Monday, October 28, 2013

Fall back to the hearth

Here in northern Michigan, those infamous gales of November are already howling. We enjoyed an extended summer, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70s just a couple of weeks ago, but now the skies are gray, the days are short and the frost is on the pumpkin every morning.

I have a cousin who lived in Hawaii for three years. When she returned to North Carolina, I asked if she was despondent to leave paradise. She said she was thrilled to be home, and not only because of family. Hawaii was beautiful, but perfect weather every day grew tiresome, and she missed the seasons.

I understand that now. So much in life is cyclical, circular, or spiral. Little is linear, save our progression from the womb to the grave, and even that is part of a larger cycle. Our bodies have their own circadian and seasonal rhythms, and the nature inside of us is drawn to the nature around us.

At this time of year, my nature is preparing for the long winter. Like a bear, I want to hibernate, or at least sleep more. I'm also more of a hermit than usual, preferring to be at home whenever possible, especially in the evenings.

In the kitchen, seasonal cooking becomes heartier, warmer, and starchier. Leafy greens decline as grains, legumes and root vegetables dominate the menu. Baking is a comfort again, and the aroma of fresh bread fills the house several times a week.

Continuing my obsession with all things Scandinavian, I explore the Danish concept of hygge, which can't be translated into English but is most often approximated as "cozy." This is the season of hygge at the 45th Parallel. Sunday night stew and bread, fireplaces burning in stores and restaurants, fleece pajamas, wool blankets, and (a modern twist) queuing up Netflix more often (I'm catching up on "Scandal" right now.)

Winter here is long and harsh and every year I dream of escaping it. I hate having to put on boots, coat, mittens, scarf and ice grippers just to go out for a walk. The short gray days bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder and I whine more. But when spring returns, all is forgotten, except the sense of fortitude at having survived another Michigan winter and the joy of once again celebrating long sunny days, green things, and a wider social circle (see "festivals").

As my fall gift to you, to help you create your own hygge, I leave you with my recipe for easy overnight bread. The quantities are all approximate. Don't worry too much about measuring; this bread is so forgiving, you can't really go wrong.

1.5 cups bread or all-purpose flour
1.5 cups whole grain flour of your choice (wheat, rye, spelt, or a combination)
.5 cup steel-cut oats
1/4 to 1/2 tsp dry yeast
2 tsps salt
2 Tbsps maple syrup or honey (optional)
2 Tbsps yogurt or buttermilk (optional)
about 2 cups water

Begin the night before you want to bake. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. I use a large Pyrex measuring bowl with a lid. You could mix the wet ingredients in another bowl if using the honey/yogurt before adding to the dry, or not. It really doesn't matter! Stir until you get a wet, thick batter. It should roughly resemble a cornbread or muffin batter -- you could pour or scoop it out but not knead it. I use a Danish wire whisk, which is one of the greatest baking tools ever.

Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature overnight. The next morning, the dough will have doubled and look very gassy and alive, with various bubbles across the surface. Scoop the contents into your greased loaf pan and set it in the warmest part of your kitchen to rise again for about an hour. Meanwhile, pre-heat your oven to 375F. When the dough has risen to about the top of the pan, put the pan in the oven and bake for 50 minutes or so, until it sounds slightly hollow when tapped.

It's that easy. If morning baking doesn't fit your schedule, you could mix the dough before work and bake in the evening. The timing may also depend on the temperature of your house. The warmer the environment, the less time needed for the microorganisms to do their thing.

Enjoy experimenting with this basic loaf, adding seeds and changing the flours, sweeteners or dairy. All it really requires is flour, water, a little bit of yeast, and some alone time. Hygge.

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