We agreed not to give each other Christmas presents this year. On top of being broke and feeling very Grinchesque (perhaps as a result of being broke), Evan has been doing major renovations on the house. As an added benefit to having the house perpetually ripped apart, we have been getting rid of more crap than any small crowd of dedicated pack rats should own at any given time. So, the last thing we need is more crap. Evan and I spend a lot of time together, good time, time during which we actually pay attention to each other, and we decided that we'd simply do more of the same for Christmas. Time together and no money spent on new crap. How can that be bad?
We also decided to make the Christmas gifts we we're giving to Evan's extended family. He made beautiful bird houses and feeders, and I made bread and cookies. Since we were seeing his family on Christmas Eve, I made some of the cookies two days before, and the day before Christmas Eve was set aside for making the bread. French bread seemed the safest choice in this sea of picky eaters and hardcore critics. It's a beautiful bread, as breads go, and it suits most tastes. Easy.
After a nice, relaxing Christmas Eve morning together, Evan ventured outside and I started looking for a bread recipe I liked. He strolled in and out of the house, and did whatever he was doing. I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by the computer, cookbooks and notes, as I looked at recipes.
Not quite a week before, I participated in the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event. For my part in it, I baked 24 cookies from each of 24 recipes. I did this, if you can imagine, without a mixer. In the past, I had used Evan's mother's mixer for things like creaming butter and making cake batters, but I worried that the mixing time involved in 24 recipes might be too much for the old dear. Houdini's mixer was top of the line when she bought it in the 1960s or so, but now the motor has trouble with too much activity, and wants to blow up when faced with a heavy a batter. Of late, this includes anything with flour in it.
Also, it's one of those mixers with the shallow mixing bowl, so the batter tends to fly out during mixing, hitting the ceiling, the cat, me, and making it all so much less fun than it seems like it ought to be. When this happens, the cat glares at me as if convinced that I am deliberately flinging shit at him and, being a cat and all, his idea of pay back is to pee on the clean laundry. I make cookies, he pees; it's a vicious cycle that has subsided only because the mixer became a piece of kitchen art.
Another reason I'm reluctant to use the mixer is that one of the mixing blades doesn’t fit properly into its hole, so it jams into the other blade occasionally, subsequently, and repeatedly, requiring Evan to rebend it into shape once he has unwedged it--no small feat--from its clinging partner. Aside from that, it has been a joy to use. (Actually, it has been an honor to have and use it. Houdini loved to bake and I've loved having her mixer, even if only to cream butter and sugar, and offend the cat from time to time.)
With all of this behind and before me, I had decided to mix my 24 batters by hand, and skip risking blowing the motor on Houdini's mixer. I thought I had been a good sport about it all. I was under the impression that, even after blisters had formed on my mixing hand, I had kept the whining to a minimum, both during the 24 event and afterward.
Apparently I was wrong.
It’s possible that I moaned ever so slightly at the mention of more baking and the attendant mixing, even though it was I who, so cheery and perky and Grinchy, suggested it, and I might have whimpered quietly, though, undoubtedly, repeatedly, while flipping through my recipes. It’s so hard to be sure.
It's likely that the anticipation of hearing me rant about freshly washed and peed upon laundry combined with the memory of watching me scape chocolate cookie dough from the ceiling was more than Evan could face. On Christmas Eve day, he lured me into our bedroom, smiling, and presented me with a box big enough to house a small child, wrapped in Christmas paper (the box, not a small child). I couldn't imagine what he had done. Although I had felt comfortable with our agreement to thumb our noses at the puckered, disapproving face of social dictates and expectations, I suddenly felt sad that I didn't have a present to give him.
Our edict and my expression notwithstanding, he was beaming, "Open it! I know we promised no gifts, but this doesn't count."
I stuttered and protested until finally succumbing (and, honestly, who wouldn't?...huge box, pretty sure there isn't actually a kid in there, Evan's smile even bigger than the box...). In that box was a beautiful, brand new, silver Kitchen Aid Pro 500 Stand Mixer!
When I was a very little girl, I got new shoes at the beginning of the school year. Since it was my only pair of shoes for the year, unless my feet grew enough for my little toes to separate the top of the shoe from its sole, I got to pick them out with only minimal adult interference. I always chose shiny, patent leather Mary Janes, and if I could get them with bows, I was in prissy-girl heaven. I would wear those shoes out of the store and home, walking all through the house, here and there, to and fro, for no reason at all except to hear the clicking of my pretty new shoes on the floor. I would revel in the tingly, new shoes feeling all the rest of the day, and then, at bedtime, I would take those new shoes to bed with me. I'd put them in the bed right next to me, on my pillow, so I could touch them and smell their new shoes smell until I feel asleep.
I had the same feeling when I saw my mixer. It was just like getting those Mary Janes, those pretty, new, shiny shoes. It was like getting the ones with the bows.
I stood there soaking it all in for what felt like hours. I looked at my beautiful new mixer, I touched it, and cleaned it, and I tried its different attachments on it, and then I broke in my new mixer by making French bread.
By the way, the bread was a tremendous hit. The mixer, however, was the true hit of the holiday. When I saw Evan's ex-sister-in-law and current sister-in-law on Christmas Eve night, they huddled around me, excitedly asking for every detail of the day and of the presentation of the mixer--Where were you when he gave it to you? What did he say? What did you say? Were you surprised? Do you love it? Isn't he wonderful?--as if that big box had held a four carat diamond engagement ring.
Frankly, I don't know that he could have made me feel one bit more loved had he given me an engagement ring, or that I could have been more thrilled...wait...four carats...?
(adapted from allrecipes.com)
Makes 2 large loaves
5 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ½ packages active dry yeast
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups warm water (110 degrees F)
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 egg white
Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F)
1. Proof your yeast by putting the yeast to 2 cups of warm water, salt and sugar. Wait about 8 to 10 minutes. If yeast mixture foams, your yeast is alive; if it doesn’t foam, discard it and begin again with fresh ingredients.
2. To the foamy yeast mixture, add 2 cups flour, and beat until well blended using a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. Gradually add the remaining flour; blend thoroughly.
3. On a lightly floured surface, knead in enough flour to make a stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. Knead for about 8 to 10 minutes. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning once to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled.
4. Once it has risen, punch the dough down, and divide in half. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Cover, and let it rest for 10 minutes.
5. Roll each half into a large rectangle. Roll up, starting from a long side. Tuck the ends under just before you make the last turn on the roll. Moisten the edge with water and seal.
6. Oil a large baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place the loaves, seam side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Make 4 or 5 diagonal cuts about ¼ inch deep along the length of the loaf. (Lay the knife almost down on the bread and use a quick, fluid motion to make the slice.) Brush each loaf with the egg white for a shiny crust. Cover with a damp cloth and allow the loaves to rise until they’re nearly doubled, or for about 35 to 40 minutes.
7. Bake for 20 minutes. Brush each loaf again with the egg white. Bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until bread tests done. If necessary, cover loosely with foil to prevent over-browning.
8. Remove from baking sheet, and cool on a wire rack.
The bread is beautiful (the pictures don't do it justice) and delicious. You could add a bit more sugar or maybe a bit of honey--I'm trying the honey next time--but it's really wonderful just like this. I modified the original recipe, adding the tablespoon of sugar, which I think was a good change.
I was in such a rush in the end that I didn't take photographs of the loaves of bread before they were handed out. I wrapped each one plastic and then in a cotton (not terry cloth, but soft cotton) Christmas tea towel, and tied each end with ribbon. They looked beautiful and the recipient had a pretty kitchen towel to keep.