Archive for the ‘recollections’ Category

Learning to knit

Last week one of the commenters on my blog asked me about when and how I learned to knit and I decided to respond here.  It’s not a long story but it comes with pictures.

My mother was not a knitter.  Maybe in reaction to her own mother, who was a high school art and home ec. teacher, she didn’t sew or knit, though she had an eye for design and color that I envied.

One of my prized possessions, however, is this pair of socks, knitted by my mother for my father.

My mother’s sense of humor is clearly evident in the bell she sewed on the pointed toe of one of the pair; the socks’ lack of symmetry (and lack of similarity to the shape of a human foot) meant they were never worn and probably accounts for the fact that I still have them more than 50 years after they were made.

All of this means that I did not learn to knit from my mother.  Instead, I was taught by a dear friend when I was first in graduate school in Ann Arbor, MI in 1983, otherwise learning to be a geologist.  Knitting was something that I could do when I wasn’t studying that felt productive and didn’t make me feel guilty for avoiding school work.

Since that time, knitting has come and gone in my life.  Sometimes I knit every day, other times I don’t knit for months on end.  A return to graduate school (this time to earn a PhD in education) resulted in another period of intense knitting. This sweater was knitted during my first month in Madison, WI as I waited for classes to begin.

Living in Maine brought on another knitting phase.  I made a lot of things during that time, including this hat (knitted from a pattern designed by the wonderful knitters at the Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, VT)

and this scarf that I dreamed up all on my own.

While in Maine I also took up sculptural knitting, enrolling in no fewer than three classes on the subject and creating all kinds of things including fruit

and eggs.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been knitting a lot since moving to Portland.  One of my favorite recent projects is a collaboration with the grandson of a good friend.  Last spring I received the following detailed drawing in the mail

and made this hat based on his specifications (this picture is of the prototype — I made another, larger, one that I sent to the designer).


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Pizza memories

When I was in the eighth grade, at least a lifetime ago, my family spent a year living in a small town in the mountains of central Mexico called San Miguel de Allende.  At the time we lived there the town was still small and, while it did attract its fair share of tourists, somewhat sleepy.  Now San Miguel has become well-known as a retirement community for wealthy Amercans.

Living in Mexico was an eye opening experience for me.  We rented a modern, glass-walled apartment in a building that remained under construction the whole time we were there.  Our neighbors included American college students taking classes at the Instituto Allende, a local, bilingual art school, as well as Mexican families living in traditional homes built around open air patios.

As I became more fluent in Spanish I made friends with other kids my age, learned to cook a traditional Mexican comida (including how to make homemade corn tortillas) and how to shop and haggle for bargains in the daily market.  I still remember that year with incredible clarity.

What does all that have to do with pizza?  After our year there ended, we spent several additional summers in San Miguel and my parents eventually bought (and then, sadly, sold) a house there.  In those later years I became more familiar with the San Miguel restaurant scene.  One place in particular was a great hit with my brother and sister and me:  a small, somewhat touristy restaurant called Mama Mia’s, famous for, among other things, pizza.

My favorite pizza there was one that perfectly blended local flavors with traditional cheese pizza:  the avocado pizza.  Given my predilection both for making pizza and for translating favorite restaurant recipes into dishes I can make at home, avocado pizza is a current Sunday evening staple in our kitchen.

It’s not hard to pull this one off.  I make the dough in my bread maker (the best use for a home bread machine I can think of, since you can toss in the ingredients and set the timer before you head out for the day and have pizza dough ready to bake when you return), and a simple tomato and onion sauce on top of the stove.

Last night I also had some mushrooms that needed to be used, so I sauteed them and tossed them on before covering everything with cheese (I used an aged goat cheese last night, probably not a typical Mama Mia’s ingredient) and baking the pizza at 500 degrees for about 15 minutes.  I add the avocado last, after the pizza comes out of the oven.

I’m sure that different tastes, smells and sounds trigger memories of San Miguel for my brother and sister, but this does it for me every time.

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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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