The New Year is off and I've been hurrying behind it outside in the freezing cold before slowing down again inside our toasty warm house, literally making piles of toast in the new doodad that my brother, Warren, sent over the holidays because he felt sorry for me having a fourteen-year-old toaster that only half worked.
Thank you, Warren.
We've been able to make lots of toast around here because I've been obsessively baking up all sorts of bread. There's Peter Reinhardt's Lean Bread, with its blistered, golden crust, which we now refer to as Crack Bread because once you start, you can't stop eating it.
Then, there are Sarah Owen's gorgeous breads, like Butternut Squash and Cherry from her beautiful book, Sourdough. With its golden crumb and easygoing sweetness, this is one of the most reassuring breads you can eat on a frigid winter's day. I can't leave out Ken Forkish's Bacon Bread (yes!), though, or his Field Blend #2 (whole wheat, dark rye), one of my very favorites.
Gluten-free friends, wait.
I've been working on my skills there too. What a challenge! I'm still chugging along with this even after Kingston made awful faces the other day while trying to eat some sorghum and brown rice soft pretzels I baked. Soft, they definitely were not. (There were, in fact, some jokes made about chucking them into the pond and hurting a duck. Nick Hornby fans out there, you know what I'm talking about.) And okay, I'll admit here that I made some faces too. Horrible ones.
Though I've been making a variety of breads, I've mostly been using my trusty liquid levain, or starter. It has become, over time, practically invincible, doing its job with a consistency and joy that we should all strive toward if we want to feel truly alive. Because, what is the point of doing anything unless we put our full energy and conviction behind it? Do it like you mean it, I say. And, so what if I happened to learn this this from a goopy mass of wild yeast and bacteria?
We've also been ice skating a lot lately. Until this winter, I'd pretty much forgotten about it as an activity. It was one of those things I did every now and then as a kid at Pickwick Bowl in sunny Burbank, California.
Then a few weeks ago, some parents at school mentioned ice skating, an outing was organized, and there I suddenly was mincing about the rink, a bunch of little humans circling me. I watched as they took turns falling with a splat -- here, there, everywhere -- before getting up and continuing on again. Such little heroes.
Kingston and I have been back on the ice many times since then. This makes a lot of sense because one of the best ways to feel like a kid again, full of motion, freedom and complete joy, is to put on a pair of ice skates and go! Do some backward swizzles while you're at it.
In the meantime, if things get hard, as can happen in skating and in life, then, whether you're wearing skates or not, it's best to do what Kingston's teenage skating teacher suggests.
Here it is: When you think you're going to fall, slow down, put your hands on your knees and stop. When you are ready, stand up straight and feel the strength in your legs and your body. Start again. Go.
I'll add that when you're done at the rink and back at home, you should promptly toast up a piece of Nigel Slater's sticky malt bread, which I'm sure you'll have wisely baked ahead of time. Put that toasty goodness to your mouth. Devour it. Then feel it warm your belly.
NIgel Slater's Sticky Malt Loaf
This bread is best after aging for at least two days. It just keeps getting better and is completely worth the wait, so stay disciplined. Don't cut into it! Around here, we like this well-toasted. What happens is that the sugars from the fruit, molasses and malt extract start to caramelize and you end up with a toasty-roasty piece of bread that is at once sticky and chewy, melty and crusty. One more note: I used liquid malt extract from our local brew store, which sells it in bulk. Malt extract is a grain-based sweetener, usually made of barley. The grains are processed with water and the starches removed to create a liquid sweetener. I had a pile of it left over after making Renee's Rye Bread from the third Tartine book and decided to use some for this.
Mr. Slater's recipe, translated for the American masses. Makes one loaf.
2/3 cup liquid malt extract (150g)
1/4 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed (100g)
2 tbsp unsulphured molasses
1 cup, plus 5 teaspoons all-purpose flour (250g)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup prunes, pitted and roughly chopped (100g)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup black tea, lukewarm to room temperature (125ml)
1/4 cup golden or Thompson raisins (100g)
A teaspoon or so more malt extract
Line a large loaf pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a small saucepan, combine the malt extract, light brown sugar and molasses. Without stirring, warm mixture over a moderate heat until the sugar has dissolved.
In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
Pour the warm malt and sugar mixture into the flour, together with the tea. Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat lightly with a fork and fold into the batter with the chopped prunes and the raisins.
Scoop the soft mixture into the prepared pan and gently smooth the surface. Bake for 1 hour until lightly springy, then remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. While the cake cools, brush the surface with a little more malt extract. After it cools, wrap well. Now wait a day or two, if you can, before eating!