Coronavirus has evolved once again into a super contagious variant, the rapidly spreading Omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1, and numbers are up. Every time I think we are coming out of it, this happens. In New York, they are recommending people mask up once again. In Florida, not so much. One of my co-worker’s kids got it, so he quarantined himself and sure enough, he got it too. He is vaxxed and boosted, and still was pretty sick, but thankfully, just for a few days. Then another co-worker’s school age children both got it so she had to quarantine. She’s already had it once and had her first vaccination, so we’re hopeful she’ll be spared. Then another co-worker got it. Bear in mind, we are a very small staff so three people out with Covid is almost half our staff. I am starting to feel like Covid is coming for me. On the other hand, I refuse to worry about Monkeypox, even though one of two cases in the US is in Broward County, a few miles from my house.
While all this was going on, I was at work when I suddenly felt overwhelmingly nauseous. I jumped in my car and went home. By the time I got home, I was still nauseous but also really tired. I crawled into bed and slept for about four hours, which is not like me at all. I woke up less nauseous, and my husband – masked and gloved – gave me the at home Covid test. It was negative. I tested again the next morning and was negative again. By the end of that day, I felt pretty much back to normal. I have no idea what was wrong with me but it went away fairly quickly, so yay. Or so I thought.
A few days later I was working from home and the same thing happened; overwhelming nausea. I hadn’t eaten anything that morning, just had half a cup of coffee. This time was much worse, the nausea didn’t go away for hours and hours. I couldn’t sleep, and my stomach was empty and hurting so that was not fun at all. It took two full days to recover. Another negative Covid test and no one in my house got sick so that was good; I always find the bright side! I figured it was probably a stomach flu but then Jif peanut butter announced a recall due to salmonella. I had eaten a PB&J sandwich the day before I got sick. Apparently, it can take days or even weeks for the salmonella to make you sick. So now I’m assuming that’s what happened to me. That was a first for me.
Uvalde…my heart is breaking for those families who lost a loved one in the Robb school shooting. Another mass shooting, right on the heels of the Buffalo one. My daughter-in-law is a speech pathologist in an elementary school, so this hit really close to home – as it did for every parent and teacher in America. Then to see Ted Cruz at the NRA conference calling for a “one door policy” and his usual, arming teachers.
I find that incredibly ironic – Texas politicians don’t trust their teachers to teach or to pick out books for their students, but they trust them with guns? They are hell bent on protecting fetuses, but obviously could care less about nine & ten year old children. And most disgusting of all was seeing Trump dancing on the NRA stage after the names of those dead children were read. Every time I think that man can’t possibly sink any lower, he proves me wrong.
A few years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote an Op-Ed on gun control that the The NY Times reran last week. I found it incredibly well thought out, feasible, and compelling; definitely worth a read.
Summers are quiet here in the university library where I work. We have much shorter hours, and we tend to use the time to work on projects. One of my projects is redoing all the signage in the book collection. We often have to shift books to make room for new ones, and that means the signs at the ends of each row can be off. Eventually, they can be off quite a bit if ignored. My library director also wants us all to think about how our space looks, and is utilized. We lost two full time positions during the pandemic, and now have empty offices that we’d like to utilize. We are also looking at our library policies, and thinking of expanding them. All the book banning going on in this country is making me more thoughtful about those policies.
In some personally exciting news, my brilliant grandson is starting to walk, and he loves books! I am a very proud Nana!
Food News: Pretzels
Let’s talk about pretzels. Have you ever tried to make pretzels? The big, soft, chewy, salty kind (before Auntie Anne drips her butter on them.) I’ve been making pretzels for years, and they usually come out okay. Certainly not great, or not even better than the frozen kind you bake. Not worth the effort, to be totally honest. But I am tenacious. I kept searching and reading and trying.
I have tried drying out the baking soda in a slow oven for an hour before adding it to water for a poaching liquid. That batch of pretzels had to go straight into the trash – I would not recommend this method. I have tried poaching the pretzels for up to 3 minutes; I also do not recommend that. In my experience, about 30 seconds per side works best.
I am excited to say that I think I’ve finally got it! A recipe that rivals the frozen kind, but dare I say even better? Definitely worth the work, at least in my house. (Honestly, it’s really not much work and so worth it!) It is a fun project for a Sunday afternoon. I riffed off a recipe from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen for Miniature Soft Pretzels. But I have found the secret to really good, soft, fluffy yet chewy pretzels is….bread flour. I prefer King Arthur’s Bread Flour, but you do you. I also much prefer the flavor from the barley malt syrup, but you can substitute sugar and they will still be really good.
I know that active dry yeast packets contain more than two teaspoons of yeast, but if you use the instant yeast, you only need the 2 tsp. I bought a pound package of SAF Red Instant Yeast at the beginning of the pandemic and have kept it in my freezer. I am finally just about out. And it’s still good, by the way. I think if you keep it frozen, it lasts forever (but don’t hold me to that!)
2 cups room temperature or slightly warm water
1 tablespoon + 2 tablespoons barley malt syrup
2 tsp. instant yeast (or 1 pkg active dry yeast)
5 to 6 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon sea salt
grapeseed or other neutral oil
1/4 cup baking soda
1 large egg
Coarse salt, kosher salt, or pretzel salt
- Pour water, 1 tablespoon barley malt syrup. and yeast into bowl of electric mixer. Give it a stir then put on your dough hook. If using instant yeast, move on to the next step. If using active dry yeast, let sit 10 minutes; yeast should be foamy.
- Add 1 cup flour to yeast, and mix on low until combined. Add salt and 4 cups more flour, and mix until combined, about 30 seconds. Beat on medium-low until dough pulls away from sides of bowl, about 1 1/2 minutes. If dough is still wet and sticky, add 1/2 cup more flour (this will depend on weather conditions – hello, humid Florida here!); mix until combined, about 30 seconds. When everything looks incorporated, mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until the dough looks fairly smooth. Transfer to a lightly floured board, and knead a few times, or until smooth, and form into a ball.
- Pour a little grapeseed (or other unflavored) oil into a large bowl; brush or use a paper towel to coat sides. Transfer dough ball to bowl, then turn over dough to completely cover all sides with a bit of oil. Cover with a kitchen towel, and leave in a warm spot for 1 hour, or until dough has doubled in size. My oven has a “proof” setting, so I use that.
- Heat oven to 450°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Set aside. Punch down dough to remove bubbles. Transfer to counter. Knead once or twice, then divide into 16 pieces (about 70 grams each) and cover loosely with plastic. If it seems like the balls are sticking, dust a little flour on the counter but just where you are keeping the dough balls; leave the rest of the counter clean.
- Roll one piece of dough at a time into an 18-inch-long rope on unfloured counter. If the dough is sliding around rather than stretching, very lightly moisten your hands with water to create a little tackiness.
- Shape the rope into a U with the slightly tapered ends facing away from you. Crisscross the rope in the middle of U (a), then crisscross again (b). Fold the ends toward the bottom of the U (c). Firmly press the ends into the bottom curve of the U about 1 inch apart, forming a pretzel shape (d).
- Transfer the pretzels as you make them to the prepared sheets, knot side up, 8 pretzels per sheet. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let pretzels rest until they rise slightly, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, fill a large, shallow pot with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil. Add baking soda and remaining 2 tablespoons barley malt syrup. Reduce to a simmer; transfer three to four pretzels to water. Poach 30 seconds on each side. Use slotted spoon to transfer pretzels to parchment lined baking sheet. Continue until all pretzels are poached.
- Beat egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush pretzels with egg glaze. Sprinkle with pretzel salt. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on wire rack, or eat warm. Pretzels are best when eaten the same day, but will keep at room temperature, uncovered, for two days. Do not store in covered container or they will become soggy. If you want Auntie Anne style pretzels, use salt sparingly. When pretzels are done, brush with melted butter. You can also go sweet by sprinkling with cinnamon sugar after the butter.
Note: if you decide to splurge on the pretzel salt, it also is great for rimming Margarita glasses!
Once upon a Le Creuset…
So fun story. About twelve-fifteen years ago, Macy’s had one of their crazy sales – it might have been Black Friday. I bought a 7.25 quart Le Creuset in Caribbean Blue for about $150 (trust me, that is a bargain!) A couple of years later I was making a brisket for Hanukkah. As I seared the meat in the pan, I heard crackling sounds. When I pulled the brisket out, the bottom of the pot was all crazed – and so was I. These pots are supposed to last a lifetime, to be handed down to future generations. Not my luck, apparently. I took it back to Macy’s, no receipt, and they jerked me around for about an hour. At first, they wanted me to pay the difference between the sale price and the current price, but I passed on that idea. Eventually they found a manager who approved an exchange. I knew damn well that they were going to get a credit for it from Le Creuset or their distributor. They wouldn’t give me another blue pot (maybe they were out of stock) so they gave me a red one, and I took it gratefully.
Shoot ahead about ten years to a few weeks ago. I was making Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread, and you have to heat a Dutch oven in a 500° oven before you add the dough. Luckily, before I added the dough I noticed that the bottom of the interior was crazed and a few holes where the finish had come off all together. Le Creuset warrantees their pots for a lifetime, so I contacted them via their website, and they had me send pictures. Then they informed me that it wasn’t covered under the warranty, but as a one time courtesy, they would replace the pot; this is how I define good customer service! I packed it up and had to pay for shipping (about $30) and they sent me a brand new pot. Not sure what their warranty actually covers, but I was very happy I got a replacement. Now let’s hope this pot lasts a lifetime! And I bought a 4.2 quart Emile Henry ceramic Dutch oven to bake my bread so I shouldn’t have this issue again. The smaller size means a taller loaf of bread, so that worked nicely, too.
Lots of book news lately! Some fun, some disturbing, but all are interesting.
And this from the Washington Post Book Club newsletter by Ron Charles:
Book Club: Margaret Atwood wins Nobel Prize in Prescience
This week, the Supreme Court nominated Margaret Atwood for a Nobel Prize in Prescience.
It’s not as though anyone actually believed Trump’s Supreme Court nominees when they testified under oath about their respect for precedent, but the leaked draft of the Handmaid’s Tale decision still came as a shock. (Sen. Susan Collins is so concerned that she’s ordered a second strand of pearls.) Unless some dramatic revisions are made before the Court officially overturns Roe v. Wade, about two dozen state governments will soon severely limit millions of citizens’ reproductive decisions. Blessed be the fruit!
Not since Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has a novelist been so closely aligned with such a dramatic upheaval of American political and cultural life. Atwood, the wry, 82-year-old grandmother of feminist dystopian fiction has been particularly prominent since the election of Donald Trump sent her 1985 classic soaring back up the bestseller list. In 2019, she won her second Booker Prize for a zany sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” called “The Testaments.” Narrated by the matriarchal tyrant Aunt Lydia, it describes the fall of Gilead (review). We can only hope that sequel — which climaxes with the publication of leaked documents! — is as prophetic as “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels now.
The surprise appearance of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion has sparked the most concentrated flurry of textual analysis in the 21st century. But for clues about what else theocratic zealots have in mind for the United States, get a copy of Leni Zumas’s “Red Clocks.” It imagines America after abortion has been criminalized and women of childbearing age are closely monitored and barred from traveling to free territory (review). When I first read the novel four years ago, I assumed it was a work of political satire, but, in fact, Zumas constructed her terrifying dystopia by stitching together laws that had been proposed by real-life politicians. Now that Missouri and other states are plotting to punish anyone who helps a pregnant woman cross state lines for an abortion, Zumas’s dystopia seems almost documentary.
If you’d like a work of historical fiction more illuminating than Justice Alito’s nostalgic musings, try Kate Manning’s “My Notorious Life” (review). It’s inspired by the ordeal of a real-life 19th-century midwife and abortionist condemned by Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Manning is particularly sensitive to the practical complications that women faced when they couldn’t get access to good reproductive healthcare.
In February, while conservatives on the Court were apparently plotting to set the country back 50 years, Jennifer Haigh published a thoughtful novel called “Mercy Street” about the precarious status of safe, legal abortion in modern-day America (review). And five years ago, Joyce Carol Oates released “A Book of American Martyrs,” a gripping story that begins with the assassination of an abortion doctor and draws us into the mind of a fanatic (rave).
Any of these novels would provide rich material for a book club interested in discussing the most pressing social issue of our age. We’ve come a long way from Ernest Hemingway’s excruciatingly elliptical short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” But this week, it feels like we’re headed back to that era.
Flippancy aside, this is a serious issue. I have never understood why people who are against something don’t want anyone to have it, be it a banned book or an abortion. If you feel like abortion is murder, then don’t have one. If you don’t think your child should read a specific book, that is your right as a parent. It is not your right to tell me what my child should read or not, nor to tell me what to do with my body.
As Roe v. Wade faces possible overturning, abortion access is under threat — here’s how to help via Rolling Stone. This will affect people with disabilities, those who are transgender, immigrants, the poor, and people of color the most.
As always, thanks for reading and stay safe.
*Thanks to The New York Times and The Washington Post for allowing me to “gift” my readers with free access to these articles, a lovely perk for subscribers.