Monday, August 16, 2010

Yeast and Flour and Water = Heaven

Tonight my house smells of cinnamon and cardamom....and for me that smells like Christmas.

This evening, for the first time ever, I attempted to make pulla, a Finnish sweet bread full of, you guessed it, cardamom and cinnamon along with raisins and sugar. And while this is something that is second nature to me, as familiar to some people as bologna sandwiches, I realized that in a strange way my perception of it has changed. Instead of being the constant of my youth, the sweet baking aroma of the rolls rising in the oven has taken on the adult perception of a holiday.

Because that's the only time I have been home to smell it.

I've never been a good bread maker. My mother baked all our bread for as long as I can remember, to the point where as 10 year old a loaf of store-bought bread was a highly prized birthday present. Even now dozens of frozen loaves of home made bread litter the large freezer downstairs in the garage in my parents' house.

But all I could bake were hockey pucks.

I'd tried. Maybe I wasn't patient enough. Maybe the water was too warm for the yeast. Maybe I just didn't have the skill, the baking magic that I watched my mother do for, literally, my lifetime. The swirl of the yeast in the water, the salty-sweet-sour smell of the liquid before the flour was added. And the beautiful, crusty, tasty perfection of a over-buttered slice of a freshly cut, hot-out-of the-oven loaf of bread. Nothing, not even sushi or lasagna, can come close.

But last week I took a course on baking. Rosie, who runs a professional cookery school up the street, took pity on a couple of locals and gave us a quick 6 hour session on baking pies and bread. While I can make a pie....and have since I was 9, begging my mom to let me make a mess of her kitchen in pursuit of the perfect cherry pie...bread has always escaped me. But somehow that day I got it. I could see all the little things I had done wrong before. As fragile as an orchid, the wrong temperature can kill the yeast, not enough yeast can kill the bread....but, like an orchid, if you know how much to mist it, it turns shiny and golden and fantastically delicious.

So today, I made a loaf. On my own. Unsupervised. And it was lovely and crusty and tasty and glorious.

Otis even agreed.

And then I got cocky.

I really have wanted to make pulla. The favorite offering of Finnish tea parties...or, well, coffee parties...everywhere...well, at least everywhere in was something that I could not consider myself a Finn until I made. With one loaf of regular bread behind me, I decided to take the plunge and crossed the world of cross-cultural cooking many cups in a gram, how many pounds in a cup, how many degrees Fahrenheit in Celsius. And the pulla came out golden brown and beautiful and tasty. If not perfect, at least it tasted right, it looked right and it smelled right.

And the smell...

As I sat in the living room, drinking my chef's...sorry, baker's glass of wine (or two) waiting for the pulla to cool off I kept feeling like suddenly as if it was Christmas. There was no pine smell, even from the little black dog on my lap (who often smells like the tea tree oil used to combat a stubborn ear infection). No candles or trees or elves or candy canes. No jolly red men in suits.

But instead, I realized, I'd unintentionally created Christmas in my house.

I haven't lived at home for about 20 years. I haven't lived in the same state as my parents for over 10. While I might have gone home for the occasional week in July or August, those are times of barbecues and outdoor living. But Christmas, in its cold midwinter, with everyone focused around home and hearth, the cardamom and cinnamony sweet scent of pulla pervades the house and has become, for me, solely associated with Christmas. My home. My family.

And I realize that the ability to recreate that is a bigger achievement than all the biscuits or bread loaves or focaccia I could have baked in my lifetime. I can recreate the smell of my home. My family. Whenever I want to.

I'm no Christmas fanatic who puts up their Christmas lights at Halloween and keeps them up 'til Easter. But the idea that I can make my own house smell like Christmas at my parents' a huge achievement.

It'll never be as good as actually being there....but, if push comes to shove, it'll be a damn good second best.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Today My Prince Arrives...Though He'll Probably Smell Bad

This afternoon I will have a dog again.

It might sound strange to some of you who aren't pet owners, but as someone who's had, for the last decade at least, a menagerie surrounding her, the lack of pet life in the house for the last six months has been a strange, sometimes lonely existence. I've had loaner pets like Lily the tabby cat, Docker the whippet and Murphy the black lab, but occasional pats and walks are not the same as the strange affection you get for an animal that will trample on you in the middle of the night.

But after six months of waiting, Otis arrives. Today.

As I write this, he's on the plane, waiting for takeoff. It won't be fun for him but 12 hours from now it will all be over, fingers crossed, including the vet and customs clearance. And, once again, I will have a dog.

In a weird way, Otis has become a figment of my imagination. So to have him arrive again is as if Prince Charming has popped out of Sleeping Beauty and landed at my feet. Strange and surreal, but hey, it's Prince Charming. Well, maybe Tramp from Lady and the Tramp is a better Disney analogy, but still in many ways it's as if the dog that I received under the Christmas tree when I was four is suddenly coming alive and once again Otis is a real being, like Pinocchio becoming a real boy.

Augh. Enough Disney already.

It's been a long road to get him here, and a financial outlay equal to the worst vet bill, but thanks to some hard working and loving sisters and generous, helpful parents, Otis is on his way.

But those who were around in the last 2.5 years know how much I've fought for this particular dog. As he was attacked in the park by a pitt bull I (insanely) stepped into the fray and helped to beat off his mangy attacker. When he went missing after the gardener didn't lock the gate right and Otis decided to go on walkabout, I didn't give up on him - 3 weeks on I was still putting up posters in Sherman Oaks and posting notices on Craigslist. Sleepless nights and buckets of tears - and after all that I was lucky for the chance to ransom him back. I've paid for two tumors to be removed, attempts to cure stubborn ear infections, haircuts, vitamins...he didn't sleep on satin sheets but I think that's the only thing I didn't pay for.

People can say, "But he's a dog. Rehome him." Which, actually, my mother actually did say when we first heard the original price of shipping him - which, luckily for me, that estimate was $1,000 over the actual $1,500 to ship him. To be fair, I had sticker shock as much as my parents did. But there's something about the magic of Otis that everyone who meets him, who lives with him, who spends time with him seems to understand why he's a special little dog and worth all the expense.

And if they don't understand, they're smart enough to keep their trap(s) shut. At least around me.

Otis arrives tomorrow. Well, today. This afternoon. 12 hours from this moment I'll have my dog again. Not A dog. MY dog.

And what a lovely, lovely thing that is.