Happy New Year. The Earth has made another lap around the sun and people around the western world are making New Year's resolutions. By the time this column is published some people will have broken those same resolutions.
Many who give advice on the subject suggest setting small goals and incorporating your resolutions into your day-to-day life to give yourself a chance to join the roughly 15 percent of Americans who successfully meet them. For instance, rather than beginning your first marathon in January, start with a brisk walk and work up to it sometime in the spring. The weather will be nicer and you will avoid some pretty painful cramping. Staying with this idea of small goals and lifestyle incorporation, let's explore what we can do in our baking, cooking and eating lives to help us meet our goals of becoming better humans.
One resolution that often tops lists is to get in better shape/lose weight/improve health, etc. There is plenty to work with here. This can begin with your ingredient sources. The health research on the benefits of eating whole grains and using fresh stone-ground flours in baking is legion. Even replacing a small percentage of the regular flour you use with stone-ground whole wheat, rye or corn will help. Make less more often.
Fresh bread is always best! Scale back your recipes so that you have just enough for your meal (maybe a little less even). Or, do the opposite, make a larger batch of smaller loaves and immediately put the extras in the freezer safely out of reach from the blunt but still dangerous butter knife. One can even work a little exercise into bread baking. If you have a choice between using a mixer or bread machine or mixing by hand and time isn't a problem, then knead your dough. Put on some fast-paced music and put some muscle into it. Bread baking is several flour-filled flurries of activity spaced with plenty of downtime. Rather than switching on the TV while waiting for the dough to rise, plan on getting in a little exercise.
Perhaps your resolution is more mental than physical. You want to learn something new or exercise your creative self.
Whether an aspiring or accomplished baker, one of the most convenient and effective things you can do for yourself is to buy a decent digital kitchen scale for weighing your ingredients. Then join the majority of the baking world and learn how to use the metric system for measuring weight. Once you are comfortable with it (doesn't take long) you will be seriously wondering why we are still trying to calculate fifths of an ounce and divide by eight in our heads.
Weighing ingredients takes away the need for sifting (for bread anyway, not pastry) and takes the guesswork out of volume measurements. A teaspoon of kosher salt isn't the same amount as a teaspoon of granulated salt; your idea of how packed, packed brown sugar should be may be different from another's; scooping flour is inconsistent. Most of the better baking and cookbooks coming out have the ingredients listed in weight as well as volume anyway and your favorite old recipes can be converted easily. Next time you make them, simply weigh out the ingredients as you go and write down the measurements for next time.
You may want to resolve to exercise your creative side. Take a simple bread recipe and imagine what you can do to make it better, to make it different. Take whatever you are planning on having for dinner that night (or perhaps the next) and mix in some herbs that complement the dinner. Italian? Toss some rosemary and/or oregano into the dough. Making a hearty soup? Substitute the white flour with 15-percent rye flour. Love garlic? Roast some and mix it in. Hope for successes and learn from failures. Be adventurous.
What if you are trying to quit smoking? Bread can help there, too. First lay your pack of cigarettes on the counter. Next, take a loaf, preferable something dense like pumpernickel or maybe a really crusty sourdough, lift the loaf above your head and bring it down on the pack of cigarettes swiftly and repeatedly until they are unsmokable. Then, rip off a small piece of bread and eat it to take care of the oral fixation.
Whatever your New Year's resolutions, I hope you succeed or at least give it a good effort. Have a healthy, joyous and prosperous 2009 everyone!
P.S. Thanks to everyone who responded to last month's column on fruitcakes! I enjoyed reading your stories and recipes. If anyone has any bread or baking related New Year's traditions they would like to share, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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