Archive for November, 2009

Making pita at home

One of my favorite breads to make at home is pita, something I once thought was out of my reach but that I now make at least a few times a year.

The recipe I like is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s contribution to Baking with Julia, the cookbook that accompanied Julia’s wonderful baking show on PBS.

As with many of the other breads I make, this recipe begins with a starter, made of whole wheat flour, water and yeast, that is left to ferment overnight.

In the morning, the starter gets mixed with all-purpose white flour, water, salt and olive oil and kneaded until it forms a smooth and supple dough.

After a few hours, when the dough has doubled in volume, it is gently deflated

and formed into small balls

which are then rolled flat

and baked, either in the oven or, if you want to have even more fun, on a griddle on the top of the stove

where they puff up right before your eyes.

They look good in a basket, too!

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Orange hat

A few weeks ago an old friend was in town.  We had not seen each other for too long and we spent a lot of time reconnecting and talking about what had been happening in our lives over the intervening years.

One of the results of her visit was this hat:


knitted for her daughter, whose favorite color is orange.


I used one my favorite, all-purpose yarns, Lamb’s Pride,


and a pattern from a new book I found by Ann Budd, The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns.


Of course, I didn’t really follow the pattern, but that’s par for the course with me.


I just hope the hat fits.

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Fall photos

When we first moved here last year people warned us about the winter weather.


They were right, it rains a lot in Portland in the late fall and winter.  At the time, a lot of rain and consecutive overcast days didn’t seem like a bad trade for months of winter, bitter cold and many feet of snow.  After a full year I still feel that way.

Grey skies and the diffuse light they bring are also great for taking interesting pictures.


Wet pavements are too.




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When we moved to Maine from Michigan one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was how far it was to a bakery that sold good, rustic loaves of bread.  There are great bakeries in Maine but all of them were at least a 40 minute drive from our house.  So I learned to bake my own bread.

Even now, when I live in a place with bakeries on just about every corner, I still love to bake my own bread.  There is something about creating food from flour, water and yeast that makes me feel happy.  Kind of like making cloth from two sticks and a string.

The first bread baking book I used was Daniel Leader’s book, Bread Alone.


The first recipe I tried, and the one I still turn to over and over again, was the loaf he calls “A Learning Recipe:  Classic Country-Style Hearth Loaf.”


Honestly, this recipe has never failed to turn out wonderful bread.  I still make it whenever my sourdough starter is not ready to use, and even sometimes when it is.

The recipe begins with a quick starter called a poolish that contains water, flour and a little bit of yeast.  The poolish ferments for as little as two hours or as long as overnight.  The longer it goes, the more flavorful the final bread.

Once the poolish is ready, it gets mixed with more water, flour, yeast and salt.  Leader likes you to knead the bread for a long time, but given my recent reading about little- or no-knead loaves, I decided to reduce the kneading time and instead allow the dough to sit (or autolyse) for about twenty minutes after all of the flour had been added.   A little bit of kneading after that point, and the dough was ready to rise.


Two hours later, I divided the dough into two loaves and set them to rise again in my banneton, willow baskets made especially for bread.



This second rise took about an hour at which point the loaves were ready to bake.


About forty-five minutes before the loaves were ready to go into the oven I had pre-heated a baking stone and a cast iron pan. I turned the loaves out onto a peel dusted with coarse corn meal


and slashed the top with a sharp razor, or lame.


I slid the loaves onto the baking stone and added about 1/2 cup of water to the pre-heated cast iron pan to create steam in the oven.  After about 10 minutes the loaves had risen even more (a phenomenon appropriately called oven-spring).


And after about 45 minutes, they were done!


The hardest part is listening to them crackle in a room filled with that sweet just-baked bread smell and knowing I have to wait for them to cool before cutting into them.

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Busy week

This has been a really busy week for me.  Somehow I scheduled major assignments in both of my classes for the same week.  The result:  lots of time spent reading student papers (something I actually like doing) and not much time spent doing anything else.

It is also really fall here in Portland.  Most of the week was grey and rainy.  This is the view from the walkway I take from my car to my office.


There were a couple of high points to the week (in addition to the papers I read).  First, there was the delicious tortilla soup S made for dinner last weekend.


And I finished one of the hats I have been working on.  This one for my friend’s son B.


I hope it fits!

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Last week one of my heroes died.  Ted Sizer was an educator, author, school reformer, and the source of much of what inspired me in my own work in schools and with teachers.  That may seem like a funny start to a post about what keeps me going, but it actually makes sense.


My first teaching job (somewhat by accident) and my second (completely by design) were both at schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), the school reform network that Ted Sizer founded.  Connected by a set of Common Principles (there were originally nine, now there are ten), teachers and administrators in CES schools strive to help students do meaningful work, to develop equitable school practices that acknowledge and support all students, and to allow students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that honor both what has been learned and the uniqueness of the individual who has done the learning.


That is the context in which I learned to teach, and in which I developed my beliefs about what it means to be an educator.  Although I no longer teach in a CES school, those principles guide my work still.  I share them with my current students, and I keep them in mind when I plan and teach my university classes.

Talking about making schools better is popular these days and just about everyone has an opinion about what to do.  Ted Sizer’s opinion, and his work, represent what I think is a good start — one that respects teachers and what they know, that asks us to listen to our students and that places a value on meaningful learning that helps children develop into caring, thoughtful adults who can make society better for everyone.


I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about farmer, philosopher and environmentalist Wes Jackson that ended with this line:  “If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”  That’s how I think about my own efforts to change public schools for the better, and Ted Sizer’s life and work inspires me even though I know it’s a job that isn’t likely to be solved in a lifetime.


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