Tag Archives: Bread

Jewish advice: Act as if there’s no God

I had a stunning three-minute conversation with a spiritual counselor the other day that became one of those indelible moments that I know will stick with me for a long while.

As it so often happens with me, it started with bread.

It ended with this simple message of Jewish wisdom the counselor said dates back a long, long way. The advice, he said, was “act like there is no God.”

But I am ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the bread, back when one of my daughter’s texted me and asked me if I wanted to make Challah.

“I have no idea what that is, but I can try,” I texted back.

“It’s a pretty basic sweet bread,” she wrote.

“Ok,” I said.

Then she threw in the kicker: “And it’s braided really pretty.”

Huh? I thought. Suddenly it wasn’t so basic anymore.

I really don’t know a thing about Jewish traditions, except that they are very meaningful and shouldn’t be trifled with. I felt a bit like I may soon be trifling with some ham-handed attempt to make a bread I’d never even eaten. Still, when asked I try to say yes, so…

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The dough part was indeed easy enough.

But the braiding part, well that was indeed “fancy.” I took to YouTube. I figured if I could learn to butcher a pig on YouTube, I could braid some bread.

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Turns out you can learn much of anything on YouTube. Anyone need a surgeon?! I’m willing to try.

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In the end, I was pretty happy with the look of my first Challah.

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Happy enough that I sought out the aforementioned Jewish spiritual counselor for his approval of my effort. I showed him the picture and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic with his praise, which was surprisingly meaningful for me to hear.

He told me how his grandmother would make Challah for the Sabbath meal so that at least one time a week they could eat with knives– without any instruments of violence on the table– since the bread could easily be pulled apart. Since both this counselor and I also share ties to an Anabaptist tradition that value peace over all, it was especially thoughtful and meaningful.

What a legacy, I thought.

So I told him about my daughter, who is not Jewish, but who volunteered to cook the meal for Tuesday night’s observance of the start of Hanukkah for a friend. I explained how my daughter’s friend converted to Judaism and hadn’t gotten much interest in the holiday observances from her family. My daughter decided to cook for her and celebrate together their shared faith, even if under different religious umbrellas.

He looked pleased. That’s when he told me about the old Jewish idiom to act like there’s no God in the world.

He said it just as he was dashing off so I lingered there with the idea on my mind for a while.

If there’s no God, then we must do what God would do. We must be the God others need, which is exactly what my daughter is doing for her friend and gave me the opportunity to participate as well in my very small way of baking and braiding bread (I also made some jelly donuts… though I’m less sure of what part of the meal they play).

So I stood there a moment thinking about this and all that happens around bread and how so often God is in the simplest things like bread and wine, which Jesus gave out on his last night to remind us to think of his life and role in this world every time we eat or drink it, which is pretty much every day.

Jesus might just have heard the same saying as my spiritual counselor did, I thought, because they are saying essentially the same thing.

As I think about these exchanges I realize I am embossed — as if stamped in a way that is hardly visible, yet indelible — with this idea of a significant approach to life as expressed by that counselor. Every time I see a pretty braided loaf of bread I will think of my need to act like there is no God in the world and be forever grateful there is.

Day four: Clean eating re-centers focus

On a beautiful fall day we sat across the table from our daughter and her significant other and talked about exciting plans. Conversation was lively, the company excellent, the views outside the restaurant were gorgeous, The Bride looked lovely, our daughter was happy and all I could think about was the bread in the basket just across the table.

Turns out, I found out later, The Bride was right there with me.

“I wanted to snatch it from them with a huge slab of butter,” she said.

But we didn’t. We let it sit there. Two pieces, untouched, sitting in the basket the entire meal. I even had to let them get thrown away, which usually turns me into Sheldon in The Bing Bang Theory’s clone.

Ta da!

We didn’t break. So it goes with our Clean Eating challenge as we hit the middle of our first week. The challenge is pretty simple: no processed foods of any kinds, very low in carbs, high in lean protein, tons of veggies, five meals a day, yet all small and no Mulligans. We’re sticking to it.

I can say that now with confidence because we passed the bread test. As is clear from this site, I love everything about bread. Especially making it. Eating it is pretty zipbang special too. About the only thing I crave more is chocolate and, oddly, that is allowed a couple of times in this challenge! So if we were going to blow it, the bread would have been it.

So that’s the good news. We’re going to make it, I’m pretty sure. It’s not really that hard at all. The menus are so well-organized that cooking is quick and not having to plan or think about it removes a lot of the temptation to make a fat burger with fries,


or whip up one of my favorite binge foods.

We’ve had some really good meals in these past few days. I can honestly say I’ve never had a more lively, delicious salad as this Asparagus and egg salad on Day One.


It also has taken things we eat often and given them a twist, which has helped me get out of the rut of things were eating, even when we were eating healthy. What’s not to love about this:

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And my usual morning omelet was streamlined to make it much healthier, but it still tasted just fine. So I had to ditch the salami and ricotta and have instead a little goat cheese and peppers, but it was fine.

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The whole point of this thing — to rediscover the physical, spiritual and emotional balance that is critical to sobriety, and to keep the creep of weight gain from getting out of control — is being met better than I expected. I feel far more centered and less obsessive about food. I’m not having addictive cravings about dessert at night that I can’t mentally shake (though The Bride had a dream about Chocolate Cake last night… wish I had that dream to tell you the truth). We walked nearly 20,000 steps yesterday, worked out, spent 20 minutes in quiet spiritual devotion and god some work done. In short, I feel more like I did a year ago, when I felt great… great enough to start this whole website focused on celebrating healthy recovery.

So for those keeping score at home, I’d have to say the plus side of this effort so far is kicking the sugar addiction I had in full swing before I started, kicking my metabolism into hyper drive and feeling more in balance overall again. The negative side, the hangover like headache that comes with the detox is a bummer (though on it has finally started to ease up) and the lack of any breads likely isn’t sustainable. I’ll put breads (and the occasional dessert) back into the meal plan going forward, but far less often as we were doing before started this plan.

And yes, like I said, we even had chocolate:

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So ask yourself: What’s keeping you from taking the Buzzfeed Clean Eating Challenge today?


Sourdough starter lives, breathes, excites the dough

I’ve put off doing my own sourdough starter because frankly the science of it all scared me to death. I just seemed so hard.

I say seemed, because I never really took the time to research it. I first wrapped my brain around the idea that sourdough had to actually sour from a friend who owned a restaurant that made sourdough pizzas. As he explained the process of “feeding” the dough perpetually, I couldn’t really grasp it. He made it sound like The Giving Tree, a perpetual, evolving thing that just keeps growing and providing… manna like, I assumed.


Years went by and I liked the idea of making sourdough bread and pizza dough and what not. But the science of it held me back. I harked back to freshman science when I was about to fail the “sludge” experiment so I just ate it and wrote down what I tasted well enough to get a C and pass the class.

But in the past year as my dough projects in the Test Kitchen grew increasingly complex, I knew I wanted to do sourdough most of all. Still, for some reason the block in my brain stopped me from actually learning how to make it.

On impulse I bought a couple of cultures off Amazon. When they arrived, I glanced over the five pages of instructions, full of complex terms and regressed back to high school. I set the packets aside.

Weeks passed. Stupidly.

Until finally I just got fed up, dumped the culture in a bowl and read the first page of instructions to get the (dough) ball rolling. I figured I’d adopt the ole AA mantra: One day at a time. Besides there were two culture packets. I could screw one up I reasoned.

As it turns out there was no reason to feel intimidated. I finally went Internet surfing and read through the relatively simple process of starting dough and turning it sour. My culture gave me a leg up and a good taste.


I had my doubts the whole time it sat there, with me “feeding” it (which means dumping in flour and water, really… that’s it). I ignored the ideas of making my own proofing box and carefully watching temperatures and just left the thing on my ledge very much like when I am told every kid does at some time when she sticks toothpicks into an avocado pit and watches it sprout over time.

Eventually the thing took on a life of its own and soon bubbled happily over the rim of the jar. I found an easy “starter” sourdough recipe for those using a start the first time and soon was making bread.


*This was a herb and chili powder wheat sourdough:


Now I’ve got about three jars ready to go for future sourdough inventions (the seven-grain lemon pepper sourdough was delightful) and my “starter” chilling in the fridge until the next time I need to zap her back to life.


I’m still not sure how it all works, and I know I could probably do it better. The kneading process was pretty much the same, but sure smelled rich and flavorful and yes, sour.


With a little thought it could become more science and less magic, but for now, I’m happy with the magic. I don’t understand what’s going on in there, but I like eating it, which come to think of it, isn’t too far off from freshman science class after all.


Aromas color my world with invisible art

Scents play such an incredible part in my memory. A smell hits my nose like a surprise, pinging my brain and my memory and activating emotions simultaneously.

I lingered on these aromas during a recent assignment for my aromatherapy class. I was stuck by the power of a scent within my mind and the trigger they are to my memory.

What are your favorite smells? What are the ones you dislike? Connect to the scent and watch how the emotion follows.

Positive Aromas

First smell of rain on pavement – This brings to mind how much I enjoy the changing of the seasons and the happiness that I feel when the first rain hits the dried-out pavement following a very hot summer.

Baby lotion – I love that precious smell that only comes with a newborn baby. That signature aroma is so full of new life, and it brings so many happy thoughts: innocent, new, fragile.


Lavender –Lavender has a special place in my memory. When I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and experienced daily panic attacks, I first heard of lavender and its calming benefits. This was twenty years ago. I still use lavender constantly for its calming benefits. Whenever I think of taking a bath, lavender is the first thing that I grab to throw into my bath. Now that I have been making my own bath products, I use lavender to scent my bath salts and my body scrub.


Fresh baked bread – Recently I have grown to love the smell of freshly baking bread. My husband’s own bread from scratch has become a familiar scent of home. I know when I smell his oven baking something up he is happy and he is near and I like the feeling of both. Each week there is a different type of bread, ranging from whole wheat to rosemary. One of my favorites to smell is his banana/peanut butter loaf. The smell of the peanut butter mixed with the rising bread is phenomenal and makes me salivate just thinking of it.

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Cinnamon – The scent of cinnamon makes me think of the holidays, especially pumpkin pie. This past holiday season I tried my hand at baking homemade pumpkin pies. The smell lingered in the kitchen and traveled through to our living room. It lasted the entire evening as we gathered in our small home along with three of our children to celebrate a wonderful holiday.

Tropical scented suntan lotion – Much like how the first rain on dry pavement makes me happy, so does the first application of suntan lotion on my skin. It signifies the start of summer and makes me long for days on our boat at the river. Tropical scented suntan lotion brings back memories of days spent lounging by the pool in Mexico and Hawaii falling asleep to the sound of waves.

Negative Aromas

Cigarette smoke – One of the most negative odors I can think of is that bitter scent of stale cigarette smoke. My mother used to be a chain smoker. Growing up she would smoke around us all day long. I just remember always turning my nose up at the smell of the cigarette smoke. Years later, I remember dating a guy whose mother smoked and noticing the walls and how dirty they were from all of the cigarette smoke inside the house.

Car exhaust – This past week as I’ve been focusing on this project, I have been more aware of the scents around me and how they affect me. Because I jog at least three times a week, I’ve been working on pushing myself a bit further to increase the miles that I run. This week I was aware of how the exhaust from cars affects me as I run down the road. More specifically, running my last mile towards home I struggled with breathing and keeping my pace up. The trucks that passed me on the run and released exhaust made it that much more difficult to complete that final mile. The fumes stuck in my lungs and made me dislike my time jogging that much more.

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Smelly garbage – We compost in our home and the can sits to the side of our stove. If we don’t take it out daily, the scraps start to let us know they are around as uninvited guests. Neglected too long, the smell of mixed fruits and vegetable scraps leaves a rancid stench that drifts through our house.

Vomit – My grandmother had cancer. Our family members took turns staying with her following her chemotherapy treatments. Her vomiting would start late in the day and last all night. I remember having to steady her and keep her clean as she vomited. I remember feeling really helpless and sad to think that she was in so much pain and there was nothing I could do.

Hospital smell – The antiseptic smell that hits you as soon as you walk onto a hospital floor has stuck with me. This same smell is what I remember from my grandmother’s time in the convalescent home. It reminded me of how far she had fallen once she was moved into the home. I was hit again with that helpless feeling and not being able to do anything to help your loved one get better.

Take some time today to smell the world around you and notice the feelings they bring. It will unleash insight you likely weren’t expecting.

Smells are that powerful and yet far too often ignored.

News From the Test Kitchen: Play dough mixes and matches

The schedule didn’t have another week of dough on it for the test kitchen. But the schedule ended up crumpled into a ball once we went to visit our latest WeBromance, The Butte Creek Mill. With all that flour we had to get into the test kitchen and have some fun.

I love the experimentation of dough, which is why I return to it often. The dough itself is alive and changing each time, with so many types of flour combinations to be explored. Beyond that are the expressions: pizza dough, pasta, tortillas, pastries, croissants, buns, rolls and of course, my favorite: breads. Then finally there’s the flavor combinations in an inexhaustible arsenal of options. We’ve made some great breads, but haven’t scratched the surface of what we can do with dough.

This week we’ll push forward even further into the unknown. We started with the end in mind however. Unlike past test kitchen’s where we decide who will get a surprise package of what we make in the mail through the online debate, this time we awarded the winner from the start.

The Bride and I have a penpal named Sue. I know it sounds old fashioned, but I didn’t know Sue when she decided to write me a letter while I was in rehab. She knew of me and simply felt a spiritual prodding to encourage me. Her letter arrived at a time of deep spiritual challenge for me — my “dark night of the soul.” We started exchanging letters. When The Bride decided to get sober, I recommended she meet Sue. They got together and well, we’ve all been friends ever since. Except to this day, I still haven’t met Sue. Our penpal relationship has extended from pen and paper to emails, but it remains and important, distant friendship.

After one of our posts on facebook, Sue responded that she simply couldn’t wait for the day she could try my bread, and well… that’s all it took. She’s this week’s Test Kitchen winner and this first bread of the week, was created in her honor. I just hope it doesn’t suck.

The Bride tells me often to keep it simple. I’m often mixing flavors in ways that challenge her less than exuberant desire to try new things. “Can’t you just make wheat bread,” she asked me a couple of weeks ago (which I did, just to show I’m not obtuse).

But for this week, it’s a back to the wild west of combinations. I call this one Floral Seven Grain Bread, because it has so many wonderful scents it’s like a flower garden.


I combined rosemary, roasted garlic, parsley and blackberries with seven grain flour to make this bread.

The dough has a pretty purple hue with flecks of fragrant spices.


And I created a couple of different styles of expression, including a boule’ and a pan with braided top. One I drizzled with blackberries for extra flavor and the other I dusted with flour.


The key is to allow subtle flavors to merge. If anyone overpowers, I’ll have missed my mark. But as the bread hits the oven, even as I write this, I am cautiously optimistic. Either way, Sue will have to be the final judge.

I just hope its as delightful as Sue’s friendship has been for The Bride and I.

Dough thoughts: a time to pause

I must have needed the time to think.

It was Christmas Eve, the final few moments before the family’s arrival and the previous few frenetic days of to-do lists, Christmas carols and relative quiet would explode in the bustle, noise and complicated wonderfulness of family. I looked around my kitchen and bowls of dough were everywhere. Literally, everywhere.

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I hadn’t thought about all this when I planned my Christmas menu. Now, as I looked around, I realized I’d spent hours working with dough. There were pizza doughs, and pasta doughs and doughnut doughs and bread doughs.

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Dough was rising and baking and evolving around me as I slipped away into kneading thoughts of my own. Dough is my Zen Garden. I went there without ever really knowing why, like a well-trained horse wandering back to the ranch house without the need of a pull on the reins.

I think somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that this would be my family’s first completely non-alcoholic holiday. I think it worried me, though I never connected with that until a couple of days of later. I’m sure this is why I gravitated to the dough.

Later the family arrived and we ate pizza and doughnuts and bread and all the treats I’d been busily making. We crammed into our little house and played games and likely annoyed each other but I felt … congruent. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt OK, and I think those moments lost inside my head, my forearms flexing and straining, my grip twisting and smooshing the flexible life in my hands had a lot to do with it. Nobody seemed to care they were drinking sparkling water instead of Pinot Noir. What a gift.

My yoga teacher likes to say, “the body knows what it needs.” My doughworks were my body’s way of asking the overbearing mind to step aside and let it have it what it needed.

Breakfast: all that it’s cracked up to be

I love breakfast.

The thought occurs having just finished it, which I do virtually every day and never grow tired of doing, nor do I grow tired of thinking how much I love it. Breakfast is the gift that keeps on giving.

My bride knows this, which is why she took me out recently for my birthday breakfast — not dinner.Her, coffee, the San Francisco Chronicle and a big breakfast equals WHALLA! Perfecto.

Think about it. Breakfast usually costs half of dinner. You can take your time, read the newspaper, drink copious amounts of coffee and nobody complains. You also don’t have to worry about the cocktail menu or the wine list seductively vying for your attention.You don’t have to worry about some jackass wanting your table. Even the wait staff are more laid back, like “take all the time you need…” instead of “eh hem.. will you need anything else this eeeveening…” Only at breakfast do servers call me “honey.” I like that.

And of course, unlike most any other nutrition and diet advice that has the shelf life of a slab of tuna, breakfast has staying power as the best meal of the day. Think about it… again: Calorie counting has risen and fallen from favor and risen and fallen again, as have low-fat diets, protien-diets, fasting diets, superstar diets, and on and on and on. But most every diet says eat breakfast. What’s not to love about these:

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I lost 100 pounds and have kept it off (eh… most of it) for more than two years. I learned a lot about weight control and read enough to test out of graduate degree program. I treated myself like a human lab rat, and still do to find what works for me. I’ve tried most everything. But there are only two things I’d cement into any other thing I do to stay healthy and they are this: 1) Eat right and exercise. 2) Eat breakfast.

Now listen to me, because have you ever noticed all the people talking about diets and stuff look like my buddy Ed here:


I love Ed, but he really isn’t the best guy to empathize with a fat guy, you know. I am. I’m a fat guy… its in my Italian DNA even if I’ve got the belly beat back. So listen when I tell you, we’ve been conned.

Think about it…really this time… We spend billions a year on weight loss and we are fatter than we’ve ever been. My entire life span has seen diet and fitness dominate the conversation since my Italian mother went “healthy” on us and rid our house of Hostess and General Foods (the memory lurks from a dark place… shudder…). The only cereal we could have that wasn’t like eating bark off a tree was Honey Combs because we convinced Mom it was made of honey, not sugar.

This was nearly forty years ago. And the diet and fitness craze just keeps on coming with no tangible results to show for it. We spend billions and its a fraud. Weather forecasters do a better job. So does Congress, and that’s saying something.

Still thinking? Think about this: Food permeates every culture… even a place where food is terrible, like this book talks about. In our culture, we get it all wrong almost all of the time. For all we know, we haven’t learned a thing.

You don’t need to spend billions of dollars. Everything you need to know I just said — see rules 1 and 2 — and I’m living proof because I’m the rare breed that lost the weight and kept it off.

I still work at it everyday I watch it everyday. I blow it everyday. But overall, it works, because I keep it simple. Eat right and exercise… and eat breakfast.

Now, one final thought on breakfast (think… think… think). Stop giving breakfast short thrift. It seems tough at first because there doesn’t seem to be as much variety as dinner, nor do we make time like we do for dinner. But change your thinking. If you plan breakfast like you plan dinner, it will come alive. Get up a bit earlier… enjoy it!

Also, you can reduce carbs and sugar and still keep a lot of flavor. I’ll write a lot more about this in days to come because after all, I love breakfast. (And please reply below with any questions you’d love to see address in future posts) But here’s a simple example:

Yogurt and granola are not great for you. They are loaded with sugar and high on the GCI. So too are bagels and donuts (of course… doesn’t mean I still don’t love em) and cereals in general and toast and pancakes and waffles and… you get my point. But you can eat more carbs in the morning than you can later in the day, so you have some flexibility built in. More importantly you don’t have to eat like Ed, who thinks breakfast is chicken and rice. Ed, that’s not breakfast. That’s Sunday dinner in the state pen.

Also, with a little creativity you can redress those issues and still enjoy it. For my granola and yogurt, I don’t eat it more than a couple of times a week. When I do, I eat plain instead of flavored yogurt, add a scoop of vanilla protein instead of sugar, use a small amount of fruit instead of a whole piece of fruit, and use whole grain and fiber granola. Add a piece of oat bran toast and non-hydrogenated peanut butter, and whalla! Breakfast of champions!

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Of course, my omelette’s rule too, but that’s another topic for another day… speaking of another topic for another day, I just figured out what next week’s test kitchen ingredient is! Oooh…. that will be a good one, but I digress.

Think about it: Love your breakfast. Or as the old adage says, “Eat like a Republican for breakfast, a Democrat for lunch and a green part member for dinner….” or something like that.

Take a this poll… why not?

Comfort food well named on cold, gloomy day

I don’t have many bad days of late. Even the not-so-great ones, like one I had recently, are pretty OK. It’s just the mindset I’ve taken on. Perspective shapes most everything. I have worked to shape my perspective toward gratitude. It works.

But that still doesn’t mean I don’t need a little boost now and again. I have an arsenal of things — little things — that can boost my mood or straighten out a flagging perspective. I have a positive thought army that I repeat to myself. I have my balancing things I wrote about earlier. I also have my comfort foods.

It’s important not to use food as a drug, to soothe or to binge and all that. But that doesn’t mean a good plate of robust warm food can’t still warm the soul on a cold, gloomy day. We’ve had quite the weather lately. Snow covers the landscape. Our driveway was blocked for two days by a rather unaware thorn of the flesh. Four degrees is cold, really cold. A walk in 12-degree weather isn’t quite so sunny even when the sun is shining.

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So I countered the climate with warmth of my own, the old Italian staple, chicken parmigiana. It may seem involved or elaborate, but its neither. For Italians it’s akin to chicken soup or meatloaf for middle Americana. Take out a couple of chicken breasts, whatever cheese you have handy (I like provolone), some leftover sauce from pizza night and whip up this truly comforting dinner that will surely help your perspective stay positive. You can’t help but smile when you eat it.

Don’t get intimidated by the three bowls. It looks messy but its a snap, no worse than cleaning up the morning cereal bowls. Put flour in one, whip an egg with some half n half or milk or cream in the other and bread crumbs in the last. Add garlic powder, parsley, chili powder and sage to the bread crumbs.

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Heat a little olive oil on the pan and set out a cooking dish next to it, with some sauce on the bottom of the pan.

Then take each breast and pound it a bit with the mallet. Dip it into the flour, then the egg, the bread crumbs, then right into the heating olive oil. Repeat three times (one for me, one for my bride, one for me for lunch the next day — strangely my wife doesn’t really eat leftovers. It’s one of those cold wars I’ll never fully understand but have come to accept). by the time you get all three in the pan, flip the first. It should have a nice golden brown crust. Flip the next two. Take the provolone and put it on top of the chicken. Wait a minute, then transfer each to the baking dish. Cover the chicken with more sauce. Now slice some fresh basil if you have it (which you really should always have). and sprinkle the basil over the chicken. Toss it into a 350 oven until the meat thermometer says they are the right temp (I usually pull at 160 and let stand for a few minutes to reach the desired temp of 165. Some argue for 180 with poultry, but I beg to differ. Don’t trust me though. Don’t get sick on my watch).

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Slice some bread to dip in olive oil, make up a salad (in my case I made a spinach and romaine salad) and youre done. I baked some sweet potato fries to go with my comfort food, but pasta of course, or anything you want really.

Little things make big changes in our perspectives. Perspective can make all the difference in how you live in each moment. So who says a little comfort food can’t change the world? For a moment, it changed mine.

What’s your favorite comfort food? Reply below. I’d like to start a list. Thanks!  Continue reading Comfort food well named on cold, gloomy day

Italian Zen garden has plenty of flour

I once tried pruning one of those little juniper trees. I basically turned it into a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. I like those sand pits with the little rakes that sit on top of desks, but my little recycled desk hasn’t enough room for my coffee cup. Pretty much everywhere I’ve lived I’ve had a fish tank or a fish pond just to sit and watch and decompress, but the pond is frozen solid under a blanket of unlikely snow and I didn’t get around to putting fish in it when I built it in October anyway.

The point? I like having a way to what I call, “zen out.”

For two decades Happy Hour was my favorite method, but thanks to 53 months and counting of sobriety I need a more permanent plan. So imagine my surprise when I rediscovered a truly wonderful way to zen out… and then eat something truly wonderful when I’m done.

I’m talking dough. I’ve truly rediscovered dough lately, and its like rediscovering my high-school pen pal twenty years later and realizing I’ve known my soul mate all along. There’s something about working with dough that settles me. I like the process of combining. I like the elusiveness of it, how each batch takes on a personality of its own. I like the multitude of outcomes — pizza crust, pie crust, cookies, coconut bread or my soul mate’s favorite, peanut butter banana bread– that each distinct batch of dough can become.

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I mostly like kneading the dough. My mind floats into a peaceful nothingness as I work the dough around and around in my hands. The process reminds me a bit of what I loved so much about wine (besides the more obvious reasons). It’s alive. It changes and keeps changing until eventually it declines and decays unless consumed. It’s art with a shelf life, sort of like us humans when you get right down to it.

I’m constantly in pursuit of the perfect dough. I pursue it knowing it will never come. But I still find myself mesmerized when I watch the process, like when I cut in butter to certain types of dough and it transforms from powder to crumbles to cohesiveness.

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I like the liveliness of how dough responds to touch.

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I like how it then leaps to life when left alone.

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When I was a kid one of my all-time favorite foods was Nonie’s fried bread. The dough would rise all night and then she’d fry it up in olive oil for breakfast. We’d put ricotta cheese and her raspberry freezer jam (sooooo EFFin deliciouussss!) on it. Next to Nonie’s raviolis, nothing is better.

When I grew up, I decided to start making it for myself.

“How do you make the dough Nonie?” I asked.

“Eh.. just get the frozen dough. It’s easier,” she said.

I took it at face value, even though from the age of 15 I was working with dough every night, spinning it above my head as I hand-tossed pizzas. I never really put two and two together that fried bread and pizza used the same dough. I bought the frozen dough in the orange bag that hasn’t changed once in 30 years and made fried bread for my kids as they grew up. They got older and I passed on the same message to them. Get the frozen dough, it’s easier.

Only now do I realize how much better something can be even if its not easier. I’m not just talking taste, because for fried bread, those frozen dough balls are really good– even if not so great for pizza. I’m talking about missing out on the process.

Nonie had a right to tap-out from making dough. She was retired and had spent a lifetime making ravioli dough six days a week for the restaurant her and my grandfather and my mom and my aunts and uncles all helped run. (I still have the proud burn scars on my foot from the restaurant kitchen when Nonie was babysitting me). They made raviolis by the thousands; the recipe from her says the serving size is 1,000 raviolis. For her dough was work. Hard work.

But for me its the opposite. Dough is a timeout from the work. It dirties my hands so I can’t pick up the cell phone or bang the keyboard. I lets my mind get lost and take a break. It zens me out like few things can.

Today in the mail a thick, heavy envelope arrived. I opened it up and found a clear white bag with no label. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. My 00 flour from Italy arrived. The silky fine powder is like the orchid of my zen garden, truly exceptional. I’m going to wait until a particularly anxious day before I break it out and make my own pasta from it….


Oops, drifted off there for a moment. Anyway, there’s plenty of flour in my zen garden, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Bitter pill doesn’t have to be bitter

For all our wonderful culinary stylings, Italians eat some weird shit. Yes, the food is exceptional… full of flavors and aromas and mostly full… as in you get stuffed. We really don’t do light. Still, we live long lives. My Nonie, who I mentioned in my last post, lived until she was the vibrant age of 95. She never really had an ailment until the final sickness that checked her into the hospital and a week later took her away. I knew then that God needed her. After all, who was going to lead the others in cooking the wedding feast of the lamb?

Still, all that being said, Italian food isn’t all sauces and cheeses and breads and olive oil. It’s also using every bit of the turkey including the neck, wings and heart. It’s shots of annisette that is about the only alcohol I don’t miss now that I’m sober. It’s a ridiculously pungent lettuce called Radicchio that tastes a bit like a foot… one that kicked you in the cheek. But why do I ramble and digress and filibuster so? Because this week the test kitchen took up one of the bitterest Italian treats, popular this time of year as a cultural-chic-ey thing that folks buy each other to be cultured and unique until they actually taste it. It’s an Italian sweet bread called Panettone. And frankly, its awful. My son once wrote that only panettone would be served at his funeral so everyone would be sufficiently sad. A family email chain jumped the shark three times and just kept on going with all the discussion about the origins of this godforsaken “treat.” But my mother loves it and I wanted to make her some for her birthday. I also wanted it to be edible. Hence, the test kitchen challenge.

I began with some research, starting with my Nonie’s recipe:


Suffice to say, this is direct from the old country. (If you need help translating the Italian, let me know). But too often the fruits in the panettone are from the old country as well, or at least taste 100 years old. And that distinct, bitter flavor — anise — simply had to go in my version.

I made up a loaf, cut it into slices and mailed samples of it to relatives in three states, most of whom had spent the week before deriding anything panettone. The reactions are in from most everyone and I haven’t heard a complaint. My wife actually tried it, knowing it was panettone. My son actually liked it, but that took some deception! Getting both to judge proves nothing is beyond the artistry of this Effer… uh…you know.

“I like it because it’s more like bread than a scone. Yumm,” my son wrote.
After I told him it was panettone he wrote back “uh… what makes it panettone.”
Skeptic that he is, I confirmed I used all the required ingredients, including dried fruit (in this case cranberries with pomegranate juice) and citrus zest. I did not use anise, which as I said, I find to be the most disturbing of ingredients. Stylistically I used low pans, like pie pans instead of the prototypical tall panettone mold, which I don’t have (though I am going to use a metal tin can as a mold for display next time I make one for a present… more on that in just a sec) Why anyone would buy a mold, let alone the bread itself, is distinctly for this is beyond me.

The finished result won the seal of approval from a family of Italians and their non-Italian significant others. Unlike many of my test kitchen creations, this one actually scores high on the artistry.

Next I made my mother’s present, the true — and truly rare — lover of panettone. I wrapped it up pretty and gave it to her at family brunch:

2013-11-29 10.18.11

But the final verdict came a couple days later. My mom said it was wonderful. What more can a test kitchen effort hope for?!

Favorites from the Panettone email chain:

“I think we found a winner for the annual panettone giveaway”…

“I think I just threw up in my mouth…”

“Wasn’t it the wedding he wanted it served at???”

“Considering I am a small, but mighty, part of the wedding, panettone will have no place on the menu. Sorry not sorry.”

“Maybe it was supposed to be a wedding gift?!”

“You are uninvited if you bring that rat poison around…”

“What if you pick out all those little dried fruit things?  What exactly are those?  How long ago could it actually be considered fruit?”


“If you remove the century old fruit and find a cake that’s light and fluffy, that’s called bread. It’s definitely not panettone.”

Effin Arist: “Just last night, I was organizing my four notebooks of various recipes that I have (I know…. I need help. organizing four notebooks? and who spends nearly six hours over two nights organizing while ignoring his beautiful wife??? Sigh…) and what did I find???

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

GRANDMA NONIE’S RECIPE For PANETTONE! It’s like she was the judge, ruling from heaven to all the panettone haters out there (yes, I mean all of us!) to say, “Eh… it’s goooood.” (dismissive wave of the age-spotted hand)… “you should tryyyyy it.”

“Can’t argue with nonie!”

“Oh, to think that Nonie was looking down on this conversation.  Maybe I was channeling her like the Long Island Medium.  Oooo, that would be cool.  I was thinking about how it could be that the non-Italian in the family actually liked an Italian specialty while all of you with strains of Italian blood running through your veins were such downers on it.”
“I think the Panettone thread has “jumped the shark” when the pastor’s wife is becoming the Long Island medium.  just sayin…”
But no it didn’t jump the shark… it went on and on… nothing stirs up the family like the weird shit we eat. I told you…
Then much later… the final words (for now):

“I happily concede the panettone challenge. That bread was freaking tasty!!
Effin artist indeed.”