Sunday, October 30, 2011

A GREAT Christmas This Year, No Matter What

One of the most memorable Christmases in my life was in the depths of the early 1980s recession, the year my grandmother had open heart surgery right after Thanksgiving.  Between unemployment, faltering businesses, and serious health issues, everyone in the family had Big Worries and no money.

All of our gifts that year were either homemade or inexpensive. And we were together. The children were young. Confidence and hope for a good future took hold. It was Christmas.

Mema had always made the holiday dinners, but she wasn't able to that year, so Mama got to make Christmas Dinner and have it at her house. It was not something she wanted to take on permanently, but was a fun new experience, and we had a sumptuous meal.

Mema usually took care of buying any purchased gifts they gave, and Nandy often built furniture or toys in his workshop for us. But this year, he was too busy caring for Mema to make anything, so he went shopping on Christmas Eve.

Under the tree for me was a simple motto plaque. He said he thought about me immediately when he saw it. It reads:

"The Way To Happiness:
Keep your heart free from hate...
Your mind from worry...
Live simply... expect little...
Give much..."

It still hangs in our home, and it has inspired me during good times and bad for 30 years.

What were some of your best Christmases? I'll bet they weren't times when your family had the most money, but when you had the most love.

Make up your mind to make this one of those best Christmases.

Give from your heart in every way you can, and even if you don't spend a dime, Christmas will be beautiful for your children, your spouse, your family, your friends, your neighbors... and for you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

De-Occupy Wall Street

Speaking of toil, there's a new Facebook group, and even though I have withdrawn from most FB activity, I like it!   

"De-Occupy Wall Street"

My favorite comment so far, from the administrator: 

"Create a job if none are available... that's what we do in the land of the free. There is no crying in freedom...only an open market."

Thanks to my FB pal for sharing it. :-)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"...but the blessing of earth is toil."

"Born within a lowly stable, where the cattle 'round Me stood,
Trained a carpenter in Nazareth, I have toiled, and found it good.

"They who tread the path of labor follow where My feet have trod;
They who work without complaining do the holy will of God.

"Where the many toil together, there am I among My own;
Where the tired workman sleepeth, there am I with him alone

More from Henry Van Dyke's "The Friendly Year". These verses are a small excerpt from "The Toiling of Felix, and Other Poems",  first published in 1900, a lyrical meditation on the spiritual value of work and labor in a happy life.

...and another Henry Ossawa Tanner painting: the oft-marketed "Young Sabot Maker", in which Tanner, in Paris, depicted a young apprentice learning to make wooden shoes, using the same kinds of woodworking tools that carpenters have used for thousands of years. Compare with the one above, which Georges DelaTour painted in the mid 17th century, of St Joseph in his cabinet shop, with the young Jesus at hand. As Tanner moved deeper and deeper into his calling to paint the biblical reality, it is easy to imagine his meditation on Jesus' childhood in a carpenter's home.

Tanner said of his work "My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting ... but at the same time give the human touch "which makes the whole world kin" and which ever remains the same. "

In the poet's words:
"This is the gospel of labour, ring it, ye bells of the kirk!
The Lord of Love came down from above, to live with the men who work.
This is the rose that He planted, here in the thorn-curst soil:
Heaven is blest with perfect rest, but the blessing of Earth is toil.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Learning How to Make Real Yeast Bread From Scratch - in Two Hours!

Last winter, I tried, unsuccessfully, to make homemade yeast rolls. I say "unsuccessfully" because they turned out exactly like cheap brown-n-serve rolls, except they took me all day (and 3 risings) to make.

Last weekend, I decided to keep trying until something worked. My recipe uses a method my grandmother learned in a breadmaking class 30 years ago. I chose it to start with because it is FAST (from start to baked in about 2 hours), and because it makes only one loaf (so less waste from failed experiments).

My first loaf, following the recipe & directions sort-of, was a pitiful failure. It used whole wheat flour, which made it heavy and dull. And when the instructions said "makes 2 small or one large loaf", I thought standard loaf pans were "small". Wrong.  I crumbled it and dried it to put out this winter. Maybe the birds will eat it on snow days, if they get hungry enough.

So I immediately made another. This time, I tried one of the alternatives in the recipe and used plain white flour. But their idea of "enough flour" is not enough for my oven, I guess, because this loaf - although better than the first - was still too weak to reach the top of the loaf pan. More bird bread (although we did eat a few slices of this, and praised the flavor).

Paul made a couple of observations - one of which was to add more flour until the dough would have the strengh to stand up to the yeast - and I started again.

Success!!!! My husband went from amused skeptic to excited fan. He says that if I'll make a loaf of this every week, we will not need to buy bread any more. Right now, it is fun - only time will tell if it becomes a habit! But I did make another loaf, just as lovely & tasty, a few days ago, so it was not a fluke. :-)

Without buying in bulk, this bread costs about 94 cents per loaf to  make (including electricity for the oven). The two most expensive ingredients are yeast and flour. If I buy yeast by the pound, and flour by the 25 pound sack, we could probably reduce that by 35 cents. Baking in a gas oven (or in, say, Idaho, where electricity costs half what it does in Texas, thanks to Federal dam projects of yesteryear), would shave another 6 cents off, bringing cost per loaf down to 53 cents.

It is simple enough that I could make a loaf after work - which is what I wanted. I simply do not have enough free time to bake, otherwise.  Here's my final recipe:

One Fine Loaf

Before starting, turn oven light on, but DO NOT preheat oven. The heat from the light bulb will create a warm space for the dough to rise in.

1 1/2 Cups white flour
1/2 Cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 "scant" Tablespoon active dry yeast (or one package)

Mix these together. Then add:

1 Tablespoon cooking oil
2 Tablespoons cane syrup or golden syrup
1 2/3 cup hot tap water (hot to touch from the faucet, ~120 degrees F)

Beat for 2 minutes with electric mixer on medium (I used Paul's Kitchenaid) or by hand - you could even use an egg beater at this stage).

Add: 1 1/2 Cups white flour

If dough is still too sticky to remove from the bowl add another 1/2 cup to 1 cup white flour. The total amount of flour may vary from day to day.

Beat with dough hooks in a Kitchenaid mixer at medium to med-high for 3 minutes. Or knead vigorously by hand (to knead by hand, turn out onto a floured surface, flour your hands and knead until smooth and elastic).

Cover with a towel and allow to rise for 20 minutes. I accidentally skipped this rise and my bread turned out fine, but it will be better with it.

Grease one loaf pan with shortening (rub the entire inside of the pan and the top edge with a light coating of hard shortening or lard).

Punch down dough, turn over, tuck edges under to put the pretty side up and drop into the loaf pan.

Set the loaf pan in the oven, close the door and leave the light on (but do not start the oven yet).

Allow to rise until top of loaf is above the top of the pan, about 1 hour.

Optional: When loaf has risen but before turning the oven on, carefully brush the top with an egg wash (mixture of raw egg and 2 tablespoons water). Don't use all the egg wash on it, just enough to dampen the top. This will give the crust a nice shine.

Put loaf in center of oven, close the door, and turn the oven on to 350 degrees Fairenheit. No preheating needed - this loaf benefits from the gradual increase in temp that occurs if it is in the oven while it is heating.

Bake for 35 minutes.

If you did not do an egg wash, brush the top crust with melted butter as soon as you take it out of the oven.

Immediately turn the pan over and remove loaf from pan. If you thump the bottom, it will sound hollow. Cool upside down on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then turn upright and let sit on rack until fully cool - or until you can't wait any longer!

If this loaf was not perfect, make another asap, and keep trying until you love the results.

While baking is a science, it's a homely one, and that means there's a bit of artistry to it as well. You can bake beautiful bread - just make it until you do!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Come, Holy Spirit

"All around the circle of human doubt and despair, where men and women are going out to enlighten and uplift and comfort and strengthen their fellow-men under the perplexities and burdens of life, we hear the cry for a gospel which shall be divine, and therefore sovereign and unquestionable and sure and victorious. All through the noblest aspirations and efforts and hopes of our Age of Doubt, we feel the longing, and we hear the demand, for a new inspiration of Christian faith."  

Henry Van Dyke, as quoted in "The Friendly Year", a collection of Van Dyke's writing edited by George Sidney Webster, in 1909.

Art: Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night, painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Nicodemus was one of those in power who secretly came to Jesus, and, with Joseph of Aramathea, assisted in our Lord's proper burial. I love Tanner's beautiful paintings. I don't think anyone painted Christian Biblical scenes with the sense of concrete spirituality that Tanner achieved.

Henry Van Dyke and Henry Ossawa Tanner both played roles of ministry in World War I, drawn to serve by their passionate faith, and both were deeply affected by that Great War for Civilization.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Healing the Burns: References For Wildfire & Drought Recovery Plantings

Every landscape contains some plants that will not grow unless they have gone through fire. These seed lay dormant, awaiting their call to action - awaiting the moment God created them for - and burst into life on burnt ground in due time.

But some locations, such as steep slopes that burned with a kiln-hot blaze, may need a little help. Especially, those prone to erosion may benefit from an extra supply of native grasses (pdf link here) mirroring those in place before the burn, so that the root systems can hold the soil in place.

One of Texas' native plant suppliers, "Native American Seed"aka, has created a Wildfire Reference Guide that provides information, links to resources, tips and seed recommendations.  This company has loads of information about effective use of native grasses in landscaping and in prairie restoration.

Another excellent website is "Firewise", sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association. Lots and lots of information, not only for professionals, but also excellent resources for homeowners. One full page is dedicated to tips for wildfire readiness & evacuation. Another shares plant lists provided by various State Extension Services.

The NFPA's preparedness efforts include "Ready, Set, Go!" Most of these readiness habits are important for any emergency evacuation, so it's worth reading even if you don't live in a wildfire-prone area.
We're "not out of the woods yet", but the future calls. Time to get to work on a Texas landscape that's on the mend, that will overcome the continuing drought. Although this drought that affects the entire states of Texas & Oklahoma, much of New Mexico, and even part of Louisiana is not expected to end for another year, the Good Lord sends us rain to tide us over until the fullness of time in this natural cycle.

So now, in time for fall and winter moisture, is a good time for scattering locally-native wild seed.

We have not had major fires in our area this year. Our ecology suffers from the lack of moisture, heat and dehydration. As the rest of my St Augustine lawn dies under heavy water rationing, as have 2 mature apricot trees, a young apple tree, three young grapes, asparagus, herbs, and several perennials, I'm starting to think how to reconstruct our yard once the drought ends. And what I'm thinking is wild.

In addition to the resources mentioned above, the always-remarkable Texas Parks & Wildlife department has a great program for increasing our backyard & urban habitats called "Texas Wildscapes".

Last but not in any way least, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a Drought Resource Center that is especially inspiring and hope-filling right now.

The one nice thing about this summer has been not having to mow - normally a 3-hour-a-week job. What if, when I put out those new fruit trees on our extra lot,  instead of being blanketed with grass that has to be cut, they were surrounded by permanent paths and un-mown, non-irrigated patches of native meadow and lovely wildflowers, like these from our visit to the Lady Bird Johnston Wildflower Center in Austin:

That could be an unexpected blessing indeed!

P.S. Tuesday, Oct 4th, is when Texas hosts National Night Out, and in our town, with no police force, our local Volunteer Fire Department is having open house - yours probably is, too. Drive over to the fire station and visit, shake  hands with these uncommon young men in your community. Chances are they've spent many hours fighting or preventing fires this summer.


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