Monday, February 27, 2012

sheepherder’s bread


I never tire of the stories my husband shares about his childhood. When he was just ten years old, his father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother with four young children. In spite of the hardships that followed, many of my husband’s fond memories revolve around the delicious homemade foods his mother made. One of those memories was of a shepherd’s bread, and the tradition his family practiced whenever it was served. This slightly sweet bread was baked in a cast iron Dutch oven, leaving circular indentations from its lid on the top crust. Before my mother-in-law served this bread to her family, she gave their loyal border collie the first slice.

When I asked my mother-in-law for this family recipe, she included a 1976 article from Sunset magazine where I learned about its history. Her shepherd’s bread was originally baked by the Basques, people who live in a tiny region that straddles the border of Spain and France. If you want to know more, you can read about them here.

“Tending their flocks in the remote Western rangelands, Basque sheepmen had to cook for themselves, and they had to make do with a minimum of portable cooking equipment. A Dutch oven became essential for cooking hearty soups and stews — and even for baking bread. They buried the pot in a pit full of hot embers.” 

“A poignant camp custom: Before serving, a herder would slash the sign of the cross on top of the loaf, then serve the first piece to his invaluable dog.”

Many years later, some Basques still bake these dome-shaped loaves of bread, but now they do so at home in their conventional ovens. The recipe my mother-in-law used was one that was supplied to Sunset magazine by Anita Mitchell. Anita won the bread-baking championship at the National Basque Festival in 1975.

To make this bread, you’ll need a 10-inch covered Dutch oven (I used my 5.5 quart Le Creuset).

Mixing ingredients for bread dough is so satisfying! If you look closely, you can see bubbles from the yeast mixture working its magic.

This image was taken after the first kneading. Ten whole minutes of kneading was a very calming, meditative experience for me.

This is after the second kneading, and before the dough rises slightly higher than the Dutch oven lid.

This is what the bread should look like when you take it out of the oven. Tap the bread. Does it sound hollow? It’s done!

If you used a cast-iron Dutch oven, you’ll have circles from its lid on the top of your loaf, which would  make this even more beautiful!

My favorite part! Bailey got the first slice. She’s so cautious — she sniffed it, licked it, gently took it from my daughter’s hand, then placed it on the porch and looked up at Isabel with those sweet, innocent brown eyes as if asking for permission to eat it.

Here’s the recipe:

Sheepherder’s Bread

Makes 1 very large loaf

3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 packages active dry yeast
About 9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

In a large bowl, combine the hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter melts. Let cool to warm (110° to 115°F) Stir in yeast, cover and set in a warm place until the mixture is bubbly, about 15 minutes.

Add 5 cups of the flour and beat with a heavy-duty mixer or wooden spoon to form a thick batter. Stir in enough of the remaining flour (about 3 1/2 cups) to form a stiff dough. Turn dough out onto a floured board and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes, adding flour as needed to prevent sticking. Turn dough over in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough and knead on a floured board to form a smooth ball. Cut a circle of foil to cover the bottom of the Dutch oven. Grease the inside of the Dutch oven and the underside of the lid with vegetable oil.

Place dough in the pot and cover with the lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up the lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour (watch closely).

Bake, covered with the lid in a 375° oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 30-35 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove from oven and carefully turn loaf out onto a rack to cool.

I cut a slice this morning, spread some unsalted butter on it, and drizzled it with a little homemade honey. I immediately had a doggie looking up at me with those sweet brown eyes!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

when truth is funnier than fiction

Today’s local news headlines read like a list of Portlandia skits...

Wonder Woman scours the streets of Portland in search of her stolen car.

“I guess some would theorize,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, “that somebody from the Hall of Doom is trying to steal Wonder Woman’s ‘lasso of truth’ or bullet proof bracelets out of it. “There’s just some lines you don’t cross,” Simpson said. “You don’t steal a superhero’s car.”

Sometimes reality writes the best stuff!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Portlandia’s Portland

According to the comedy sketch, Portlandia, Portland, Oregon is populated with ultra-liberal, tattooed, pierced, artsy, environmentally conscious hipsters. We all shop in community owned co-op stores, travel only by bicycle, and eat exclusively organic, locally produced food. 

Apparently we’re living a liberal utopian dream...

“Portland's almost an alternative universe. It's like Gore won. The Bush administration never happened. In Portland, it's almost like cars don't exist. They ride bikes, double decker bikes, they ride unicycles, they ride the tram, they ride skateboards.”

“In Portland you can go to a record store and sell your CDs.”

“In Portland, you can put a bird on something and call it art.” 

“It's the city where young people go to retire.”

Does this lampooned dream of the 90’s actually offer something better? Only time will tell. It is nice to be in the cultural spotlight anyway.

Every city has its annoying features. Here are a few of Portland’s: There’s a guy at every freeway off ramp begging for money. You can’t walk anywhere in the city without being asked to sign petitions or give money to save one thing or another. There are way too many creative types here, many who will sell their creativity for under market value, which makes it difficult for those of us making our living as creative professionals. Constant rain gets kind of annoying after the first month. 

Some of the great things about living in Portland: Within an hour you can drive to the beach, wine country, or the mountains. Local, organic foods are abundant. There’s a Starbucks on every corner. We have awesome hiking and biking trails. You can stroll through Portland and go from prim, proper and pristine to wild and weird within a few short blocks. You’ll find farm animals living in the city on 50x100 lots!

And we have the best doughnuts evah...


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Valentine idea for kids


I remember it like it was yesterday. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. We need to make Valentines for 28 kids in 2 days (or if you’re a procrastinator, 2 hours). 

What you’ll need:

Pink and/or red construction paper
Googly eyes
Brown yarn
Rubber stamps
Ink pad
Single hole punch
Tootsie roll pops in red or pink wrappers
Plastic bags or other packaging


Step 1: Cut heart shapes out of construction paper. You can make them any size you want. We made ours around 4” high.


Step 2: Use rubber stamps and ink to create a message on the inside of the heart.



Step 3: Make a small hole with your hole punch. Tie a piece of the brown yarn through it to create the mouse’s tail.


Step 4: Grab two googly eyes and place them as shown.

Step 5: Draw on a nose and a few whiskers.


Step 6: Fold the heart/mouse down the center and place a Tootsie Roll Pop inside.

Now that I think about it, string cheese would have been good. I’m not sure what a Tootsie Roll Pop and mouse have in common. Candy seemed appropriate at the time.

We put both mouse and Tootsie Roll together in a small clear plastic bag. You can probably come up with something better. We ran out of time.



Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

public school rant


At what point do you intervene at your child’s school? How involved should we be?

I never hesitated to confront my daughter’s teachers throughout grade school whenever an issue came up. By middle school, kids were encouraged to advocate for themselves and I had to stop myself from jumping in every time my daughter received a grade I didn’t agree with or an unreasonable amount of homework. Now that she’s in high school, I am even less involved. I do check in with her on a regular basis regarding homework, and ask lots of questions (hoping to hit on the right ones that make her realize there’s something she needed to do), but I no longer go through her notebook every night to make sure her work is complete. I feel like I’ve laid the groundwork for her success, and now I need to take a few steps back, hold my breath and bite my tongue frequently.

In the high school my daughter attends, grades for various assignments, projects and tests are all posted online, so I periodically check the long lists for each of my daughter’s classes. I dislike their practice of placing an “F” in places where assignments and tests have not yet been graded by the teacher, and a “Z” if the student didn’t turn something in. Finals were last week, so I decided to peek at the online grades. Her English teacher had an “F” for her finals test score. Next to that was 26/100, which told me it had already been graded (not to be confused with placing an “F” meaning it had not yet been graded). All other grades on her assignments, projects and tests were A’s and B’s. The final grade for the semester was now a “C”.

Lucky for my daughter, this little detail alarmed me, so I ask Isabel if she had received her graded English final. She had. “And did you get an F on it?” “No!” she hesitated... “But I did get a C.” At the top of the test was written 76/100. Online it had been recorded as 26/100.

I understand that everyone makes mistakes, but this is not an isolated incident. I won’t bore you with all the other details of incompetence throughout the system we’ve encountered. It does make me reconsider how involved I should be. I sent her English teacher an email immediately after noticing the error that changed my daughter’s grade from a B to a C.

Here’s the email response I received from said English teacher this morning:

I am so very sorry and glad you emailed. Her grade was entered wrong, my error, and it does impact her semester grade. I should have caught it as I know Isabel should have earned at least a B for the semester.  This is easily remedied and I will have the semester grade changed. Isabel's report card will still show the C, because the grades have already been pulled; however, her transcripts and subsequent grade reports will show the grade for English as a B. I am copying this to her counselor.

I really apologize for causing you and Isabel this stress. She is one of the sweetest students I have and I really appreciate her and the work she has been producing.

Am I satisfied with this? Yes, and no. It’s good to get positive feedback about my child, and I’m glad I was diligent and noticed the error. But I’m afraid this sort of problem is only a tiny example of so many bigger problems within our school system. If a teacher doesn’t notice a low grade on a test score from one of their students who normally receives A’s and B’s, they are not paying attention!

So the battle continues, for another few years anyway. I’ve considered other options through the years... home schooling, online schooling, return to private schooling (we did this for the first five years of school). If there’s one positive comment I can make about public school, it’s the fact that my daughter is learning how to deal with all types of people (just like in the real world).

Oh, and she’s getting really good at advocating for herself, which is something she gets to practice on a regular basis these days.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

spicy beef with cheese grits

I haven’t posted about food lately have I? Thanks for noticing! Guess I haven’t cooked or baked anything blog worthy in a while... Last weekend, during a serious comfort food craving, I found this recipe on one of my favorite blogs. It’s a dish that was created by The Pioneer Woman (Ree Drummond). 


Being heat tolerant is essential if you decide to use Ree’s recipe verbatim. I chose a milder route. I’m a wimp when it comes to ultra spicy foods.

A note about grits: I was clueless about these. I am from the Northwest. Grits are not a staple around here. So, when I shopped for ingredients, I went straight to the health food section and found Bob’s Red Mill products. (Bob’s is a local company that I respect.) I found this:

Corn Grits (also known as) Polenta? This is something I was not aware of. Are grits really the same thing as Polenta? The choices consisted only of this and one other (gluten free) variety. After doing a little online research, I’m still contemplating all the differences between the two. Basically, they’re both neutral foods, much like rice, pasta, or tofu, and are best when flavored with other ingredients and sauces. Polenta is from Italy and grits are from the southern U.S. If you don’t like grits because they’re gritty, try polenta. This polenta turned out very creamy.

Bobby Flay gives us this observation, “You can’t charge a lot of money for grits, but you can charge a lot for polenta.” Thanks Bobby!

Ree’s recipe makes enough to serve a small army, so I halved it for my small family.

The night I served this, there were two teenaged girls around our table. They devoured it!

Spicy Stewed Beef with Creamy Cheddar Grits (Polenta)


The Beef
1 Tablespoon Canola Oil
1 Tablespoon Butter
2-3 pounds Stew Meat or diced Chuck Roast
1 can (7oz) Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce
2 cups low-sodium Beef Broth
3 cloves Minced Garlic
1 pinch of dried chili pepper flakes

The Grits (Polenta)
1 small sweet Onion
1 small Red Bell Pepper
2 cups Grits or Polenta
3 cups Low Sodium Chicken Broth
1-2 cups Water
1 cup Half and Half
1 cup Grated Cheddar Cheese

To make the meat, heat 1/2 Tablespoon of oil and 1/2 Tablespoon butter in a large dutch oven over medium high heat. Throw in the stew meat and brown for about one minute. Add Chipotle peppers, beef broth, garlic and red chili pepper flakes. Stir, then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fall-apart tender and the liquid is thick. Add more broth if necessary.

In the last hour of cooking time, make the polenta. Heat remaining 1/2 Tablespoon of both oil and butter. Add diced onion, bell pepper and cook for five minutes or so. Pour in dry polenta and add chicken broth and water. Stir, then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 30 minutes, add half and half. Cook for another 20-30 minutes or until polenta is tender. Remove from heat and stir in cheddar cheese.

Dish up a scoop of polenta and pour stewed meat over the top.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

paper, glitter and tinsel creations

I’m in love with these Victorian folk art decorations. They make me smile. 


After receiving this Winter Wishes angel as a gift from my husband’s aunt Annie several years ago, I’ve sought out this style.

This hanging decoration is by Nicol Sayre


I picked up these Peace stars at a small gift shop in the neighborhood on sale after the holidays a few years ago. I’m taking a guess that these are by Nicol Sayre as well. The tag says Midwest, and according to online sources, she licensed her creations through Midwest from 2002-2008. 

They remind me of Christmas from my childhood at my Grandparents house, where a silver aluminum tree was always on display.


This friendly witch is from a shop in Nye Beach, Oregon
Also by Nicol Syre


This wintery angel spoke to me from a small garden shop in Multnomah Village last December. A Dee Foust creation.


Dee creates a line of licensed collectibles for Bethany Lowe Designs. This angel is one of those creations. 


Notice how her eyes follow you? Bwaaahaaahaa