Monthly Archives: November 2009

Lemon Cat

I can’t even remember how many times I’ve told my dad, an avid curbpicker, “Don’t take something just because it’s free.” Yet what do I do? I scoop up the first mangy, ragtag cat that sits in my lap. “Oh she’s so adorable,” I gush. “Let’s keep her.” Cats are easy, I remember thinking. Having once been surrogate mother to the most difficult cat known to man (RIP, Suki), I should have known better.

Izzy’s problems began even before her first vet visit. She was sneezing. “No big deal,” I thought. “She probably has a cold.” And then her eye clouded over. I freaked out, but then it healed. “No big deal,” I thought. “She probably has cat herpes. Lots of cats have that.” And then then her other eye clouded over and her pupil stopped responding to light. Six vet visits, six bottles of antibiotics, and $900 dollars later, her cold is seeming like a very big flipping deal. Of course, now we’re financially and emotionally invested, so kicking her scrawny, bacteria-ridden butt back to the curb isn’t really an option.

The latest diagnosis? Bartonellosis otherwise known as cat scratch fever. Yes, it’s a real thing. Cats get the bacteria from fleas, and humans get it from cats. She tested positive for Bartonella antibodies, although there’s no way of knowning whether her symptoms are the result of this infection, some other infection, or a completely different condition altogether. All we can do is treat it and hope she gets better.

The whole affair has left me riddled with anxiety. I should be working. Instead I’m sifting through veterinary journals. According to the medical literature, azithromycin is the recommended antibiotic for Bartonella infection. So why did Dr. Mann put her on clindamycin, a drug recommended for toxoplasmosis? These are the questions that keep me up nights. It’s torture.

The other day, Soren came home to find me feverishly writing down Izzy’s symptoms on his white board, Gregory House style. Given that I’m not a vet, it was an exercise in futility. (Damn it, Jim! I’m a science writer, not a doctor.)

I’ve taken to calling Izzy “Lemon Cat.” Let her be a constant reminder not to pick things up off the curb. And if you need another reminder, ask my dad about the time he picked up a dresser that was infested with fleas. Beware the curbside freebie.


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I Don’t Knead You

Have I mentioned that I love bread? Well, I do. I love it. And I love baking it. But why does it have to be so difficult?? The chewy, crusty loaves that I adore are typically no more than yeast, flour, salt, and water. Four ingredients. Put them together right and you can bring grown men to tears. Put them together wrong and you can use your brick-like, inedible loaves to knock out purse snatchers.

There are likely some famous bakers who will argue that bread baking is a science. But to me it seems more like a faith-based undertaking. You can follow a recipe to the letter and still fail. In the end, it all comes down to the whim of a higher power: The Great Loafmaster. He is a fickle god, and apparently he is displeased with me.

Last week I spent the better part of two days putting together the various elaborate components of Peter Reinhart’s “Transitional Multigrain Bread.” Despite my fastidious attention to detail, I ended up with two bricks of whole-grain sawdust (to be fair, I think my yeast was dead).

Well, enough is enough! I’m taking a stand. Do you hear me, Loafmaster? No more bowing and kissing your pinkie ring in a vain attempt to achieve The Perfect Loaf. I’ll settle for the Pretty Damn Good Loaf. If you too are fed up with elitist bread books that talk about bigas and windowpane tests and gluten and fussy sourdough starters, welcome to the wonderful world of no-knead bread.

I first came across no-knead bread (like so many others) in the New York Times. It was a revelation, crusty, chewy, and moist. It’s not that I mind kneading. I don’t. But these loaves are simple and forgiving: They come out perfect nearly every time. No fussing, no crossed fingers, no hail marys.

The recipe in the New York Times is good. But it’s better with a few tweaks. My recipe is a hybrid of the New York Times’ recipe and Cook’s Illustrated’s “Almost No-Knead Bread.”

Happy baking!

Cassie’s Hybrid No-Knead Bread

In a large bowl, whisk together:

– 3 cups bread flour (or 2 cups bread flour and 1 cup whole wheat, or 2 cups bread flour and 1 cup rye)

– 1/4 tsp of instant or rapid rise yeast

– 1 1/2 tsp salt

– (if you’re making rye bread, you may want to add 1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp of caraway seeds. These are optional)

In a 2-cup measuring cup, mix together:

– 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp of lager beer

– 1 Tbsp of white vinegar

Then fill the cup with cool water to make 1 1/2 cups of liquid total.

Use a spoon to mix the liquid with the dry ingredients until combined. You should have a really sticky dough. Cover your dough with plastic wrap and let rise 12-18 hours (18 is best). Dump the dough out onto a heavily floured counter. Sprinkle dough liberally with flour. Now you’re going to try to knead the bread just a bit. Add just enough flour to make 8-10 “kneads” possible. The dough can still be sticky.

Line a skillet with parchment paper. Put your dough on top of the paper, spray or rub the dough with oil, and cover the whole thing loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise 2 or 2 1/2 hours. It should rise quite a bit.

Half an hour before the dough has finished rising, place a large, heavy pot, such as a dutch oven (I love this one), in the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. (Dutch ovens typically come with plastic handles that aren’t rated for 450 degrees. I’ve replaced my handle with a metal one.) Let the pot heat up for at least 20 minutes (30 is better). Take the pot out of the oven, remove the cover, and place the dough in the pot. This is easiest if you use the parchment paper like a sling: Grab both ends of the parchment paper and place the whole thing (parchment paper and all) in the pot. Place the cover on the pot (it’s ok if the ends of the paper hang out). Lower temperature to 425 and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake another 20-30 minutes.

The loaf should be dark brown. Allow to cool for 2 hours. Slice and enjoy!


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Jack-o-Lantern Guilt and Pumpkin Bread

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. For me, much of the joy comes from carving pumpkins. I love the feel of thick pumpkin flesh as it yields to a sharp knife. I love the feel of my fingers wiggling deep in slimy pumpkin guts (the part my stepbrother always hated). I love the sound the spoon makes as it hollows out the inside. But more than anything, I love seeing the gourd’s demonic grin shine as I set it alight for the very fist time.

But, if you stop and think about it, jack-o-lanterns are a big fat waste of edible pumpkin flesh. I hadn’t stopped and thought about it until I read a friend’s blog post just a few days before Halloween. She argues that pumpkins are simply too delicious to be turned into jack-o-lanterns. Here’s an excerpt.

While I am not against these haunted decorations per se, when I see them sprouting up in advance of Halloween, I shake my head, wondering why someone took one of the earth’s brightest bon-bons, turned it into a monster and set in on the stoop to rot. Pumpkin is far too yummy for decoration!

Just a day or two after I read her manifesto, I purchased my pumpkin. It wasn’t a sickly looking grocery store globe. Oh no! It was a bona fide pie pumpkin from my local co-op. Round and glowingly orange and probably organic to boot. I took out the carving knife and began sketching a crooked, toothy grin, but Robin’s words haunted me. I just couldn’t turn that fleshy vegetable into a seasonal ornament. Instead I chopped it up and roasted it. I sprinkled the seeds with Cajun seasoning and roasted them too. The only parts of the pumpkin that ended up in the trash were the slimy guts and the skin.

One smallish pumpkin yielded a whopping 4 cups of pumpkin puree. Half went into the freezer and the other half went to make olive oil pumpkin bread. If you decide to attempt this bread, you may want to cut back on the oil. I think 3/4 cup or 1/2 cup plus some apple sauce would do just fine. The recipe calls for nuts and raisins. I added walnuts and semi-sweet chocolate chips. Yum!

To celebrate, my clean conscience and I took to the streets dressed as Zombie Diva (in truth, all I did was add zombie makeup to my Tina Turner costume from 2006. But hey, who has time to shop for a Halloween costume when they’ve spent all day slaving over a hot stove!).

(Halloween 2009 & 2006. Notice the similarities?)

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