt extract or sugar
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
6 to 7 cups King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt


2 1/2 cups dried mixed fruits (such as apricots, pears, prunes, and/or apples), diced (K uses dried apples, apricots, pears, prunes, and figs.
1/3 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts (roast hazelnuts before chopping in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes)
1/4 cup raisins
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet marsala wine
1 cup apricot or orange marmalade
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup turbinado (coarse brown) sugar


In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 3/4 cup of the warm water, stir in the malt extract, and let proof for about 10 minutes, until foamy.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the butter, sugar, eggs, and mascarpone cheese until smooth. Stir the remaining 1 cup water into the yeast mixture, then stir in the mascarpone mixture. Slowly add 5 cups of the flour and the salt, and mix with your hands to form a ball of dough, adding additional flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours.

Generously grease two 2-quart soufflé dishes or round baking dishes. You could also use 10-inch springform pans or oven-safe pottery bowls. In a bowl, combine all the filling ingredients except the marmalade; mix well.

Punch down the dough and divide it in half. On a well-floured surface, roll each piece into a 16-inch circle. Spread 1/2 cup of the marmalade over each circle, leaving 1/2-inch around the outer edge, then sprinkle on half of the fruit mixture. Roll up each piece like a jellyroll, tucking the edges in as you roll. Pinch the seam tightly closed. Turn each bread seam side down, and shape into a spiral. Place the breads in the soufflé or baking dishes, cover, and let them rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Brush the tops of the spirals with the beaten egg, and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the turbinado sugar over each one. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the tops are nicely browned and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Run a knife around the edges of each dish and carefully turn the breads out. This bread is best eaten warm; the breads can be reheated in a warm oven.

Note: The breads can be frozen. Let cool completely, then wrap tightly in foil and freeze for up to 3 months. To serve, unwrap and let thaw, then reheat in a warm oven.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Book Thing, Stave the Second

          This post takes up where Saturday's post left off: numbers six through eleven* of the Ten-Books-That-Have-Made-A-Difference-In-Your-Life-Pass-It-On thing.

          6. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This may be the most perfectly-written book ever. The three things I like most about it are how well Lee understands the enormous power of our insignificant, quotidian acts, her depiction of the many and contradictory faces of love, and her compassionate treatment of people trying to do the best they can with what they have. If this book can't teach you humanity, nothing can.

          7. Art And Fear: Observations On The Perils (And Rewards) Of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first emotion I approach any new creative project with is abject, stuttering fear. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of failure. Fear of never having another good idea ever again. Many times this book has coaxed me out of the corner where I was crouched, quivering and daunted, and told me, gently and kindly, to just make a mark. Just start somewhere. I owe my creative life to it.

          8. Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon. Another, slightly more user-friendly, take on how to maintain your creative life. Here's this book's big secret: it's not just for creative people. Anyone can profit from Kleon's advice.

          9. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. K thinks it's very funny that I am a die-hard Trollope fan (because, apparently, Victorian novelist + name that is a synonym for A Fallen Woman = giggles). You have to like Victorian novels very much to read a lot of Trollope, but when the man was on his game, he was sublime, and this is one of his best. He wrote it as a rebuke to the British financial scandals of the 1870s, saying, "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."

I was struck, when I read it during the days of the dotcom bubble, how frighteningly modern and prescient it was.

          10. Secret Knowledge, by David Hockney. Hockney makes a compelling argument that many Old Masters used optical aids (the camera obscura and the camera lucida) to help them capture and render their subjects so realistically. It didn't change the way I feel about these painters, but it changed the way I think about drawing. I just got a camera lucida (it's available from Amazon for $47). Can't wait to try it.

          11. Catcher In The Rye, by J. D. Salinger. This book is the granddaddy of Young Adult fiction as we know it today, and it's still making banned books lists 62 years after it was published. What does it contain that is so awful it should be forbidden? Naughty words. Cynicism. A sex scene that doesn't happen. Drunkenness. Tenderness. Empathy. Wit. Pain. And the promise to generations of angsty adolescent misfits that they are not alone.

          What about you? What are the books that have made a difference in your life?

*I know, I know; I'm only supposed to list ten books. Think of it as a baker's dozen, in decimal.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Book Thing, Stave the First

          I exited my pop-culture-proof cave briefly this morning to discover that there's this thing going around on the facebooks and the social network thingies that I don't actually hate immediately upon discovery. It is the Ten-Books-That-Have-Made-A-Difference-In-Your-Life-Pass-It-On thing.

          For this knowledge I am indebted to my charming neighbor, A, whose floor-to-ceiling, entire-wall, built-in bookcase I covet with a distinctly un-neighborly covetousness. She posted her great list on Facebook.*

          Now, I feel compelled to list my own Difference-Making books, five today and six Wednesday** (because I cannot resist commentary on each one, and that would make this a post that you would tire of reading before you reached book number six).

          So, Ten Books That Have Made A Difference In My Life, Plus One:
          1. Dorrie and the Blue Witch, by Patricia Coombs. This is the first book I remember reading. This is also the first time I understood that art is magic. Holden Caulfield talks about being able to call up his favorite authors on the phone. I actually did this. I interviewed Coombs for a report I did for my Illustration 2 class back in my art student days. She was a gracious woman, and it was a huge thrill to get to talk to the person who made reading and art magical to me.

Maybe The Best Book Ever.

          2. The Second World War, by Winston Churchill. A history of that awful time by one of the men who was both living history and making it. I learned much of what I know about the dark art of diplomacy from these books, and they also gave me a better understanding of, and sympathy for, the anti-communist paranoia of cold warriors.

          3. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, by Eugen Weber. A fascinating account of how improved roads, railroads, universal education, and military service changed France from an uneasy alliance of provinces into a unified country. The accounts of the difficulty and dreariness of peasant life remind me why the mechanization and centralization we sometimes spurn today were A Very Big Deal Indeed to the average citizen of the time.

          4. Beowulf. A moving reminder that, in spite of the glorious mead halls we build and the monsters we slay, we will all grow old and die, and only our stories will remain.

          5. Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Yeah, it's schlocky. But it's a ripping good story, and it taught me about the horrors of the Civil War and the injustices of Reconstruction. It made me recognize the genius of the last paragraph of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and to take it as a personal goal: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

*She met her husband while reading a book! Obviously he is a man of rare discernment.
**We've already established that counting is not one of my reliable skills.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Interminable Knitting Project: Interminable No Longer

          I have three rules about knitting.

          1. I don't knit scarves.
          2. I don't knit lace.
          3. Variegated yarn is Satan.

          And yet, four years ago, I found myself fondling a wondrously soft skein of variegated magenta/acid green lace-weight merino wool singles and thinking, "This is pretty yarn. I should make a scarf with it. I should knit it in a lace pattern."

          To review, I don't like knitted scarves. I don't like knitting lace patterns. And I hate variegated yarns, which, no matter how pretty they look in the skein, invariably look, when knitted, like Something Threw Up.

          But the yarn was so soft. And so pretty in the skein. And so very soft. I ignored my Three Rules and found a lace pattern and cast on half a million stitches. It took me four years to finish the thing. Because I hate knitting lace. And there were a LOT of stitches. All that counting. All that ripping back when it turned out that I'm inept at counting.

It is a very pretty lace pattern. Too bad I didn't chose a plain color,
which would show it off effectively.

          Every time I picked the thing up, I thought, "Why didn't I get a nice one-color yarn? You can't even see the lace pattern because the magenta is fighting so hard with the acid green. And why can't I count? Why do I have to rip back every second row? And why am I knitting a scarf? I don't like knitted scarves." It was a strategic disaster. It was discouraging. Still, I kept banging away at it. I don't like to leave projects unfinished.

          The only thing it was good for was airplane knitting. I made a lot of progress on various flights hither and thither over the years.

          And then, last week, I measured it and realized that if I knit a few more rows, it would be long enough to wear. And, since our house is currently inadequately heated and scarves are hot indoor fashion gear for K and me, I thought that a warm soft merino wool scarf, however ill-conceived and ugly in color, would be just the ticket.

The Interminable Knitting Project in An Unfortunate Colorway, finished at last.

          I am wearing it right now. It is soft and warm and lovely and I don't even care how ugly it is and how poorly the lace pattern shows up. Because it is warm and the house is cold and that is all that matters.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Meet the New Gods. Same as the Old Gods.

The good Saint Nicholas marking his street in Bruges.

          The feast day of St. Nicholas was a couple of days ago—December 6, and I meant to write this post then, but we've been kind of busy trying to keep the house from freezing, because the Saga of the Inadequate Heating System has turned into a comedy of errors* and repair delays. So, space heaters, lots of baking to keep the kitchen warm, and resetting the circuit breakers when the space heaters trip them because the entire front of the house, plus the refrigerator, are on two circuits** instead of spread out onto multiple circuits like any normal house.

Did I mention that the temperatures have been in the single digits? And that the breaker box is outside? And that I really really hate our seller?

Anyway, Saint Nicholas. Not the jolly St. Nick of popular media, but the pious bishop of Myra (in southwestern Turkey). Patron saint of Russia, children, pawnbrokers, unmarried girls, sailors, perfumiers, repentant thieves, barrel-makers, toy-makers, and, depending on the source you consult, just about everything else. Not exactly a jolly old elf, but definitely an inclusive guy. Maybe even welcoming, in that austere, bishopal way.

The thing I like best about Saint Nicholas, aside from the fact that he's the patron saint of pawn-brokers, is that once you get into the folklore about him, you run across this bizarre but not unexpected*** mash-up of Christian and pagan that one of my saintly sources, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints, by Alison Jones, claims for him. Dutch settlers in the new world, the Dictionary claims, by what flight of fancy it is unclear, linked him with the Norse god Thor. Thor, who drove a fancy-schmancy chariot pulled by goats, and meted out rewards and punishments. It is not a far leap, when you're crouching at the edge of an uncharted wilderness far away from your home and family in the bleak midwinter and the children are clamoring for a story to go to sleep to, to smosh all that together and get a jolly old elf, his miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, presents for good girls and boys, and lumps of coal for bad children and every blankety-blank member of the current Congress.

I like imagining that Saint Nicholas has access to Thor's hammer if he needs it. You know, to add a little punch to the whole lumps of coal thing.

And I plan on being a very, very good girl this year. Just in case.

*Only completely without the comedy part.
**What kind of electrician would wire a house like that? And why is he not being roasted in hell even as we speak?
***If you remember what a natural-born appropriator of other cultures' deities the Catholic church was and is.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bright Lights

How they do Christmas trees in Copenhagen. It would be even better
if it were so brightly lit you could see it from the moon.

          It was lovely outside last Tuesday. It was warmer outside, in fact, than inside (if you missed why, see here). So warm and toasty outside (as opposed to inside, where multiple sweaters and a nose muff were required) that I violated my rule against putting the Christmas lights up before Thanksgiving especially if the weather is warm and pleasant.*

          When K and I walked outside Tuesday evening to take a look at the lights, K hesitated. "They are really…bright," he said, shielding his eyes from the glow.

          You can read by our lights. From across the street.

          "I know," I said. "Aren't they pretty?"

          "They are…really bright," K said. "Should they be that bright?"

          "You can see them from the moon," I said happily.

          K nodded. "Sweetie," he said gently, "There's no one on the moon to see them. And meanwhile, you have blinded all our neighbors."

          Which is demonstrably not true. Although I do notice that they are all wearing sunglasses at night these days.

*I grew up in Wyoming. I believe it is cheating to put up outdoor Christmas lights in nice weather. How can you really appreciate the glow of the lights when your labors are finished without having suffered frostbite to install them?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dragons I Have Known

          Last year, I wrote a post about Dragons I Have Met in my Travels. Exotic Asian dragons. Sophisticated Euro dragons. I love meeting dragons abroad, and I have always felt a bit bereft that there were no dragons in the New World that I was aware of. Dragons are one of those things that, like a really excellent art museum and a great library and a major sports franchise and at least one complicated political scandal, every city of any note should possess. Nothing says "We are an important population center" quite like a dragon or two.

It pained me that my country is dragon-free. It made me feel a bit defensive about New World culture. And then the other day while K and I were in downtown Denver, we saw a whole host of dragons, of which this little guy is a fair example:

If you want to see him, he is at approximately 1418 Wazee St., Denver, latitude 39.7499,
longitude -105.0017. (Yes, I have a GPS app that I've been dying to show off.)

          I am much relieved to know that K and I moved to a city that is also home to dragons. I feel more cosmopolitan already.