Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why Love Matters

I would put this book, written by Sue Gerhardt, in the overkill category. The point she wants to make is this: pay attention to your baby when she cries.

It is full of interesting information from developmental psychology and neurology, so you know at the biochemical level why it's important to "regulate their emotions" by being at their beck and call for the first 6 months of life. If parents don't do this there are "attachment" issues, which could lead to behavioral and other psychological problems. And there's also the cortisol thing. When you get stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released. It's produced by the adrenal glands, and it gives you energy to make it through the crisis. It also basically tells all of your other body systems, like the immune system, to put things on hold until the crisis is over. Short crises are handled well. Long crises are not handled well by the body. An adult can get sick, for instance, because of an impaired immune system. An infant can have her brain development affected by high levels of cortisol.

But...I found this article in Slate that calls all this into question. Which makes me think, yeah it's good to read some books like this,  but it's got to be taken with some hefty granules of salt. If they cite one recent study that "suggests" blah, blah, blah, there's no need to freak out and think you're a horrible parent. This is what I'm telling myself, anyway. I still have no idea what being a parent is like.

Today is D minus 3, by the way...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Leaven Life: Bakers' Yeast

Whenever you have aficionados you have snobbery. It’s inevitable. Artisan bread baking aficionados are snobby about their leavening. They think natural leavening (sourdough) is the shit. Bakers yeast is not.

Bakers yeast is what most people bake with. It’s the stuff you find in the baking aisle at the grocery store. Most people use the dried kind, which either comes in packets or small jars. The yeast looks like tiny-tiny tan twigs. You can also sometimes find little cakes of yeast in the refrigerated section. They usually come in one ounce cubes.

This yeast is domesticated. Domestication is what we do to genetically modify our food, and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Take dogs. We can breed dogs to look a certain way. If we're looking at a group of, say, Cockerspaniels, we might decide that we like the ones with longer hair. And if we want the next litter of puppies to have longer hair, we pick a long haired male and longhaired female to breed. It’s more likely that the litter from this couple will have longer hair than the litter from two shorter haired spaniels. Inheritance. Genes. DNA.

We’ve been intentionally doing this with plants for more than ten thousand years. Wheat was just a prairie grass that looked nothing like today’s domesticated grain. We've coaxed bitter, meager wild fruit into the buxom market variety we eat today. By picking and planting the individuals we like, nature has obliged and given us protein rich grains, sweet fruits, and starchy vegetables.

Bakers domesticated yeast by selecting for a strain that eats quickly and farts a lot. (Brewers have done the same thing to get lots of alcohol out of their yeast.) When you catch yeast out of the air and first start using it in your sourdough recipes, you have to wait a long time for it to inflate your bread.

Typically when you make bread, you mix your dough, knead it, and let it sit for a while before you form the loaf. While it sits, it inflates to about twice its original size. With your recently captured wild yeast, this will take maybe 4 to 6 hours, or longer. With bakers yeast, and a warm temperature, it'll take as little as 30 minutes. Obviously this makes things a lot easier, since bakers' yeast speeds up the process and has a fairly consistent rate.

So why use natural leavening? For one thing, you get a more interesting pattern of bubbles in the dough. And by "interesting", artisan bakers mean non-uniform bubbles. They really like big bubbles. Cut a good sourdough loaf in half and you should get a few huge holes, some medium sized ones, as well as the more uniform smaller holes. Bakers yeast will give you pretty much just uniform smaller holes.

Another thing is the taste. Sour dough is a bit sour, though it shouldn't be overwhelmingly so. Sometimes it's described as tangy and maybe a bit "nuttier" than breads made with bakers' yeast. But as a sourdough starter matures, it becomes less tangy and tart. It shouldn't really be all that sour, but the taste is distinct.

Sourdough also gives a thicker, crispier crust to breads. If you're into that.

I end up using bakers' yeast much more often than natural leavening, just because I don't always have 6 to 10 hours to baby-sit a slowly bloating lump of dough. But when I have the time, it's worth it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pound's Personae

When it comes to his poetry, Ezra Pound is pretty tough going. Although I do like his shorter, Eastern inspired stuff. Here's one from a collection called Personae:


                Fu I

Fu I loved the high cloud and the hill,
Alas, he died of alcohol.

               Li Po

And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Great First Lines

Recently, I was looking at a copy of Celine's Journey to the End of Night, and it had an afterward written by William T. Vollmann.

Vollmann's been on my radar for a while, although I haven't been able to finish any of his books yet. I'm currently chipping away at his 2009 behemoth, Imperial.

Anyways, back to his afterward. It's got a great opening line. It goes like this:

--Reader, fuck you!

I laughed for about 3 minutes after reading that.

And, since I'm writing about first lines, I'll mention another book I've got lying around my apartment, tempting me to just read it already. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson starts off like so:

--IN THE BEGINNING, sometimes I left messages in the street.

Crispy Mister

When we visit my wife's family in Worthington, OH, I usually end up eating breakfast at La Chatelaine, a French bakery and cafe. They serve something called a Croque Monsieur, which is basically an open hot ham and cheese sandwich, with Bechamel sauce. 

The apocryphal origin of this sandwich goes like this. In the early 20th century, some Parisian workers accidentally left their lunch pails near a hot radiator, and they found their ham/cheese/butter sandwiches all crisped and delectable. Cafes started serving them with the name Croque Monsieur, or Crispy Mister.

A few weekends ago, I decided to make one of these suckers. The recipe called for a Swiss cheese, like Gruyere, to make a white cheese sauce. Which means you're basically making the Bechamel (a milk based sauce which uses flour as the thickening agent) and stirring in the grated Swiss cheese. So you toast some French bread, put a slice of ham on top, and pour the cheese sauce over it. Then broil. And, fearing this wouldn't be rich enough, I decided to add some extra cholesterol on top in the form of an over-medium fried egg.

It was deliciously messy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sub-sub-custodian: Automation

I've been ruined by automated faucets in the bathrooms where I work. Now, every time I use one of those antiquated handle doohickeys in another public restroom, I end up leaving the water running for a good 15 seconds before I realize it's not gonna shut off by itself.

And I've been known to stand with my hands underneath a paper towel dispenser, waiting for it to dispense already, before I realize I have to crank the damn thing.

I'm not even gonna get into the automatic toilet flushers. When they install the automatic ass wipers here at work, I'm in big trouble