Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oh! What fun!

I've had a headache all day. This isn't unusual. A barometric pressure response. Some people can tell if its going to rain from that knee that they blew out at hockey practice back in the Mulroney days. I can tell it's snowing because I see snow on the ground and because of the slow, rising ache around my forehead and the dizziness that feels pretty much like the bloom before motion sickness.

And did I mention the pain? Something like nails through the face, the back of the neck, under the cheekbones, and a mouth full of toothaches which, according to some, means that this is a sinus-related situation rather than a migraine. So be it. The headache also makes me stupid. This stupidity-by-association contributes to my half-acceptance of the sinus theory. More accurately, the stupidity is the result of being sore enough that thinking of the proper words for things - such as "Please pass the coffee" - becomes very difficult when you feel that simply by pointing in a direction where the coffee might be (your eyes are closed because the light hurts) you're offering a reasonable method of communication, while feeling insulted when nobody understands you and instead offers the salt.

I usually get migraines that make me light sensitive. I could attend a good performance of Carmina Burana blindfolded and I'd be fine. Today, it wasn't a light or noise issue but an all-over I wish I was dead or killing somebody sort of situation where I wanted to avenge myself upon the headache (and some kind of murder seemed like a good idea, victim unspecified) or destroy myself and see what was next. Self-beheading would have been appropriate and at least made the headache a moot point. Of course, I wouldn't have followed either path. Murder looks lousy on a CV and removing one's head with a rusty diced-tomato can lacks dignity all around.

But my irrational brain was flipping coins between self- and all-over destruction and my rational brain was muttering "I'm taking both of you home and putting you to bed early until you stop sulking", so it became obvious that a weekend trip to Zellers to buy a feather duvet for my son might not be an enjoyable experience for anybody. Except possibly my son, who sleeps in a cool room. And since ducks tend to be warm creatures while sitting on frozen lakes, maybe their feathers will keep my son from pulling on my elbow at 4am because his covers fell off.


Oddly enough, the aforementioned trip to Zellers went over rather well. We found a reasonably priced duvet and my desire to cause untold damage diminished as the day went on. The pain/toothache remained, but a steady supply of gelcaps turned it into a nagging discomfort rather than a continuous drum solo on my cerebellum. It did, however, segue into a weird sensitivity to smell. I had 3 large bowls of bread dough balanced on bookshelves and tables around my house to rise, and the yeasty smell made me nauseous.

Let's look at this again - bakeries are supposed to be good things. Most people follow the scent of fresh-baked bread down the street. Poems have been written about it. Real Estate agents buy frozen loafs of Ace Bakery bread and toss them in the stove on the lowest possible temperature to make them last all day to lure in the suckers (It even smells like home, honey). Rising dough is supposed to evoke memories of a favourite kitchen or that place on the West Bank of the Seine or that little bakery in Lisbon or the Subway franchise of your's not supposed to be sick-making.

It was.

However, I still wanted to bake the damn stuff.

I have a floor freezer. I make my own bread, wrap it tight, freeze it and put it into a warm oven to crisp whenever I get hungry. I like homemade bread. Just not today. But I won't waste the effort or the $2.75 worth of flour or the opportunity to have homemade bread.

I was aiming to get four small loaves and one good sized boule (or round loaf or whatever you want to call it) out of the dough. And my head had quieted somewhat after dinner, so I turned the oven to 475 degrees and loaded three pots into it - two small stoneware pieces and one large enamelled cast-iron with lids to hold the heat in. All 3 pieces are heavy, and this is the first time we've used them in the new house.

Remember that last line; it'll be of great importance later.

The cookware is supposed to sit covered in a oven for an hour before you add the bread, making it hot enough to produce a good crust. I've done this for a few years and learned that the dough itself is pretty forgiving. At worst, you get a loaf of soft, yeasty bread that's pretty much on par with the bread basket at the chain restaurant of your choice. At best, you get something light and crusty that's frighteningly easy to eat.

The air still smelled like rising dough - which wasn't helping me - countered with another smell, something like a hot glue gun from a long-past art class. I thought it was fat burning off from the back of the oven. I clung to that theory right until my wife said "Were those pots empty when you put them in?"

This is a valid question.

We've moved recently. We shoved a lot of things in pots. I didn't check. I had never checked before. A more reasonable man might have at least had a peek. My only defense is that since the pots have to sit covered in a hot oven, I didn't have any need to open them. And most sane people leave pots in their cupboards empty.

Don't they?

That's a discussion for another time.

I took the cast-iron out of the oven and opened it. After a second, I said "You might want to see this," to my darling wife, who came in to see exactly what happens when you bake 7 tea light candles, 2 plastic bags and a plastic hand-cranked flashlight at 475 degrees for 45 minutes. Melted paraffin and approximately 2/3rds of a flashlight oozed into a strangely elegant grey and black sheen floating over a clear sea of petroleum products. The magma wasn't burning, but it was clearly at boiling point and traces of smoke were starting to rise. I realized that it should probably be on fire, and probably wasn't because the lid had smothered any flames. Now that I was giving it lots of nice oxygen, it was, at best, a seething puddle of toxicity soon to combust in a pot that I would like to maybe use another day. For a boule of bread, perhaps.

I picked up the pot with my increasingly warm oven mitts. "Open the front door. I'm taking this outside."

Abby said "Okay. Wait. No! You can't put that down on anything cold!"

She was right. It would crack the enamel. I said "Okay. I'll pour the stuff out onto the snow and bring the pot back in here."

"You can't do that."

"Why not?"

"You can't just throw trash onto the street!"

My hands hurt; the oven-mitts appeared to be calling it a day at 450 degrees. I said "Fine. I'll pour it on our front walk. I'll pick it up when it's cool. Open the front door please."

She looked worried. "I'd rather you didn't."

I leaned closer. "Alright. Now. We have melted plastic in a very hot pot that's designed to hold heat and its about to set off the smoke detectors. What else do you think we should do?"

She considered this. "Well, we should probably..."

She hesitated. I countered with "OPEN THE FRONT DOOR."

She did. I poured the contents onto the walk, they made a really interesting cracking sound and threw up a great deal of steam. I hit what was left of the 'on' button of the soft mushy flashlight and one of the LEDs actually lit up. Another good thing to know for some kind of overheated unforseen circumstance that might happen in the future.

Did I mention my headache had, temporarily at least, stopped being an irritant? Small mercies.

I went back in. By this point it felt funny rather than surreal and my wife and I couldn't stop laughing while considering the kind of surprises the other two pots might contain. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing more interesting than recently-charred newspapers. It had not flashed into flame at 451 degrees, so I made a mental note to call Bradbury and complain.

The bread came out fine, by the way. We brushed the ashes out of the stoneware, left the cast-iron to cool down and pressed a stainless steel cooking pot into service for the boule. The yeast smell, replaced with the melted plastic smell, segued into homemade bread smell. Which still made me dizzy and nauseous. Such is a migraine. Such is an evening's excitement. Bread and melted plastic and gelcaps.

The expression 'we make our own fun' comes to mind.

When the last batch was complete, I broke open one of the small loaves. I usually dust it with 12 grain flour, this one was unbleached bread flour all through. It didn't get particularily brown, but the crust was crisp and the bread was light. I dipped it in olive oil and watched a documentary about a Russian special effects genius from the 50's.

My head still hurt. This happens in winter. I had a migraine that lasted around 10 days one Christmas. The last thing I'll need tomorrow is the smell of yeast. But I still fill 3 bowls with flour, yeast, water, salt. I'll do it all over again. It's worth it. Bread is worth it. The rest fades away.


Mark R. Hasan said...

Anecdote A: Unnatural Colours

I once put a large pot of water on the electric stove element to boil water for some pasta.

The phone rang. The conversation was fine, but I kept looking at the pot and wondering, 'Why isn't there any steam?' and then I asked my friend to hold because the pot lid, which was a 'natural' light orange (bought in the seventies, quite new), was turning red, and the black plastic round handle seemed to have a weird ooze emerging beneath its circumference.

I tapped the pot with a wooden spoon, and it wouldn't budge. I had to ram it hard until the pot snapped off the element, because the element had melted some metal from the pot base.

Lesson: Always boil water, not an empty pot.

After-effects: a snaky glob of metal from the pot was forever fused to the element. The pot, which took about 5 hours to cool down to 'warm' was toast.

Anecdote 2: Unnatural Popcorn

Prior to said pasta fiasco, I once had a chocolate brown water pot (bought new, in the seventies) that was amazing for boiling a huge volume of water.

One day, from the living room, I heard a snap, crackle, and pop symphony, which was quickly revealed to be layers of mineral deposits in the pot that were drying, baking, flaking, and snapping against the pot lid.

Lesson: boil water, not the pot.

After-effects: I did it once more, and the pot was literally toast. Tragic waste of more perfectly good cookware from mom.



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