In Honor of a Hard-working Sister

One enormous loaf of “Sister Bread” or “Pain a la Suzanne”

Mixed: Wednesday, 8 pm

Folded: Thursday, 10 am

Molded: Thursday, 10:20 am

Baked: Thursday 1 pm

Gave to: 18 very hungry Thanksgiving meal family folk–minus my sister 😦

My sister was once described as an Eveready Battery. She’s a dynamo, who charges into the world at 4am, teaches 23 aerobic classes in one week (I’m not kidding!), who somehow manages to still bake pies for parties, and can beat all of her siblings at pushups, long distance anything, and crossword puzzles.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day and Suzanne could not join us for the big turkey meal out on the terrace. Unable to recharge her massive battery in time, she opted out of the two-hour drive to the desert and stayed home to celebrate the holiday, (which was also her birthday,) with a friend. Missing her, and in her honor, my older baker brother and I made the coolest loaf of bread ever, and named it Pain a la Suzanne. Only problem is, we ate it!

For all those people whose lives are just jam-packed with busyness as Suzie’s is, this loaf of bread is perfect. You need only the most basic ingredients–you quickly mix it the night before, then fold and mold it after a 15-18 hour rise, then bake it in a large enamel pot in the oven. The end result is a very crusty hearth loaf that has a sturdy, chewy, delicious crumb. The originator of this no nonsense recipe is Jim Lahey of  Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan–and I just dare you to try it!

Here’s a link to the recipe, followed by a photo of the bread coming out of the oven.

No Knead Dough Recipe

And here is my brother and husband trying to beam the bread from the desert to the coast. It didn’t work, and as I mentioned above, we ate it…

But even though we ate it, we’ll be baking again tomorrow, and the day after. We’ll get her a loaf soon–no worries there.

Happy Birthday, Suzanne. We love you…



Two loaves molassas bread (plus cranberry preserves)

mixed: noon

molded: 1:40 pm

baked: 2:20 pm

gave to: homeless dinner at our church

I grew up in a home of four children: girl-boy-girl-boy. I’m the third, squished between two boys–one six years older than me, the other who toddled just behind. These two boys have helped shape my life in countless ways. I was an indentured yet happy servant to one, and a mini-mother to the other. They are both people you love to be around, one so selfless and silly, the other completely made of charm… And they would do most anything for me. Run to me if I needed saving. Even drag me off on business to France. I love them.

As I watched the line gradually grow at the dinner for the homeless last night, where my basket of molassas bread sat waiting for hungry mouths, I wondered where their brothers were. These men and women, dirty, drunk, so full of hurt. I walked among them, chatted to Dina about learning Greek, signed a floppy leather hat of another who then begged to have his photo taken… Where are their brothers? Where?

I have such love around me, such happy security. Such beauty in the fountain that brings finches to my yard, the scent and space of the ocean just down the road, the smell of bread baking, the sound of my children singing while they play. And I have these brothers who make me laugh. I’m thankful for them, and pray I can be the right kind of sister to them, and maybe even be a sister,

at least for a moment,

to those standing, waiting their turn for my molassas bread.

A Gift

No mixing, molding or baking. But we did refresh our beloved sourdough starter before heading home.

That lucky starter. What fun. We fed it water from la source, and wheat from the French country side. We toted it to the village church and to the bank of the Nive and to visit the lambs–we even brought it with us in the car the day we visited three neighboring villages. Now, it’s home; its second trip across the Atlantic a success. No messes in the suitcases, no explosions in the cargo bay. I remixed it last night and, ooh, does it smell good.

And I’m ready to bake. After a week of touring and translating I’m itching to get my fingers worked into some dough, which I’ll do in an hour or two. My son’s school is sponsoring a homeless dinner this evening, so I’ll be sharing molassas bread and cranberry preserves, but more on that later.

This week spent in the Basque country was an absolute gift. To spend six days with my two brothers, laughing, recounting stories, making new memories was an unexpected treasure. I made a pact with myself at the beginning of the trip that I would rejoice in every twist and turn of this adventure. No moaning, no complaining–only a grateful heart. I was there to work–to be the media woman–to take photos and video, and to translate and help guide. And there were a few times whenI had to remind myself that being tired didn’t matter, that being squished in the middle seat of an airplane for eleven hours didn’t matter. That this was a gift and I should rejoice!

And in the spirit of sharing that joy, here are some photos of our time together. Though not a single loaf of bread was baked and given away, the spirit of giving was a part of every day–between ourselves, with the villagers, with our cousins and aunt… I am grateful!

Shoulder to shoulder in St. Jean de Luz

Communicating with Pantxo on the other side of the valley

Two baker brothers and me

At our great grandfather's old bakery

Our sourdough starter on the road

Johnny in Espelette

One of Pantxo's lambs

Etxea Maitea--the family house

The boulangerie

Leaving Les Aldudes

Baguettes from Baigorry

Feet in the Atlantic

La Source

Reviving the starter, but no baking today.

Yesterday was all about meetings. By the end of the day I decided that the French habit of going on strike, wasn’t such a bad idea. I had translated back and forth for hours and was running out of words come midnight. My brothers had brought me to France to work, and that I did!

But today the meetings had ended and it was all about reconnecting with this beautiful place. Sure, I did a bit of translating, but there’s not much interpreting when it comes to visiting the petits cochons. Pig language, I believe, is universal. Here’s a pair of particularly cute cochons that I caught roaming around their pen. These pie noirs pigs are a breed exclusive to the Basque country, and they almost went extinct in the 50’s. The breed was revived and has become a thriving industry for the village. They live in little huts when they’re young, then get to roam the mountains freely when they’re a bit older, munching on wild apples and grass and local herbs. I noticed that the largest of this litter, and the runt, are friends…

One of the great pleasures of the day was feeding our sourdough starter. We first lit a candle in church (the candles are enormous, about two feet in length and thick–they cost 1 euro–quite a bargain!), then visited the local baker, who lives and bakes on the very same property where my great grandfather used to run his business. We toured the property, marveling at the old brick oven and chatted for a while, then bought a baguette. Christophe makes mighty fine bread.

Then we headed to La Source. It’s a spot along the road where an underground stream comes gushing out of the mountain. The local villagers love this spring, and people from even an hour away will come here to fill up their empty bottles to transport them home. They say it’s filled with minerals and helps all sorts of ailments–plus it runs just as strong and clear when it’s summer and hot, as when it’s winter and freezing… We bottled some of the water that they’ve channeled through a large pipe and later fed it to our starter. Every starter needs a little dose of mountain spring water from Les Aldudes, don’t you think?

The afternoon was spent at my aunt’s house, where we visited and laughed and loved each other… And in the evening we ate the rest of the baguette, fed the starter some type 55 flour, munched a bit of cheese with a taste of tomato, and sipped a small glass of local wine. We admired the fresh air after a very warm day and transported the starter to the backyard to hang out with the ferns that grow so well here in the mountains.

And now, it’s late. The church bells will be chiming 11pm soon and tomorrow the starter’s journey will continue. It’s lambing season so we hope to visit Pantxo, our friend the shepherd across the way, and soak in our last moments here in the valley before we’re off. The starter will go where we go. We want it to see the lambs, too. Meanwhile, I’ll have one more glass of water from La Source before bed.

oop… better hurry. The church bells are chiming.

Bonne nuit, mes amis…

Back to the Beginning…

No mixing or molding or baking today. Just unveiling the sourdough starter, allowing it to breathe…

We were welcomed again with open arms. My brothers and I have arrived back in Les Aldudes, a Basque village of 360 people tucked in the Pyrenees mountains that separate France and Spain. This is the village where my great, great grandfather was born. I am writing today from the house in which he lived for those short fifteen years before he ventured to the new world. And though 100 years have passed, the people of this place always treat us as though we’ve only been gone a few years, and that we’ve finally returned to the land and air that was partially made for us.

The church bells just chimed six. I also heard them at four and at five. Who needs sleep! I am anxious for the sun. Yesterday, as we drove into the valley at dusk, we marveled at the autumn colors–the deep rust of the sleeping ferns. The yellow and oranges and some still green leaves that painted the mountains. And the three of us, my older brother, John, and my younger brother, Charlie, couldn’t stop our gushing.

I am so grateful for this home away from home…

Sourdough through Security

No mixing, or molding or baking. Or giving today…

I’m flying out to France and all week I’ve been wondering if sourdough starter qualifies as a liquid. I thought about putting a call in to someone at the airlines, but that was just a quick thought. You know what it’s like to call the airlines. Who knows how many people I’d have to talk to before they got to anyone who even knows what sourdough starter is…

Last night I floured up my starter to make it more dough-like. What I’m most worried about is that the yeast might go crazy in the altitude and blow up in my luggage! My ancestors, when they brought it from the Pyrenees over the mountains, across the ocean etc… didn’t have to worry about cabin pressure, did they…


Since we do have a washing machine in the house in France (granted, it’s a bizarre machine that requires 10 green balls to move the clothes around the interior, although we’ve lost a considerable amount of the balls, because when you remove the clothes the balls fling out, too, and bounce all over the floor and under the fridge and such…) anyway, since we do have a washing machine, I figure if the starter does somehow ooze all over, I can just wash the clothes and continue on with life.

I’ll also have a wee bit of starter in my hand luggage, just as a back up.

And the point of bringing the starter is purely nostalgic. I want to recapture some of the home yeasties and bring them back. I want the starter to finally see its birthplace. I want the mother dough to have this opportunity to reconnect with its roots. Aren’t I a nice caretaker? Plus, it’ll be fun.

Okay, wish me safe travels.

Too Busy to Ask…

double batch of chocolate chip scones

Mixed 12:30

Baked  1pm

Gave to several twenty-somethings holding signs for food, downtown

scones and kids

I’m heading to France in just three days. I’m launching a reading program, hosting a birthday party tomorrow, my husband is out of town and my daughter is in the middle of a run of nine-straight days of opera rehearsal. Tomorrow’s the first performance. I need to write a newsletter, curl my daughter’s hair into ringlets, (every day–and it takes forever!) and put together the party bags. Oh, and clean! I don’t do well when I’m terribly busy. I shut down.

So, yesterday at 4pm I did just that. I had so many things on my list that I became crippled and sat on the kitchen floor, barefoot and in jeans and a cozy sweater, and cleaned the fronts of all my cabinets. I just sat there, for hours, spraying and wiping and monitoring each square inch of painted white. Finally, at 7pm, with the youngest already sleeping, I went to bed, too. I just lay there, a still-dressed lump, until I peeled my body out of bed at 9:30pm to collect my daughter from rehearsal.

Today the race began yet again, but with even less time and more to do. I knew I needed a strategy or I’d end up cleaning some other unimportant furniture item. Knowing my tendency to shut down when overwhelmed I decided all day long that I’d drive in the slow lane and only try to do one thing at a time. No multi-tasking. No eating while typing, or calling while driving, or gardening while hot-air ballooning. Better to leave something undone, than do everything poorly–or have to do it twice–don’t you hate that?!

So, with this strategy of Slow I’ve been able to make some strides forward. I even had a chance to bake a double batch of scones today, taking half to my son’s school for a performance tonight, giving the other half to folks holding signs downtown. We delivered them to several young gypsies who probably haven’t had warm scones in a while. Who definitely don’t look like they’re bothered by lists and getting things done. Maybe they’ve hit the wall, too, like I did yesterday.  Maybe they just feel like cleaning cabinet fronts. I don’t know.

Funny, that. I guess I was too busy to ask.

Shame on me…

scone giveaway nov 09-picniked


half recipe, French bread, two boules

Mixed 1:15pm

Molded 3pm

Baked 4pm

Gave to Grandpa Dunn

I was on the phone with my friend, Joanne, the other day after I’d just been pulled away from a writing project. I moaned a bit, saying how much I’d like some time to just work! With the few moments I have each day to write, I can’t even imagine the luxury of having eight straight hours to type away, unhindered by requests for building marble tracks and yet another cup of milk…

She reminded me that some days she’d like to be home baking bread and going to the beach.

Thank you, Joanne, for that reminder! I deserve a sock in the nose.

Today’s boule is a loaf of gratitude, and a reminder to myself that I am where I should be, doing what’s set before me… even if I don’t always like it. But I do like it–that’s the rub. I love it.

Grandpa Dunn lost his house in last November’s Tea Fire here in Santa Barbara. And… he was a radio man during the Second World War for the navy. Though I’ve never met him, (his granddaughter lives across the street and is a very favorite neighbor) I’ve heard the stories of how he built his own adobe home in the hills, and that he’s rebuilding that house, even now, at over 90 years old. It’s Veteran’s Day, and the loaf is being driven up to the hills as I type. I hope he enjoys a taste of my gratitude for his service.

Yes, gratitude. I’m reaching into the air, grabbing that gratitude back and saying thanks right now, on this Veteran’s Day 2009, to all those who have fought for peace, and reminding myself to be thankful for the countless little things–like building marble tracks, and baking bread, and going to the beach, and pouring out cups of milk, and tending my pomegranates. I love my pomegranates…

jane kisses pomegranate

…And if I were at work all day I wouldn’t have near as much time to make pomegranate syrup, and pomegranate jelly, and eat pomegranate seeds straight from the skin.

Those are just a few things on my list: What are you thankful for?

Feasting on Bread

new recipe–Greek bread with black olives, cilantro and red onions in honor of Saint Nektarios

Mixed 11am

Molded 12:15-1pm–took forever!

Baked 2pm

Gave to Noah Nektarios and his family

Well, it’s not like Noah can really eat Greek olive bread yet. He’s only three weeks or so old. Just a little munchkin. But his patron saint is Saint Nektarios–and we’re fans too, with our John Ronan being born today, on his feast day. So, I made this Greek recipe for the two of them, but really, the parents are the ones gobbling it up.

It must be disaster week for the Woman and the Wheat. I should have known better. Every time I try to bake a recipe out of “Cooks Encyclopedia of Breads” there is some flaw that I encounter. Last week I made a Swedish knackebrod–which has a cool name, and a fun shape, but the cracker was almost inedible. Tasteless. And once before I tried to make some Indian bread from Cooks. Bad. Quite bad…

I knew something was a bit wrong when the recipe for today’s olive bread said that the dough had six cups of flour and then to add an entire chopped red onion, plus a cup and a half of chopped black olives. That’s a lot of moisture to add to a small mix of dough, so I cut way back on the added ingredients and still, it was a complete mess. Here I am, trying to work in the ingredients. I was supposed to just sort of pocket them inside, but, then it would turn out like a Greek hot pocket. That would be weird.

st n yucky kneading

My daughter was in the kitchen while I was kneading. I wish I had audio for you. For the first ten minutes, as I fought to incorporate the olives and onions and all their moistness, there was the most amazing sloshing and squishing noise coming from the dough. She and my son were in hysterics and saying all sorts of horrible things about my bread baking.

Then later, as I tried to place a braided cross over the top, my daughter said the bread was so ugly that I shouldn’t even think about giving it to someone on the street. Harsh critic indeed. But look at it. She has a point.

st n close up braiding

Anyway, chock it up to experience and meanwhile I’ll think about chucking the Cooks Encyclopedia. I’m going to try one more recipe of theirs just for kicks, and if they disappoint me once again, then into the recycle bin it goes…

Last note. Even with it being a very ugly loaf, and having to flow with the punches mid-mix, the bread really was delicious! My daughter even tried a bite… Here it is after the bake:


Happy feast day, Noah. I hope to meet you soon!

Badly Behaving Yeast and Science Class

Half recipe–French–two jacos

Mixed 8:15 pm Saturday

Molded 9:30 pm Saturday

Retarded in fridge all night

Baked 8 am Sunday

Gave to Mrs. G and Ciara

This batch of bread was close to a disaster. It’s either the new flour ( Gold Medal “Better for Bread” –I bought it because it was on sale. :()…  …0r yeast that is old and very unzippy… I forged ahead, and baked this floppy dough all the same, knowing that warm, fresh bread is good, even when it’s bad.

So that’s one of my first tips on baking for you. Even when you flub it up, it’s almost always still pretty good. I’m a good flubber–so I should know. This loaf, for Mrs G was a flubber. As a consolation prize, while the oven was still hot, I threw in a batch of cookies to boot.  You can make almost anything better with an added batch of cookies.

But  know this: Mrs. G deserves more than a loaf of bread and a small batch of cookies. Talk about giving! She teaches science to a gaggle of girls every Thursday morning, my daughter being one of them. Does she charge for this year-long class? No… If she did, I would be happily writing her out checks instead of baking her loaves of bread. Cheers to you, Cheryl, and all your science experiments!

Anyway, back to the bread. I think the batch was a flop because of lame yeast. I’ll know next time I bake, since I’ll proof the yeast first and see how it responds in front of my eyes to a little warm water. Typically I don’t proof yeast; I just mix it straight into the flour while dry, and activate it as I’m mixing and kneading the dough.

Now for the photos so you can see just how bad this batch was. Here’s the dough in the fridge under a brown towel. Retarding dough for an hour or more is one of the great secrets of not being a slave to your bread. More on that later. (And check out those Brussel sprouts!)

floppy in fridge

And here’s the floppy dough.

floppy dough

And here it is baked.

floppy dough--baked

I hope Ciara and Mrs. G enjoyed it. They had to stay home from church this morning because Ciara was unwell.  Cheers. We love you, Mrs. G–and thanks for being an incredible science teacher. Maybe the next lesson could be on badly behaved yeast?!!!