Monday, February 7, 2011

Life Lessons: Knitting


All that money spent on yarn has taught me at few things, at least...

  • Effort helps a ton, but doesn't guarantee great results. Sometimes, you'll pour your heart and soul into a project and end up with something so amazing and breathtaking that you're proud to say you made it. Other times, you'll get something you want to hide under the bed and pretend never existed.
  • Consider what you'll need before you get started. Running out of yarn and making a sweater with one half-sleeve isn't avant garde, it just makes you look silly and cold.
  • Nothing is permanent. Even the most awful projects can be ripped back and started fresh, or you could move on to something new.
  • Savor simple pleasures. Squishing skeins of yarn in my hands is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world. It's ok to get excited about little things like that.
  • Even though you're fired up about a new project test the waters before you jump right in. All knitting patterns give an indication of gauge (how many stitches and rows per inch) so that you can knit a gauge swatch to make sure that the size you're knitting will actually fit a person, and not an elephant. Taking the time to knit that swatch can save you a boatload of time and frustration. Not that I've ever experienced this personally, of course...
  • Embrace "good enough." One fairly common "rule" of fixing knitting mistakes is the 20mph rule. Would someone driving by at 20mph notice the mistake? No? Then call it a design element and move on. If something truly bothers you, fix it, but don't worry about something just because
  • Don't bring pointy sticks on an airplane. Security doesn't like that.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Punctuation can change your life

Punctuation marks made of puzzle pieces

Living well within your means.
Living well, within your means.
Do you see the difference?
It’s the difference between eating ramen noodles every night and a variety of brain-meltingly delicious REAL dinners that fit your budget.
It’s the difference between feeling jealous of your friends who seem to go out every night, and embracing the life that YOU have chosen.
It’s the difference between deprivation and contentment.
Are you living well within your means? Are you living well? Join me in the comments and let’s talk about this!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Roo Roundup #1


That's Roo. Here are his (and my) picks for interesting, funny, thought-provoking, or just plain weird links of the week.
  • This is true minimalism: Stepcase Lifehack suggests several tips for paring down your possessions to only 100. I don't think I could ever take it that far, but I do appreciate living a more streamlined lifestyle. Good hints for clearing clutter!
  • Here's your funny for the week. Pretty much every post at Hyperbole and a Half makes me laugh til I cry and can't breathe. I feel a particular affinity for this post - I often feel like I'll never be a "real" adult.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sneaking up on productivity


Martha Stuart I am not. I do not sing cheerily as I scrub the inside of the microwave with a toothbrush. I have to be bribed to vacuum. I believe that cleaning up for company means shoving everything into the nearest closet and praying it doesn't burst open during their visit, showering everyone with confetti-like bits of domestic failure.
In housework, as with most things in life, getting started is the hardest part. One evening as I was actively avoiding all the cleaning I was supposed to be doing, my sister called. Per usual, I got off the couch and started pacing (I’m a fidgety talker). 
On my third lap through the bedroom, I noticed a small pile of clean clothes that needed to be put away. I absentmindedly put them away and continued yammering away with my sister about sisterly things.
"Wow, I can't believe he did that. Yeah, he'll probably get fired soon."
 Hmm, I have been meaning to hang up those clean clothes that are piled up on my dresser. I'll just take care of those real quick.
"Yeah, the cats are fine. One of them jumped on my head in the middle of the night but they do that all the time."
It's been bugging me that all my jewelry is stuffed into this bag. Maybe I'll just take this cute plate and arrange everything on the bureau. Wow, it looks like a real adult lives here!
"Yes, I'm sure your outfit is adorable.”
There are cat toys everywhere; I'll just pick those up. And it doesn't make sense for all these blankets and pillows to be out, I can make some room in the closet and put them away.
After 45 minutes on the phone, our apartment was looking pretty awesome. All the clutter had been picked up, and I had even done a few really minor organizational projects. And I wasn't even done! I was on a roll for almost another hour before I finally ran out of steam. All those little miscellaneous items that we'd been stepping over or pretending not to see for almost two months - an unpacked box on the floor in the bathroom, a pile of towels and a small rug stuffed into the corner of the bedroom, a stack of papers in the office - and I took care of all of it!
To say that this was a successful evening for me was a bit of an understatement. I was positively BEAMING when Husband came home.
"Did you see my bureau? What about the bathroom, did you look in the cabinet? Notice anything different, hmmmmm? Oh and look in the living room, did you see that? Anything missing? Well look in the kitchen and BE PREPARED TO BE AMAZED."
The moral of the story is, I'm incapable of doing housework unless I'm on the phone with my sister. Wait. No. Wrong takeaway, sorry.
Just start. Baby steps, and don’t think about it too much. I had no agenda, no massively overwhelming to-do list (I love to-do lists, but sometimes they’re more paralyzing than inspiring). Very often I have to trick myself into being productive, and this is a perfect example. Spoon-feeding myself little bits of tasks is absolutely the way to go so I don't freak out at the perceived magnitude of a project. My brain is an easily-spooked animal that must be approached slowly and carefully.
It seems like all the productivity gurus advocate breaking any large project down into manageable, measurable steps. That’s great advice, but it doesn’t do you any good unless you get off the couch and start something. Sometimes that requires a bit of mental trickery.
What tips and tricks do you have for chronic procrastinators like myself? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Introduction to Baking with Sourdough Starter

Show of hands...who's sick of the snow? Ok, ok, I know...most of us are. While waking up to an extra foot of snow on the ground has zero appeal to me, there are a few advantages: running the oven all day makes the apartment nice and toasty, and piping-hot homemade bread is extra tasty after spending an hour unearthing your car.

Baking is a recent love of mine. My husband can attest to the fact that my culinary skills hover right around the level of "microwave gourmand", so it was a shock to both of us when my first assays into the world of baking bread were successful. In this house, we define success as "we ate the whole thing in an hour." An entire loaf of bread. Poof! Gone. Mmmm.

Here's the secret, though: if you can assemble ikea furniture, you can bake bread. I may suck at cooking but I WIN at following directions, and that's all baking really is. None of this "add a dash of salt" or "season to taste" crap, oh no - you add one teaspoon of this, 6 ounces of that, specifically and methodically. It appeals to the part of my brain that likes putting things in order.

I owe my success to this:

Alexis, why do you have a jar of muck in your kitchen?

It's not muck.

It's sourdough starter.

What is sourdough starter?

Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water, yeast, and bacteria (the good kind, like the Activia yogurt ads are always singing about) that is used to help your bread rise and add flavor, which can range from very mild to mouth-puckering sour.

It's like a pet - it has to be cared for. It must be fed weekly (it eats flour and water), live in a clean habitat (I clean out the jar once a month), and produces "waste" (called hooch - liquid that smells an awful lot like beer that can be poured off or stirred back in, but is completely harmless).

And if you're going away for an extended period of time, it can easily be frozen and then thawed with no ill effects when you come back.

Much more low maintenance than the cats.

I've been baking with my starter since early November, so I am by no means an expert. Everything I know about it can be attributed to a few key websites (see links at the bottom of the post) and the handout that King Arthur Flour so helpfully sent along with the starter itself.

Is it done yet? Is it done yet? How about now? Now? What about now?

Where do you get starter?

Yes, you can purchase starter - I highly recommend it. There are lots of sites with instructions on how to make your own, but it can be difficult and the results aren't always great. If you're at all interested in baking with a starter, I'd buy one. I got my starter from King Arthur Flour. At $6.95 and free shipping, it's hard to beat the convenience and reliability of their starter.

Where do I keep it?

You'll need a place for your starter to live. King Arthur sells a fancy-pants sourdough and crock set, but to be honest, I wouldn't waste your money. I got my glass jar from target for $6. It's really, really, super duper important that wherever your starter lives is CLEAN! You don't want Chinese leftovers mixing with your starter; that's just gross and will most likely ruin the starter's magical abilities.


How do I take care of it?

Food: your starter eats only two things, flour and water. I use King Arthur all-purpose flour (yes, I do love all things KA, and again, don't buy it from them - it's much cheaper at the grocery store or a place like Costco) and water filtered through our Brita.

The feeding schedule took me a little while to get the hang of, since I read so many different ways of doing it. You can neglect your starter for weeks at a time, you can feed it every day, or the reality could fall somewhere in between.

My tip-of-the-iceberg understanding is this: if you're going to be baking often (probably three or four times a week), it's better to keep your starter on the counter and feed it every day. If you're like me and only bake once a week, keep it in the fridge and only feed it once a week.

Cats and bare feet are essential to your success as a baker.

So how -exactly- do I feed it?

Again, this is only what I do - another method may work better for you. Sunday is my baking day, so I pull the starter out of the fridge on Saturday night. Then I do one of two things, depending on how lazy I'm feeling:
  • The ambitious way: I take out one cup of starter after stirring in any liquid on top and make pizza dough (we have homemade pizza once a week and it's DELICIOUS - see below for the recipe). Then I feed the starter equal amounts by weight of flour and water. That means 4oz flour and 4oz water, for instance - not one cup of water and one cup of flour, since that would give you way more water than you needed. I stir that up, then let it sit overnight. In the morning, it's ready to go!
  • The lazy way (aka, the normal way): I don't make pizza dough at night. I take the starter out of the fridge, feed it, put it on the counter to sit overnight, and then do the pizza dough first thing in the morning.

Pan-friend English muffins. You will never go back to Thomas.

How much do I feed it?

The answer is, it totally depends. If I'm planning on baking a lot (which for me means 3-4 different recipes), I'll need a lot of starter, so I'll feed it a lot - maybe 8oz each of flour and water. If I'm not baking at all, I'll just feed it a couple tablespoons to keep it going and then stick it back in the fridge. The great thing about starter is that short of storing it in your oven or feeding it compost scraps, it's super hard to kill.


Let's get to the baking, already!

One thing that prevented me from jumping into baking with starter sooner was that I thought you could only make bread. And how much sourdough bread can two people eat, really?

(A LOT. It's really good.)

I have four recipes that I use all the time, and I know I've just scratched the surface of what you can do with your starter.

Here's what I bake:

I'd also love to try bagels - I think that's next on the list for me.

baking08Hello. We will be delicious in 30 minutes.


King Arthur Flour: Surprise, surprise! They have a ton of great recipes that use sourdough starter, and they have a fantastic primer on sourdough that goes into more detail than I have.

Passionate Homemaking: This blog is a great resource not only for sourdough recipes and tips, but other frugal, natural recipes and hints. Fair warning: the Passionate Homemaking blog is written from a very Christian perspective, so check out the other resources that I've listed here if you would prefer to steer clear of that.

The Fresh Loaf: This is an intense site about bread baking. A lot of it gets very scientific and goes over my head, but the forums have some really helpful information if you have specific questions about sourdough baking.

Chocolate and Zucchini: Do a search for "sourdough" and a lot of great stuff  comes up, including the bagel and English muffin recipes I linked to above. She also has a really informative post that I've bookmarked for when I get more comfortable with bread-baking about converting yeast-based recipes to use with a starter. The math makes me go a little cross-eyed, so I'm leaving that alone for now.

Questions for you

Do you bake with starter? Have any useful tips or recipes to share? Leave a note in the comments!