Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bake, Baby, Bake

It took me three tries.  In fact, whether or not the third time worked was going to play heavily on whether there would be another try.  I know, I know... Thomas Edison and his hundreds of ways to NOT make a light bulk, but I am not one of those people who can have hundreds of ways to not make wheat bread.  Seriously, I wasn't inventing something, here, just trying to do something at home that thousands of other people have been able to do successfully.

My first attempt was a solid mass that never (EVER) rose.  It just sat there in its dough state, laughing at me.  It was supposed to be enough to bake two loaves, but it never amounted to that much dough.  I baked it anyway.... and it turned out to be an inedible (and ugly) brick.  Pure.  Absolute.  Failure.  It would have been a good door-stop, though.  Or an anti-theft device, if I had used it to fall from above if anyone broke into my house.  I'm pretty sure it would have knocked them unconscious.

My second attempt made more headway.  I think.  I used my grandma's recipe.  I did get two loaves out of it.  But alas, I still got bread that didn't taste very good or rise properly or make me happy in any other way.  Apparently it is also not making the birds happy because I don't think they've touched it.  But I really, truly did try.  I believe my problem was the timing of adding the salt, which may have killed the yeast.  Someone else suggested that it may be that I used powdered milk rather than fresh or canned milk.  A third person suggested that it was my general use of recipes as a list of suggestions rather than rules... but aside from the salt and butter being introduced at the wrong time (I read a line early in the recipe), I really had followed the recipe.  The last possible suggestion I received was regarding how much yeast I used.  I was told that wheat bread recipes typically call for more yeast than white bread recipes do.

That brings us to my third attempt.  This is what you need to know.  I ground my own wheat flour.  In my previous attempts, I used the white flour that I buy at from home each year and bring back with me... but after two failed attempts I bought cheap white flour at the local store instead.  I also bought shortening instead of using butter since the recipe actually says shortening.  So I scalded my milk, which was half powdered milk and half canned milk.  This was as much a concession to the person who told me powdered milk wouldn't work as me having only enough powdered milk to make half of what the recipe required.  I let it cool completely before I added the (local!) honey.  I doubled the yeast... forgive me, but I couldn't withstand another lousy bread experience.  IT HAD TO RISE.  I followed every other instruction, to the letter.  I even greased my bread pans with shortening like my grandma had done when I was a kid.  And it rose.  And it baked well  This is what came out of the oven:

They aren't precisely the most beautiful loaves ever created, but... look at them, they rose!

They were a bit crumbly, as far as bread is concerned.  But they were better than simply edible, they were good.  That, my friends, is sheer happiness.  After so much effort, I really really wanted bread that was more healthy for me and that wasn't lousy.  So hooray for wheat bread!  Now I feel free to make continued attempts and maybe tweak it here and there... like trying to make it vegan or multi-grain.  Wahoo!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Faith After the Fall

Perhaps my most unexpected and unequivocally “adventurous” adventure has been a skydiving experience not soon to be forgotten.

I acknowledge that most of my life is a fairly quiet one.  There is not much in my quotidian affairs that recommends me for public notice.  I like to read.  I am learning to crochet.  I eat tofu.  You can see why no major television company was riveted to a reality tv program featuring me.  As I waited on the phone to fix the mess-up on my booking to go skydiving – more on this in a moment – I was told by the on-hold marketing that this company was there for the “busy thrill-seekers.”  I thought for sure I had been placed in the wrong compartment.  Thrill seeker!?!  I think my idea of thrilling is when the third book in a trilogy I started two years ago finally comes out at the bookstore.

As it happens, the tickets were booked through an agency that caters to the whims of the brave, or insane.  They have all kinds of things.  Except for honest and respectable business practices.  Too boring, apparently.  I will not go into tedious details.  A word to the adventurous—when beginning some breath-taking experience like balloon rides or sky dives or bungee jumps, it is preferable to book directly with the company offering this.  You may even be able to negotiate pricing if you are doing a package deal or booking for more than one person.  But if not, avoid Adventure Outdoors/Thrillant/Spot Reservations.  Their Better Business Bureau grades are poor to miserable, which reflects how you will likely feel if you work with them.  Don’t begin your crazy, wild moment with a company that will steal your thunder before you even get there.

That being said, I did, eventually, get there.  I suited up and got inside a ridiculously small propeller plane.  We climbed and climbed, getting nearer to the clouds and farther from the fields and lakes below.  Then it was go-time.  Words fail to fully capture the experience.  As I was on the brink of jumping, my heart was racing.  I had not yet come to terms with my imminent and untraditional exit of the plane.  And then I was out of it.  I don’t think it was fear that I felt as I plummeted at a whopping 120 mph.  It was unbridled surprise.  I think I should have warned my instructor that I am reactionary in exaggerated levels.  I stopped screaming during free-fall – to catch my breath – and resumed screaming in full force until the parachute deployed.  But my mind didn’t stop processing or analyzing at any point.  I was falling, but I trusted my instructor.  I knew he know what to do and that I would be fine.  I felt…. Unencumbered.  Like swimming, except nothing like being in the water.  I was free.  I felt as if I were sustained, which was bizarre considering I was not.  I felt God’s watchful eye on me, in the middle of absolutely nothing.  It was unparalleled.

These are two shots showing the view from up there, while still plummeting.

Once the parachute was out, I felt at peace.  I looked around at this area, unresponsive to the commencement of autumn.  Green fields, azure lakes, clouds, buildings, extended horizons.  It was simply beautiful.

Touch down was blissfully uneventful.  Just a calm step out of the sky, at least for me.  There was a man on the ground, waiting for us, who quickly helped to anchor us and pull in the ‘chute.  Then I was home again, a little different than when I had left it.

Later, as I sat quietly reflecting, my mind made connections between this experience and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  There is still so much I do not know, but my skydiving experience illuminated some things for me.  I recognize that any parable, carried too far, stops being an effective comparison.  Nor can I claim full credit for the following parable, since I believe parts of it germinated in an institute class years ago.  But I do express sincerity in it.

In Spanish, “paracaidas” is a parachute.  Literally, it means stop-falls.  Not long ago, I compared the Savior’s Atonement to a paracaidas in a Sunday School class, because it is undeniably a stop to our fall, a stop the The Fall.  The Fall from the presence of God, when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, and by so doing, initiated this life experience for the rest of us.  There must have been some trepidation for some of us, if not all, as we were launched into this mortality, away from home and away from our Father.  But from the very beginning, before we ever boarded the plane, there was a plan.  We didn’t have to do it alone.  Each of us came equipped with a parachute so that we could return home safely.  Some of us relish the sensation of free-falling, thinking little of how quickly time passes and how little time is left to deploy our parachute.  We flip and turn and spin.  Others are more cautious and quickly extend our arms and legs into the form we were taught.  Still others, perhaps, make no effort at all and tighten into a ball to plummet even faster.  Whatever we do, whatever we choose, we all still have a parachute and have the option to use it.  By the grace of God, we have been granted this gift.  We didn’t have to pack it.  We don’t even have to know how it works to be able to use it.  We can trust in Him that it is there and that it will work.  His grace, and grace alone, makes salvation possible to those who would otherwise die without it.  Yet we must choose to actively apply it.  We must pull the cord and allow His grace to protect us.  Once we do, beautiful vistas are opened to our view.  We can enjoy all the blessing He has prepared for us.  We have liberty to change course instead of simply falling.  And we can arrive safely home, into the arms of those who have been watching over us and waiting for our return.

Like I did that day, we can choose a tandem fall, connecting ourselves to the Savior and relying on His experience to guide and help us, to show us how to apply His Atonement by deploying the parachute.  And just like my experience, some of us will arrive home sooner than others and watch with care and excitement as our loved ones also arrive safely and happily. 

I know that this is not an exact explanation of the Savior’s sacrifice for each one of us.  But I know that it is His grace and mercy that call me home and guide me safely there.  I know that His grace is as freely available to those I love as it is to me, and to all of Heavenly Father’s children.  I am grateful for my agency to choose Him and His Plan and His Son.  I am grateful to that quiet moment when He opened my eyes to see Him near me and feel His love.  I know He uses my experiences to illuminate my mind and broaden my understanding.  I am grateful the Savior is my tandem partner and endures my screams as I learn to open my parachute each day.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Long Live Cranberries!

I love cranberries.  It is not clear what, precisely, has captured my love of these little red, tart berries... but I am pretty much a big fan.  I even like the music group by the same name, from Limerick.  I have affection for cranberry orange muffins, cranberry banana bread, cranberry cherry juice, cranberries for Thanksgiving, cranberry herbal tea... so it occurred to me that if I love them so well, maybe I should actually have some on hand, yes?

I tried two different methods, only one of which has photographs.  (Sorry, I forgot!)  I bought a bag of cranberries, since they were in season, at a local store.  These were washed and then put in a food dehydrator.  This can be done in an oven, as well, but as my sister-in-law actually owns a dehydrator we opted for that plan.  After we had already had them going for a while, we discovered that we actually needed to cut them or pierce them.  Some said we could have blanched them in hot water before we began, but we were beyond that already and decided to stick with the cutting part.  We did this and then returned them to the dehydrator.  Later we ended up with little pruned up cranberries, our very own craisins.  Note that you will get far less volume of cranberries than when you started.  Seriously, I thought the cranberry elves had come in and stolen some.  But it makes sense that as they dehydrate, they shrink.  An entire bag of fresh cranberries does not even fill up a sandwich size zip-top bag.

The end result was a bit tart.  We didn't use any sugar or anything in the drying process.  This is fine if you plan to use the cranberries in something that adds sweetness.  This is less awesome when you are adding the craisins to a salad, as they are undeniably tart, unless you go for that sort of thing.

The next attempt was freeze drying cranberries.  I googled freeze-drying, so I knew it would be important to have less stuff in my freezer as well as not constantly opening my freezer while the freeze-drying was taking place.  I don't have an awesome deep freezer, ladies and gentlemen, I've just got a standard freezer in my refrigerator unit.  I hoped that the week that I would be travelling for work would be ideal for freeze drying, so I bought a couple of packages of cranberries.  These were washed and left in the colander to dry.  Look at them, aren't they beautiful?

Then they were cut up thinly, as suggested by other bloggers.  Thin, here, is a subjective term.  I think I maybe got 4 or 5 slices on a single standard-sized cranberry.  Sometimes only 3.  After a while, you get to the point where you are a bit less particular about how thinly they are because you see all the cranberries that are left and you think you'll never be done.  Or at least you feel that way if you think like I thought as I was thinly slicing my darling berries.  This is how they looked.

Then, I spread my cranberry slices on pizza tins.  I felt that mine, having those little holes all over the surface, would probably help with the freeze-drying process.  I may be mistaken.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time.  An unexpected development with this choice was that as the cranberries froze and dropped their seeds, these fell through the holes and collected on the bottom of my freezer.  Someone had suggested taking out a few berries and leaving them on the table to test the done-ness of the process.  If they turned into a putrid moldy mess, the answer was they needed to stay longer.  I did this test, and although I didn't have a mass of cranberry goo on my counter, I didn't think they were done.  I left them in about a half a week longer.  This is the appearance of my cold little berry friends.

I am not entirely convinced that they were freeze-dried to perfection after that, but I needed my freezer space.  I put the cranberries in a zip-top bag and left these on my counter to be stored with the dehydrated ones and noted moisture collecting on the inside of the bag.  I think this means I failed.  Not willing to entirely lose the battle, I just closed the bag and threw them back in the freezer.  I am not opposed to trying again, but I think that this would be more effective with a deep freezer.  Or with a freezer that blows air like some ovens do, keeping the coldness rotating.

I am also up to other options of preserving cranberries.  Cranberry jam, cranberry syrup, cranberry fruit filling for mini pies... anyone have any suggestions?  Anything you've tried that has worked, or hasn't?  What are your favorite fruits to preserve?