It never fails to amaze me how a cup and a half of water, a pinch of salt, a touch of sweetness, a few cups of flour, and a spoonful of yeast can go from this…
Bread starts out so humbly. Some warm water mixed with sugar or honey and a spoonful of yeast soon forms a foamy skin. Flour and salt temper it, forming a tough ball of elastic dough, and time inflates it, making it soft and pillowy without the cook needing to do anything but wait.
What’s more, the same simple ingredients prepared in every so slightly different ways can give you such a wondrous variety of complex tastes and textures. This particular dough started out the same as any white bread, but once shaped and boiled and brushed with egg, then dredged in sesame seeds and baked until crisp and brown, it became a dozen bagels. It could have been bread, this dough of mine, but on a whim I decided it should be bagels instead.
It’s funny how we all would like to have that sort of power over our lives. How we want to take a bare handful of basic ingredients and control the outcome, even though we know that outcomes cannot be controlled. Heck, most of the time, they can’t even be predicted.
I would dearly love to know how my children are going to come out. What they will choose to do with their lives… who they will fall in love with…. if they will be happy. For that matter, I would like to know how my own life is going to turn out.
I used to think that my own life, at least, was within my powers to shape as I willed, if only I gathered up the courage to take charge and forge ahead. The folly of youth, I suppose, thinking of life as a battle to be won, or even as something winnable. Of thinking that not only can we win it, we can control the outcome of each battle along the way. Even the little ones.
Especially the little ones.
Take pasta sauce, for example. I recently heard of a recipe for pasta sauce whereby you roast veggies in a little olive oil and spices and then simply puree them into a lovely, rich, spicy sauce that will make your tastebuds sing. Not only that – the kids will eat it and ask for seconds. With a house full of picky eaters, the idea of a spaghetti sauce that no one turns their nose up at… well, let’s just say it was seductive enough to have me dragging out the roasting pan and the last bag of tomatoes from the garden which were frozen whole back at the end of summer.
I started with one onion, coarsely chopped. Next came 6 cloves of garlic peeled, and some celery, leaves and all. From the freezer, but originally from the garden, some carrots, green beans, squash and the tomatoes went into the pot. I added a glug or three of olive oil, some sea salt and cracked pepper, oregano and basil, and gave the mess a stir.
What a colourful, aromatic mess it was, too!
As it happens, all three of my family members wandered into the kitchen at various points in the preparation. I was hoping to avoid that, since mealtimes tend to go more smoothly when the people eating the meal aren’t exactly sure what went into it, but what can you do. One by one, they wandered over, made a face, asked the same question, and then left again.
The question — asked with a wrinkled nose and a hesitant look, as if they weren’t sure they wanted the answer — was “What’s that???”
To which I replied, “It’s going to be spaghetti sauce.”
Huh. Imagine that. An hour later, my pickiest eater — the one who regularly refuses spaghetti sauce of any description — was back in the kitchen.
“What smells so good?”
The sauce in the oven.
“Can I see it?”
Of course you can.
“Can I taste it?”
After it’s done, sweet child. It has to finish roasting, and then I have to puree it first.
And then she left. Five minutes later, she was back, opening the oven door for a peek and a sniff, with a dreamy look on her face. Five minutes after that, she was back again, following her nose and still looking dreamy. I had to admit, the house was beginning to smell delicious. As well as the sauce in the oven, I had a loaf of farmhouse bread in the bread machine and it was just starting to bake up, filling the air with yeasty deliciousness.
With the vegetables roasting in the oven, I couldn’t get the bagels baked just then, so they sat on the counter, shaped and waiting, rising just a little bit more before they baked. And B hung around my ankles, sniffing and smiling and waiting twice as impatiently as I was.
Finally, it was time, and out of the oven it came. The bagels, meanwhile, were still rising. I hurriedly boiled them for a minute each side, then painted them with egg yolk and dredged them in sesame seeds and popped them into the oven. With the bagels baking away, it was time to look at the sauce. Here’s what it looked like, fresh out of the oven.
Now, I know I’m terrible at photographing red things, but what you see is not a photographic error. The sauce… is orange. Too many carrots, I suppose, or too few tomatoes. Who knows? It tastes delicious, at any rate. Rich and garlicky, though a little too tomato-y (is that a word?) for the men in the house, but that can be fixed easily enough with a slow simmer in the crockpot and a few judicious spices. But orange?
How do I fix orange?
I thought that perhaps the orange might be improved a little once I pureed it, since the tomatoes would be more evenly blended and the carrot and squash a little more disguised. So, armed with a hand blender and a little bit of patience, I turned the chunky stew of vegetables into a smooth puree that served only to lighten the orange colour.
So now, I have a light orange (but still very orange) spaghetti sauce to serve my picky eaters, including the pickiest spaghetti eater of all, little Miss B. What do I do? The timer for the bagels went off just then and I gladly pulled them out of the oven, knowing that the bagels, at least, would have turned out correctly. I can still hear God laughing even now. He must get a real kick out of me.
My first mistake was in letting the bagels rise so long after shaping. Instead of lovely donut-shaped things, I’ve got blobs. Most of them are now entirely lacking a hole in the middle, and they have a rather lighter texture than I like. I like dense bagels. I like bagels that are a challenge to cut, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. These… are not.
My second mistake was to only paint the egg on the tops of the bagels and sprinkle seeds on top, rather than taking the time to paint them all around and give them a thorough dredging in a bowl of seeds. As a result, the bottoms seem to be rather pale and definitely less than crisp. Of course, I wouldn’t know how crisp they are, because I am unable to taste them. I forgot to oil the baking pan, you see, and so the bottoms of the bagels are firmly glued to the pan while the tops — with ragged, doughy bottoms — are cooling on the rack.
Yep, God is definitely having a chuckle at my expense today. Orange tomato sauce and bottomless bagels are just so hilarious, after all. The childish part of me was tempted to throw the whole dang mess in the compost bin to feed the worms, but despite a rather less than perfect appearance, the sauce is yummy and the bagels taste delicious. God was talking to me, it seems. Reminding me most firmly that I am not in control, and that things don’t always turn out the way I plan.
B came back into the kitchen as I was packing the sauce into containers so I could put it in the fridge and think on how to fix it for a day or two. When she saw the orange sauce, she let out a howl of laughter.
“It’s orange!” she announced in a very loud voice, as if I hadn’t noticed.
“Awesome!” she yelled, and she actually twirled around the kitchen. Twirled. Hair flying, hands flung out for balance, an enormous grin stretching her lips from cheek to cheek, and a definitely sparkle in her eyes. “Is it ready? Can we have it for dinner?” she asked then.
“Tonight?” I asked her, wondering if this could be the same child that turns her nose up at her father’s marvelously spicy meat sauce, my own tomato-y-er (definitely not a word) vegetarian sauce, and everything in between. We like spaghetti around here, and we eat it a lot. And every time, B fights us. Every single time we have spaghetti. We’ve tried a lot of variations of sauces in hopes of finding one that will please us all, but nothing ever works, especially for B. This sauce has too much meat. This sauce is too spicy. That sauce is too bland. This one tastes bad. That one doesn’t make her tummy happy. Can’t she just have noodles with butter instead?
“You want this sauce on spaghetti?” (She’ll have to forgive me for being a little incredulous.)
“Yes!” She yelled, nodding her head for good measure. “It smells sooooo gooooood!”
Colour me flabbergasted.
Sometimes, when you’ve lost all the battles you could possibly lose in a day, you turn around and discover that you’ve won a great victory after all.