Sunday, September 23, 2012

Growing things

About ten days ago, I took a workshop on how to make challah.  Ever since, I have been trying to make one successfully.

When I was in kindergarten, my little sister went to a Jewish nursery school, and every Friday they made challah.  She would come home with a hard twist of carbs, and, even though my parents laughed at it as not real challah, I thought it tasted good.

I have been living my sister's legacy this past week.

I get everything about the form right.  I braid a gorgeous round challah.  I roll the raisins inside so they don't burn.  I use a glaze of egg, cinnamon, and sugar. If it could be a sculpture, it would be perfect.

My realization yesterday (I am on my fifth and sixth loaves) is that I need to not think that I am making bread but that I am raising yeast.  Like my plants, which I examine carefully, making sure they are getting the right combination of light and, well, no water, I have to think of this as an exercise in growing something.

To grow, yeast apparently requires:

  • Proofing.  I wince as I say that.  What a weird use of that word, but apparently it is something people say.  My recipe didn't have instructions about it, but yesterday I combined yeast, sugar, and water warmed with meat-thermometer accuracy and watched the slurry bubble.
  • No drafts.  There is also something about covering it with plastic wrap.  My immediate thought is that there was no plastic wrap in the shtetl, followed by a thought that if you cover it tightly the yeast will ferment anaerobically, and that can't be good.  Apparently in the shtetl they used a damp cloth ... its purpose, as I'm trying to respect this time around, is to reduce drafts.  Drafts?
  • Patience.  My recipe says to let it rise for an hour or so.  So I set the chicken(-shaped) timer for an hour and take a break.  It's supposed to double in size ... I look at it and think, well, maybe I forgot how small it was beforehand.
  • Warmth.  Everyone I've talked to about my challenges tells me that their grandmothers put the dough in the oven with the oven light on, that that is the perfect temperature for rising.  
Last night: I proofed the yeast, put the dough in a cooling oven, put the light on, was patient, and left it there all night (which apparently also happened in the shtetl, although somehow I think perhaps they didn't have oven lights).

I woke up this morning and finally understood what rising means!  This is an entirely different dough than what I've experienced so far.  I've now grown some great yeast.

However, and perhaps this is the deeper source of my problem and my impatience, the part I really care about is not the growing, not even the eating, but the kneading.

The only time I ever saw a family member knead was when I was very, very little, and I watched my grandmother make kreplach.  When I had my first wonton, it sent me right back to my grandmother's kreplach.  Interestingly, my family laughed at my grandmother's kreplach, too, so that's probably why I only had it that once.

I love kneading.  Delightfully, challah involves two risings and therefore two kneadings.  When I started this process of learning how to make challah, kneading for just a few minutes was hard.  Now I can easily go 10 minutes (and I'm not supposed to go longer, sadly), standing on solid shoes; sometimes literally pounding the dough with my fists after the second rise, breathing rhythmically, kneading with my palms and my fingers.  Turn, fold, breathe, punch.  It's meditative.

The two that rose

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why I look for non-toxic plants

Sophie tells the new Sanseveria trifasciata who is in charge in this house.

Geeking out on plants (2)

I must be really bored, because I've become obsessive about succulents.

I took the jade and the very sad looking Echeveria setosa to Cactus Jungle, nervous that they would tell me I'd totally screwed up or that I was totally crazy.  As I walked by the whippet (their mascot), who was curled up under a blanket, he looked up at me dolefully.  (Then again, I think that's the only look a whippet has.)

The invited me to the counter and took my concerns seriously, in a "I'm not going to let on that I think you're totally crazy" kind of way.  The black spots on the jade may be a fungus, but it won't kill it, and they think it will in fact be totally fine.  He kept emphasizing that the black tends to be on the leaves that are about to fall off.  He repeated that in such a way that I think he was patiently trying to help me understand that when plants grow their older leaves fall off.  I showed him the chewed-on Echeveria, and he said it would recover and that the darker leaves I pointed out ... well, see, leaves die and fall off, and other leaves replace them.

With two healthy plants, I took a stroll around.  And came out with ... four more.  Two more Aeonia: lindleyi, which looks like a bonsai tree, and "Whippet," a strain they found growing on another Aeonium and named for their mascot.  I grabbed a Peperomia ferreyrae, another tiny plant for my work windowsill, which is a relative of the peppercorn and is totally adorable.

I have soil anxiety, so for every plant I buy, I ask how long it can go in that particular pot.  The very nice woman who helped me last time pointed to a plant I was considering and said, "That one will need potting soon."  "Soon?" I asked fearfully.  She said yes, like in a year.

I picked my jaw up off the floor (I guess plant-time is different from human time) and laughed as I explained that I've never kept a plant alive as long as a year.

And, finally, I bought a Sanseveria.  A classic snake plant, S. trifasciata.  I asked the same woman as last time about them, and I told her I wanted one with variegated leaves that would get tall.  I pulled out a S. trifasciata that had a variegated leaf I liked, and I said, "Like this."  She looked at it and said, "Well, those other leaves are just sort of floppy."  "Not a beautiful specimen!" I interpreted.  I picked another one, also with a leaf I liked, and she perked up, "That's a nice one!"  The other leaves looked bad just because they were covered in dust, she said.

When I got home, I gently washed the leaves of the Sansa, and they came out gorgeous.  Yes, I washed the leaves of a plant.  Who am I, and what have I done with Lisa?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Geeking out on plants

When we last left our hero, she had decided to go to a nursery to buy a snake plant.

The nursery I found online, and then ran out the door to get to in time, is Cactus Jungle.  How perfect!  I spent a long time there examining the gazillion plants they have that they claim I couldn't kill.  Some really pretty things.

And now I am a plant geek.  Well, just succulents.  I bought a gorgeous jade plant, which at $40 cost twice as much as the most expensive plant I've ever bought.  Then I started impulse buying, suddenly desiring more beautiful greenery in my life.

Echeveria setosa, Aeonium gomerense, and (in back) Crassula ovata.
They are even happier today than they are in this picture.

It wasn't just a shopping spree.  This place takes plants so seriously that they call the plants by their Latin names, so now I get to learn and recite these beautiful words.  I know it's a jade plant, and that's its nickname.  It's actually a Crassula ovata.  For outside my door, I bought a small Echeveria setosa and an Aeonium gomerense. (Note that Aeonium has all the vowels, awesome.)

As I picked out which Echeveria and Crassula I wanted, I asked the woman working there, "Is this a good one?" and she would say, "That's a beautiful specimen."  So not only do I have great plants, I have beautiful specimens.

Realizing I could use an office plant, I ran back in at the last minute and said, "I need a plant that can sit on a cold office windowsill that gets very indirect sunlight."  She handed me a teeny tiny pot with one of the weirdest plants I've ever seen, a string of pearls plant (another "beautiful specimen).  I actually don't know the Latin name.  It looks like the inside of a peapod, a string of peas, but it's very hardy.  You can't pull the peas/pearls off.  Like the other plants I bought, it doesn't need any attention.

Ironically, now that I've bought plants that need no attention, the geeking out comes, not only with my rolling their names around in my mouth, but with my daily checking and inspection of them to make sure they are happy.  I carefully monitor and remove dead leaves and celebrate the arrival of new ones.  I didn't want the Echeveria and Aeonium to be too cold, so I brought them in to bake in the warmth of my western window.  Yesterday, I discovered some bites taken out of the Echeveria, which luckily is not poisonous to cats, so now that poor plant is exiled to outside again until it heals.

Today I noticed that the Crassula ovata has some black spots under the leaves.  The old me would (1) not have noticed, and, if I did, (2) ignored it until the plant died.  The new succulent geek-me googled this and found that my plant may have a virus.  Since Cactus Jungle says I can bring in plants that may be ill for a consultation, that's my plan for tomorrow.

I will likely leave there with another plant, and a new Latin name, to add to my menagerie.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

There are still dragons

My friend, A., is a Targaryen.

Tonight, she and I were part of a challah baking class.  We pounded the dough, broke it into three pieces, made them into strands, and braided them.  A. had a little tiny bit of dough left over, so she made a ball and put it in the middle of the baking tray.  "That's the challah!" someone said.

During Temple times (2000 years ago), the Jews were required to break off a piece of bread and give it to the temple priests (whose meals were gleaned from the various sacrifices, since they had no resources of their own).  Apparently, after the destruction of the Temple the tradition became to tear off a piece of dough and burn it in the oven in memory of the gift to the priests.  This is still a practice for some people.  "Challah" means portion, so technically it describes that piece, not the whole loaf.

When the challah loaves came out of the oven, A. reached over to the tray and picked up the little ball.  She tore it off a piece to taste and then handed the ball to me.

I tried to tear off a piece, but the ball was just too hot for me to hold.  As she took it back from me, she joked about having asbestos hands.  "I take things out of the oven with my bare hands," she said.

She'd only seen a few episodes of Game of Thrones, so she wasn't aware of Daenarys Targaryen's imperviousness to heat and fire.  I explained that fire cannot hurt the dragon, and she said, "Oh, then I'm totally a dragon."

A. has pale blonde hair, blue eyes, and skin so fair you can practically see through it.  Apparently, there are still dragons.

Monday, September 3, 2012

I tried, really I did.

A while back I brought my first plant into my home.  A kentia palm.  When that died, about a year ago, I went back to OSH and bought another palm, this time a majesty palm.  That has died as well.

The first died from underwatering; the second got mold from overwatering (I was told to drench the soil, not dump the occasional leftover glass of water in it), so I stopped watering it to kill the mold.

This time, before returning it to OSH, I did some research on "plants you can't kill."  What did we do before google?  I immediately found the magic list.  I was in particular looking for something that I didn't have to water at all, since I'm really good at that.

I cross-referenced that list with the list of plants that are poisonous to cats (which crosses off philodendron pretty quickly, but that's OK because they are vines and need to be put somewhere other than the floor) and came up with Snake Plant and its, well, relation, Mother-in-Law's Tongue. Both of these ominous-sounding plants are from the genus Sanseviera, which makes me wonder if Sansa Stark is a namesake.

They are considered air purifiers and are even used for treating sick building syndrome.  Kind of like turkey vultures: ominously-named creatures that have a peaceful purpose.

[That turkey vulture link goes to another post of mine from a year ago that I only just discovered I'd never published.  A lost manuscript.  I backdated it, so it looks like I published it a while ago, but anyone investigating its provenance would see is that it's dated exactly a year ago from this moment.]

Snake plants are on the poisonous-to-cats list, but further googling shows people with cats saying (1) they are only mildly toxic, and (2) no one has ever seen a cat try to eat one.  One person reported that her cat destroyed her snake plant, but the cat was not harmed.

Off to OSH.  The woman in customer service looked at my plant and told me all the reasons it died.  Whhnnnahh wnah whnnaaaahh.  (That's the Charlie Brown "adults talking" sound.)  When I mentioned snake plant, looking for approval, she suggested I get a philodendron.  Then I told her I was thinking cactus or maybe something plastic.

I went looking for snake plants and found three puny ones.  I found other plants that you can't kill: lots of dracaenae, but they were more poisonous; bromeliads, but they would have given me nightmares (the online photos don't do the creepiness justice). Also, the "plants you can't kill" site says they require copious water.

I may need to buy a snake plant from a place that really sells plants.  Right, a nursery.  Well, it had better not die.