Grumpy about compliments

I feel cringing-and-squirming uncomfortable when people compliment me. Just acknowledging compliments makes my skin crawl. A handful of folks have said really nice things about some of my blogs in the past month, and I’ve ignored them best I can. But in this impersonal moment in front of my computer I can finally say thank you. It’s so kind of you, and it does inspire me to keep dumping my thoughts.

I don’t know why that’s so hard for me to say. Jesse’s the same way. Her therapist, the supreme practical man, says, “some people are just really bad at accepting compliments.” Helpful insight.

When I was working in a law firm, I didn’t have to worry about compliments. There was always something for partners to complain about, and whatever you did right was always in the past. As a last resort, if faced with really irreproachable lawyering, partners could just shit on your billable hours.

Before that, I studied classical music right through college. Compliments in that extremely competitive field come few and far between, so that worked for me too. My all-time favorite compliment came from a tiny French fellow who taught in the music theory department at Oberlin. I don’t remember his name. He walked with a massive limp – might have been a prosthetic leg – and wore a jaunty beret. His personality didn’t fit the hat. I had just finished up my oral exam in his office. It consisted of things like sight-singing a new piece of music to him while beating the time. Imagine this happening in an office with the floor dimensions of a twin size bed. Imagine if I had bad breath. Now say this to me in your very best French accent: “you have no talent, but you are very well trained.”

I loved him for looking me in the eyes as he said it. I walked out of his office with a smile on my face and an A on my transcript.

Grumpy about bread

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I made this bread. Isn’t it pretty? I’ve always enjoyed making fresh bread, all the way back to college. I used to make bread from various whole grains, dense and hearty, and I thought it was cool to give little loaves for gifts. One day Anthony told me, “Carla. You should stop making bread.” Why? I asked. “Because your bread sucks.”

I felt like my Anthony, who can be quite subtle, was gently trying to let me know that my bread sucked. It was kind of humiliating, but in my heart I knew that the cannon balls I generated were more like dog treats than human food. I stopped baking bread for many years, but the siren song of yeasty gluten has always called my name.

About 7 years ago, I was thumbing through Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his easy French bread recipe. It used a food processor — power tool! — and Bittman claimed it was easy and amazing. He was right. He referred back to an earlier book, The Best Bread Ever, by Charles Van Over, who was an early champion of food processor bread. I got that and went technical for a while, and discovered that with my Cuisinart I could make bread that even people other than me liked.

And of course, now that I’m finally good at bread, everyone says it’s bad for you. Until last year, I thought “I have wheat belly” was a euphemism for “I just ate a great meal.”

The bread in the photo is a super easy Cuban bread recipe from Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads. It’s a beginner bread that makes you look like a pro. In my opinion it won’t come out right by hand or in a stand mixer; you don’t get the same artisanal chew and flaky crust. Someone asked for the recipe and someone else suggested I post it to my blog. I’m not sure if they were joking. Anyway, I’ve never been good at following recipes, and there’s a loose art to baking bread, so here’s how I do it, best I can relay.

Dump into a large food processor:

3 cups bread flour (you can add a handful of oats if you want some extra crunch)
2 tsp instant dry yeast (or one packet)
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp sugar

Pulse a couple times to mix. Now run the machine non-stop while pouring in about a cup of water, ideally warm (120-130 degrees) but it doesn’t have to be. The exact amount will depend on your local weather conditions. Here in dry Wisconsin I usually need about a quarter cup more.

Add enough water for a loose ball to form. It’ll roll around and around on the blade with a few boogery trailers chasing it in the bowl. You might have to hold the machine still on your counter (say things like “whoa Nellie”). Check consistency. It should be sticky and soft, like something you don’t want to knead by hand. If it’s too wet, add some more flour. Run the machine for about 45 seconds.

Oil a large bowl and dump the dough in. Let it rise to double, about 20 minutes to an hour, depending on how warm the air is. Then punch it down good (aggression reduction opportunity) and shape into a ball. I don’t even use a surface, I just dip my hands in flour and go at it. Place the ball on a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle the top with flour, and cut two deep slashes (about 1/2″ deep) to make an “x” on top. Put a shallow pan of warm water on the bottom shelf of your oven. Put the dough pan on a middle shelf. Now turn on the oven to 400 degrees. The bread will rise and bake as the oven preheats. How cool is that? Bake about 45 to 50 minutes, until it’s nice and brown and thumps on the bottom (or stick it with a thermometer- look for 205 to 210 degrees in the center). Cool on a rack. For best results, wait at least 2 hours before cutting it.

(Cold location suggestion: preheat the oven to about 125 degrees before putting the dough in, for better results).