Friday, May 23, 2008

Yes, You Really Can Bake Bread

I learned about the relatively new baking book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, from one of my favorite blogs, Angry Chicken. The title of the book isn't misleading: Once you mix up a big batch of dough, baking a loaf of wonderful bread takes literally less than five minutes of hands-on time.

Here's the concept: You make enough dough for about three or four round loaves of bread. The dough is wetter than dough I've made in the past, and it doesn't require kneading -- just combining a few ingredients (water, salt, flour, yeast, plus some extras based on the recipe). Making the dough takes me less than 10 minutes using a stand mixer. It would likely take a bit longer by hand, but not inordinately so. This makes a lot of dough. I store mine, covered with plastic wrap, in a big yellow Pyrex bowl that my mom received as a wedding gift in 1955.

Then, after the dough has chilled a bit, you just pull off a hunk, spend about 15 seconds forming it into a ball, slash the top, and let it rise for 20 or 40 minutes, depending on the bread. Then bake it. The hunk of dough can stay in the fridge for two weeks, and my experience is that it just gets better tasting the longer it sits. The recipes say that the batch will make four loaves, but I find three is more accurate for my baking.

Since I got the book a month or so ago (using an Amazon gift certificate, so no money was spent), I've made a white batch and a wheat batch of bread. Both were fantastic. I made one loaf of the white dough into an olive loaf using a half-empty jar of black olives that were shoved in the back of the fridge. The wheat bran bread was especially good -- great toasted and spread with PB. The loaves aren't completely like one you would get in a little French bistro, but they're better than any other homemade bread I've made, and they resemble and largely taste like the $4 loaves at a local sandwich shop.

The book has been a bestseller, so most libraries will stock it. Once you read the intro and understand the technique, the basic recipe is easy to memorize. Unless you're looking to make lots of variations, like sweet rolls, you wouldn't need to buy the book after spending a little time with a library copy. I'm not sorry to own it, and some day will try some of the more involved recipes, but for now am happy to be able to make bread cheaply and quickly that tastes fantastic. If you're interested in learning more, the authors keep up a nice website at

Following my first week back to work -- and it was a doozy, with computer problems, major work projects, and a nasty bout of food poisoning -- we're off to see my family in Michigan for my niece's high school graduation. Where does the time go? Seems she was just a toddler. Have a fantastic, long holiday weekend!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Breaking the Price = Quality Assumption

I've continued to be intrigued by a short article I read a month ago in Newsweek; the article told of two studies involving wine tastings. The first, conducted by writer Robin Goldstein, involved blind tastings of more than 500 wines by 500 tasters ranging from novices to wine experts. The wines ranged in price from $1.50 to $150. Wines were encased in brown paper bags so that the tasters didn't see labels; they simply rated the wines on merit, not perception. The result? Cheap wines often outperformed their $50 counterparts.

A similar study in January had tasters rating wines in which they were given both true and false prices for the wines (in other words, a $50 wine was told to be $5). The result? Testers almost always preferred what they thought to be a higher-priced wine.

Purely in the name of research, I recently revisited "Two-Buck Chuck," or Charles Shaw wine available only at Trader Joe's. This wine has gotten a lot of buzz since it was introduced several years ago, and I often see people buying cases of the bargain vino. This product began as a $1.99 bottle on the West coast, but here in Indiana, it's $2.99, so technically "Three-Buck Chuck." I'd tried, I believe, a Merlot years ago and thought it was horrid. Armed with the knowledge that I might have dismissed the wine simply based on its price, I recently tried a Shiraz. And, you know, I liked it.

I then remember reading an anecdote in a magazine, although I have no idea where I read it. Likely, it was one of the pieces of wisdom I gleaned from Glamour magazine back in high school. But here's the story: A woman with a flagging jewelry business found that no one was buying her pieces. So she asked her assistant to reduce the prices by 50 percent. The assistant instead accidentally doubled the price. The result? The pieces sold out. Consumers felt that the higher-priced items were more valuable.

I found myself doing this same thing last week when out with a friend, who also has a newborn. We stopped at Baby Gap, and I was contemplating a clearance-priced cotton sweater for Sylvia. I scraped back the "$6.99" clearance sticker to see the item's original price. If it was $29, I'd feel like I was really getting a bargain, and feel more compelled to snatch it up. If it was $19, I'd feel less so. The original price, however, didn't change anything about the sweater: cotton, striped, cardigan-style. Either it was worth $6.99 to me or it wasn't. The original value placed on it by executives at The Gap shouldn't affect that value.

In watching our budget, this is one area I find where I need to be extra diligent: Purchasing items based on their value to me, not assuming that higher prices mean better quality or more desirability.
The first wine study, by the way, resulted in a book called The Wine Trials: 100 wines under $15 that beat $50 to $150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings. The book, which published earlier this month, might be worth reading, but Amazon is currently sold out. I suppose everyone's looking to be more diligent about disassociating price from perception!

The Agony of Defeat: Book Diet Over

A rather embarrassingly short time ago I mentioned that I'd been on a Book Diet: No more purchasing new books until I worked through some of my backlog. Oh, the life of an addict. Today, I'm sad to say, I broke the diet, so the ticker at the side of the screen has been reset to zero. But hear me out.

Max attends a magnet Montessori school here in town, and like most public (and private) schools, they have year-round fundraisers to subsidize their budget. A few weeks ago I packed up a couple big bags of books to donate to the annual book sale. The sale was yesterday and today, and I stopped in to look. Just to look. But with 25-cent books, I had no chance of making it out of their book-free.

In the end, I splurged and spent 75 cents: Cokie Roberts' Founding Mothers for me, a book about Mount Everest for Max, and a Max and Ruby book for Tommy. My book was a hardcover, lovingly inscribed for Mothers Day 2004 "with all our love and admiration." I felt the book needed to be rescued. Really. A Mother's Day gift discarded to the community room at an elementary school?

Meanwhile, on the way guiltily back from Max's school, I spotted a huge yard sale and scored two all-wood classic-style kids' chairs for Sylvia. Ever since I saw the magnificent but out-of-my-budget table and chairs sets at Lilipad Studio, I've been dreaming of finding a second-hand set and painting them myself. I'm especially drawn to this butterfly set:

Now I just need to acquire a wooden table and some painting talent.

It's my last day of maternity leave (are the tears smearing the type as you read this?), so I'm going to get off the computer and enjoy my last day dedicated to Sylvia. She's sleeping quietly, but I'm thinking I might need to wake her up and make her entertain me for a while.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quick Craft: Microwaveable Heating Pads

If you're likely to receive a gift from me in the coming year, you might want to stop reading now. This is going to be my new go-to gift, and I'd hate to ruin any surprise.

Last week I caught a few minutes of Martha, just in time for Ms. Stewart to show us all a "good thing" of making homemade heating pads. The video clip and instructions are here. The heating pads are basically just long pillows filled with, in Martha's case, dried cherry pits (available through an orchard) or buckwheat hulls. You can then microwave the pillows and wrap them around whatever body part is ailing you.

The craft is incredibly easy, taking about 15 minutes start to finish, and the dimensions of the piece of fabric you cut to make the pad are just a couple inches shorter and skinnier than a fat quarter (a fat quarter being 18 inches by 22 inches). I still had a short stack of fat quarters from the Anna Maria Horner Chocolate Lollipop sampler I'd bought and made pillows from, so thought I'd try this, but I wasn't keen on ordering and paying for shipping on dried cherry pits or buckwheat hulls. Then I remembered reading or hearing somewhere that you can make little microwaveable heating pads filled with rice. I had a jar of sushi rice that had been in my pantry for, I don't know, a year waiting for me to be inspired to learn to make maki. Hadn't happened yet, and likely wouldn't. So I made a heating pad with the fabric, the sushi rice, and because I didn't have quite enough sushi rice, some additional jasmine rice from a 20-pound bag in the pantry.

The day before I made the heating pad had been Field Day at Max's school, and I'd hauled Sylvia around in her car seat for the morning -- swinging the seat to get her to sleep, carrying her up and down the stairs to an unused room in the basement to nurse her four times, and walking from field to classroom to cafeteria to accompany Max's class. My back was pooped. The heating pad was a good buddy right after I made it; it produces a moist heat that lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, and it's more malleable than a traditional heating pad. Very nice when, say, watching an episode of The War and knitting a long-abandoned scarf. Max also loved the pad, lolling all over it, apparently nursing his kindergarten aches and pains.

Reading comments on the Martha site, I found I could also use feed corn to fill the pads. One commenter even mentioned that buckwheat groats and seeds could be used, but hulls shouldn't be microwaved; I'm guessing they might be flammable. I didn't test this myself, but having set some popcorn-on-the-cob on fire in our microwave, I'm erring on the side of caution and staying away from the hulls.

After a quick and inexpensive trip to our bulk-stocking local health-food store, I made two more heating pads, one with corn and one with buckwheat groats, using some fabric extras I had around. (Yes, the image is on its side; my apologies.)

Here's how this quick craft stacks up financially:
  • My original fabric was about $3, but I've had it long enough that I could probably consider it stash, in which case it would be free. Fat quarters are generally about $1 at basic craft stores, more at specialty fabric stores.
  • The best price I could find on rice is 25 pounds for $15.00 at Costco, or 60 cents per pound. The pad needed about 2 pounds, so rice filling is about $1.20.
  • The dried corn was 80 cents per pound, although it was organic and you could probably find cheaper non-organic if you were so inclined; my health-food store only carries organic. The pad needed about 2-1/2 pounds, so organic corn filling is about $2.00.
  • The groats were $1.25 per pound. Again, these were organic so might be cheaper if you could find a non-organic source. The pad needed about 2 pounds, so buckwheat groat filling is about $2.50. (Martha's source also had groats, but they were $6.99 for 2 pounds, plus shipping.)

I found that the heating pads made with rice or groats need to be microwaved about 3 minutes, and the pad filled with corn needed to be microwaved about 4 minutes.

At around $3 each, I'm thinking that with a cute tag, these little stress relievers are going to be making appearances in the next year as teacher gifts, co-worker gifts, holiday gifts, just-because gifts...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Due to some kind of Mother's Day miracle, it's 8:15 and all three kids are in bed. Phil and I are going to watch a movie, and I might actually make it to the end before konking out.

My brother and his wife and their three kids drove here yesterday and stayed in town overnight. Like us, they have two boys, followed somewhat unexpectedly by a girl. This was their first time meeting Sylvia, and I hadn't seen their kids since the Christmas holiday, so it was wonderful to get together, compare newish-baby notes, and watch four boys play themselves silly.

Phil gave me the coolest present. Along with some dark chocolate, which I adore, he framed three photos of each of the kids. Each are from the same photo "session," so there are three of Max posing on his bike:

Three of Tommy diving into his chocolate Easter bunny:

And three of Sylvia hanging out in her bouncy chair:

I'm not sure how I'm going to match that in a month, come Father's Day.

I hope you all of you moms had as wonderful a day. Hats off to all the moms, especially mine, who is as good as they come. Thank you for everything, Mom!

(Meanwhile, I just discovered Retro Housewife, where the header photo came from, and am loving it. Too fun. Check it out.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

It's All About Meme

My college roommate Julia, over at the superfun Hooked on Houses, tagged me last week for a meme: Six Interesting Things About Me. It was fun reading Julia's responses on the meme. Even after living with Julia for three years, pulling untold all-nighters for English papers due the next day, and analyzing for hundreds of hours whether the objects of our affection were into us, there were plenty of things I found I didn't know about her.

I'm tagging my Mom, Eleanore; my mother-in law, Leneta, and my friends Kim, Amy, Kitty, and Cynthia. (Don't feel obliged to do this, though, when you get the e-mail, taggees.)

Six Interesting (or Not So) Things About Me
1. This is the most recent CD I purchased:

I bought it last week, and I feel I've already gotten my $9.99's worth many times over. I make no apologies, except to my kids, who have had to since endure my tuneless renditions of such classics as "Daybreak" and "Mandy." Rock on.

2. I feel very strongly about making environmentally sustainable, healthy food choices, yet find myself like a moth to a flame when confronted with Peeps or Brown Sugar Cinnamon PopTarts.
3. I'm very intimidated in the kitchen and when making crafts, and often have to think through the most simple recipe or pattern for days before attempting it.

4. I'm a Lansbury, and related to Angela -- although I won't be hurt should she shut me out of her will. I love Ms. Lansbury's decades of work; my favorites being Mrs. Lovett from the 1982 stage version of Sweeney Todd, and saucy maid Nancy Oliver from 1944's Gaslight:

While I think Angela Lansbury seems to be both a very nice person and one heck of a crime fighter, I'm most proud of being related to Angela's grandfather, George Lansbury, who served on Parliament in England for 20 years in the first half of the twentieth century, and led the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935.
George Lansbury was a socialist who lived among the working class and truly labored to improve conditions. He paid for his down-on-his-luck brother and his brother's family (wife and two toddler daughters) to travel from England to Canada and set up a new life just after the turn of the century. One of the toddler daughters was my maternal grandmother, Edith Lansbury Wilson, the only grandparent I had growing up. She taught me to knit when I was six years old.
5. I won the fifth grade spelling bee at my school, but went down in the city competition on the word "jeans." That's right. Jeans.

6. I said for months that I didn't care whether Sylvia was a boy or a girl, and that it would be so much fun to have another boy, but the truth is, I was secretly rooting for a girl. Thanks for obliging me, Sylvie.