Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Rye
Aug 172017

One of the best souvenirs I brought back from the United Kingdom was a rye sourdough starter.  I got it from Andrew Whitley in Scotland who back in 1960 obtained a sample when he was studying production of rye bread in the former Soviet Union.  The factory he took it from was enormous: more than a million loaves of baked sourdough rye emerged every day.  In 1960 America we were changing food to fit into our machinery.  American doughs were doped with extensibility agents so they could withstand the spinning arms of huge kneading machines.  In contrast, Russian factories — just as vast as America’s — were comprised of hundreds of small bakeries.  Women in babushkas made rye breads in small ovens and placed them by the thousands on conveyor belts.  The Soviets distributed more than were needed.  Thousands of uneaten breads returned to the factory where they were soaked and boiled and returned to the production line.  Soaked rye breads were joined by fresh rye flour and rye sourdough to produce new loaves.

Making rye bread is difficult because rye does not have much gluten.  That means its dough is terribly slippery and very sticky.  It does not rise much, but I learned some rye techniques in Scotland and have been practicing for months.  The rectangular loaf in front is 95% rye flour with just a few oats and a little molasses added.  It baked in a covered square-sided pan for well over an hour to begin removing some of the moisture.  After coming out of the oven a nearly 100 percent rye must sit uneaten for at least a day while additional moisture is released from its interior.  The result is a tangy, almost zesty, rye bread that can be sliced more thinly than the piece of cheese you put on top.  Moreover, the bread stays fresh for more than a week.

The round loaf with the concentric imprint of the boule where it sat just before baking (it is behind the rye) was made with a white flour starter, rather than the rye starter.  It was supplemented with half a dozen mashed, baby potatoes and enough wholemeal rye flour to give the loaf some meatiness.

These baguettes (there were four) also began with the Russian rye starter.  I added a cup of buttermilk and then adjusted the ratio of white flour to rye until it was approximately a 50:50 mix.  The rye gave it color and taste, the white flour enough gluten for a beautiful rise, and the buttermilk mellowed the crumb to the softness of a ripe peach.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)

 African American Literature, America, Book Reviews, FICTION, FOUR STARS ****, History  Comments Off on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)
Aug 172017

Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa.  Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat.  Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot.  Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality.  For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans.  Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical.  The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable.  Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods.  Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root.  Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, FICTION, FOUR STARS ****, History, Prize Winner  Comments Off on News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)
Jul 282017

The year is 1870.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas.  The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters.  Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives.  Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic.  Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat.  The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity.  Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days.  Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal.  Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting.  Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be.  They are complicated.  You like some and dislike others.  It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance **** (of 4)

 America, Audio Book, Book Reviews, FOUR STARS ****, Memoir/Biography, NON FICTION  Comments Off on Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance **** (of 4)
Jul 172017

The simple description is on the cover.  J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.)  Vance escaped.  He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be.  Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures.  He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight.  The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty.  There is no simple solution, he argues.

Semolina Ring

 Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Semolina Ring
Jul 172017

After taking a couple of weeks off from baking to travel back from England it has taken me a while to regain my bread touch.  (I am happy to report all my starters, including my newly acquired Russian Rye, ca. 1960, arrived home healthy and vigorous.)  This was one of my first successes:  A Semolina Ring.  The semolina flour gave it an Italian bread taste and the sesame seeds, once they toasted in the oven, permeated the loaf with flavor.

Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, FICTION, History, Humor, Mystery  Comments Off on Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)
Jul 172017

The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD.  In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected.  The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky.  The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books.  The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful.  The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans.  Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.

The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)

 Book Reviews, Environment/Nature/Ag, NON FICTION, Science  Comments Off on The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)
Jul 172017

Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives.  In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species.  He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow.  When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix.  In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed.  Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist.  There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief.  Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for  pages when he could just get to the punchline.

Dark Money by Jane Mayer *** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, History, NON FICTION  Comments Off on Dark Money by Jane Mayer *** (of 4)
Jun 062017

Jane Mayer has followed the money trail from a small, quiet group of far right wing billionaires to recipients aligned with their political ambitions.  Led most famously by the libertarian Koch brothers, this cabal has donated hundreds of millions over the last two decades to academics, think tanks, media outlets, and politicians.  Their goal has been eliminating regulations, preserving tax loopholes for the wealthy, gerrymandering political districts to negate votes of liberals, discarding government health and education programs for low-income Americans, and forestalling any action on climate change.  With the exception of Obama’s terms in office, nearly every one of their objectives has been achieved.  The Supreme Court, Congress, Governerships, State Houses, and Presidency are all dominated by the political rightwing.  Because Republicans at every level of government toe the line drawn by the Kochs and similar donors, Mayer suggests that realistically the United States has become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy magnates rather than by democratic process.  While she can be criticized for overlooking similar tactics undertaken by liberals or missed opportunities when the left could have used similar techniques, the overall case stands.  Huge sums of money strategically disbursed by extreme conservatives has radically altered America’s government and its policies.


 Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Focaccia
May 162017

Sourdough crust.  Feta.  Freshly picked rosemary.  Meaty green olives.  Olive oil from a farm in Greece that was handed to us by a friend.  The olive oil was velvety, mild, and filled with overlapping flavors of spring and vanilla.

10 LB. Penalty by Dick Francis ** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Europe, FICTION, Mystery, Sports  Comments Off on 10 LB. Penalty by Dick Francis ** (of 4)
May 162017

A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father.  His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election.  Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning.  Then tries again.  And again.  Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly.  Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend.  In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by.  Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England.  Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility.  Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.