Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I had plans to write about bread today, and was getting stuck with all sorts of writers block, until I started baking. The kitchen smells...ridiculous. Sort of sweet and heady. Good grief. Saffron! Sultanas! Gibran! I'm getting ahead of myself.

People showered us with generosity at our wedding. Honestly. It's absurd how kind everyone was, even people that couldn't attend. If I could, I think I'd do away with thank-you cards altogether and send everyone freshly baked goods in the mail. If anyone has figured out the logistics behind something like that - let me know. Until then - local guests get thank-you's, plus freshly baked goods.

I really wanted each baked gift to sort of reflect the person somehow, but wasn't quite sure how to go about it. A lovely friend of the family's on the thank-you list is of Lebanese descent, and mentioned a few days ago that Khalil Gibran was actually born in the same village he was. Amazing! I think I read 'The Prophet' when I was in grade 11 and fell in love with the lush writing and illustrations. The Wee Book Inn in Edmonton had a few beautiful, wrecky old copies of 'Tears and Laughter', which was lovely as well. I'm not sure how he did it, but to be able to write poetically without coming off as pretentious or aloof is definitely a gift. It's really... graceful writing, if that makes sense. Everything is strongly paced but at the same time quiet. Our copy of Tears and Laughter has a fantastic preface by the editor - he focuses on how Gibran could write 'from the delicate to the strong...the delightful to the frightening, from the lacy sweetness to the bitter condemnation'.

We used a piece of Gibran's writing as a reading at our wedding, it's simply called 'On Marriage'

'You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.'

Just an excerpt, but my favourite verse. I have a fairly strong aversion to overly mushy writing, or things that resemble anything by Nicholas Sparks (pet peeve), but this really stood apart. He writes like a humanist, a romantic, and a mystic, without being cliché or preachy. I don't know much about Gibran's personal life or experiences, but his writing always reminds me of things like raw silk, gold-leaf encrusted treats, the scent of saffron, women with kohl-rimmed eyes. The main photo on this page (up top) has a french vintage copy of The Prophet in it, it's my favourite photo so far.

I came across a bread recipe a few days ago with saffron in it, and thought I'd try it out as a gift. The result? A kitchen that smells like a faraway place, and plans to make 3 more of these loaves tomorrow.

Saffron Bread - adapted from 'notquitenigella'

pinch of *saffron threads (soaked in a teaspoon of boiling water)
1.5 cups white flour
1T instant dried yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 cup unsalted butter, softened, in pieces
2/3 cup warm milk
1/4 cup sultanas
extra flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten with 2 T milk (for the glaze)

Let the saffron infuse in the boiling water for about 10 minutes - it should smell fantastic. Mix together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until everything looks and feels like damp sand. Measure out the milk, and add it to the saffron-water.

Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon until it's well combined. Add the sultanas and mix in gently. Flour a flat surface and knead the dough for about 5 minutes until smooth. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with a clean teatowel, and leave it to rise in a warm place for an hour.

Place the dough on a clean surface and shape it into a baguette - don't worry if it's not 'doughy', mine was stretchy and quite soft - I just kept pulling on either end and shaping it with my hands. Shape it into an 'S' by turning each end and tucking them underneath the main body. Cover this with a clean cloth and let it double for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 410F / 210C. Uncover the puffy loaf, and brush it with the eggwash. Put in the oven (center rack) for about 25 minutes. After this time, reduce the heat to 375F/190C and let it bake for about 5-10 minutes. Watch it fairly carefully as it darkens tremendously in the last few minutes. It 'should' be golden-brown (mine was Quite dark), and sound hollow when you rap the bottom. Slice, smear in something buttery, and serve.

Enjoy with tea, and of course, some Gibran.

*I was initially a little wary about the recipe as saffron isn't exactly cheap, or easy to come by. Luckily we bought a few little cases of saffron from our last trip to India, where it's a bit more affordable. If you're having a hard time finding it, or justifying using it in a baking recipe, check out Asian markets or Indian grocery stores, it's usually a bit less pricey. Apparently you can also grow your own, but I lack any semblance of gardening ability, and the cousin of saffron-bearing crocus is poisonous, so I may hold off on that for a while...

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